Being a Professional and Cultivating Word of Mouth
A few months ago, a great-paying ghostwriting gig landed in my lap. A publisher called me and asked if I could take over a business book in the early stages. I said that as long as I could have a free hand to revisit the concept with the author and start the writing again from word one, I was in.
“But why?” I wondered. “What happened with the other ghostwriter?” It turned out that the other ghost had been an insufferable, high-maintenance jerk to the client. Among other things, he’d been inflexible and obnoxious about little things such as manuscript formatting, and insisted that all communication be conducted on his Slack channel. In other words, he was a pain in the ass. Eventually, the publisher fired that other ghost and hired me. The author and I got along just dandy and the book came out great.
That’s far from the only account of bad ghostwriter behavior I’ve come across this year. I also heard about a ghost who drove his author to distraction with his constant tardiness for Zoom meetings, missed deadlines, you name it. When pressed, the ghost would launch into a diatribe about his battle with depression.
Yes, depression is a serious illness, but—and I can’t stress this enough—it should not affect your performance as a professional writer. Don’t make your personal life your author’s problem. Either handle it or bow out of the project so someone else can take over. “I’m sorry I’ve been late for our last five calls, but I couldn’t get out of bed” is not acceptable.
Then there’s the incident that practically made my head explode. I talked to an author who had just finished a book and was very happy with it. He liked the ghostwriter, too, except that he was really upset when the ghost called him to complain about his fee and to ask the author to go to bat with the publisher to get him more money.
If you just shouted, “What?!” and scared the hell out of your cat, that is the appropriate reaction. No one had put a gun to the ghostwriter’s temple and forced him to sign the contract, but now he wanted the author to pitch the publisher on a bonus. That’s so unprofessional it leaves me speechless. The author refused, the publisher vowed never to hire that ghost again, and this idiot ghostwriter burned two important contacts because he couldn’t behave with even minimal professionalism and common sense.
Your Reputation Is Everything
All you have in this world is your reputation. When you strip away awards and titles and college degrees, all that matters is whether you can be counted on to do what you say you’ll do, and deliver it in the best way possible. Can you be trusted? If in the world of publishers, agents, and authors the word is that you’re unreliable or a prima donna, you’re going to end up watching as the other writers land all the great projects.
Your reputation is sort of part of your brand, because it speaks for you when you’re not around. But it’s also nothing like your brand because it’s dynamic and partially out of your control. Every client and project has the potential to change it, as your reputation lives in the minds of other people—the authors, editors, publishers, and agents with whom you’ve worked. Think about your reputation this way:
People WILL talk about you and your work. Your job is to tip the balance in your favor much as possible so that what they say is good for your career.
This is why reputation differs from the other four components of the Flush Freelancer Five (FFF): Once you cast it into the world, it develops a life of its own. Emails and tweets about you and your work happen when you’re not around, so by the time those conversations happen, the die is cast. What you do now affects what your rep does for you, good or bad.
The Parts of Your Reputation
Your personality and your ability to write are critical parts of your reputation, but I’m not going to address them here. It’s pointless in this context. I don’t know you, and I’m not a psychologist. If you have some deep-seated anger issues or think it’s cool to belch like Falstaff in the middle of Google meetings, nothing I write here will change that. Likewise, I assume you’re a solid, competent wordsmith, and if you’re not, there’s not a lot I can do in this piece to help you. To paraphrase Yoda: Forewarned you have been. Let’s move on.
What I will address here are three other important ingredients in your reputation:
- The quality of your work
- Being easy to work with
1. Quality of Work
Wait, what? Didn’t I just say I wasn’t going to try to teach you to be a better writer? I did, and I’m not. Here, “quality of work” refers to factors, other than your line-to-line writing, that shape how people perceive the quality of what you deliver. There are more than you think. For example:
- Are you doing strong pre-draft outlines for your books that make the process clear and predicable?
- Are you writing in genres or on topics that you enjoy personally, allowing that enjoyment and passion to come out in your writing?
- Are you writing about topics that you know a great deal about, allowing you to leverage your expertise?
- Are you making downloadable samples of your best work available on your website?
Notice that only one of those items has anything to do with writing. The rest are about your ability to find your ghostwriting “sweet spot”—which will make you a more engaged and enthusiastic writer—and controlling how people perceive your work.
Unfortunately, choosing genres or topics you know well or that turn you on isn’t always an option, especially if you’re inexperienced. Sometimes, paying the bills means taking whatever gigs you can get. But as often as you can, try to steer yourself toward work you care about, find fascinating, or know a great deal about. If you can afford to take a little less money to do work that lights you up, it’s worth it. You’ll have more fun, and the final product will show it.
While I was writing a certain piece, I was approached by an author who needed help completing a book she was writing about her epic kayak adventure around all five Great Lakes. The project was book doctoring, which doesn’t entail as much work as ghosting, but the story was just so damned cool that I took it on anyway—and it was well worth it! I very much enjoyed that project, and got to work in a genre—outdoor adventure nonfiction—in which I haven’t done as much as I’d like to.
When it comes to your samples, pick your three or four best books. Get first-pass PDFs from the publisher (you might already have them) so they look slick and polished. Clip out the best one or two chapters from each, stick the book covers on your website’s portfolio page, and set it up so that when a prospect clicks on the book cover, they see an option that reads, “Download sample chapters.” You probably won’t need permission from the publisher to do this, either.
By the way, even if most of your work is on books, any other writing you do—blog posts, articles, etc.—is fair game as long as it shows off your chops, so make it available, too.
2. Being Easy to Work With
Fact: We do business with people we like. The ghostwriter horror stories I shared earlier were situations wherein the ghosts were simply irritating and difficult. Being easy to work with is really a matter of being flexible and easygoing, and making the client’s needs at least as important as your own.
Don’t bring your hang-ups or problems to the project. If the client prefers to communicate in a way that’s different from your preferred method, meet them halfway. Be a good listener. Respect the client’s personal time and the fact that they have a life that has nothing to do with your project, and insist on the same. Lock down interview times, but if the client has to postpone at the last minute, roll with it.
Being easy to work with also means being strong at client management. In part, that means knowing how and when to be candid with your authors. Many of them will come to the table with book ideas or plans to find a publisher, and often those will be unrealistic or not very good. You owe it to your clients to be honest with them when their ideas are unworkable or their writing is poor. But these are also human beings with egos, so you need to be careful not to humiliate them.
Dealing with a client who has unrealistic expectations or creative ideas that are unworkable is a delicate situation. I’ll share one of my secrets for handling it. One of my core values as a ghost is that I’m there to give my clients what they need, which is often different from what they want. I’ll be very direct about that with them—which they love, and lets me jump to something like, “I have nothing but respect for the work you’ve done so far, but I don’t think it serves your goals.”
I often follow that with one of my go-to lines: “It’s not the job of a ghostwriter to take dictation.” That usually gets a chuckle, but then I say that the job of a ghost is to expand on the client’s ideas—to make them bigger, more provocative, or just plain better. When I explain my approach like that, clients become much more willing to dispose of an iffy manuscript or shoot for a hybrid publisher because Random House isn’t in the cards. Try it.
But the biggest facet of being easy to work with is taking control of the book development and writing process. If an author is new to ghosting, the experience can be unsettling. There’s a lot going on that they don’t understand. Your first job is to reassure them that you’re in control and you have a plan. Walk them through every stage of what’s about to happen, whether that’s writing a book proposal or developing a book. Control the author’s expectations, and you increase their comfort and trust. When they trust you, they’ll relax and open up, and you’ll produce better work.
Professionalism comes down to a few rules:
- Rule #1: Don’t be a dick. Be pleasant and positive, open and engaging. If you disagree with something, be diplomatic about it.
- Rule #2: Be reliable. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you need more time, ask for it. It’s almost never a problem.
- Rule #3: Communicate. Return calls and answer emails.
- Rule #4: Be on time. If you have a call at 2:30 p.m., and you show up at 2:33, that’s no big deal. If you show up at 2:50, you’re wasting your client’s time.
- Rule #5: Be tidy. Like me, you might be working from home. That doesn’t mean you can’t show up on Zoom in a nice shirt with your hair combed. It also means you shouldn’t web conference from a patio with a moldy futon in the background.
- Rule #6: Create clean documents. Use a tool such as Free Invoice Generator to produce your invoices.
- Rule #7: Make things as easy as possible for clients. Have an online calendar for setting meetings. Have an online payment system so they can pay you easily. Have a Slack channel set up for each project.
- Rule #8: Keep your drama private. Don’t bring your personal problems to a project.
Birds Leaving the Nest
In Part Three, I’ll talk more about your network, your ecosystem of past clients, colleagues, and random strangers. Here, the goal is to influence a specific group: clients whose projects are near completion or are already in the can.
I think of these folks as young birds leaving the nest to make their way in the world. Either they’re going to sing about you, or they’re going to poop on you (and you want them to sing). Assuming you’ve been easy to work with—a pro’s pro—and delivered good work, what else can do you?
Two things. First, ask for a referral. “Will, I’d really appreciate it if you gave my name and web address to anyone you know who might be interested in writing a book.” Just like that. Give your authors a stack of your business cards. Offer to pay them a $500 finder’s fee for anyone they refer who signs on. Be direct and ask.
Second, make sure the client knows your relationship is more than transactional. Writing a book together is an intimate thing, and you and your client might become more like friends by the time the final draft is done. Simple things such as keeping in touch by phone or email after you get the final check can go a long way. I even send some of my clients holiday gifts, which they absolutely love. If you can build a rep as a good writer and a great person who’s easy to work with, you’ll have more work than you can handle.
What’s Your Rep?
Finally, try to find out what your reputation is. How? As always, be direct. Ask five or ten colleagues in the editorial world who know you well to describe you in five words, positive or negative. Make sure they’re people you trust to be honest.
To be fair, this doesn’t always yield useful results. Some folks will never tell you they think that you’re overbearing or use too many adverbs, no matter how intently you plead. One tactic I’ve tried is to ask my clients to tell me the areas I could improve on, based on our work together. That usually generates some solid feedback.
But in general, a reputation is a hard thing to poll for, even as it’s circulating in the world, hurting or helping you. You might never truly know what you get out of it, which is why it’s essential to pay such close attention to what you put into it.
One last bit of advice: Don’t waste time defending your reputation against people who are out to trash it. One of the unfortunate effects of social media is that we now harbor an underclass of miserable, toxic idiots who love nothing more than to prejudge people based on only tidbits of information and then try to ruin them. I’ve experienced this.
A while back, I posted a query on a social network, looking for feedback from some literary agents about a project I was working on. Someone saw the post, took the information completely out of context, decided I was a terrible human being, shared this insight with thousands of followers, and before I knew it, I was in the middle of a mini-controversy, all because I had tried to get some insight to assist one of my clients. One delightful woman even insisted she would ruin my career despite knowing nothing about me beyond this one post. Rather than fight a losing, infuriating battle, I deleted my account. The moral: If someone of consequence slanders you, fight. But don’t waste time wallowing in the mud with trolls.
Tim Vandehey is a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, author, entrepreneur, and musician. A native Californian, he now lives in Kansas City, Missouri (go Chiefs!). He’s also the founder of Freelancium, a coaching and resource site for freelance writers. For more info on Tim, please visit timvandehey.com.