There’s a certain mystique about writing, especially when you’ve had a book or two published. Perhaps that mystique has faded in the past few years, when it has become easier and cheaper to have a professional-looking opus produced and for sale in online bookshops, but I still feel proud to be able to call myself ‘author’ on Linked-in.
I’ve found that it comes with certain assumptions, however, not all of which apply to all authors. Above all, people have warned me that it ‘won’t make me rich’. This was the case 15 years ago when I first had a non-fiction business book published; I heard it again two years ago when the first novel appeared.
I mean, the thing is, they’re right; being an author hasn’t (yet) made me wealthy – but it has led to a rewarding professional career. Moreover, the move was borne out of circumstance. In the early 2000s, I was a freelance journalist, where earning a living in the conventional sense – securing a good rate for articles commissioned by print magazines – was ceasing to be an option, owing to a collapse in advertising revenues caused by online competition. I had to diversify. This was the point about becoming an author, and latterly ghostwriter: it was an entrepreneurial necessity, not a bid for celebrity status.
The experience has caused me to reflect on societal attitudes: where does this belief come from, that the term ‘author’ implies a narrowly defined ambition for wealth and fame and that, if one instead earns a middle-class income, that is somehow a failure? We don’t apply that approach to other professions with a creative content, such as architecture or graphic design. We wouldn’t advise an undergraduate: ‘Oh, there’s no point trying to become an architect, young lad/lass! You won’t find yourself designing a bridge like Sir Norman Foster’s Millau Viaduct, or being profiled in a colour supplement of a weekend!’
There are dozens of reasons for writing a book. Vanity and misplaced ambition may be part of the mix, but many books have a pragmatic rather than an artistic purpose; and even with the latter the artistry may be an end in itself, not a bid to climb fame’s greasy pole. Many beautiful works of poetry or prose only sell a few hundred copies. Would the world really be a better place if they had never been published?
For biography and other non-fiction, a book is the most compact and efficient way of telling your story. For those without the experience or skill to put a book together, it is a perfectly respectable option to hire a professional writer, just as one hires a specialist for web design or marketing. One of my ghostwriting projects was a genuine health and safety scandal, where publishing the book helped spread the story: many of the newspapers had not provided the coverage the issue was due, owing to pressure from vested interests and fears over advertising revenue. In other cases, the book articulates a philosophy of, say, management or economics, and helps the named author gain consulting clients or speaking engagements. For me as ghost, being a partner on such projects has provided a rich education (as well as, yes, a fee). I won’t want to give up such fascinating work even if I begin to earn substantial amounts from royalties.
Becoming an author was, for me, the best career move I made. If your profession is very different from writing, and you feel you have just the one book in you, produced with or without a ghost, you may find that its publication is very worthwhile, even life-changing.
- Philip Whiteley is a full-time author, ghostwriter and journalist. He writes non-fiction under his full name and fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. His website is pjwhiteley.com