The ghost in the machine

Last week I wrote a ‘how to’ guide to ghostwriting for IdeasMag.

Ghostwriting is a useful way for writers to subsidise their income, and for some it grows into a successful career. I spoke to established ghosts to ask them for their advice, including  Andrew Crofts, a ghostwriter so successful that it is known in publishing as ‘the Crofts effect’. He has written more than a dozen Sunday Times bestsellers, including Zana Muhsen’s Sold.

Full text is available on the Ideastap website here, or after the fold.

How to be a ghostwriter

Ghostwriters craft fiction and non-fiction books on behalf of politicians and princesses, film stars and footballers, moguls and mobsters. Cal Flyn asks established ghosts how to get started in this secretive industry…

Published in IdeasMag, 19 September 2013

What is ghostwriting?

Simply put, ghostwriting (or ghosting) means writing a book without being named as the author. Projects vary from personal memoir to business guides – whenever the author does not have the time, inclination or skill to write it themself.

By definition the process is opaque and the most successful ghostwriters are almost unknown outside of publishing circles. But it is a thriving industry: the bestseller charts are often dominated by ghostwritten books.

So if you can bear to step out of the limelight and let your clients take the credit, it can be a good way to hone your craft and subsidise your income as a writer.

Finding your first client

Ghostwriters find work through a number of channels. They advertise online and in print, or approach interesting individuals directly with a proposal.

Andrew Crofts, a ghostwriting legend who’s written dozens of bestsellers, stumbled onto his first project while working as a journalist: “A businessman I was interviewing for DirectorMagazine had been commissioned to write several books but didn’t have the time. He asked me to do it in his name.

“I then started advertising as a ‘ghostwriter for hire’ in The Bookseller. One of the first books I got in this way was Sold by Zana Muhsen, which went on to sell about five million copies around the world.” Following this success, Crofts is now approached through his personal website “two or three times a day”.

Working for an agency

Budding ghostwriters might also consider writing for a company like Working Partners, which develops detailed chapter-plans of children’s books before sending them out to authors to “put flesh on the bones” of the story.

Authors will contribute one or two books to a longer series, such as Animal Ark, which is then published under a single pseudonym. Managing director James Noble explains: “Writers can apply via our website; they may also be put in touch by their literary agent, or through writers’ groups.

“We love strong characters, authentic dialogue, and compelling action. Above all, a great voice which will bring our stories and characters to life.” A new writer joining an established series will be required to replicate the “voice” of the other writers to ensure consistency.

Assuming an identity

Ghostwriters working on a memoir or autobiography will conduct a series of interviews to help them get an overview of the story and a feel for their subject’s way of thinking and speaking. Hunter Davies, a prolific author who has published numerous books under his own name, wrote footballer Dwight Yorke’s autobiography: “We spent eight sessions of two to three hours together, over six to eight months.” But there is little space for artistic license. “You must leave the person to describe it, although you might have to drag it out of them inch by inch,” Hunter adds.

Splitting the money

Payments can take the form of a flat fee, a share of the royalties, or a combination of both.  Mark McCrum, who has written books for Robbie Williams and Bruce Parry, says: “What used to happen was that I’d get a share of the advance, then between 30 and 50% of the royalties. Now, because there’s less money around, it’s more like 10% share or a flat fee. But I always like a share of the royalties – it’s good for motivation.

“The frustrating thing is you usually have to write the proposal for free. To sell a book you’ll probably have to write 40 pages, which can be galling if it doesn’t come to anything.”

Keeping secrets secret

Some clients may be happy for you to be credited – for example, in the acknowledgements section – but others may ask you to keep your contribution quiet. They might even ask you to sign a privacy agreement.  “It can be quite cloak and dagger”, Mark reveals. “Once I was flown to Geneva for a day, first class, and driven to a secret location, where I interviewed a potential client’s son and daughter – but never met the man himself.

“Often you won’t get invited to launch parties and events for your own book. I can tell you that I have written five top ten bestsellers – but I can’t tell you which ones.”

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2 thoughts on “The ghost in the machine

  1. Good choice of illustration, Cal. If you buy Robert Harris’s book “The Ghost”, which he and Roman Polanski adapted into the movie with Ewan McGregor as the ghostwriter, you will find that I am quoted at the start of every chapter from my own book, “Ghostwriting”. The book and the film have done an enormous amount to show the world of what it is exactly that we ghosts do.

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