ghostwriting a book

Ghostwriting comes in many varieties—from the creation of lyrics for a single song to the end-to-end development of a book. Regardless of the variety, the creative and developmental processes are bolstered by the relationship between the ghostwriter and the client.

As covered in What Separates Elite Ghostwriters From Good Ghostwriters, part of this relationship deals with aspects of integrity and commitment. Regarding the latter, if neither party is fully committed to the project, or if both parties are waffling back and forth and unable to agree upon the direction, it’s unlikely that the project will be successfully completed.

However, as ghostwriting a book is often the most in-depth and complex of any ghostwriting project, many other dimensions are added into the mix. For example, what for a single song could have been a short-term relationship, for a book becomes a long-term relationship—sometimes lasting years.

Many clients—be they business executives or well-known public figures—embarking on such a project for the first time will quickly run out of energy. While the anonymity of the ghostwriting industry makes compiling statistics quite difficult, I’m willing to guess that most relationships initiated for the sake of ghostwriting a book never actually result in the creation of a book.

This happens for many reasons, and before exploring the three E’s of ghostwriting a book let’s break down five of the most common reasons why such book projects fail:

  • The client’s energy fizzles out
  • There’s a miscommunication about expectations
  • Egos get in the way
  • The ghostwriter lacks experience
  • The relationship isn’t enjoyable

The client’s energy fizzles out

For many people, having a book to their name is associated with “making it big” or otherwise being “somebody that matters.” It’s that age-old idea of telling your story or sharing your insights in a medium that will live on long after you’re gone. Yes, for some people publishing a book is the way to briefly dip their toes into immortality.

But writing a book and publishing a book are two different arenas. Both are difficult. Both can seriously test patience. And both can present unexpected hurdles that, at the time, seem insurmountable.

This transition—from feeling the excitement of an idea to feeling the frustrations of bringing that idea to life—is often where many clients call it quits. This is especially true for those clients who are new both to the demands of actually writing a book and the hurdles that can be presented by the publishing industry.

Which leads us to the next reason:

There’s a miscommunication about expectations

In my opinion, miscommunications when it comes to ghostwriting are typically the fault of the ghostwriter. When a client approaches them with an idea there’s a tendency on the part of the ghostwriter to exhibit incredible confidence. The intention is to make the client feel at ease and assured, which of course will make them more likely to move forward with the project (and them as the ghostwriter).

However, this initital relationship can set a fragile stage that begins to crumble as soon as the actors step onto it.

Opinions of course differ on this, but I believe it’s up to the ghostwriter to understand both what it takes to ghostwrite a book and the book publishing industry well enough to present to the client a realistic set of expectations. This can be a fine balance to maintain because the ghostwriter doesn’t want to temper the client’s excitement, but it’s a balance that must be struck.

What stands in the way of creating this balance? Ego and experience.

Egos get in the way

Ghostwriters are often asked how they feel about their name not being on or even remotely associated with a book they may have spent an entire year researching and writing. For the best ghostwriters, the truth is that they couldn’t care less. Their ego wasn’t attached to the book except in their wanting to deliver a world-class piece of work for their client.

For the ghostwriter, then, ghostwriting a book demands the stripping of ego-by-name and the development of an artist’s sense of craft. In other words, if they can’t get beyond the fact that this isn’t about them but is about the quality of their craft then they will likely harbor feelings of bitterness throughout their ghostwriting career.

When such ego exists on the part of the ghostwriter, it means that initial setting of expectations becomes more about the show of ease and promises than about the true work this will take.

Likewise, when an ego exists on the part of the client—and this is quite common as many clients are incredibly successful at what they do—it can mean they are never happy with the result of particular passages or chapters of the book. Even if they are masterfully executed. Even if they are true.

When both of these egos clash, a project isn’t likely to develop enough to even have legs to stand on.

The ghostwriter lacks experience

This must be said: There should always be an assumption that the client is inexperienced. Unless otherwise stated, ghostwriters should assume that the client’s knowledge about the process of ghostwriting books and the book publishing industry is limited.

With this assumption in place, it’s up to the ghostwriter to educate rather than entertain. By this I mean the ghostwriter should present to the client, in those initial conversations, some of the challenges of communication, process and publication that could arise during the process. If they opt instead for entertaining—flashing a smile and simply riding the wave of their client’s excitement—serious problems are bound to arise.

This is typically the result of a) a ghostwriter desperately in need of work and/or b) a ghostwriter who is too inexperienced—either lacking the industry knowledge they need or unable to recognize the fundamental and important difference between being genuine and being blinded by their want to close the deal.

The relationship isn’t enjoyable

In addition to the above, one of the primary reasons book ghostwriting projects fizzle out is because the relationship is no longer enjoyable for either party. This can arise because:

  • The client’s and/or the ghostwriter’s excitement has completely worn off;
  • There is a clashing of personalities;
  • Many minor miscommunications have created a giant chasm.

Again, long-term relationships of all types take an immense amount of sacrifice and work. The relationship between a client and the ghostwriter of their book is no different. This can be especially difficult because the client will need to be vulnernable (which is a topic worth a future article unto itself) and have complete trust not only in the ghostwriter as a person but in the ghostwriter as a talent.

As much as this relationship is about the project, it’s also about the meeting of minds that will bring that project to life.

The three E’s of ghostwriting a book

Now that we know a few reasons why such projects fail, let’s cover why they typically work.

As mentioned earlier, such book projects are complex. They at once demand the growth of a relatively intimate relationship alongside the growth of a book—a book that may have all kind of ego and baggage attached to it.

It must be noted: All book-length ghostwriting projects are different.

While some clients (or their publishers if they’ve already signed a book deal) may provide an outline or even a series of rough chapter drafts, others come to the table with simply the idea. This means that ghostwriting can be about deep revision and discovering and then assembling the thread of the story, or about building out the entire book from scratch.

Wherever the project is on the spectrum, I’ve come to see three fundamental qualities that are critical to its success:

  1. Empathy;
  2. Experience;
  3. Enjoyment.

Let’s break them down.

Empathy in ghostwriting

Empathy is the cornerstone of ghostwriting a book. Sure, a ghostwriter can bang out a relatively meaningless book-length project for a client who simply wants to slap something between the covers. But the best projects I’ve seen are those where the ghostwriter is radically empathic about what makes the client’s story worth telling.

This means the ghostwriter doesn’t just want to tell the story, they want to show it through capturing the client’s voice, their passions, their authenticity. They want to understand, on a deep level, not only the what of the story but also the how.

There is no way to do this except for the cultivation of empathy for the client. As such, the ghostwriter must develop a serious interest in who their client is, what their field is all about, and how their client views themselves within that field. They must also be able to listen with the whole of their being, as listening—both to the said and the unsaid—is what will create the best possible book.

Empathy is critical on the client side as well.

Because we all sign our names does not mean we all can write. The client must view the writing process like any other art form—one with nuance and a set of skills that is likely far outside of their primary domain. One way for the client to enter into empathy for the ghostwriter is by viewing it like this: The ghostwriter is tasked with turning an idea into something real, and doing it for another person.

There’s a good chance the client, in whatever realm they are successful in, knows well the difficulty of this.

Lastly, empathy on a personal level is crucial for the sake of the long-term human-to-human relationship. Forget that this is client-to-ghostwriter for a moment.

On its deepest level, this is person-to-person. Which means life circumstances and emotions are going to come up and be brought into the project, often causing miscommunications to unfold. If each party steps into the relationship with a sense of grace and empathy, there’s a good chance both will step out feeling happy with the result.

Experience in ghostwriting

Never has a ghostwriter come to the table for the first time and with experience. It’s impossible. They have to start somewhere, and those early clients of the ghostwriter must understand that.

However, it’s critical in those early stages for the ghostwriter to find and sharpen the transferrable skills they’ve picked up in other sectors and in other lines of work. If they have written their own books, for example, they must take time to reflect and squeeze every last drop from their lessons in writing and publishing those books.

The same goes if they’ve been a creative writer or a journalist or a professor; the client is expecting the ghostwriter to not only tell their story, but to navigate them through what is likely to be a completely unknown and scary path.

If you’re a relatively new ghostwriter, study up on lessons from project management and develop your own process. Inform the client of this process, as well as why you feel it is and will be effective.

If you’re the client and this is your first time embarking on a ghostwritten book, state that up front. If you’ve had some experience or talked to others about the process, share that as well.

For the project to be a success, both parties must put the pieces of their experiences on the table. Only from there can a mosaic be created that brings together the best aspects of both client and ghostwriter.

Enjoyment in ghostwriting

I can’t stress this one enough; the created book will be much better if both the ghostwriter and the client truly enjoy the project they are working on and the development of their working relationship together.

Many things can get in the way of this enjoyment, ranging from the client feeling pressure and wanting to “just get the book out there” to the ghostwriter not feeling comfortable enough to deepen the relationship.

Here’s the deal: In the best ghostwritten books, details pivotal to the overall story are shared between the pages often for the first time.

These may be details the client has long harbored inside themselves or has otherwise been terrified to share with anyone but the ghostwriter. Without trust, the kind of trust that can only be built when both parties are genuinely enjoying the process and feeling safe in each other’s company, these details aren’t likely to be shared or accurately conveyed.

Lastly, and because of the unique demands of ghostwriting a book, both parties must feel not only safe in each other’s company, but some sense of enjoyment from it. For this reason I’m of the belief that it’s important to have non-project conversations. This can mean scheduling video calls or even a few lunches together just to chat about life and interests.

This means no notebooks or recorders on the table. No sense of stories being told for the sake of the book. Just two people connecting and finding those pathways to learning about and enjoying each other.

In conclusion

Ghostwriting a book is hard work. It’s hard on the client and it’s hard on the ghostwriter. Like the sprinter, it’s important for the ghostwriter and client to have a great start off the blocks. But so too must they pace themselves like the marathon runner.

This means creating practices and processes to:

  • Better understand and care about each other;
  • Maintain and cultivate enjoyment;
  • Leverage the collective experience of both parties.