Friday, 16 October 2009

ANDREW CROFTS - THE GHOST SPEAKS

You may have noticed that I've never had a guest post on this blog. I guard my territory jealously, you see. But I know what I don't know, and one thing I don't know about (but am fascinated by) is ghost-writing. So, imagine my pleasure and surprise when the UK's most famous ghost-writer walked through my walls recently and tapped me on the shoulder. After I'd regained my equilibrium and stopped shivering, Andrew Crofts and I got communicating entirely without the use of a ouija board, and he very kindly agreed to share his knowledge AND answer your (sensible) questions.



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business writing before you had your first ghosting commission  -  do you think it would be possible for an unproven / unpublished writer, however competent, to become a ghost-writer?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?)


ANDREW:
"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.

"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."
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?

ANDREW:

"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.

ANDREW:
"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. 

"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)."
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? 
"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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Doesn't this sound like a man who loves his job?
  5. 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...
  6. 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?!
On behalf of everyone, thank you so much, Andrew, for calling by. I'm now off to add Steffi McB to my wishlist.

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.) 

30 comments:

Juliet Boyd said...

Thanks Nicola and Andrew for this very interesting post. It's not a subject I had really thought about before.

My question is - how difficult is it to find the right author's voice for your ghosting commissions?

HelenMHunt said...

Brilliant post. I'm off to look at Andrew's website.

Andrew Crofts said...

It's not hard, Juliet, if you have spent some time listening to them talk. It is a bit like writing a long monologue for a character in a play, you just know what they would and wouldn't say, words they would and wouldn't use.

Karen Gowen said...

This interview was fascinating on so many levels-- the wisdom and professionalism of Mr. Crofts, the overview of marketing as a way of life for the author, the emphasis on hard work, skill and perseverance, and the concept of ghostwriting as a career path. Not one I had even thought much about,I suppose because it is so much in the background.

It must be incredibly satisfying work, because you are not only dealing with words and writing yourself, but you are helping another person find a voice. Thank you both for this wonderful interview.

Anonymous said...

I'd ask something, but Nicola's insistence on -sensible- questions leaves me out.

How much does a ghostwriter get paid? A sorta midlist ghostwriters, for a sorta midlist book? I know there's always a ballpark, but ...

How often does the ghostwriter formulate the idea (as per your garden centre example), and how often does it come from agents/editors/etc.? When the latter, how much direction is a ghost usually given? I presume not as much as someone writing a book in a series with a 'bible'? What sorta work do -agents- tend to have for ghostwriters? They've got successful clients who want the book written but don't want to weep blood for the ten months it takes to write one?

What's the strangest thing you've ghosted?

Proe

Roge C. Parker said...

Dear Nicola and Andrew:
Thank you for a informative and thought-provoking interview.

Andrew's "carpenter" analogy was really wonderful. It's unfortunate how often that occurs.

Nicole, I really love your point-by-point summary list at the end. It's a great idea and a wonderful way to reinforce the important points of an interview.

Thanks--I'll be returning often and adding you to my blogroll.

Roger

Donna Hosie said...

Many moons ago there was an interesting discussion over on Jane Smith's blog about the legalities of ghostwriting:

http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/2009/03/legalities-of-ghostwriting.html

This all came about because singer Cheryl Cole had apparently been signed to "write" chick-lit novels.

My question to Andrew is this: when a piece of fiction or non-fiction is attributed to a celebrity, do you agree or disagree with the argument that this is somehow duplicitous? Should the fact a ghostwriter has been used be clearer on the actual front cover?

Nicola Morgan said...

Andrew - don't feel that you have to answer all Proe's questions! Proe is a regular commenter on the blog and enjoys pushing the boundaries. (Don't you, Mr P?) The question about an agent is an interesting one, I think - do ghosts have agents?

I'm guessing that the answer to "how much does a ghost get paid?" is as varied as the answer to "how much does an author get paid?" But it would be interesting to know how you go about working out the financial equations with your subject and what kind of proportions / royalties a ghost should expect.

donna - ah, ghosting novels as opposed to ghosting life-stories. Interesting!

Over to Andrew...

And thanks to Roger, Helen and Karen. Good to meet you, Roger.

Pen said...

I'd never thought much about ghost writing, perhaps I'm too proud to have other people think someone else wrote what I've slaved over. :)

Just wanted to say thanks to Nicola for hosting this and to Andrew for sharing. No question from me. Just THANKS.

Andrew Crofts said...

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

Okay, here goes:

How much does a ghost get paid?

Well, if you are on 50% of whatever the book earns, (which tends to happen with speculative projects), and the book sells a million copies you should make somewhere between a quarter and a half a million. If you are on a fee you will have negotiated something realistic which could be anything from £5,000 to £100,000, depending on how much they want you.

I would imagine an average ghost doing three or four books a year should be able to make between £50,000 and £100,000.

How often does the ghost formulate the idea?

I would guess that most are reactive rather than proactive but there are lots of people out there coming up with projects and submitting them to publishers.

How much direction?

Publishers will hope the ghost just knows what to do, but if the first draft is not what they want they will come up with plenty of suggestions!

Agents tend to use ghosts for autobiographies and 'expertise books'.

The strangest thing I have written? Probably Basil Brush's autobiography.

Re the Cheryl Cole thing: I think it would be more honest if the ghost was named on the front, (as with the James Patterson books), but publishers have funny ideas about that. To be realistic, do people really believe that Barak Obama writes his own speeches, or that Mr Kipling bakes his own cakes?

Do ghosts have agents? Yes, some do. I tend to like to use different agents for different projects. If an agent comes to me with a job then they are the one to sell it. If I have a client and I think we need an agent to help us sell the project then I will pick someone who I think the client will be comfortable with.

Have I covered everything so far?

Nicola Morgan said...

Incredibly helpful, Andrew - thank you. I also think (and everyone will probably agree with me) that i could learn a thing or two from you on the subject of getting straight to the point and being succinct.

Anna Bowles said...

Thanks Nicola, you’ve managed to locate one of the people in the industry I’d most like to question, and least expected to see in public!

I hope Andrew is still answering questions. If so, Andrew, I’d be very interested in your advice on how to use my particular experience to move into ghost-writing.

My background is a mixture of freelance and in-house editorial and writing work, mostly on children’s and nostalgia brand publishing. I’ve also occasionally done that particular kind of fiction editing that requires an editor to be able to write in the author’s style. Currently I’m writing girls’ chapter fiction for a book packager, (project TBA). In all, that adds up to 10 years of writing to other people’s briefs, in other people’s voices and about other people’s characters, and over a million books sold. The drawback is that I have surprisingly few contacts as brand publishing tends to introduce you to more licensing execs than it does literary agents.

I’d like to move into ghosting fiction and autobiography for both children and adults. I do of course have some of my own ideas about how to proceed but would love to hear any advice you have on how to present myself to agents and publishers in a way that will actually result in commissions rather than my letter spending three months in the ‘possibly useful’ pile followed by the bin.

If there’s any contact information or similar you don’t want to put up in public my email is anna[at]groke.fslife.co.uk

Thanks very much.

Jean said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I've recently had a memoir published and it was all my own work, definitely not ghost-written. Annoyingly (to me) people have sometimes asked, 'Did you write it yourself?' and I expect this is because a lot of memoirs by unknowns are not the 'author's' own work. I'm not 'knocking' ghost-written works because I'm sure that some people have a great personal experience story to tell, but lack the writing skills to do justice to it. However, there does seem an ethical concern if other people, including reviewers, are led to believe it was written by the person whose name is on the front, if it wasn't. I'm now basking in the pleasure of a favourable review where my book is described as well-crafted amongst other things. I would have felt terribly guilty if I hadn't actually written my book and therefore did not deserve these comments about my writing.

Andrew Crofts said...

I would say you are almost there, Anna. I would suggest putting together a website and then contacting every single publisher and agent listed in Writer's and Artist's Yearbook, telling them you are very experienced and sending them to the website for more details.

If you contact a hundred people you only need a one per cent response rate to get started. You can then send out a reminder note whenever you have something new you can talk about.

Regarding Jean's point - I certainly would have no objection to ghostwriters always being named on book covers. But then what do we do with someone, (like Anna), who has done an enormous edit, maybe almost as much work as a ghost? Should they get a credit too. If we aren't careful we could end up with a list of credits as long as those that scroll on forever at the end of every film and television programme. Always very gratifying for those whose names are on the list, and for their mothers, but a bit tedious for the rest of us.
I do wonder how much the rest of the world cares about who writes what.

GhostFolk.com said...

A terrific interview and I was so lucky to have only just now found your blog! Thank you for the labor!

Marketing starts for some sharp blades before the novel is written. The furniture making is an outstanding analogy. Brilliant.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jean - you say "I'm sure that some people have a great personal experience story to tell, but lack the writing skills to do justice to it" No, I would put it very differently. It's very important for aspiring quality writers to understand that actually proportionately very few people have the writing skills to tell a story well enough for publication, sales and widespread review coverage. The great thing about ghost-writing, when done as Andrew does it, is that it acknowledges that communicating beautifully and clearly in the written word requires a range of skills and talent that most do not possess and that a story that deserves to be told deserves to be told well. To have a book published (or self-published) in a way that will propel it to the wide market and recognition that it deserves requires a talent (and luck and hard work in different combinations) that is not found in most people.

I also think we should all distinguish between ghost-written memoirs (where story is worth telling but the person concerned wants it told by a professional story-teller / writer) and ghost-written novels, where a so-called celebrity has his/her name on a novel when it was written by a ghost-writer. I do agree that there's unappealing duplicity in the latter - viz the case of Katie Price, whose ghost-written children's books were up for a major award under her own name. That made me cross! Especially when it was followed by children who weren't aware that she hadn't written them.

But I absolutely respect anyone who uses a ghost-writer to tell their life-story - I've been sent several books which have been incredibly badly published, where the person really should have had a ghost-writer. One memoir that I'm looking at right now is tragic - a devastingly moving story terribly badly told, which will never be read by more than the writer's friends because no shop would stock it and ... oh well, let's just say it's a disaster and I feel terrible for the writer. That was published by a small subsidy press, but I've seen others that have been self or independently published.

So, after much waffling, to sum up: ghost-writing memoirs gets my approval for its acknowledgement of the skills involved in good writing.

See my Thomas Mann quote under the blog headline!

Andrew, thanks for your replies to some very big questions, and for your huge courtesy! I am sure everyone's very grateful.

Nicola Morgan said...

ghostfolk.com - welcome to the blog and thanks for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Andrew, for the v. informative (and as Nicola said, frighteningly succinct!) response. You sound like you're even more than a ghostwriter--picking agents and such--and halfway to being a one-man book packager.

I was a bit shocked by the £5,000 number at the low end of the range (that's a not uncommon number for the-total- advance, at least here in the US), but perhaps that's because you're involved beyond the writing?

Anna: What a good question. Have you considered, at first, things like elance.com? You'd probably work for a pittance, but maybe to get another few toes in the door?

Also, I was in NY last week, meeting agents/editors (which is why I wasn't here, pushing boundaries!), and half of 'em are looking for 'funny middle-grade,' if that helps anyone ...

Proe

Anonymous said...

And Anna:

Your blog is looking better and better (everyone should click to read her editing post), but put your contact info and the fact that you're available for ghostwriting in your profile!

Mr. P

Jean said...

Nicola, I agree with what you've just said, so I'm puzzled by your response to my comment that I wasn't knocking ghost-written works because "I'm sure that some people have a great personal experience story to tell, but lack the writing skills to do justice to it." You say that, no, you would put it very differently, but what I meant by that is pretty much the same as what you then go on to say.

Andrew Crofts said...

Just a quick response to shocked Anonymous.
I would say that if a book is going to get as advance of £5,000 or less then the ghost probably needs to have a pecentage deal rather than a fee-based one. That way there is always the chance of earning more if the book is a success. The best situation is to have a 'mixed portfolio' - some books earning modest but guaranteed fees, others being more speculative ventures which might earn virtualy nothing or might hit the jackpot.

Anna Bowles said...

Thanks, Andrew. I guess it’s a mindset change: working in-house, the projects come to you, but now I’m going to have to set up a stall and then go around shouting about it. I admit that I'm currently indulging myself in crafting one of those beautiful tables that may or may not sell, but once that's out of my system I'll be going around trying to interest people in my price quotes for garden benches.

Mr P – I’m embarrassed to need that advice! Initially I put the blog up to see if I could get anyone to read it at all in the first place, but I guess as soon as someone did I should have thought to add those details.

The elance question is interesting – I’d say there’s fuel for a full blog post from someone on that, if anyone really knows about it. My impression of that kind of marketplace (which could be entirely false) is that they are overfull of freelancers fighting over impossibly low-paid commissions from buyers who don’t know quite what they want anyway, and if you add the risk of the project turning out to be a damp squib, the negatives outweigh the possibilities for gaining extra experience unless you have no other avenues to try. I’m happy to be wrong, though.

I also think the issue of whether it’s ethical to make kids think they are reading a book that’s really by Katie Price is worth an individual post. I can see the source of discomfort – but at the same time I think, “Ooh, I could get paid to do that, who’s the publisher and what other celebs are they lining up?”

Seymour said...

Wow. Fascinating post and interesting comments.

Andrew, I bet you have some wonderful anecdotes to regale your more discreet friends with.

behlerblog said...

As always, a great post. Great interview by Andrew because he highlights the need for authors to know how to effectively pitch their stories. Pitching doesn't end with the agent or editor. Pitching is essentially what you're doing when you're out there promoting. Great stuff.

Um...Andrew? Can I have dibs on your chair?

Andrew Crofts said...

Indeed, Seymour, indeed.

Ah, the chair, magnificent is it not? It is actually one of a pair and there is a sofa on which the back is so high my diminutive wife virtually disappears when walking behind it. (Believe it or not, I am actually six feet tall, although the chair makes me look like some sort of elderly elf).

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, Andrew, that's v. interesting about the percentage deal rather than a fee-based one. What I'm really taking away from this is the ghostwriter-as-a-partner-in-publishing rather than ghostwriter-drops-manuscript-on-doorstep-and-vanishes.

I mean, if you really believe in a project, and you've found the agent, and polished the thing until it shines, then taking a percentage isn't exactly a bad thing.

And Anna: I don't really know anything about elance, and probably shouldn't have mentioned it. You're probably write about 'low paid' and 'damp squib'. Just struck me as a established way to find those first few clients upon whose recommendations one tries to get more clients, etc...

And a ghostwriter looking like an 'elderly elf' brought this to mind: http://www.rickwalton.com/folktale/bryant30.htm

(Although, c'mon, _Christmas?_ That's an old Jewish story.)

Proe

Robin said...

Thanks for a great interview and subsequent blog, Nicola and Andrew. I didn't realise that the ghostwriter's knowledge of all aspects of the publishing industry was at least as valuable as his writing skills, or even more so. An eye-opener for me.

R. Eric Swanepoel said...

Thank you, Nicola and Andrew! I am in the process of establishing myself as a ghost/co-writer and I found this very encouraging. I think I have been undercharging but as my portfolio grows I shall be rectifying this.

I agree with Anna Bowles re Elance: too many writers chasing ridiculously low fees. However, I trawled the advertisements on Ecademy and came across an expired one that looked interesting. I took a chance and followed it up and landed a very promising commission. I was well paid for the work but now would like to repay some of the fee and negotiate a share of royalties as I think the book will do well.

Another project was taken up by two publishers in succession, who both dropped it after taking legal advice. Now the commissioner and I are jointly publishing the book having made further changes to disguise identities.

I have found it an exciting and nail-biting profession so far. Let's hope it turns out a financially rewarding one!

Emma said...

I've become a big fan of Andrew Crofts since picking up a copy of 'The Freelance Writer's Handbook' earlier on in the year.
Packed with useful, practical advice, it delivers important lessons for the aspiring freelancer while remaining charmingly optimistic about the whole business.

I very much enjoyed reading this interview.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, everyone, and thanks, Andrew. I will try to learn his skills of succinctness. God, I do waffle on.