On a cold and dreary Vermont day last March, I was dreaming by the woodstove of taking a summer vacation to Greece. I’ve never been to the land of Odysseus and was playing around on Airbnb, looking at a lovely, whitewashed house near a beach to stay at on the island of Corfu. My big financial ship was about to come in, so why not fantasize a little?
A book proposal I’d written for a corporate client was set to go out to several publishers. The agent for the proposal — I’ll call him “Tom” — is an old friend and a sought-after New York pro who had previously secured some very handsome deals for his authors, and I’d ghostwritten several books for his clients. I had secured, per contract, a combination deal for the proposal and the book for a gob-smacking fee of $300,000, which, given my very un-New-York lifestyle, could have lasted for a while and paid for a sweet vacation or two.
The day before Tom and the authors and I were to hold back-to-back meetings with eight interested publishers, we received a short email from the top communications honcho at the company, telling us that the project was off. Indefinitely.
“Not your fault, very pleased with the work,” etc. etc., just something that had to do with “timing.” The only other hint we were given was that the CEO, who was one of the authors, was too busy. We made suggestions for alternative possibilities. Perhaps it could be written under the co-author’s name, and the CEO could merely write the foreword? Sorry, no go, came the reply.
The very next day, another client who had also signed a contract for a book proposal decided that she was too busy to work on her project with me, too.
Poof — there went my Aegean dream. And since I’d turned down other offers in order to pay attention to these particularly tantalizing projects, there went all the money too. It would be a few nerve-wracking months before I found myself busy again. But all was not lost: Some gardening got done. Oh, and the basement is now cleaner. I managed to scrape by. But since ghostwriters get paid like snakes eat, things were a bit thin for a while.
Here’s the thing: Even if you have a contract signed in blood and sworn upon at midnight under a full moon, these contracts can fall apart. These were not the only times I’ve had an author decide they just simply could not manage the task of producing a book despite a signed contract, even if I were to do all the research and writing. The fact is, there simply are no guarantees of anything, ever. The whole experience can be both incensing and demoralizing.
I thought at first that one of the problems lay with acquiring agents who are attracted to the bright, shiny objects they see on TED or social media. Once a TED Talk or a Twitter feed surpasses a certain number of followers, agents begin hunting the speakers or Twitterers down. I know of authors who, on the basis of a single piece in the New York Times or the Harvard Business Review (my alma mater), find themselves pursued by several salivating agents at once. Once the agents procure their contracts with said authors, of course, the authors need a ghostwriter, which is where you and I come in.
As you doubtless know, we writers can then spend exhaustive time interviewing the authors — flying somewhere that is nowhere near the Aegean to meet them, spending hours and hours recording and transcribing them, developing outlines and perfect proposals with complete sample chapters. This process can take months, but despite all this, the work and immense sunk cost the work can still end up going nowhere.
Here’s what agents won’t tell you: It often turns out that the author, for all his or her good intentions, is really and truly not all that interested in the first place. Sure, it’s appealing to the author’s vanity to be pursued by an agent or ten. But when the task is truly at hand and the author suddenly realizes that he or she has no choice but to spend serious time working with the writer, the author loses interest or engagement. Authors find that they are actually, in real life, too occupied elsewhere to spend time with you. Or else they expect you to mind-read them. Or they have no idea what their end of the bargain is in the first place.
I love my authors’ agents. I rely on them to bring me work, and they like the work I do. But I sincerely wish they would try harder to inform authors about what’s really and truly involved in producing a book proposal and a book, and to gauge the level of commitment from the authors they sign.
In the absence of agent education to authors, here is my advice to you ghostwriters: When you talk with authors, make them tell you the level of commitment they have to the book on a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the highest. If the score is below 3.5, understand that you’re running a risk. I often tell authors that writing a book is like getting married; it demands an enormous amount of time, trust and mutual obligation to see the process through to the end. I think this is especially true of authors who want what one might call a “vanity book” to pass on to their friends or audiences. But as my busted-Corfu-dream experience demonstrated, it can even happen with a corporate client with oodles of money who swears that the book is a high priority and promises to throw endless resources at it.
As for me, I’m back to work now with a demanding author on a crunch project that’s totally destroying my very short Vermont summer. But at least I know we will finish the book, that I’ll get paid the entire amount I expect to be paid (barring an act of God), even though the pay is substantially less than that dreamy project, and hopefully I’ll get to Corfu next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that.
Bronwyn Fryer (bronwynfryer.com) is a collaborative writer in Montpelier, Vermont.
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