Every client wants to choose the best publishing path for their book, and today, there are more options than ever — from self-publishing to hybrid to traditional publishing houses. Ghostwriters reach their highest value when, rather than automatically defaulting to their client’s first inclination, they act as the project manager among all the stakeholders of the project and help guide everyone toward the best publishing path for that book.
But how can ghosts act as that crucial guide? Moderator Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press, was joined by panelists Naren Aryal, CEO of Amplify Publishing Group, Josh Bernoff, ghostwriter and author of Build a Better Business Book: How to Plan, Write, and Promote a Book That Matters, and Regina Brooks, president and CEO of Serendipity Literary Agency, had some salient advice.
First, “it’s important for ghostwriters to have an early conversation with the client on different paths to publishing beyond the world of the Big Five,” said Josh Bernoff, referring to publishing houses Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan.
A ghostwriter knows “a lot more about the publishing industry than your author does,” Bernoff noted. “And that’s an opportunity because [authors] need someone who can be a guide.” He added that if a ghost can act as an expert, “it immediately enhances your credibility and gets you further down the path of actually working” with an author.
The other panelists reminded attendees that there is indeed a world beyond the Big Five and, in any case, the Big Five may not always be available to an author independent of the quality of the book. For example, the Big Five will often turn down excellent projects simply because they have recently published or acquired a book with similar themes. “It’s not always short-sightedness, but saturation,” suggested Brooke Warner.
Traditional publishing is also a long, complicated path that requires handholding from multiple stakeholders, Brooks cautioned. “Ghosts need to remind authors that even if they get a green light from a publisher, you won’t see the product for at least 18 months, maybe longer,” she said. Authors with a timetable, therefore, may find the traditional publishing path unworkable.
What’s more, ghosts need to make clients aware that if they elect to pursue a traditional publishing model, they have to write a book proposal. Doing so is an elaborate and time-consuming process, and there is no guarantee of success. Moreover, an informal survey of the convention’s attendees revealed that only about one-eighth of attendees raised their hands in response to the question, “Do you consider yourself an expert in writing book proposals?”
Even when ghosts and their clients write solid book proposals, however, they may still face barriers. “I see good book proposals, but a good proposal is not necessarily a salable proposal,” Brooks said, adding that her job as an agent is to “elevate the proposal into something that’s salable.” Here’s where working with a literary agent or intermediary can add value. “As ghostwriters, you don’t have access to what the sales of these other titles are,” Brooks noted, adding that, as an agent, she has access to BookScan and can see how many units comparative titles have sold — and, therefore, whether or not publishers will view the book as viable.
Luckily, there are a number of publishing models available to authors besides the Big Five or traditional publishers, including hybrid publishing, which “occupies the space between self-publishing on the one hand and traditional publishing on the other,” said Naren Aryal, CEO and publisher of hybrid-publishing company Amplify Publishing Group. The benefits of this path include the author’s ability to “retain creative control, retain intellectual property rights, get to market in many cases faster than you might otherwise, and have a real say in the process.” Clients pay a fee for the hybrid publisher’s services, but “the tradeoff is you’ll get a higher royalty rate on sales,” Aryal added.
It’s important for ghosts to have solid relationships with hybrid publishers so they can better serve clients for whom the hybrid route delivers. For example, the panelists agreed that clients who need to publish high-quality books quickly will benefit from hybrid publishing.
Self-publishing is another path that many clients take, especially those who want total control. Brooks also encourages many BIPOC authors to self-publish when “mainstream publishers will not get it.”
Still, by and large, the panelists urged caution. The marketplace is filled with unqualified self-publishing firms and the resulting books often show the lack of quality. Errors in margins are a tell-tale sign of mediocre quality control, Bernoff said.
There is one delicious if exceedingly rare outcome from the self-publishing path: Every so often, when the book is good, promoted heavily, and finds an audience, agents or publishers take notice of the long tail sales and offer the author a traditional book contract. On This Day In History Sh!t Went Down and Exactly What to Say are examples of this happy outcome, but, Bernoff cautioned, they are the exceptions.
No matter which publishing path a client chooses, however, the issue of the client’s budget takes center stage. “Clients need to have a firm understanding of the publishing options,” Aryal said, as well as “a firm understanding of market realities” and return on investment. “We collectively are doing our clients a really big service by understanding what each ROI is for each project.” For example, a client may be most interested in obtaining more speaking gigs with higher fees, more consulting assignments, and more board invitations as a result of publishing a book — not necessarily profits from sales of the book — and that will inevitably shape the publishing path they choose.
Brooks noted that while it’s critical to guide individual clients on the publishing path that best meets their individual needs, ghostwriters should also aim to have balanced portfolios.
“As a ghostwriter, you have to think about your business as a business,” Brooks said. Working with traditional Big Five publishers can help “establish your name and your credentials and your expertise,” she added. “Just like you’re asking what is the motivation for the author, you also have to think about your motivation for taking on a project — is this going to add to my credibility in some way?”