Looking back over my three decades of ghostwriting, I realize that every bad client experience I had was really my own fault. In each case, I ignored the flashing red warning signs. I’m not claiming that these rules are absolute for every ghostwriter, nor that they will protect you in every case. I only hope that my five “nevers” may be a useful guide to other ghostwriters.
Never Agree to Work with a Client After You Say You Won’t
Trust your gut when it says to walk away. Learn how to tell the client, “I’m just not a good fit for this project.” Then keep walking. Do not look back.
A funny thing happens when I turn clients down: they start making concessions, eliminating objections, or even throwing more money at me. I don’t know why. Maybe they think I’m just negotiating? Maybe they suddenly find me more attractive? It used to be tempting—oh so tempting—to have leverage. I quickly discovered the leverage was just an illusion. When this happens to you: do not succumb, no matter how sweet the offer becomes. Don’t let your desperation overrule your gut.
Never Spend the Night at the Client’s Home
Some of your clients may be wealthy and have big houses. They will argue that it’ll save them money if you stayed in their house after a work session. Don’t do it. If you have an overnight engagement, stay in a hotel. Say it’s your policy. Pay for the hotel yourself if it comes down to that. A ghostwriter needs to maintain an independent relationship with the client. That’s impossible to do if you are a houseguest. Why is this? It ties into…
Never Socialize with a Client (Unless the Project Is Finished)
It’s good to be friendly with your client, but don’t become friends. Remember that you have entered into a professional relationship. It’s easy to get confused. When the ghostwriting relationship works well, it is often quite intimate. It looks like friendship. The client is sharing his or her most private thoughts, often for the first time. It’s normal for the client to develop feelings of kinship for you and you’ll often share the same warm fuzzies. All that is human and even beneficial.
Don’t act on those feelings. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ve transcended the professional relationship. It’s always detrimental to the project when you do. Once the book is finished, if both parties are interested in maintaining the relationship, there’s plenty of time to become friends.
Never Start Work without Payment
Don’t work for free; doesn’t it seem obvious? Yet I’ve allowed myself to violate this rule for what seemed at the time like the best of reasons. I could always rationalize why I started writing the book before the client wrote a check. Stop. There is no better prediction of a successful engagement than the client’s willingness to make a substantial down payment and your willingness to wait for it. If paying you isn’t a priority now, it never will be.
Architects don’t began drawing and lawyers don’t begin drafting without a retainer. You’re a professional, too. Decline to do any work until you have deposited the initial check—and it clears.
Never Write for Clients Who Don’t Value Books
The most telling question I ask potential clients is, “What book has influenced you or made a difference in your life?” If a client can’t answer definitively, I start to worry; if I’m on site and don’t see any books, I’m certain: this is a client who doesn’t value books and, by extension, writing. Why, then, would they value a ghostwriter?
I once accepted a gig from an active CEO who wanted to write a memoir . . . despite the fact that he literally didn’t own any books. I ignored my misgivings (trust your gut!). I never got to see much of the fee that seduced me. Within a few weeks, the drafts I sent the client for review became too burdensome. He got frustrated and soon cut me loose. If they don’t read, they won’t read.
Do you have your own rules for success? Please share your hard-earned “neverisms?”