Ghostwriter Katy Weitz explains the role of a ghost and the process through to publication of a ghost written book
You’ve got a fascinating life story to share with the world. The big question is: how does it get from your head to the page? As a ghostwriter I’ve been fortunate enough to help a number of people turn their life stories into books and I know that for most of them, entering the publishing world was a strange and scary step to take. But it needn’t be. The fact is that with the right help, getting your story out there could be one of the best, most satisfying things you’ve ever done. So to help demystify the process I’ve written a step-by-step guide on how it all works. Starting of course with teaming up with a ghostwriter.
You may not think you need a ghostwriter at all - perhaps you’ve already written a number of chapters yourself - but the fact that is an established writer will know exactly how to put a book together to give it the best prospect of securing a publishing deal. Maybe you have contacted a literary agent with your memoirs and they have suggested you work with a ghost. What happens next?
THE INITIAL CONVERSATION
To begin with, a ghost must know if your story is one with commercial potential. And at first they will probably just want to sit on the phone with you for a few hours and chat. In this time, they will be able to work out a great deal. Every ghost is different but the main points in my checklist are as follows: a) Does your story have an overall form which lends itself to a book? Are there highs and lows? Is there a sense of redemption at the end? Is justice done? Some stories I hear are truly incredible but I can’t necessarily agree they will work as a book if there is a lack of resolution. b) Do you have strong enough memories to carry 80,000 words? This is very important. If your memory of crucial events is only sketchy, you can’t expect the ghost to simply fill in the gaps. We need a good idea that your recollections are strong enough to hold the book together. c) Can you back up what you say? Do you have access to legal documents, pictures or corroborating evidence so that we can prove your story is true? A publisher will need to know this. d) Is this a commercial area and what is the target audience? Somebody could have an amazing story but if the target market is tiny, it’s going to be very difficult to sell. e) Do you get on? It might sound trivial but you will need to establish a good working relationship with your ghost fairly quickly. If the chemistry isn’t there, it’s not going to work. Your ghost will need to ‘be’ you. If they don’t have an understanding of who you are and your motivations, this is practically impossible.
THE COLLABORATION AGREEMENT
Once you’ve found the right ghost for your story, you will be sent a collaboration agreement in the post to sign from the Literary Agency. This basically assures the writer that you will work with them exclusively, as well as agreeing terms for copyright, the split of the advance and royalties as well as the percentage to your agent. It also sets out the terms of how you work together and what course of action is to be taken in the event of a disagreement. Finally, it may outline some protection for your ghost to ensure that what they write in your name doesn’t get them into legal trouble.
Before you can begin approaching publishers you and your ghost will need to put together a proposal. This is a comprehensive overview of your book. It gives a short synopsis of the story as well as a detailed breakdown of every chapter. It includes a section on comparable books, marketing and also gives a description of you both. It may include photographs and usually a sample chapter. This takes a lot of work but it lays down the correct foundations for moving forwards. In the past my proposals have been between 7,000- 11,000 words long so you and your ghost will need to put in a lot of hours to get it right. Once the proposal has been sent to your agent, a ‘Reader’ will look it over. It may need more work after that so be prepared to spend a good few weeks getting the proposal perfect before it is sent out to publishers. This isn’t something to be rushed. You only get one chance to entice a commissioning editor so it’s worth the extra time.
When the final proposal is ready, your agent sends it out to publishers. From this point on, anything can happen. It could be just a few days before you start to get responses, it could take months. Be prepared - rejection is the norm. A publishing deal is a very rare and beautiful thing. Sometimes a commissioning editor will ask to meet you before making an offer so be ready to come to London and talk about your life. But beware, even a meeting is no guarantee of an offer. If you do get an offer, it will come to your agent and they will negotiate on your behalf for the best possible terms. The publisher pays you and your ghost an advance, set against future royalties, which is money upfront to write the book and it is usually split into three parts. The first part is paid on signature of the contract, the second on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript and the third on first publication. Written into the contracts will be the deadline for delivering the first draft of your manuscript. Now the work begins in earnest.
For my books I usually like to spend a week interviewing my subject before starting to write. This can be anything from 25-40 hours worth of interviewing, depending on the length of the story. Once the interviewing is done, your ghost will start churning out chapters. Most writers work pretty quickly and I like to get my books written within 12 weeks, while it is all still fresh in my mind. Everyone has a different method of course but generally, once your ghost starts generating chapters, they will send them to you to read and amend. For me, this is usually a magical time for the subject and ghost. Your book suddenly springs to life and before you know it, the first draft is written. Meanwhile, you can be thinking about a dedication, who to put in your Acknowledgements, and perhaps a quote or poem for the start of the book. Now begins the editing process.
THE STRUCTURAL EDIT
Once you have submitted your first draft, your editor will give it a structural edit. This is to assess the strength the story and the way you have told it. Does it all flow properly? Are the scenes in the right places? Have all parts of the narrative been given their proper weight and resolved to the reader’s satisfaction? Are there any inconsistencies? You might believe the story is perfect but your editor will give you the feedback from a reader’s perspective on how well your book works. And this is vitally important. The manuscript will be turned back to the ghost after the structural edit to make the necessary changes. Again, you will need to be available to help with any gaps or give better descriptions and answer all queries.
THE LEGAL EDIT
This is another key part in the process. Your book will be given a legal reading by a trained lawyer to assess the potential risks of libel or contempt. Most ghostwriters will have a keen knowledge of the libel laws so they can usually spot the areas where there might be difficulties but an expert lawyer will be able to pinpoint exactly where any problems may arise. Once again, the manuscript and lawyer’s report is returned to your ghost to make the necessary changes. After this has been done to the editor’s satisfaction, the manuscript goes to the copy editor.
COVER DESIGN AND MARKETING
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, your publishing team will be working on the cover design, the back cover blurb as well as laying down the foundations for a marketing campaign. This starts early, especially online, so don’t be surprised if you do a Google Search and find your book title on Amazon when it isn’t even half written yet! You will be sent the blurb to approve and asked to look over the cover design. Feel free to express your opinion fully. This is your book and though the sales, marketing and design teams are usually brilliant folk, you have every right to say what you feel. After all, it’s your name on the cover.
THE COPY EDIT
It is the copy editor’s job to make the changes necessary to prepare the book for publication. They will correct the grammar, tense and spelling mistakes as well as putting the text into the correct format and style. They will also be on the lookout for any inconsistencies, inaccuracies and general faults. Copy editors are wonderful people. They drill down into the nuts and bolts of your story, ensuring everything is perfect. In one of my books, I detailed a car journey my subject had taken in the US and the copy editor actually looked up the whole road trip on Google Earth to ensure I was describing the scene accurately. Once again, they may have queries or gaps for you to address and after this is done you are ready for your final proofs.
The proofs are the pages as they will appear in the book. This is your last chance to make any changes so read them forensically because this is the final stage before it is sent to the printers. This is the point where it all gets very exciting. You can see how the whole book is actually going to look. No change is too trivial at this point. If you don’t like something, say so. If you spot an error, get it corrected. This is it. Now you’re counting down to publication…
PRESS AND PUBLICITY & FOREIGN RIGHTS
Even for books told anonymously, press and publicity is a key element to a book’s success. As publication day approaches, the press and publicity team may approach you to do interviews for papers, magazines, TV or radio. This is where you can help boost sales so do try to make yourself available and cooperate fully. If you have suggestions or ideas, let them be known. You can make a huge difference at this stage. If you’re really lucky you may even get a foreign rights deal or two to have your book published abroad.
Your publisher will send you some copies of your book as part of your deal (the precise number will be outlined in your contract). And that’s it. Congratulations – you are a published author! Now all you have to do is get everyone you know to buy the book and review it on Amazon.
Best of luck!