Ghostwriting: Questions Before You Get Started

by Adam Reger

Ghost Image

This is the third installment in a series of blog entries about ghostwriting. I’m attempting to provide practical information for those who may be considering hiring a ghostwriter. The series started with some misconceptions about ghostwriting and continued with a rundown of the different ways you might work with a ghostwriter.

Today I want to cover how to prepare to work with a ghostwriter. I sort of covered this in my last post, on the different ways a ghostwriter might work—it was certainly my hope that looking through that list of methods might spark some readers to say, “Yes, that is definitely how I’d prefer to work with someone.” Figuring that out is a big part of the battle.

But mostly I want to move beyond the question of how you’ll get the ghostwriter the information they need to think about ways to identify what’s important to you and get at least a general picture of your book that you can communicate to the ghostwriter. Below is a list of questions and concerns to think about before you reach out to a ghostwriter. If you have even the beginnings of ideas on these topics, your ghostwriter will definitely appreciate it.

Where will this book go in the bookstore?

For now (and hopefully forever) the metaphor of a brick-and-mortar bookstore is still relevant. As long as it is, I ask clients Where would your book appear in a bookstore?

This conversation should start past the “fiction or non-fiction?” phase. Think about the sections in a bookstore that you’re drawn to. For most people, their books will go on one of those shelves. Is your book self-help? Is it spiritual? Is it a business book? A memoir? If it’s fiction, would it go in the big “general fiction” section or in one of the “genre” aisles—science fiction, mystery/thriller, horror, etc.?

What books are similar to your book?

As you can see, this question is really just an extension of the previous one. OK, so your book is a memoir of your experiences working in the restaurant industry. What are some titles that are similar? Or, continuing the metaphor of a physical bookstore, what books would be shelved on either side of your book?

Keep in mind that the comparisons don’t have to be exact. In some ways, it’s better if you can’t name two or three books that are just like yours. So if we continue with the example I cited above, you could say, “My book will be shelved between Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Julia Child’s My Life in France. It’s a gritty behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant industry, but it’s also set in a foreign country.” That’s a great start!

It’s worth pointing out that the more clearly you can articulate things like the type of book and comparable titles, the better off you’ll be not just in working with a ghostwriter but once you enter the publishing world. Whether you find a literary agent or submit your work directly to editors at publishing houses, being able to articulate the genre and list some “comps” is a crucial part of helping those publishing professionals relate to your book quickly and evaluate what they’re looking at.

What will my book sound like? What’s a model for your book to follow?

You could easily piggyback on the previous question to try to answer this one. So your memoir is going to be a little like Anthony Bourdain’s book and a little like Julia Child’s. Who is it going to sound like? (It doesn’t have to be more like one or the other—you might find that you actually really like the tone and attitude of Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat.)

Don’t confuse “what will your book sound like?” and “what is a model for the ghostwriter to follow?” with “which book should the ghostwriter imitate?” A good ghostwriter should work to figure out a voice and tone for your book that match your sensibilities, and knowing that you love Anthony Bourdain’s blunt voice is merely a starting point in that process.

How do you see your book being organized?

Now we’re getting into tougher questions. Don’t feel you have to have this question thoroughly, definitively, or even correctly answered before reaching out to a ghostwriter. As I wrote in the first installment, a lot of agencies that connect people to ghostwriters require an outline as a first step, and for good reason. You’re deciding on the structure of the book, and once you get that right you’ve got a road map for the entire, often lengthy drafting process. So be good to yourself and don’t worry about getting it perfect, and don’t delay talking to a ghostwriter until it’s perfect. Having some ideas to kick around with the ghostwriter is a head start over many clients, believe me.

Additional questions to consider here include the overall “logic” of the book. By that all I mean is “Where does the book start, and why does it start there?” This question is often pretty easily answered for projects like a memoir, where you’d typically begin early in your life and go forward chronologically. If it’s some kind of “How to” book, the logic is similar: begin with preparations to, let’s say, hang drywall, then begin at the beginning of the process and go until you’ve walked a reader through the entire process.

If that seems difficult for your project, the good news is that you can skip this step and come back to it. Focus instead on identifying all the chapters you’d like to include. Let’s say your project is a book on armadillos. I can’t think of a good way to organize that, either, at least not off the top of my head. But what we might do is list all the topics within that broad subject that we’d want to cover: different types of armadillos; their evolution; notable features; memorable armadillo references in popular culture, etc. Just generating (and if possible refining, paring down, rethinking) a list of what you want to cover is a great start. You and the ghostwriter can nail down the exact order later.

A metaphor that’s often used in writing (well, often used by me, anyway) is drawing up blueprints versus building a house. If you put a wall in the wrong place on a blueprint, it’s easy enough to erase it and move that wall somewhere else. If you build a wall in the wrong place, it’s a lot of work to knock it down and rebuild it in the proper place. Don’t worry about getting your blueprints right, even when you’re first reaching out to a ghostwriter: if they’re good at their job, you’ll go over the blueprints many times before you begin to build.

What do you want to do with this book?

The final question, and one of the most important. It can also catch many people by surprise. The answer may be obvious: I want to publish my book with a big-name publishing house, become a New York Times bestselling author, and go on a big book tour.

The reason this question is important is that achieving that goal is a long shot. If a ghostwriter doesn’t convey that to you in some way, they’re doing you a disservice. Many good books do not get published, and many more take a long time to find a publisher. It can be a very lengthy process and you should be prepared for that.

For many people, the idea of paying a ghostwriter to flesh out a book that may never see the light of day is unacceptable. I can certainly understand that. If your book is nonfiction, there’s a good hedge against that sort of commitment. It’s the book proposal. The internet has plenty of good explanations of what a book proposal is, and resources on how to write one: here’s a good starting point. I’ll leave it to those sources, but in a nutshell the beauty of the proposal is that you give a broad overview of the book, preparing documents such as a table of contents, a detailed chapter-by-chapter summary of what’s in the book, and a synopsis, and writing (typically) three sample chapters. On that basis, the book can be taken on by a literary agent and accepted for publication by a publisher.

(The additional beauty of a book proposal is that it can help you clarify the structure and content of a book for yourself before you get too deep into the writing process.)

The other option that is becoming more and more feasible and attractive to many is self-publishing your book. There are many good resources out there on self-publishing (here’s a good starting point) and I’ll leave it to them, but the chief benefits of self-publishing are that you control just about every aspect of the book’s production, as well as receiving a far greater portion of the proceeds. The downside is that you’re in charge of things like marketing and distribution, which are difficult and time-consuming, and you front all the production costs (which can be substantial in the case of publishing a physical copy of your book; publishing an e-book, by contrast, is relatively cheap).

Here I’m going to loop back to the question being asked: What do you want to do with this book? Because depending on your goals, one of the options presented above may be more attractive than the others. The ghostwriting path that, in my view, makes the most sense and involves the least amount of risk is when someone with an existing audience or “platform” (publishing speak for having a niche that allows you access to an audience: a radio show or podcast, a blog, a popular social media account all would qualify as a platform) works with a ghostwriter and self-publishes the book, using that platform to sell it directly to an audience. (The irony is that someone with a really strong platform will also get the most interest from a publisher.) Take, for example, a motivational speaker who gives frequent talks and wants a book so that they can leave their message with listeners in a more lasting form (and make a little additional money, too): self-publishing might be especially attractive because the audience is there, and “distribution” can be achieved by carting boxes of books around from lecture to lecture.

Whether that model works for you, knowing what you want to get out of the process can be an important piece of self-reflection as you build up to beginning a working relationship with a ghostwriter. No honest ghostwriter can guarantee you publication with an established press, and even using the “hedge” of a book proposal doesn’t make it a certainty that you’ll have a conventionally published book at the end of this process. Use this reflective period to be honest with yourself about how important that is to you and whether you can tolerate the risk of going through the writing process, including the financial outlay to a ghostwriter, and not seeing your book in print. Be realistic in your expectations and you’ll reduce the odds of coming away from the process disappointed.

Next time: Why you might not need a ghostwriter.