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Confessions of a Ghostwriter

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What's the life of a ghostwriter like? Byron chats with Andrew Crofts, who has made a career out of ghostwriting, publishing over 80 books. Learn what it takes to be a ghostwriter, how to work with clients, and who Andrew would like to write for. Find out more about Andrew and his books at http://andrewcrofts.com/.

Byron:                                                   Welcome back everyone, I’m here with Andrew. Andrew welcome.

Andrew:                                              Thank you very much, very good to be here.

Byron:                                                   We won’t have time to talk about all 80 books that you’ve published and written but we are going to talk about a few. Tell us about ghost writing and that was really a writer’s handbook if you will. Tell us about ghost writing.

Andrew:                                              I became a ghost writer about 25 years ago almost full time having been a freelancer for some time before. There didn’t seem to be any books on how to be a ghost writer or how to hire a ghost writer or any of the details. People seemed very hazy about what ghost writers were at all. A&C Black was sort of the people who published a part of Bloomsbury, they published most of the writing handbooks and they had commissioned me to write a handbook on ghost writing for both sides of the tent.

A few years later, Robert Harris wrote his best seller The Ghost or I think in America it’s called The Ghost Writer, which he quoted my hand book at the beginning of each chapter. He based the character of the ghost writer and the situation on what I had said about ghost writing in that book. He then went on with Roman Polanski to make the film which again I think is called The Ghost Writer on one side of the Atlantic and the ghost on the other with Ewan McGregor playing the ghost and Pierce Brosnan playing a thinly disguised Tony Blair. Robert Harris was very close to Tony Blair up until the Iraq war and then it all, the relationship went wrong. He was writing this as a thriller based on that premise.

Byron:                                                   Claudia Winkleman called you one of the most successful if not the most successful ghost writers in the world. What does it take to become a successful ghost writer like you?

Andrew:                                              You mean what sorts of attributes do you need?

Byron:                                                   Yes.

Andrew:                                              I think a lack of ego is really important. Most writers have a go at ghost writing at some stage particularly journalists and actually they are not always very good at it because most people go into writing because they have very strong opinions about things and they want to express them. Whereas somebody who is going to go into ghosting has to actually just want to hear the other person’s opinions and to put themselves in the other persons skin. I think to be a successful ghost writer it’s a bit like being someone’s lawyer in court pleading their case. You basically listen to their case and you believe them, hopefully, then you put on that case for them on their behalf more eloquently than they themselves would be able to do. You see the narrative out and you see the way that the story should be structured.

                                                                You need to have those basic writing abilities of being able to see where the story is and be able to tell the story and do dialog and all the usual those things. It’s not unlike writing a very long monolog for somebody in a play. You get a voice in a play and you write it as an old man or a young girl or whoever the protagonist is so a ghosted book is very similar.

Byron:                                                   You are serving 2 audiences if you will, readers and their wants and needs and desires to have a story well told and of course your client who is paying you to ghost write this work. How do you balance? How important is it to get to know both of those challenges and obstacles for success and how do you balance the two?

Andrew:                                              One of the reasons the client is hiring you is because you do understand what readers want. The main reason they are hiring you is to write the book that would write if they could. What you are trying to do is work out what books they’ve got to sell but you then say to them, “Look, you want to write about all this,” sort of like an editor word and a publisher, “you may want to write about your endless days in the army or whatever but actually, what’s more interesting is the fact that your client might interpret, they would just again concentrate on that.” You just steer them along warning them because you’ve actually got 3 clients. You have the publisher as well because the publisher will come back to you and not the client and say, “Actually this isn’t at all what we wanted. We wanted x, y and z.”

                                                                An experienced ghost will know and be able to say to the client, “This is what the publisher is going to be looking for and this is what’s going to turn the reader on. These are the questions the reader’s going to ask.” In fact, the ghost is often asking those questions, the ghost is behaving like the reader. He is asking, when he is with the client, he is asking, “What happens next, why did you do that? What did it look like, what did it smell like and how did you feel?” All the same questions that the reader would ask.

Byron:                                                   Do you find yourself in a precarious spot often with the quality of the story that the client is trying to have you tell versus your own opinions on whether that’s a good story or not?

Andrew:                                              No, you have to ascertain that before you start and occasionally you get it wrong and you have to rethink. On the whole, by talking to them right at the beginning especially once you are experienced, you know that a) it’s going to be a story that you are going to be interested in enough to spend 2, 3 months or 4 months of your life being that person and living inside their head. Secondly that it’s the sort of story that will appeal to publishers or will appeal to readers and that you can see how you are going to sell it. If it’s somebody that you really aren’t going to get on with and you really don’t going to like, then probably you bail out before you even start because you are going to have to get along in a probably very easy going, comfortable relationship and if that isn’t there, then it’s never going to work to be honest.

                                                                The first question when somebody contacts me, I get 2 or 3 people a day contacting me saying they are looking for a ghost. The first thing I have to ascertain is, is this story interesting? Do I want to do it? Then the second thing you have to ascertain is can it be made to work as a business? Venture either as a publisher going to buy it and pay enough money for everybody to get their share or is the client going to be able to commission the book themselves and pay for it either to then take it to a publisher or to self-publish or whatever they are planning to do.

Byron:                                                   How are you typically compensated as ghost writer and has that changed over the years?

Andrew:                                              It used to be much more heavily on sharing the proceeds. Quite often if somebody came to me with a book who had nothing, they just had the story in their head, I’d just say, “You have no money so don’t go spending money. I’ll do a synopsis and we’ll try to sell it to a publisher and we’ll share whatever the proceeds are.” If it doesn’t sell and everything is a disaster, all we’ve done is waste time but if it does really well, then we are both motivated equally.

Publishers are paying less and less and less as I’m sure you know and it’s getting harder and harder and harder to get books like that. Now I still occasionally do books like that but on most cases now I charge a fee. What I used to do is I used to have what the financial people call a mixed portfolio. I’d have some books where I was on a royalty which might well pay off or might not but basically I get speculative part of my portfolio and others will be paying me a straight fee so I knew exactly what money was coming in next month so I could at least pay may bills.

Looking back now over a long time like 20, 30 years, I can see that actually the ones where I was speculative and took a punt were the ones that paid off the most by a long long way but of course there were also some of the ones that paid the least, there were some books that just made no money, hardly any money. You do a whole book for a couple of thousand dollars and... The really big payers were always the ones where it was speculative. For steady living, you really need to charge fees and mostly that’s what I do now. Particularly if it’s self-publishing because it’s so hard to monetize books if you are going to self-publish. It’s usually some other reason to writing or a marketing reason or a PR reason or if somebody is the president of the country or president of a company and they just want for status reasons they want to have a book published. There isn’t going to be a huge amount of money, it’s not going to get into the best seller list.

                                                          Byron:                                                   Does a ghost writer ever hire                                                                     ghost writers?

Andrew:                                              Ghost writers pass stuff around, not in my experience. I think that would be very difficult, wouldn’t it? You have to have faith at so many levels. No, I think because you’d be part of, basically you’ve got to hear the story and feel the story and know the person and all the rest of it. To then just hand the tapes over to somebody else I think would not work really. There are a lot of ghost… I mean there’s your company to start with but there are lots of less formal networks where half a dozen ghosts or a dozen ghosts email each other with jobs they can’t do and basically is there anyone out there who’d be interested. I quite often do that because I target 2 or 3 a day and I can’t do 1000 books a year. Quite often if I think it’s worth doing but I’m not going to do it, then I will just not advertise it but just pass the email on to a few other people if the client wants to do that.

Byron:                                                   Could you bring us through the process that might be helpful for say somebody new that’s considering getting into the ghost writing book industry particularly? Walk us through what that process looks like including phases of the project and what you might charge and what the checklist would be for that workflow.

Andrew:                                              Every book is different because every client has needs. When clients approach me, there is a sort of structure that I can suggest initially that we can then adapt to fit whatever they want. Most of the time I would say let’s start by doing a proposal. Let’s pretend we are going to a traditional publisher, whether we are or not and most cases you start out trying to get a traditional publishing deal. Hire me to basically listen to the whole story as if I was doing the whole book and then probably produce a 10,000 word document which would have a synopsis, it would have some sample material, it would have a chart to break down, it would have all [inaudible 0:10:49], all of the stuff that publishers and agents ask me. Then if I think it’s worth trying, then I’ll skiff some agency and go to them, I know lots of agents and publishers. We can try it on just to get a feel of whether this is an absolute no go or whether there is a glimmer and just whether indeed they may buy it with an advance which a few years ago you could get enormous funds for that. With publishers now, it’s much much harder but it still happens now and then.

If everything is going really well, the relationship is built up, everybody is happy. If a publisher comes on board then basically the button gets pressed and you go ahead and you produce probably a first draft of the book. I like to produce a first draft which is maybe half the length that the eventual book is going to be. If a book is going to be 70,000-80,000 words to say which is fairly average, you produce the first draft of 30,000 or 40,000 words and you take that back to the client and you say, “Look at it and just tell me, I won’t be remotely offended, anything you want to say, just speak your mind and make sure we are completely on the right track.”

At that stage they might say you’ve slightly got this emphasis wrong or I didn’t mean to tell you that or I forgot to tell you this or we need to change this whatever. You straighten all that out; you maybe spend some more time asking some more questions that occurred to you during the writing process and you then go ahead and produce the final draft which will be the one that will eventually go to the publisher charging at different stages. You charge something in advance, something when you finish the proposal, something when you start the first draft and when you finish the first draft and they are happy with it and again for the final draft.

From the right, you always want to be paid something in advance because it’s just enough to cover your time. If anything goes wrong or they change their minds or the publisher draws out or anything, at least your time is covered even if you don’t make a huge profit. They’ve got to feel comfortable. You’ve got to be realistic. The client’s got to feel comfortable. If they feel ripped off or the ghost writer feels exploited, then the relationship isn’t going to work comfortably. You’ve both got to really feel that you are giving each other a fair deal.

Sometimes you don’t bother with the proposal, sometimes you go straight to writing the whole book and sometimes they’ll ask, “Can we do it in stages? Can we do it a chapter at a time and I’ll pay you xy or can I pay you monthly for 6 months or so?” If they want to do that, there’s always options for negotiation.

Byron:                                                   How do you value your time from a monetary perspective and let’s just get down to it, to an hourly basis? Should you at the end of the day be, particularly a veteran like yourself is probably be charging $50 an hour, $200 an hour. If you were to equate that for various stages of the project, understanding that some of these projects might be broken up into some commission potential versus some slight risk that you might be taking on if you left the story. Could you give us a ballpark feel for what your hourly rate would be to work with a customer?

Andrew:                                              To be honest, I never work hourly. I tend to look... We are talking about $2 a word really. An 80,000 word book is going to cost $150,000 in the long run.

Byron:                                                   I got it.

Andrew:                                              If that takes, my math is terrible but say that takes 5, 6 months to end then you can do the calculation. Also you have to have lots of different projects at different stages. It’s a bit like stacking aeroplanes up to come into an airport. If you just have one project and then when you finish it you go out looking for another one, you are going to starve to death in between. You have to have some projects where you are doing the main bulk of the writing which is sort of the main project of the moment. You’ve got others where you are doing the proposal and you are hustling agents and you are talking to publishers and some that you’ve got from the far end and you are doing the final edits or you are maybe holding the hands to do a bit of PR or you are doing whatever. You’ve got to have so that you have a smooth cash, it’s easy for me to say after all these years and what [inaudible 00:15:24] when you are starting out.

You try to so that you can make some rough cash predictions of your cash flow otherwise your children are going to starve and your house is going to be taken away from you because you haven’t thought 6 months down the line. A full book is going to cost about $150,000 but then a lot of people just want the 30,000 or the 40,000 word book for like a business book or something, Who Moved My Cheese sort of or [inaudible 00:15:56] Manager sort of book then it’s going to be half that length, 30,000 words and it’s going to be about $60,000.

                                                         Byron:                                                   “Who Moved my Cheese” by the                                                              way that’s a lovely analogy.

                                                         Andrew:                                              It’s a good one isn’t it? You know                                                                the book I mean?

Byron:                                                   Yes. Tell me a little bit about what you think can go miserably wrong with the ghost writing project?

Andrew:                                              I think it’s if you get it wrong at the beginning with the relationship and the expectations are wrong. I think again it’s very easy for somebody who’s been around as long as I have to be very realistic with clients. I can say to them, this is like buying a lottery. If they are hoping to go... A lot of people come very starry eyed and they hope they are going to get a best seller and it’s going to be made into a movie, Steven Spielberg is going to direct it, it’s all going to be wonderful and you have to be really realistic with them and lay it out. Say, “Look, you are buying a very expensive lottery ticket here. It’s going to be tremendous fun to do, I guarantee you’ll love the experience but I cannot guarantee you’re going to make any money from it.” If you’d at any stage give them the idea that they are going to have their hands snapped off by the publishers and that the readers are going to dash off and buy it, there’s going to be disappointment and disillusionment and they are going to feel very badly done by later on.

I think it’s very important at the beginning to be not negative because obviously you think that story is good or you wouldn’t take it on at all but to be very realistic about the odds because every agent has hundreds of manuscripts a week on their desk and every publisher has... We all know the horrible footsteps and the chances of success are always very very slight. Just like the lottery, if you don’t buy a ticket, you are certainly not going to win anything at all. I could say that, if this is what you really want to do, think of it as a really grand adventure like having your portrait painted and you don’t expect to make money back on it. Just because you read about JK Rowling or James Patterson in the papers, the reason they are in the papers is because they are very unusual making those sort of sums of money. It’s probably not going to sell that many copies.

I also try to stress that they should have another reason for writing it beyond money. Like because they want to leave something for their children or because it’s a marketing tool for their companies or PR tools for themselves, whatever there’s got to be another reason to make it worth doing. A lot of the companies of course can do it out of their PR budget because to spend $150,000 on a book is nothing compared to what they spend on advertising or brochures or anything like that so that’s quite an easy sell. With individuals, you have to be careful not to let them think that they are going to become JK Rowling.

Byron:                                                   How important is a diverse, colorful, painful experience, personal experience for a ghost writer to have to be successful?

Andrew:                                              The ghost writer himself or the author-

Byron:                                                   The ghost writer him or herself.

Andrew:                                              I think the ghost writer just has to be empathetic to other people. I think you’ve just got to be somebody who can empathize with how others feel. I guess the more broadly you’ve lived both up and down, the easier it is empathize with somebody who, if you are writing a book about somebody who’s been abused as a child, you need to be able to at least imagine what that feels like if you haven’t had the experience yourself. On the whole though, you really don’t need to, as long as you have the curiosity to ask the questions because just like a reader, when a reader picks up a book, they want to know. They are trying to learn something new; they are trying to find out something they didn’t know before. I’m actually much happier going into projects where I actually don’t know anything about the subject at all because I’m really interested. I will sit down as say, “Well, what is it like being the Pope’s mistress or what is it like being some other word, being a gangster or being the president of an African country. How did you get here? What’s the process?” All the things I actually want the answers to.

In fact, I think sometimes people hire ghost writers who are in their [inaudible 00:20:21] or football or will hire a football journalist to do their ghosting. I don’t know if that’s always a good idea because they have a sort of shorthand between the 2 of them. They both know what they are talking about when they refer to that goal in 1976 that was so amazing. The rest of the public may not or the younger people may not know what they are talking about. It’s actually better sometimes to have somebody to who is a lay person in that area, is interested in it but doesn’t have too much expert knowledge so that they can ask the basic questions and make the book come alive for other readers as well as experts.

Byron:                                                   Do you have a tone and style that you tend to bring to all of your projects and try to morph it into that project

Andrew:                                              I hope not Byron. I suppose it may be inevitable if I do. I’d like to think whenever my books have been reviewed or books that I have written have been reviewed and people happen to learn it’s by me, the best praise is when they say, “It was like listening to the person,” whether it was a rock star, “it was like sitting by the fire listening to them telling stories.” Then I think, yes, if I got the voice on, at least it sounds like I got the voice. At least the reader is convinced that that is what the rock star or the president sounds like. If they all sound like a middle class English man, it’s going to be a bit flat.

I suppose going back to your earlier question, what do you need to be a ghost writer that is what you need. That you don’t have too much of a star of your own because you don’t want to impose your own voice on the subject. At the same time, I guess probably... Also you tape them at the beginning. You spend a good few hours taping them. You get a feel of the sort of vocabulary they would or wouldn’t use, phrases they wouldn’t, you’ve actually used a lot of them in the text. Hopefully their voice would start to come through and you would know they wouldn’t use a word like that that you might use either because they are too educated or not educated enough or too young or too old. You try to get the age thing is big. You don’t want somebody sounding 60 years old if they are only 20.

                                                         Byron:                                                   Do you take copious notes or do                                                              you rely upon recordings to-

Andrew:                                              Just recordings. I have a notepad open, because recorders are so reliable now. In the old days, when recorders could let you down, I used to frantically take notes as well but actually that is very distracting because you can’t concentrate. I have a notebook open only to a) break eye contact occasionally. If you are spending 8 hours with somebody, it’s a bit intimidating for them to feel really hanging on their every word. You need to have something else to look at. Also, if they are in mid flow and a question occurs to me, I just jot the question down rather than interrupt them and then I remember it when we get to the end because otherwise you don’t remember. You get that [inaudible 00:23:25] there’s something I was going to ask you, I can’t remember what it was. That’s awkward. It’s useful just to jot questions. That’s very very useful. I feel almost usually it’s just doodles to be honest because I’ve been trying not to stare at them.

Tape recorders are amazing or mp3 players. Young people or people younger than myself use their phones for doing this sort of thing. I wouldn’t quite have the nerve to do that. The little mp3 players, they record 3 million hours and you don’t even have to look at them. You know you’ve got the tape to... Also when you play it back, it’s amazing what you forget. You listen to it and it’s like you are hearing it for the first time sometimes. You realize that again if you spend days and days with somebody, there are going to be moments when you chewed out; you can’t concentrate that hard all the time. If it’s on the tape, that’s absolutely fine because it’s all down there and you can get back to it once you are safely back in your garage typing.

                                                         Byron:                                                   What was your first gig as a ghost                                                            writer?

Andrew:                                              The first gig, I was a freelance journalist and I was interviewing a management guru for a magazine called The Director over here which is quite a senior management magazine. At the end of the interview, he said, “Listen, I’ve been commissioned to do 3 books on how to double your sales and how to this and how to that by this publisher and I just haven’t got time to do it. Why don’t you just come to my gigs and I’ll give you all my files and you write it and you can have the money and I’ll have all the glory because I want it to promote my business.” That rang a bell in my head. First of all, I was insulted for a couple seconds and then I thought, “Actually, that’s a brilliant idea.” Any writer knows that the most difficult part of the whole process is the research one of the most difficult is the research. The other is convincing publishers that you are the person to write the book.

If the publisher is already in place, or the person you are dealing with is already famous or an expert, you just get to do the best bit which is the research which is all in one place because it’s all in their heads or their filing cabinets. You don’t have to go all round the world trying to piece your story together. They are an accepted expert on the subject so they are going to get the publisher and all the rest of it. You get to do the research and the finding out stuff and then you get to do the actual writing which are the 2 best bits of it and then you move off. You don’t have to do all the agonizing publicity and all that. You can move off and get on with the next book which is just all right and fun to do.

Because that was such a good experience, I just took a little Ad; this is like 20-25 years ago before the internet was really up and going. I took an ad in publishing news and the bookseller and also [inaudible 00:26:17] just saying Ghost Writer for Hire and a telephone number and just waited to see what would happen. Gradually, the first year or two was fairly slow but gradually stuff started to come in. Once the internet was up and I had a website, then the flood gates opened and of course you can do it internationally. Usually I do them all over the world anywhere where especially where English is the second language and someone can talk a story to you but there’s no chance that they’d ever be able to sit down and write it. Basically like Africa and the Middle East and India and the Far East. There is a huge potential for people for whom English is their first language.

Byron:                                                   You’ve written some of your own books as well but are not ghost written. Tell us how that transition happened.

Andrew:                                              Yeah, the ghost writing handbooks we’ve already talked about and the memoir but also writing fiction. When you have a good idea, people start so say, when they hear I’m a ghost writer, “Don’t you want to write your own stuff?” Actually, the 2 aren’t mutually exclusive. If I have an idea for a novel, I can sit down and do it. The good thing about the ghost writing is it gives you lots of materials where you meet a lot of very varied people. I have done several novels. The latest one is Secrets of the Italian Gardener which is narrated by a ghost writer who is in the palace of a Middle Eastern dictator doing his autobiography, working on his autobiography with him at the time of the Arab spring a few years ago when all those countries were in turmoil.

During that period, I was in the Middle East a lot working with these people and I could see what it was like in this really closed world. That’s the other wonderful thing about ghost writing. You can be in palaces or brothels or all the places that you can’t get to normally. If you go as a journalist to these places, people are very cautious around you about what they say because people mistrust the press. They know they are going to have no control over the outcome and all the rest of it and you are only there for a short time because you are only doing 500-1000 words. With ghosting with a whole book, you can completely immerse yourself in these worlds and they trust you totally because they know they are going to have the final say over what does or doesn’t go in the book because they are calling the tune.

They completely open up and you can enter these wonderful worlds which you’d never get into otherwise. They make for great novels, great places and all that. I think ghost writers are as good as narrators for novels as detectives and policemen and hospital lot is not of the usual people who you see in television series and that sort of thing. We have these very episodic lives where we go into a very exciting or very interesting situation dealing with a rock star or president or somebody living in the gutter or whatever it is and then come back out and do something completely different for next week which I think leads to very good fiction.

Byron:                                                   Andrew, 2 final questions for you. Who would you like to get a hold of you and how can they get a hold of you?

Andrew:                                              What I like is hearing from everybody. I just like anybody who’s got a story. If they just Google Andrew Crofts ghost writer, all will my details will pour down the internet under the website there’s lots of interviews with me and articles and things like that. There’s a BBC News interview if they want to see what I look like and there’s all sorts of stuff like that. Who do I want to hear from? I just want to hear from somebody I just have never heard of who’s got a really interesting story. People always thought when they ask that question who would you like to ghost for, they expect me to say some rock star or some political hero and actually the very famous people, the Elton John’s or the whatever, I’m not sure I would really because we already know so much about them. It’s the people that you know nothing about that it’s going to be a real void to discover. That’s what’s exciting.

Byron:                                                   It’s been terrific having you on today, a real honor, thank you.

Andrew:                                              It’s a pleasure, it’s been fun.

Byron:                                                   Indeed, hope everyone enjoyed today’s wonderful discussion, we’ll look forward to the next next week. Thanks for tuning in everyone.