7 Big Mistakes I Made in Ghostwriting — And What Not to Do Yourself
In the process of becoming a successful ghostwriter, I made several big mistakes in working with clients that I learned not to make again in the future.
Like many ghostwriters I have written my own books — in my case, about 200 books in various genres — self-help, business books, memoirs, social trends, and kids picture books. But like many writers, I turned to ghostwriting as a result of major changes in the publishing industry about 15 to 20 years ago. These involved the consolidation of the bigger publishers, the shift towards books by celebrities, influencers, and individuals in the news, and the rise of self-publishing — now about 2 million books a year. Thus, the so-called “midlist” books I used to do were largely squeezed out and royalty advances dropped to a third.
In the process, I sought to bring what I learned about writing, publishing, and finding publishers and agents to my career as a ghostwriter. Yet I encountered a series of stumbles along the way. Here are the major stumbles I experienced, so other ghostwriters can avoid them, and authors hiring a ghostwriter know better what to expect.
· Don’t lose control of the project by inviting the client to look to other providers for certain additional services. Unfortunately, one big mistake I made early in my ghostwriting career was to refer a client seeking a narrator for a promotional sizzle reel I was creating for her to another service. I had already written most of her book about recovering from abuse as a child, so she could create a practice of helping other abuse victims, and now she wanted a short video to put on her website to promote the book. I arrange to do this, since I had already created a series of these videos for other clients, based on writing a script and combining it with stock photos, music, and a narration. Often I used an AI narrator, since computer-generated text to speech often sounds like the real thing.
But she wanted a more emotional narration, which an AI narration can’t capture. Thus, I suggested one of the freelance services, Fiverr, which I used before to find a narrator for other videos. However, after I recommended one woman, she declined after reading the script, because the woman incorporated a deeply religious orientation in her strategy for helping victims. At this point, I could have said I could help my client find another narrator on Fiverr, and included my fee for finding someone in my billing, But instead, I suggested that she go on Fiverr herself and find someone she liked. BIG MISTAKE #1. The woman narrator she found not only arranged to do the narration, but she suggested a totally different approach to creating the video, with the result, that the client redid the whole video and decided to finish the book on her own. Later, when I viewed her completed video in which the music drowned out the narration and I told her this, she said she liked the video the way it was, and I lost the client who decided to make other arrangements for completing her book. So what I learned from this experience is to keep control of the project you are doing and don’t refer out services to someone who might be able to take over your project and your client.
· Even if you have successfully completed work for a client, don’t write any more with a verbal go-ahead to do more and don’t charge a client’s card based on that go-ahead. That’s what I did after I had written several chapters for a client who wanted to write a book about her behind-the-scenes experience as a child observing her father’s participation with a major sports team. As I wrote each chapter, I charged her husband’s card in a pay-as-you-go arrangement, and everything was fine. Then, her husband, an attorney, asked me to write some material for a popular law book he was working on, so I did, telling him that I would charge his card as I did for his wife, and I got the go-ahead to do that. Unfortunately, I had nothing explicitly stating the agreement, just some emails back and forth describing what I was doing for him and some phone calls in which he said he liked what I was doing and continue to do more.
However, she and her husband encountered financial difficulties, because his business suddenly declined during a period of global recession, and I suddenly found that he filed a chargeback with his credit card company claiming that he hadn’t authorized the payments to me. After that he was oddly unavailable to discuss this claim on the phone. Though I tried to dispute his charge with his credit card company by sending in the manuscript I had written, along with our emails exchange about what I was doing, the woman’s husband lied and claimed he was not a party to the transaction. He even claimed he hadn’t approved what I sent him, when he clearly had done so in our phone conversations. And I supposed he knew exactly what to say, since he was an attorney who specialized in commercial transaction. The result is I lost the case, and besides resolving to never speak to this client and her husband again, I learned from this mistake that you need to put anything you do in writing and get the other party to agree to it in writing in an email or signed contract, even if you already have had a successful working relationship on another project. You need to put what you are doing and the other party’s acceptance of this in writing each step along the way.
· Don’t expect a new client who has written their first book will understand what it means to write a draft, get their feedback, and then you make editorial corrections. That’s because some clients expect that a draft will be written flawlessly, and they only expect to make corrections in the copy. I didn’t realize to precisely explain the process, because dozens of clients I worked with understood that after I got their feedback, I would correct any typos and grammatical errors, as well as tighten up the copy and add their editorial changes. But not this client, after I wrote a proposal for her which she could pitch to publishers and agents, based on her memoir about her years of grief before she got help from mediums to communicate with her deceased partner, so she could finally let go.
At first, everything seemed fine, after I wrote up the first section of the proposal which provided an overview of the book, described the promotional activities she might engage in to support the book, and included some research on Amazon about other books on the topic. Additionally, I suggested she add some self-help chapters to advise others how to deal with their own grief, since the self-help books on grief did very well, while the memoirs only had moderate to low sales. While she agreed that this was a good idea, she also expressed surprise about how much an author is supposed to do to promote a book. In retrospect, that was a tip-off that she was already doubting whether she could support her book as required by publishers and agents for a traditionally published book, but I advised her that I would add the chapter-by-chapter outline section. The only problem was that she had a huge number of chapters — 24 of them, including the three self-help chapters I added, so it took much longer to write this outline than it would for a usual book with 8 to10 chapters. In fact, the proposal ended up being about twice as long, and I thought she would appreciate this, since I didn’t charge her for the extra work, because I was writing against a contract price paid in three installments.
However, after I received the first two payments and sent her the proposal with the chapter by chapter write up, she complained to the ghostwriting service which brought us together that I had made all of these editorial mistakes, because there were many typos, so she didn’t want me to do any more. She even sent back the first chapter description with the errors she noted, though I would naturally correct those in doing an editorial polish. Though the ghostwriting rep commiserated with me that a new writer didn’t understand what it meant to create a draft and then make the final corrections, the upshot was that I cancelled the rest of our contract and didn’t receive the final payment, even though I had written almost twice as much as my original estimate. So I learned three lessons from this experience: 1) Make it really clear what it means to write a draft, get feedback and corrections from the author, and do an editorial polish. Point out that the author should expect typos, grammatical errors, and other editorial mistakes in a draft, and these will be corrected in an editorial polish, along with incorporating the author’s corrections and comments. 2) Notice if the author has some concerns about what they will have to do to make a book successful, because it may be they don’t want to complete the proposal — so you should ask them, and if that’s the case, you shouldn’t write anymore. 3) Work against a retainer or payment in advance before you do any additional work, so you get paid in full, if a client decides to pull out of a project before you finish it completely.
· Don’t spend a very long time on the phone listening to someone’s story before the person decides to hire you. That’s because someone may just want someone to hear their story, but not be ready to hire a ghostwriter. I realized this after having a couple of long calls of about an hour each with people who went on and on describing their story without much of a break for me to say anything besides a “yes” or “umm” to indicate I was still on the phone. For example, one man went through a long saga about how he was investigating his family and discovered there were Mafia connections and murders in his background, so he thought he had a good story to tell. Then, he proceeded to tell me in detail about exactly how he investigated, what barriers he encountered, how he flew to other countries to follow leads, and so on. In the end, he said he was still investigating, was very busy at work, wanted to do the book, and would get back to me as soon as he was ready — but I never heard from him again, although the person who referred him to me said he was impressed in talking to me, though I barely said anything. In the other case, a woman spoke at length about the many types of domestic abuse she had experienced from several husbands, and how she wanted to use that experience to create a healing ministry and book to help other abused women. As she spoke, at times she teared up as she shared her story, so I felt like she was speaking to me as if I was her therapist, and because her sharing was so emotionally driven, I hesitated to break in and upset her. And that conversation didn’t lead to writing her book either, because she wasn’t ready. What I learned from those two conversations is that it is necessary to: 1) Set a time limit for initial conversations about a project, and let the person know in advance how much time you have, such as 20 or 30 minutes before another meeting or phone call. This way you have a way to cut short a conversation from someone who mainly wants to tell someone their story and isn’t ready to write a book about it. 2) Make it clear in the beginning of the conversation that you want to know about their book, so you can tell them how you can help them write it; and seek to direct the conversation back to writing their book, if they go on and on about their story. 3) Let them know that you do want to discuss their story in much more length if they choose you to write your book, and invite them to finish or summarize their story, so you can talk about the next steps in writing it. In other words, keep control of the conversation, so you don’t end up listening to a long story from someone who isn’t really serious about writing their book now.
· Don’t put a time-limit on how long you will spend looking at someone’s introductory material, before you will get paid to work on the book or do an in-depth review of it. I discovered that putting a formal time limit on an initial review can be a turn-off, even though you plan to do a quick review before you get an agreement and payment to do more. I discovered this problem after I got an email from a man who found my website through an internet search for writing and publishing and felt a resonance with what I had written. In his email, he described how his book was all about turning the bad things that happen in life around so they become a source of power, and I said that I could really relate to the theme, because throughout my life I had used this turnaround approach whenever I faced challenges. Then, I thought about what I learned from the bad experience and how I might profit from it, often by writing a book based on what happened.
Then, I suggested that we set up a phone meeting for a few days later. During the call, he described his book project a little more, and I told him how I could help. After that. he asked if he could send me the draft of his manuscript to review. In retrospect, I could have simply said, yes, please send it along, but instead I said I could spend 5 to 10 minutes reviewing it, or if he wanted me to do a more comprehensive review, I had a package in which I would spend a couple of hours reading his material and write up a detailed 1–2 page review, which included a detailed description of the book along with my suggestions on how to develop it into a final manuscript or film. Also, I said I might edit a couple of pages to illustrate what I could do, if I felt the manuscript needed editing.
Now it might be fine to describe this review package as I usually do when someone calls for more detail about my doing a manuscript or book-to-film review. But in this case, I was too specific too soon, because after I told him I would take 5 to10 minutes to review his book and had this more comprehensive review package for a few hundred dollars, that was a turn-off, because he said he didn’t need the more detailed package and said he would think about what we discussed. Thus, the upshot of my offer was that he didn’t send me his manuscript for a short review, even though I sent him an email inviting him to do this, and I didn’t hear from him again. So what I learned from this experience is this. Don’t put a specific limit on the amount of time for an introductory review, and just plan to spend the 5, 10, or 15 minutes on it without saying how much time you will spend on it. Then, give your opinion on what should happen next with writing the book or script. If you do have a more extensive review and commentary program, you can mention that you have this, if the person wants a more in-depth analysis, but for now you would just like to take a look at the material a person already has and provide your feedback. Later, you can suggest the in-depth analysis if it is still needed; otherwise, you can propose going ahead to outline and write the book or create a treatment which is essentially a plot outline for a script and write the script.
In sum, those are seven big mistakes I made and what I learned from them, leading me to change what I said or did with clients, and this has helped to create smoother relationships with future clients and I have obtained more clients as a result. In turn, I hope what I learned will help other writers and ghostwriters know what to do and what to avoid doing in their own relationships with clients.
Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her company Changemakers Publishing and Writing (http://www.changemakerspublishingandwriting.com). She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through Changemakers Productions. (http://www.changemakersproductions.com). Her latest book is I Was Scammed, available on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Was-Scammed-Updated-Expanded-Becoming-ebook/dp/B09PNB38GJ. A paperback and hardcover are available, too. She is also the author of How to Find and Work with a Good Ghostwriter.