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Category : Collaborating and Ghosting
So I’m taking the month of April and asking readers to send in some specific questions: If you could have lunch with an agent, sit down face to face and talk, what would you ask? Here are some of the questions that have come in…
Recently a publisher stated that he thinks an author ought to plow some of their advance back into marketing — which upset me, since it seems wrong-headed to expect authors to bear the financial burden of book promotion. Why pick on the weakest financial link in the chain? Am I hopelessly naive? Or is that the new normal?
I saw that interview, and I was surprised. Certainly every author is throwing himself or herself into their own book. Let’s face it, NOBODY has more at stake in a book than the author. Nobody knows the story better. Nobody has spent more time on it. Nobody is counting on the the success more than the author. So I think it’s easy for a publisher, who is hopeful for the book to do well, but not inherently tied to its success, to say, “The author ought to take his advance check and use that money to pay an outside publicist.” And maybe there are times where that’s exactly what needs to happen. But it came across as out of touch and unrealistic, since most authors are trying to live on advances. I mean, I can’t imagine saying to a publisher, “If you want to be more successful, you need to reinvest your paycheck into training your people.” So no, this is not the new normal. That said, publishers are certainly expecting more out of authors when it comes to marketing. The publisher isn’t in charge of marketing your book — YOU are. The author is going to have to take the lead and complete much of the work. And that IS the new norm.
You’ve said recently
by Ghostwriter [While this says it’s written by Chip MacGregor, it is not. It’s written by a professional collaborative writer who is a friend — Chip just posted it.]
Hi. I’m Ghostwriter and I’m the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.
The news that Mars Hill Church paid ResultSource about $200,000 to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list shocked a lot of people. For me, that news solved a mystery.
As I already mentioned, I am a collaborative author and occasionally a ghostwriter. Although I am a published author in my own right, I learned long ago that I could earn a much better living helping other people write their books. It’s a good life, and I enjoy my work. Nevertheless, I still hope that someday I’ll see one of my books on a bestseller list—any bestseller list.
This explains my obsession with Amazon rankings and sales figures.
I know, I know…
You have to take Amazon numbers with several hundred grains of salt. I get that. But I still enjoy checking my author page and seeing how many copies of my books have sold in the previous week. Generally, the numbers are unremarkable. Sometimes they are depressing. But a while back those numbers astonished and mystified me.
I’d collaborated on a book with a megachurch pastor and, although it was a contract job for which I received a flat fee and no royalties, I asked for and received cover credit. Because my name was on the cover, I was able to list the book on my Amazon author page and track its sales statistics. Even though I wasn’t going to receive royalties for the book, I was still curious to see how well it was selling.
So I set the book up and waited for the launch date. The first week’s sales stats took my breath away. The book went from zero
Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing, so let me offer some background…
Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle. Last fall he was accused of plagiarizing the words of another author, Peter Jones, in his latest book, and in addition there were other examples given of him plagiarizing, including pages of text recreated word-for-word from a Bible commentary and stuck into one of the church’s publications. The people at Driscoll’s church made the situation worse, first claiming it was okay because one of the obviously plagiarized documents had never been sold, then changing their story when it turns out it had indeed been sold, but saying they hadn’t made much, then blaming it all on un unnamed research assistant (even though it had Mark Driscoll’s name on it), then taking pains to criticize the “haters” instead of owning up to their own ignorance and laziness. The whole thing was a mess. Driscoll clearly plagiarized (whether you want to cut him slack and call it something else), and his publisher examined the book and released a statement that admitted there were “inadequate citations,” but defending him for handling the situation well. In the end, the entire mess faded away. I was a bit surprised, since I’ve seen books get cancelled and editorial careers get ruined over less than this. Still, we all moved on.
Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use
A writing friend sent this question: “I have a chance to do a book with a celebrity. Does a project like that really help my writing career?”
I have a rule for collaborative writers to consider: If you come across a story that involves celebrity or heavy media attention, you might want to listen to the idea… but don’t fall in love with celebrity. Those are about the only “personal story” books with a chance of actually creating a payday for you, but it’s not automatic. A buddy of mine was approached by a well-known guy who owns a famous chain of stores, and was invited to “tell the story” behind all that success. He wrote the book, which was self-published and sent to all the franchise owners and managers for staff to read, plus they sell a few in their stores. But the book never made it into bookstores, didn’t break out, didn’t really move the writer’s career forward, and didn’t make him a lot of money. In many ways it’s sort of a paean to the owner’s celebrity status. So be wary of saying “yes” just because someone is a celebrity.
I’ve had more than one person write to ask about “helping my friend do a book” or “helping my pastor do a book. ” Again, if you feel you owe the person a favor, that’s your decision. Or if you feel “called” to somehow do this project… well, God outranks me. But be aware you don’t have to do a book with your friend just because she has a cool story, or with your pastor just because he is in a position of authority. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of “helping” people who have no ability with words — and nothing is more frustrating to a writer.
My solution: If somebody comes up and asks you to help them write their book, learn to
Someone asked, “What advice can you give those of us who want to make a living as collaborative writers?”
You may not know this, but I made my living as a collaborative writer for years. I was successful at it, and learned some important lessons, so I’m always happy to talk with writers who want to do some collab work. There are a couple lessons I learned…
First, writing speed matters. You see, not everybody works at the same pace. I can bang out words by the pound. It’s obvious Cecil Murphey can. Susy Flory, David Thomas, Mike Yorkey, Steve Halliday, Kenny Abraham, and the other folks in the business who make their living as collaborative writers all write with speed. (True story: When Harvest House Publishers came to me and asked if I’d write a “Y2K” book, I called a writing friend and we banged out 256 pages in 17 days. It sold more than 60,000 copies and, let’s face it, SAVED WESTERN CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT. If it hadn’t been for my book, we’d doubtless all be sitting in the dark and learning Chinese right now. You can thank me later.)
Anyway, most collaborators can bang out words quickly. And not every writer is built like that. It’s certainly not a bad thing if your writing speed is a bit slower, it’s just that you’ll have a harder time making a go of it as a collaborative writer, since being able to produce a lot of words quickly is essential. I find that most writers have a natural pace, and if you try to speed them up too much, they lose focus and quality. Writing fast is probably a necessity for most full-time writers, but it’s not some sort of saintly gift. Many great authors need adequate time. Lisa Samson, one of the best literary novelists in the business and an author I’ve long represented, is
Lately I’ve been besieged with questions about writing and editing for a living. Let me tackle a handful of them…
One person wrote and said, “I’ve been writing for six years, and I’m trying to establish myself as a paid freelance editor with a book publisher or magazine. I hear companies are outsourcing a lot of editing. What advice can you give me for getting started? Is it possible to break into an industry that relies so much on in-house connections and networking?”
Publishers seem to always be on the hunt for good freelance editors. Just this week I spoke to two Associate Publishers who both expressed the need for more outside copy-editors and proofers. In these tough economic times, publishers are going to be sending even more projects to outside editors — thus saving themselves the cost of paying benefits to employees. So if you want to generate some extra income doing editorial work, the first thing I’d suggest is that you become a proficient editor. Make sure you can copy-edit quickly and thoroughly, then contact publishers to begin looking for work.
It’s true publishing relies on networking… which makes it just like every other business in America. I don’t think publishing is any different from any other industry — all of us do business most often with those we know and trust. So that means if you want them to hire you as a freelance editor, you need to invest in networking with publishers and editors. Go meet them at conferences. Introduce yourself at industry events. Email them a friendly note and ask to introduce yourself over coffee. Get face to face and let them see you’re a normal, friendly, capable person. Then show them your work or ask to take their in-house editing test. Most houses have either a copy-editing test, or a developmental editing test, or both. Once you’ve shown them you’re able to do the
After yesterday’s post, I had someone write and say, “I’ve been approached a couple times to collaborate on a book, but I’m not sure I want to go that route with my writing career. Any advice for me?”
1. Collaborating writers come in four basic packages: COLLABORATORS (they take the miscellaneous meanderings of a smart or interesting person and shape it into coherent text, often finding pertinent material to supplement the content), CO-AUTHORS (they add their own content and generally get some credit for having a mind of their own), GHOST-WRITERS (they create the material, which is often used by a putative “author” with an ego too big to acknowledge the use of a writer), and EDITORS (they simply re-shape or sharpen the cogent thoughts and writings of the author).
2. What’s most important? Clearly define your roles. No sense writing for someone who really wants you to edit. (This has happened to me on more than one occasion. I do great work…and they toss it out so that they can use their own, lousy wording and feel better about themselves.)
3. What’s also important? Clearly define your agreement. “I will do THIS for THAT AMOUNT OF MONEY. It should take me THIS much time, so if you give me the material you’ve promised, I should have it for you on THAT date.”
4. One more thing: Define what “success” is. If they’re paying you for a rough draft, produce it. If they’re paying you for a polished manuscript, produce that. If you don’t define success, you’ll find that YOUR expectations may not match up with the OTHER’S expectations.
5. Make sure you can do the job. I love writing, and I love learning new things, so I always enjoyed taking on collaborative projects. I learned about guns, about investing in stocks, about fathering, about history — writing collaboratively was as good as any class I ever took
Dave wrote to ask, “Do you have any ethical problems with ghostwriting?”
First, I would insist you define the term. To some, “ghostwriting” means doing any sort of writing for someone else without getting credit. I would disagree with that definition — sometimes an author has good ideas that are well-formed, but needs a wordsmith to help move them toward a polished manuscript. I see nothing wrong with that sort of writing. It’s a paid job to shape up somebody else’s work, and I don’t find anything unethical about that. In fact (since I know a lot of CBA people read this blog), you should know that Saint Paul used a ghostwriter (called an amanuensis) to smooth out his words. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the end of his letter to the Galatians. In 6:11, he says, “See what large letters I use as I write with my own hand” — which means he wasn’t writing the earlier portion of the letter. He was dictating it, and the amanuensis was editing and smoothing it out. Then he added his own handwriting at the end to prove it really came from Paul. The early church actually had a tradition that Paul had very bad eyesight, which might have been one reason he had a an editor taking down his words.
My point is just that it’s a lousy argument to somehow suggest it’s wrong for a speaker to use a writer to help shape or polish the written message. It’s not — that’s what a writer does. Presidents use writers to craft their speeches, and nobody says, “That’s not really the president talking!” Judges use clerks to write their decisions (and often to research and create their decisions), and nobody says, “That’s not really the judge’s words!” Corporate leaders use PR firms to create their company communication pieces, and nobody says, “That’s not really Steve Jobs saying that —
Johann wrote to say he’s been approached to do some collaborative writing, and has several questions: “What should I charge? Should I get my name on the book? How long do you think it will take me? And what would the main points of our agreement be?”
That’s a lot of questions, Johann. You should definitely have a written agreement that details:
WHAT you’ll do (for example, “write a 50,000 word book that tells the author’s life story”),
WHEN you’ll do it (for example, “it will be completed by October 1”),
WHAT the author’s responsibilities will be (something such as, “the author will meet with me four times, for a full day each time”), and
HOW MUCH you’ll be paid (the short version: you will probably want to charge somewhere in the $70 per hour range, plus get a percentage if the book is to be shopped to publishers).
All of that will be put into a legal document — and you can find “work for hire” document examples online or in some “freelance writing” books. You just want everything spelled out, so there aren’t a bunch of surprises later (as in, “But I thought YOU would take care of all that!”). Of course, there will be much more said about the payments. You might ask for a flat fee to do a book proposal, and a larger fee to do the book once it gets contracted. You’ll probably start by charging and hourly amount, but you’ll quickly move to charging a flat fee to complete the manuscript, since it will pay you more. I’ve seen writers charge by the word, by the page, by the hour, by the chapter, and by the project — there’s not really a right way to do it. However, let me offer a tip to determine what to charge…
Figure out how much you want to make each month through your writing. Let’s say,
Pam wrote to ask, “Can you say more about the whole freelance writing concept? I’m looking for practical ideas to help me make a living.”
A couple thoughts from a guy who would basically write for anybody, so long as they paid me…
1. If you live near a major city, check and see what organizations are located near you. Most nonprofit organizations have a magazine, newsletter, or web site, and they all need content. Check them out, find out what sort of articles, interviews, and sidebars they use, then offer them some material. I sold hundreds of things to companies and nonprofit organizations when I was free-lancing. Nonprofits have to stay in touch with donors, and that means somebody has to write their copy for them. (They also need report writers, researchers, and grant writers, if you want to check into those opportunities.)
2. Drive down any of your streets, and you'll see businesses on both sides. Nearly every one of those businesses have a website, and they all need content. That's how the internet has changed business — every mom-and-pop shop now has the opportunity to hawk its wares worldwide via the web. And think about the changes in websites over the past few years. You used to see something that resembled a highway billboard — a business name, phone, address, and slogan ["Don's Plumbing of Portland — Great Service, Low Rates. Call Today — 555-1234"].
Now if you go to that site, you'll find an introduction to the business, a history of the company, a bio of each employee (complete with photos), a self-help section to fix your own plumbing problems, a link to order specialized plumbing parts, a section on the history of indoor plumbing, and an ask-the-expert compendium. And, of course, somebody has to write all that stuff. Most businesses do it themselves (until they figure out what's they've written is awful, since they are plumbers