First, a bit about the man behind the ghost:
Andrew Crofts is one of the country's leading ghostwriters. He has ghosted over 80 books in the last 20 years, a dozen of which have been Sunday Times number one bestsellers. He is also the author of "The Freelance Writer's Handbook", (Piatkus), and "Ghostwriting", (A&C Black). The latter was quoted extensively by Robert Harris in his recent thriller "The Ghost", which has just been filmed by Roman Polanski with Ewan McGregor playing the ghost.
Andrew is currently writing a series of inter-related novels for Blake Publishing about modern fame and the price it exerts on those who pursue it. The first in the series was "The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride", to be followed early next year by "The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer".
Rather than do a full-scale interview, I decided just to focus on four things, aspects which I thought you might like to hear about.
ME: You had a background in business writing before you had your first ghosting commission - do you think it would be possible for an unproven / unpublished writer, however competent, to become a ghost-writer? And do you have some basic advice for how to go about building a platform from which to get that first contract? Maybe you could also say what specific skills a ghost-writer needs as opposed to another sort of writer. (I don't ask much, do I?)
"I think any writer could learn how to ghost if they felt the role would suit them.
"From the day I left school I was doing any kind of freelance writing I could get, including business writing, women's magazines, fiction, the lot. The best way to start ghosting is to find someone who you think has a book in their head or their filing cabinet and then offer to write it for them and take it to publishers and agents on their behalf.
"You could start small. If, for instance, you know of someone who runs a particularly successful local garden centre you could suggest that they do a book on plant care. You then produce a synopsis, explaining what would be in the book and why they would be a good person to write it, (and maybe persuade them to agree to sell the book through their outlets). You then head off to the publishers with it. If that doesn't work there is always the possibility of self-publishing it for them.
"Once you have one or two books under your belt you can approach publishers and agents and tell them that you are a ghost and that you are looking for commissions.
"It will not happen overnight, but with perseverance it will eventually work.You could also start out by offering your services as an editor and then gradually take on bigger and bigger briefs until you are eventually writing the entire books.ME: You are well known as being incredibly proactive on the marketing and platform-building front - is this something you happened to be good at or did you have to work at it at first? What were you starting points or skills / advantages that you built on?
"To be a successful ghost you need to be totally non-confrontational, endlessly patient and willing to get no glory at all. Imagine how you would behave if you were Barack Obama's speech writer; most of the same rules would apply."
"I find marketing very interesting, (I used to write a lot for publications like Marketing Week).
"Imagine you are a skilled carpenter. You decide to spend a year creating a truly wonderful piece of furniture, an absolute masterpiece. All through the year you are starving, begging and borrowing just to stay alive long enough to finish your masterpiece. At the end of the year you are thousands of pounds in debt, which means you are going to have to charge a fortune for this one piece in order to recoup your finances. What if no one wants to pay that much? What if no one wants to buy it at all?
"So many writers take exactly that approach to their careers. They produce the beautiful novel that they want to write, and then wonder why no one else wants to pay them the going rate for the time they have invested.
"Supposing that you, the carpenter, took a different approach. Suppose you went round asking people what they would like you to do for them? Would they like a coffee table that will take you just a few days to make? How about a new front door, or a garden bench? Maybe they would like a complete fitted kitchen? That is marketing, as opposed to selling, and it is exactly the same approach that authors need to take if they want to make a living from their craft.
"Ask the publishers, (or anyone else you can think of), what they need and then provide it for them.
"Once you have a regular income you can then schedule in a bit of time to create your beloved masterpiece, and you will at least have made a few potential contacts when the time comes to try to sell it."ME: And now you are writing your own fiction. The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride was published in 2008 and the Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer is out early in 2010. Tell us how this came about - something you'd wanted to do for a long time or something that came to you one day? And tell us what sort of a writing journey that has been.
"Every so often over the years I have had an idea for a novel which I have found irresistible.
"My current obsession is with instant fame. I have worked a lot with celebrities and with people connected to television shows like Big Brother, The X-Factor, EastEnders and Richard and Judy. I also have a daughter who is an actress. I find the whole idea of mass-media celebrity fascinating.
"I also wanted to write something that the actress daughter, (Olivia Grodd), could use as a showcase on YouTube. So I created the character of Steffi McBride, a young girl who almost accidentally becomes the nation's darling in a soap opera, only to have her life ripped apart by media revelations about her past.
"One of the revelations is that her mother is not who she thinks she is. Her real mother, (Maggie de Beer), is a show girl/vice girl/ page three girl from the seventies who sold her soul, (and gave up her child), in exchange for a shot at being famous. Maggie's story consequently followed Steffi's in a prequel coming out next year.
"Olivia made the video and appeared on the cover of Steffi McBride, which garnered us a few more column inches, and her younger sister, Jess Crofts, is now appearing on the cover of the prequel.ME: Again, you're marketing the fiction incredibly proactively - and using your daughter's talents along the way! How is this marketing different from what you've done before?
"A few years ago I wrote "Maisie's Amazing Maids" which was a book with a ghostwriter as the central protagonist. Because I could talk about ghosting I was able to promote the book far more widely than you usually can with fiction, (chatting to Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4, that sort of thing)."
"This marketing campaign has really been an extension of what I have been doing all along. The idea is always to get a book talked and written about as much as possible in order to draw it to the attention of as many people as possible in the hope that they will be tempted to buy it.
"When I am selling the concept for a ghosted book to a publisher I have to use all the same marketing techniques.
"It took me a very long time, for instance, to persuade publishers that the public would actually like to read stories about children overcoming adversity, (the sort of books that are now taken for granted and dismissed by the very grand as "misery memoirs"). Each time a new story came along I had to go the rounds yet again, sometimes with an agent, sometimes without, trying to convince publishers that my subjects had a worthwhile story to tell. The marketing process always involved writing powerful synopses/selling documents.
"Thankfully, once you have had a few number one bestsellers, people become more willing to listen."Andrew, that was fascinating, thank you!
OK, class, let me give you my observations about what Andrew said, and then hand over to you for comments and questions.
- You will notice that Andrew has worked incredibly hard at all this. He has had to have not only writing talent and skills, but also determination, energy, intuition, adaptability, and (crucially) a very clever combination of confidence and yet absence of arrogance. He has learnt along the way, by listening and tuning in to what publishers want. And has in doing so carved out a very successful space in the writing world. This has not fallen into his lap.
- The marketing has not become less as he has had more books published - this is an author who (very like me) loves and values his books enough to want to put every possible effort into their success. He has not expected people to do things for him.
- Why did he write these novels? Because he's hugely interested in and fascinated by the topic. He used the word "irresistible". But he has also picked something which others may find irresistible too, because he's tuned into what people want. That's an essential combination and one which we'd all do well to remember.
- Doesn't this sound like a man who loves his job?
- What you don't know is how quickly, efficiently and helpfully Andrew sent in his answers to my questions. The point being: efficiency and professionalism impress. And impressing people with your efficiency and professionalism is always valuable. Not that I'm paying him anything...
- Don't you just love this line? "Thankfully, once you have had a few number one bestsellers, people become more willing to listen." What can I say?!
Questions? Comments? Or are you all off to haunt someone?
(Andrew does have a fulsome website on ghost-writing and aspects of his own work, so I ask you to visit it before asking something, as we don't want to waste his time with things he's already said.)