Ghostwriting: The Secrets to Breaking Into A Mysterious Writing Niche
Sometimes it pays to be a good writer.
In recent years, ghostwriting especially has become a lucrative niche.
We spoke with award-winning author Jenna Glatzer, who’s ghostwritten 27 books, including Celine Dion’s authorized biography (“Celine Dion: For Keeps”) and a Marilyn Monroe biography authorized by her estate (“The Marilyn Monroe Treasures”).
If you’re looking to break into this market, Glatzer offers some tips.
Jenna, how did you get started with ghostwriting?
It was an accident. I had really never given it much of a thought before. I had written lots of magazine articles and a couple of books of my own. I had also put together an anthology of success stories from people who overcame anxiety disorders (a subject close to my heart, because I was agoraphobic for several years). One of the people who read that anthology was Jamie Blyth, who had just been on the first season of “The Bachelorette.” He reached out to me by email and asked if I’d help write his book, which was about his journey overcoming social anxiety. I told him I’d never written anyone else’s book before, but I’d be glad to give it a try if he wanted to take a chance on me. We got a great agent who sold it to McGraw-Hill. I loved the process. The agent and editor both referred me for other work. Before long, that’s all I was doing, really. I still write articles now and then, but my full-time career has been ghostwriting for more than a decade.
How did the Celine Dion book come about?
That was a crazy long shot. Celine’s editor had read an article I wrote and suggested me to her. They had been looking for a “warm” writer for her and the article fit the voice they wanted.
How do you deal with different personalities, and how do you get to know their “voice”?
Well, I’ve never worked with an unwilling/unhappy subject, but I do let them know upfront that this is their book and nothing gets published without their approval. That helps.
What kind of experience does someone need to be a ghostwriter? Can any writer do it?
It’s not a field for beginners. Most of the time, editors and agents will expect a ghostwriter to have book credits. That’s partly to prove that you have the skill and discipline to write full-length books. It’s a lot different from shorter work.
The other way I’ve seen it happen sometimes is that the writer develops a rapport with a client based on interviews for articles/business material and the client wants to keep writer for the book despite lack of book credits.
Say I want to be a ghostwriter. Where do I start? How do I find clients?
Assuming you do have some credits first, you really can just start approaching people who interest you and who fit the genre(s) you want. I was following a young lady on Facebook who had brain cancer; she had a nonprofit foundation to help other kids with cancer. After she died, her father carried on the foundation in her honor with such dedication. It inspired me. I messaged him to ask if he’d considered writing a book about his daughter and if I could help. He said yes. This is the result: amzn.to/2axyV14
The other strategy is to write to agents and editors to ask them to keep you in mind for ghostwriting in your genre.
What skills does one need to become a ghostwriter – beyond good writing, of course?
Listening skills are a really huge factor. Your job is to write in your client’s voice, just cleaned up and organized. You really have to pay attention to your client’s words, feelings, and goals and understand how to translate that to a book. You also need discipline to keep the work on track, organizational skills to figure out how to structure the book and the interviews, a lack of ego, and a willingness to accept changes and editing.
What are some things people don’t think about when they get started in ghostwriting?
The discipline it takes. There’s a lot to it — lots of long interviews, often research material, and you have to synthesize it all while making sure you’re staying true to client’s tone, voice, and vision.
What are the best parts of being a ghostwriter?
Three things I love: the flexibility of mostly making my own schedule, the truly interesting and wonderful clients I’ve worked with, and the fact that I feel truly appreciated in my work. People think it must be demeaning to work as a ghostwriter, but the truth has been the opposite for me. Most of my clients stay good friends of mine, and it feels great when they tell me I did something wonderful for them.
What are the worst parts of being a ghostwriter?
You’re dependent on other people’s schedules and dedication. Some are more devoted to working on the book than others. I’ve dealt with a lot of postponements due to clients’ scheduling issues. And if you’re doing this full-time, it’s the uncertainty of the up-and-down nature of the business. It’s hard to know how many projects to take on at once if they’re in different stages. Sometimes deadlines gang up. I had three books due in February!
Is ghostwriting always uncredited?
No. My name is included on most covers of books I’ve worked on. It’ll say “By Jane Doe with Jenna Glatzer” (my name in smaller type). But I have ghostwriting friends who have very different experiences and are usually uncredited. I think t’s often business leaders, doctors, and celebrities who prefer to keep sole credit on a book. Most people with memoirs don’t seem to mind. It’s still considered ghostwriting, even with credit, because it’s in the other person’s voice and style. If I’ve contributed to the material with original research or my thoughts, it’s probably considered co-authorship, but the terms don’t matter much to me. Call me what you want. Some clients call me collaborator, coauthor, editor, whatever.
Before we go, what are you working on, Jenna?
A lot! Books for a Broadway actress, a woman who grew up in foster care, an athlete who was run over and in a coma, Mike Tyson’s former assistant, a war refugee — I’m swamped but happy!
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Maria Perez is director of online community relations at ProfNet, a free service that connects journalists with quotable experts.