Part 2: Avoid the Perils of Hiring the Wrong Writer
To avoid the perils of hiring a writer who isn’t a good fit for your book, begin by eliminating any assumptions you may have about one writer being essentially the same as another.
While all successful writers share a set of basic skills, it’s the skills and talents that set us apart that are most important to assess when you’re choosing a ghostwriter. It’s not unusual for collaborators to be great at writing one or two genres and completely inexperienced with others. For example, a writer’s skills at nonfiction narrative might not carry over to structuring and writing a prescriptive book. If a ghost has written bestselling science books, that doesn’t mean they have the skills and talents to write a memoir. The examples of bad fits are as diverse as writers themselves.
To help you steer clear of an avoidable mismatch, I continued my interview with Nate Roberson, editorial director at Gotham Ghostwriters. (If you missed Part One, here’s the link.) Nate oversees a wide array of fiction and nonfiction book projects and guides authors through the process of finding the right match for their book.
Toni: What’s the best way for people to avoid hiring the wrong writer for their project?
Nate: If you’re getting into this as a total industry outsider, which I would say about 90 percent of would-be authors are, you don’t know what you don’t know. So finding a company like Gotham Ghostwriters or getting a reputable agent to start talking to you, even if they haven’t taken you on as a client yet but see potential in you, or hiring a writer who, based on their credentials and experience, knows the current industry landscape—these are all good ways to go.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.”
It’s not about finding a writer who wrote a proposal that sold back in the eighties. What does selling a book look like now? Starting there is important because it’s very easy to go down a road where you spend a bunch of money and, whether because the writer wasn’t a good fit or you just didn’t understand what you needed to do to get where you want to be, you don’t have a lot to show for it. Finding a company or an individual you trust who can be your adviser—and good writers can play that role—is super-valuable.
Toni: Can you give us an example of where people can go wrong when choosing a writer?
Nate: One of the ways people run into trouble is that their goals don’t align with their budget—they want a New York Times bestseller, but their budget isn’t enough to make that a realistic possibility. And often, in those cases, if they’re not prepared to adjust either their goal or their budget, they may be better served by not doing the book. If a book that isn’t a bestseller feels like a failure but they’re not prepared to spend on a writer who can deliver a bestseller, they’re kind of throwing money away. And so I would encourage them to think hard about whether it has to be a bestseller, and if it does, can they be flexible on their budget?
If it’s important to work with a bestselling writer, look at what the bestseller was, or the multiple bestsellers, how recent they were, and if they were in a relevant category. If someone had a bestselling beach read like a romance novel and you’re hiring them to do a nonfiction business book, is that actually a relevant credit?
Another common mistake is a mismatch between goals and the sort of writer they’re hiring—if they want a trade publishing deal but the writer has only worked on self-published books, or, on the flip side, hiring someone who has impressive credentials but isn’t a great stylistic fit for their specific project. Maybe they’ve written bestsellers, but are those books anything like the books that you want to do? Do dig in a little bit.
Toni: What’s one of the biggest things that people hiring writers don’t know that they don’t know?
Nate: Not understanding the publishing process is a big one. For example, either not developing a book proposal for a project that really should be shopped via proposal or starting with a proposal when you should write the full manuscript first. For example, selling debut fiction with a proposal is maybe one in a million. It basically never happens anymore, unless the person is famous or has a billion social media followers. If you want to sell a novel to a trade publisher, you need a full novel in almost all cases. Whereas for a lot of nonfiction projects, the agent and even the publisher may want to have input before you’re going off to write the full book, so you write a book proposal first.
In nonfiction, even if you have a complete manuscript, you have to develop a proposal because that’s how agents are going to evaluate it, and agents also need a proposal to shop it. If you’ve paid a writer to write a full book and then the agent comes back and says, “I like you, I like the general concept, but this structure isn’t working at all,” then you have to pay the writer again to rewrite the book.
“If you want to sell a novel to a trade publisher, you need a full novel in almost all cases. Whereas for a lot of nonfiction projects, the agent and even the publisher may want to have input before you’re going off to write the full book, so you write a book proposal first.”
So, having an understanding of what the industry landscape looks like and what you need to get to where you want to be is important. And if you’re not working with a company like Gotham Ghostwriters who can advise you on that, then you’re going to be well served by finding a writer who has the experience to guide you—ideally, by having already done the thing you’re looking to do.
If you want to get a deal for your memoir with a good publisher and get raves and attention from all the right people, you probably want a writer who’s written books that have done that and can tell you the steps that you should be taking.
Toni: How can people vet a writer they’re considering hiring?
Nate: Particularly if you’re not going through a company like Gotham Ghostwriters that can speak to the credibility of a writer, ask for references and testimonials. If a writer is delivering good work, they’ll have good relationships with former clients who will be happy to speak to the strong work they’ve done on prior projects. Some projects are so confidential that that’s not going to be an option, but if someone’s been doing this for a number of years, they’ll have some past clients who will be willing to talk about the experience they had working with them.
Toni: How much does the writer’s personality factor into the choice?
Nate: Personality fit is super-important. If you’re vetting a writer, first read their work. Do you enjoy it? Does it sound like how you might want your book to sound? Then, I very much advise getting on the phone, Zoom, or meeting in person if it’s doable and seeing if you actually like this person. And you’re also going to want to work with a writer that you trust, not just with regard to confidentiality, but also with regard to giving you good guidance.
So if they say that an idea you’re proposing isn’t going to work and explain why you should do something different, you want to be comfortable enough with them that you can take their feedback in good spirits and get value out of that.
“Someone can be a great lunch date and a horrible partner for a year of writing collaboration.”
When you’re talking to a writer, ask them how they like to work and hypothetical questions like, “What happens if you send me draft chapters that I don’t like or aren’t exactly what I want? How do we work on that?”
Someone can be a great lunch date and a horrible partner for a year of writing collaboration. So you want to dig in a little bit and try to get a sense of whether this person is actually going to be a good partner.
An important distinction is that ghostwriters have the skills to be authors, but authors don’t necessarily have the skills to be ghostwriters. While we have different skills and talents, ghosts who have written numerous books tend to have a few things in common, including a good ear for authors’ voices, the ability to execute the author’s plan, and a collaborative spirit. So don’t cheat yourself or your future readers. Choose a writer who has what it takes to help you to achieve the goals you’ve set for your book.
If the writer you’d love to hire is more expensive than what you’ve planned to spend, be sure to review market rates and also reevaluate what the book is really worth to you. If your book is going to be one more product in your company store, it may not be worth paying top dollar. But if your book is meant to make the world a better place or leave a lasting legacy and it will exist for hundreds of years, isn’t it worth at least as much as your car? Like with any investment, it’s all about the mileage you’ll get out of it.