If there is one touchstone of advice that has run throughout our Ghostwriting Confidential series, it’s to make choices based first and foremost on your goals and your priorities for your project. Whether it’s deciding between a ghostwriter or an editor, selecting a suitable collaborator, or figuring out terms for hiring them, it’s critical to get clarity on what success would look like for your book and what your needs are—and find the right match for your vision.
This is especially true for the last leg of your story’s journey: how to get your book published. Thanks to rapidly growing diversification and legitimization of self-publishing, there are literally thousands of options for new authors to get their book out into the world beyond the exclusive, pre-digital ritual of getting an agent and selling their book to a trade publisher. But this abundance is both a blessing and a curse. While it’s opened up long-closed doors for millions of authors with different perspectives and different purposes, it’s also made it exceedingly challenging for first-time authors to figure out which is the right path for them.
That’s where working with an experienced, knowledgeable writing partner can really pay extra dividends. On the front end, they can help you sort through your options, set realistic expectations, and develop a viable publishing strategy tailored to your project. And on the back end, once the book is finished, they can help guide you through a crowded, tricky, and risky marketplace to your desired destination—without you losing your shirt or your soul. But new authors must go in knowing there are also limits to what a ghost can do. Outside of a few rare exceptions, they are not agents capable of getting you a book deal.
With this last installment of our series, we explore in full detail this question of how ghosts can—and cannot—help you achieve your publishing goals. In particular, we look at what ghosts can do to:
- Chart the right course
- Hone your content
- Find the right publishing partner
- Make valuable connections
Selecting a Publishing Path
These days, there are many different ways for an author to have their work published, and they each come with different advantages and trade-offs. Traditional trade publishers—companies such as Penguin Random House and HarperCollins—are perhaps the most well known to the general public. In their business model, to the publisher pays fees (known as “advances,” though that doesn’t necessarily mean the entire fee is paid before the book is published) to authors in order to acquire the rights to publish their books and then generate profit by selling those books to as large a readership as possible. Trade publishers can offer prestige, robust promotion and widespread distribution, but are extremely selective in what projects they take on and exercise a significant amount of control over the content and publishing strategy of the titles they acquire. Hybrid publishers have become far more popular and numerous in recent years and offer many of the advantages of traditional publishers, such as in-house resources for promoting and distributing books. But unlike traditional publishers, much of their revenue comes from collecting fees from their authors rather than from selling books. This means they can offer authors more control over the publication and a bigger cut of the profits, but they vary widely in what sort of publicity, marketing and distribution services they can provide, in what fees they charge for their services, and, in some cases, the ethics of their business practices.
More-basic self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like—the authors are responsible for every aspect of publishing their books, from hiring cover designers and having hard copies printed to arranging for distribution to handling all of their own promotion. Though companies such as Amazon can make certain aspects of self-publishing seem deceptively simple, this approach can come with plenty of potential pitfalls for authors hoping to reach a significant audience. Remember, just because a self-published book is technically available for purchase doesn’t mean your intended audience will hear about it unless you successfully publicize and market it.
One way ghostwriters can support authors get published is by helping them decide what publishing path makes the most sense based on their particular needs, resources and capabilities. A ghostwriter who has developed many books with traditional publishers may have well-developed instincts for determining whether a book has the potential to attract interest from literary agents and trade publishers; one who has worked on many books with hybrid publishers might have insights into the different strengths and weaknesses of different companies; and a ghostwriter who has worked on self-published books might have a deep working knowledge of how to make a book stand out to audiences on such platforms as Amazon.
If an author is uncertain about what publishing path is right for them, an experienced ghostwriter can potentially serve as a valuable advisor to guide their decision-making. But authors should be mindful that each ghostwriter comes with a different set of experiences, and some will be better able to advise on different aspects of the industry than others. A writer who has been extensively published by trade publishers may be able to provide valuable insights about finding a literary agent or tailoring content to appeal to traditional publishers, but may not necessarily have the same level of expertise when it comes to evaluating a custom publisher. As we noted in the last installment of this series, when evaluating potential ghostwriters, authors should consider each ghostwriter’s particular experiences with different forms of publishing and how those may or may not align with their own goals.
Developing Strong, Salable Content
Whatever publishing path an author chooses to pursue, they are far more likely to be successful in achieving their goals if their content is as strong as possible. This is arguably the number-one reason for working with a ghostwriter. A good ghostwriter will not only be able to develop a coherent structure and engaging prose to keep readers interested, they will have a sense of what audiences—and, by extension, publishers—look for in the author’s chosen genre.
This can be tremendously helpful even for authors who are pursuing hybrid or self-publishing. And it is absolutely invaluable for authors who are aiming to get a deal with a traditional publisher. Most trade publishers are incredibly selective about the projects they will acquire, and will only consider projects that are represented by a literary agent (a professional author representative who specializes in selling the rights for books to publishers). In many genres—particularly nonfiction—they will prefer to initially evaluate projects on the strength of their book proposals rather than reading full manuscripts. A book proposal is an in-depth sales document that presents a book summary, outline, sample material, and relevant information about the author and genre in as compelling a way as possible, with the goal of attracting interest from agents and publishers. All of this means authors who want a deal with a trade publisher will need to develop an outstanding proposal and/or manuscript capable of attracting interest from literary agents and acquiring editors at publishers. An experienced ghostwriter will have a deep understanding of how to do exactly that.
Publishing Consulting and Direct Referrals
While most ghostwriters will be happy to offer some general advice and insights about publishing as part of the collaboration process, particularly as it directly relates to the content they’ve been hired to develop, many authors look for more extensive assistance in getting published. Maybe they want a ghostwriter who can serve as a full-blown “publishing consultant,” giving them thorough advice about navigating every step of the publishing process, helping them decide which agents or publishers to approach, etc. Others may even look for a ghostwriter who can make introductions and referrals on their behalf and directly connect them with agents or publishers who might be a good fit for their project and goals.
While many ghostwriters may potentially be willing to offer some or all of these services, they often consider them to be a separate engagement from simply writing a book or proposal, and so may be looking for additional payment. Others may not be interested in offering these services at all, and would rather limit their contribution to writing a book or proposal. And even if a writer is willing to make direct referrals to agents or publishers, the specific connections they have to those people will vary enormously from writer to writer.
This means that if an author is looking for a writer to do more than just write for them, they need to be very clear on what they want at the outset of the engagement and ask the writer about their willingness—and ability—to serve as a publishing consultant or make direct introductions. An author should never assume that hiring a ghostwriter automatically obligates the writer to advise them on the industry or make personal recommendations on their behalf—and they should keep in mind that leveraging a writer’s industry contacts is only going to help them if those contacts are well-situated to help them realize their publishing goals. A writer with a deep rolodex of industry insiders in romance fiction may not be especially helpful to an author trying to find a publisher for their business leadership book.
From polishing content to helping an author select a publishing path to serving as a publishing consultant or making direct recommendations, there are many ways a ghostwriter can help an author get published. But there is one thing no writer can ever offer an author, and that is a 100 percent guarantee of success.
Just because an author hires a ghostwriter who has a strong track record of being published does not automatically mean that agents and publishers who’ve worked with that writer will sign up the author’s book. Every agent and publisher evaluates each book on its own merits, and while a personal recommendation from a trusted source may help get an author’s foot in the door, ultimately it is up to agents and publishers to decide what projects they take on. And just because an author works with a ghostwriter who has written previous bestsellers does not mean there is an absolute guarantee that their book will sell a certain number of copies, win specific awards or hit a certain spot on a bestseller list.
In publishing, as in life, there are no guarantees. The most any author can hope for is to do everything they can to put themselves in a position to succeed. Thankfully, the right ghostwriter can do exactly that.