How do you measure the success of a book?
While everyone would love their book to be a bestseller, ultimately the success of a book is a subjective matter for both a ghostwriter and their author.
When I asked the other United Ghostwriters what they believed made a book a successful, the question elicited many surprising responses.
For Gillian Stern, who has just delivered a manuscript for Hodder, success means forming an intense professional intimacy with her client.
‘That way the book results in an accessible, yet layered and powerful read,’ she explains.
This makes perfect sense, because if a ghostwriter doesn’t form an insightful bond with their client, insightful words cannot follow!
For Martin Toseland and Simon Rae, they both hope their next book will be the most successful as they are currently working with particularly inspirational authors.
When we describe a book as ‘successful’, very often the story directly impacts the readers’ lives. Spencer Honniball recently finished a memoir for a victim of child sexual abuse and expects other survivors will relate to the author’s fight for justice and will feel less alone with their experiences. Heather Bishop also saw the direct impact her series of memoirs about a foster mum had too. By reading her books, others were even inspired to become foster parents themselves.
Cheryl Rickman was a ghostwriter for a book about managing eczema, (not the most glamorous of topics you might think) but she definitely views this one as her biggest success.
‘Reading the reviews about how much this book changed lives for the better is more rewarding than making the Sunday Times bestseller list,’ she says.
But what could be a greater success than having a number one bestseller? Caro Handley ghosted ‘Gypsy Boy’ by Mikey Walsh, in 2009, and believes it wasn’t just a success because it reached that coveted number one spot.
She says,’ Thanks to Mikey and his extraordinary courage, the myth that you can’t come from a bare-knuckle fighting family of gypsies and still be gay was busted.
‘Stephen Fry helped the book sales when he wrote: “It was a revelation. Moving, terrifying, funny and brilliant, I shall never forget it – an amazing achievement.” And though the achievement was Mikey’s, I did glow after that! So a success on many levels, but the most enduring was helping to break down the barriers of anti-gay prejudice.’
Success takes on a different meaning depending on what genre a ghostwriter works in, too. Ginny Carter specialises in business matters, recently winning an award for her own book ‘Your Business, Your Book’. She says the success of her books depends on what happens to the client – professionally, or even personally – afterwards.
She adds, ‘My most successful book was for a woman who had lots of innovative and original ideas about how to transform her profession, so it was fascinating to write and also sold very well, giving her status a boost.’
Philip Whiteley believes the most satisfying books he’s worked upon have been telling the true accounts of whistleblowers. Books are often able to address injustice in ways other art mediums might struggle to do.
Philip says, ‘Books have a long and noble history of telling the stories of people who’ve spoken out against injustice. You could almost argue that ghostwriters are as important as lawyers, because people want their stories told and they may not have the skills to compose the book themselves.’
Of the 18 books I’ve ghosted, success means different things with each of them. Four have reached the Sunday Times Top Ten bestsellers list but there’ve been smaller and no less heartfelt successes with other books. Personally, I always find stories that amplify a voice for people who don’t have a significant one in our society feel like the biggest successes. Enjoying a close relationship with my authors adds to the satisfaction too. I’ve formed genuine and lasting friendships with a couple of my authors after the book has been published.
When a client approaches me about a book, I often ask what they want to achieve by writing it? Is it to reach a wider audience, or as a legacy for family and friends? Does it aim to inspire a niche market or be commercially successful?
Ultimately the goal of having a book published doesn’t have to be just financial or commercial success. A success to one author can look like a failure to another, and vice versa.
Leaving a damn good book behind is a legacy many people rightly aspire to, because it’s often a very positive experience. From being unquestionably cathartic to lasting for generations, writing a book is a common dream for good reason. Long after you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, your words can still resonate, whether it’s just for loved ones or on a library shelf. And what can make a life feel more successful than that?