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Lessons from Legendary Ghostwriter William Novak

February 10, 2022

On January 26th, we held a virtual event with legendary ghostwriter William Novak in which he shared advice drawn from his decades of work on bestselling books, including collaborations with Lee Iacocca, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Magic Johnson, and Nancy Reagan, as well as several private projects that have never been made publicly available. If you’d like to watch the hour-long conversation (hosted by Gotham CEO Dan Gerstein) in its entirety, check it out here:

If you prefer the CliffNotes version, writer Tom Ehrenfeld took down some of Novak’s insights on everything from budgeting time to negotiating contracts. Here they are:

*Be more loyal to the book than to the client. “Nobody cares as much about the project as you,” said Novak, “and that sometimes includes the client.” As someone in the same line of work, I found this point compelling. Over the years I’ve frequently told clients that my job is to be an ombudsman representing the reader, ensuring that the work is accurate and readable. 

*Use the editor as your resource (if you have an editor and they are available). Novak shared stories of editors who shared great editorial insights that unlocked the good material, and shared why they bring invaluable juju to the project. “It’s always good to have someone on your side.” Useful advice, even if no great surprise when you consider the structural isolation of a ghostwriter.

*Alas, books almost always take longer than you expect. Novak says that he completed a book in less than a year just once in his career. Doing them right just takes time. 

*Position yourself in advance for harvesting the necessary material for the book. Novak suggested that you do extensive research as preparation, and that you secure your client’s commitment to be available for interviews and other access. You cannot create a good book without doing the essential initial work of capturing the client’s voice—and their story, noting simply that “I don’t make this stuff up.” And when it comes to doing the interviews, “Don’t be afraid to ask what might seem to be a stupid question.”

*Delay making a formal deal for as long as you can. He calls his work “a series of short-term marriages” and likens the initial work with a client to a dating period, saying that you should get engaged before you make the deeper commitment. Pay careful attention to how you get along with the client during this early phase since “how a project begins is how it usually goes.”

*Don’t show your work to the client too early. Novak prefers to wait until he has a decent chunk completed before sharing it; otherwise “you invite nit-picking.”

*Tend to essential matters when you do strike the formal deal. Novak suggested that you figure out who will manage the photos and captions for the book early in the process, as well as making clear who will be paying for proofreading and copyediting, as most clients have no idea what is involved in creating a book. As for the deal, he suggested that you ask for a share of royalties even though these funds are rarely generated (large initial advances rarely earn out). Novak is in the rare position of being able to charge clients a monthly fee, which he adjusts according to the percentage of time he works each month. 

*Write your own books. It’s better to have written at least one book of your own so that you are positioned to ghostwrite for others. Easier said than done, for sure. Novak says this prepares you as a ghostwriter to form the right relationship to the work itself.  Authors who have written their own books are more prepared to manage the process for others, he says. And they are more comfortable with the client being formally identified as the author.

Author

  • Tom Ehrenfeld is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Ma. He has worked as a staff writer/editor at Inc. Magazine and Harvard Business Review, and has written hundreds of articles for publications including The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, The Industry Standard, and many others. Nine books that he has edited have won the Shingo Publication Award. Books that he has edited have sold more than 500,000 copies.

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