Friday, March 6, 2009

Writer Q & A: Sari Botton on Ghostwriting

During my MFA program, I turned down a bunch of writing and editing work. I know. But this was before the great financial collapse, before the student loans payment began, before every laid-off wordsmith of any kind jumped into the already-crowded freelancing pool. In most cases, I'm only sorry about the lost income, but one lost learning opportunity I regret is not signing on to ghostwrite a nonfiction book when it was offered. At the time, my decision made so much sense: the wrong time to target attention toward someone else's vision when I needed to focus on my own voice. Still. Ghostwriting has always fascinated me. When I was a full-time public relations specialist, I occasionally ghostwrote magazine pieces for clients, and always liked the satisfaction when one of them said I had conveyed their message just as they'd hoped. Once, I wrote a personal essay for a professional football player whose mother told him, "see, I always knew you could write!" But an entire book is another matter completely.

Recently, while debating how to properly carve up my freelance efforts, I met the gifted
Sari Botton, whose ghostwriting career is in full swing. We met because of a joint reading from a recently published collection, in which we both have essays, but when I learned of her ghost status, I decided to pepper her with questions. She kindly answered.

LR: You've mentioned that you got started in ghostwriting by accident. Do you mind describing how, and did you like it right away, or did it grow on you?

SB: I was working as a journalist for
W magazine. It was a pretty good job, but I had wanted to go freelance for a while. One evening while covering an Author's Guild event, I was seated next to an agent who happened to have been looking for a ghostwriter for one of her clients. I got the assignment, and that book allowed me to leave my day job. Well, it held me over briefly. Ghostwriting was a mixed bag from the start. Collaborations always have the potential for conflict. But I had fun channeling people’s voices into their own stories.

LR: You worked with fashion designer Dana Buchman on
her memoir about her daughter's learning disabilities. Did you work with both Dana and her daughter on that? Did it require a great deal of research?

SB: Dana and I worked very closely on that book. I worked with her daughter, as well. Sometimes, Dana and I would be up, on the phone, at five or six in the morning because that was when she had time to talk. We worked together on research, interviewing educators and other specialists in the LD field.

LR: While some ghostwriters prefer to have a "with," "and," or "as told to" alongside the author's name, but your byline does not appear there. Why do you choose to remain anonymous?

SB: As much as I enjoy ghostwriting – I really like helping people tell their moving stories – I don’t want to be a career ghostwriter, to the exclusion of publishing my own work. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think a lot of the writers who are credited on a “with” byline go on to establish themselves as authors in their own right. Also, as a reader, I feel confused when a book comes from more than one person. How can I identify with the writer, how can I hear one voice when I read? In my opinion, a book that comes officially from one author is more likely to resonate with more readers, and therefore sell more books.

LR: Do you normally rewrite notes and text provided by the author, or do you craft the manuscript from the ground up?

SB: It’s a mix of both. I try not to work with authors who aren’t generally fairly good writers themselves. They may not know how to write a book, but they can write a sentence, a paragraph, can tell a story. They have a certain individual verbal flair, a way with words that will help me identify their unique voice and keep it authentic through the book. At first, authors tend to be self-conscious about showing me their writing. They think I’m going to take a big red pen to it and give them an F. So, I’ll usually be the one to get the ball rolling. Before an author really gets comfortable with me, I’ll do interviews and start to put together some material for us both to play with. I create an outline, and will often also outline chapters. As we go along, the author will often get more comfortable writing and start to send pieces that I will manipulate.

LR: How do you best like to gather material – long in-person interviews? By telephone? Email?

SB: I do a combination of in-person interviews and phone interviews, depending on geography. Fortunately, I now have a great little digital recorder, and this $24 device from Radio Shack that allows me to record conversations on the phone.

LR: When in the process are ghostwriting services usually sought?

SB: Often, I am sought out before a book gets started. An author may have a few pages written, or an outline, but not much more. These are the best situations. When they try to bring me in at the point where a whole rejected manuscript exists, or when another ghostwriter has been fired, it is actually a harder job than starting from scratch.

LR: What do you like most about being a ghost?

SB: I feel as if I do some good in the world when I help people who have really inspiring stories to tell them, in their voices. I try to choose only those memoirs that have what I consider to be important messages, books that will ultimately be valuable contributions to the world.

LR: Least favorite part of the job?

SB: When an author and his/her editor don’t see eye-to-eye, and I am stuck in the middle, not knowing whom to please.

LR: How much of your career is made up of ghostwriting, and what are the other parts of your business?

also work as a freelance journalist and essayist. I sometimes do copywriting for advertising and the web. Currently, though, ghostwriting is my bread-and-butter. It accounts for about 60-75 percent of my income.

LR: You have a major new ghostwriting project on the burner, a memoir, which I understand you are very excited about – contractually, can you tell us anything about it?

SB: Actually, I can’t. Other than to say it is a really moving story that will touch and inspire people!

LR: How has ghostwriting contributed to your own writing efforts, in terms of craft, productivity, and business aspects?

SB: I have learned a lot about storytelling from ghostwriting. I think that has enhanced my essay writing skills. Also, having recently had to write an entire book in seven weeks, I have been shown that I am able to achieve a lot rather quickly – more quickly than I would have ever imagined! It really honed my chops.

LR: Have there been any fun perks? (Travel? Clothes from Dana Buchman?)

SB: I got to go to Costa Rica for a recent assignment. Although I was writing the whole time, there are worse places to have to go for work! When I
wrote a book for Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher, I got to spend three weeks at a time at the (former) Aveda spa in Wisconsin, and received a spa treatment every day I was there!

LR: What advice might you give to someone who is interested in finding work as a ghostwriter? Is it essential to already have an agent?

SB: Getting started as a ghostwriter, you might need to take a low-ish fee the first time to establish yourself. I wrote one book, early on, for just $5000. But it helped to establish me. You definitely want an agent involved. It will be worth the 15 percent every time. I am a very bad business person on my own. Without an agent, I’d probably wind up paying the authors to allow me to work on their books!

LR: What kind of a writer makes a good ghostwriter? Do you think it hinges as much on skills and experience, as on temperament and other personal traits?

SB: You need both. I think my years as a journalist – particularly my time profiling people, including celebrities, helped. Good interviewing skills are important. It helps to also love memoir and first-person writing. I devour that category, so I’m not just a writer of it, but a reader of it. I am naturally keyed into that
Seymour Glass idea of “ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Personality-wise, clients often tell me that I am like a therapist. Somehow, I have always been good at putting people at ease. One of my “tricks” is to share anecdotes of my own, so that it’s not one person self-consciously on the hot seat; rather, we’re having a conversation.

LR: What are some pitfalls you may have encountered when you were new to ghostwriting, and how might one avoid them?

SB: Make sure your client is ready to write his or her book. One high-profile client of mine thought she was ready, but then canceled 70 appointments to work with me. Also, as I mentioned before, make sure your author and his or her editor have the same vision for the book. In one case, the author wanted one thing, the editor wanted another, and they were each prodding me behind the scenes to make it more their way.

LR: I'm sure every writer wants to know how lucrative ghostwriting might be. Can you give some typical ranges in the business?

SB: According to Writer’s Market, the average price is $35K. Over the course of my career, I have been paid both less and way more. Once you are established, you should be able to get between 40 and 50 percent of the author’s advance. With celebrity books bringing in several hundred thousand dollars or more…well, you do the math. Early on, though, you might have to take lower-profile assignments, and in some cases, take a flat fee.

LR: Without naming the books, have there been a few projects you've passed on, which you now wish you had done?

SB: Actually, I have the reverse kind of situation to report. I had put my hat in the ring to work on “Angel over the Fence,” Herman Rosenblat’s book about how his wife threw apples to him over a concentration camp fence when he was starving there, and then they were reunited on a blind date many years later. I was rejected because I hadn’t written fiction. “We want it to read like fiction,” I was told. Well –
it turned out to have been fiction! He’d fabricated most of the story, and the book got pulled before publication.

LR: What (or who) would be your dream ghostwriting project?

SB: Someone who is making a difference in the world, who is a positive role model, with a story people can identify with.


Susan Bearman said...

Thanks for this post. As a business writer for much of my career, almost all my work has been ghost writing. Last year for the first time I ghost wrote an entire book for a retired sales executive who had a good idea, but no writing skills or experience. I learned a lot and would love to get additional ghost-writing gigs. I'm not sure how to go about doing this. I got this job through a personal contact. How do you find an agent as a ghost writer?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I can channel this ghost into my office, my lap top, my order to help me finish my memoir ! The previous post asked a question I'm curious about - is it the same process with agents?

Michelle O'Neil said...

Another great interview Lisa! Very informative.

Delia Lloyd said...

Thanks, Lisa. This was a very useful post. I've never seriously contemplated ghost writing for the reasons you mention (i.e., privileging my own voice) but now that I've done that, I think I could do this quite profitably and would enjoy it. Thanks for giving me this idea!

Anonymous said...

I am happy to have read this interview. Thank you Lisa and Sari.

Eric M