A major part of my writing practice includes writing business books under someone else’s name. Almost always, the principals are super-busy business executives with companies to run. While they offer the enthusiasm and content for their books, what they don’t have is the large blocks of dedicated time needed to write a book. That’s where I come in.
The resulting books are, from beginning to end, the client’s own. The books reflect the values and insights of the author whose name is on the cover. They are responsible, legally and morally, for every word between the covers. My job as a ghostwriter is to listen carefully to not only what the author says but how he or she says it. Then, working together, I create drafts for review. Going back and forth, the book comes together.
My latest ghostwriting engagement resulted in the publication of The Decency Code: The Leader’s Path to Building Integrity and Trust by Steve Harrison and James Lukaszewski. (McGraw-Hill, 2020). The book follows the 2009 publication of The Manager’s Book of Decencies.
Definition of Success
I always think of business books as business tools. Here’s the most important question I ask my principal:
What is your definition of success? Imagine that the book has been on the shelves for six months or so. What, specifically, will have changed in your business, your speaking schedule, your consulting activity, your income, your access to new clients? How will you know that the considerable investment you made in publishing your book is paying off?
I then help the author craft the book to meet those objectives. First, we consider the audience. I ask the author to describe in considerable detail the ideal buyer of the book and what the author wants that ideal reader to do after reading the book. Then we conceptualize the structure of the book. That includes brainstorming the title and subtitle, determining the voice (I usually recommend first person), length, number of chapters, degree of formality (do we really need footnotes?), and other details. I frequently act as an intermediary between the principal and the publisher. In many cases, I introduce the principal to the publisher.
My Role as Ghostwriter
Every ghostwriting partnership is unique. Sometimes the principal gives me detailed outlines or even rough drafts to work with. More frequently, I record the principal describing what he or she wants in the book. In either case, I assemble the resulting material into coherent chapters in the voice of the author. We go back and forth until the author is satisfied. I generally get it right the first time. The principal always has the final say. My job is to make the process as simple and efficient and successful as possible.
Virtually one hundred percent of books and memoirs written by CEOs, athletes, and celebrities are ghostwritten. In years past, many principals pretended that they wrote their books all by themselves. More recently, the trend has been to acknowledge the reality that, of course, the busy principals had editorial help. Bylines that included such formulas as “with [name of ghostwriter] and “as told to” became popular. I believe transparency is a healthy outcome that takes nothing away from the accomplishment of the principal. That said, while I welcome public acknowledgement of my contributions, I am perfectly comfortable to remain in the background.
My compensation is exclusively a project fee negotiated in advance with specific progress payments tied to delivery and approval of chapters. Advances and royalties, if any, belong to the client. I do not ask for nor expect participation in advances and royalties.
I prefer to partner with authors who seek a traditional publisher for their book. I am also happy to write books that are intended for self-publication. I welcome considering ghostwriting assignments that open new areas of the world to me.
I have ghostwritten over 15 commercially-published business books for leading business executives. For contractual reasons, I’m not at liberty to divulge my role in a number of books. For the following books my role as an editorial partner has been acknowledged:
Negotiating with Backbone: Eight Sales Strategies to Defend Your Price and Value by Reed K. Holden (John Wiley, 2015)
Prosper: Six Practices to Find Lasting Money and Happiness by Ethan Willis and Randy Garn (Berrett-Koehler, September 2011)
Pricing with Confidence: 10 Rules to Stop Leaving Money on the Table by Reed Holden and Mark Burton (John Wiley, March 2008)
The Six Sigma Leader by Peter Pande (McGraw-Hill, 2007)
The Manager’s Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies by Steve Harrison (McGraw-Hill, 2007)A Call to Action: Taking Back Healthcare for Future Generations by Henry A. McKinnell with John Kador (McGraw-Hill, 2005)
TechnoVision II: The Executive’s Guide for Understanding and Managing Information Technology by Charles B. Wang (McGraw-Hill, 1996)
TechnoVision by Charles B. Wang (McGraw-Hill, 1994).