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What’s the Most Important Key to Ghostwriter Success?

Selecting clients is job one for ghostwriters

I’m pleased that I have been asked to be a panelist at Ghostwriters Unite, an exciting step on the road to professionalizing the ghostwriter’s craft. The conference is in Long Beach at the beginning of May, 2013.

I’ve been anticipating questions and the question that I expect to come up–and the one this blog addresses–is: what’s the most important key to ghostwriter success?

The answer is qualifying clients.

If ghostwriters do a proper job of qualifying clients–that is, being selective in the clients they take on–then nine out of the ten biggest headaches ghostwriters have generally never materialize.

Being selective for a hungry ghostwriter, of course, is not easy.  It’s tempting to accept any project that comes along. But it’s a false economy to accept projects that have a high probability of being frustrating in all the usual ways. The most important commodity ghostwriters have is time. I suggest we can’t afford to take on projects or clients that waste our time.

Spent Time with Client First

I never accept a project without spending quality time with the potential client. If clients want to engage me, I ask them to invite me to spend a day and a half with them, preferably in their location.  The purpose of the no-obligation meeting is to get to know each other and for me to better understand their goals for the book.  I charge a reasonable but significant fee (plus travel expenses, if any) for this visit. The client understands that if he or she engages me, the cost for this visit is applied as a credit to the final free.

There are two benefits to this policy. First, it increases the odds that the project will be successful if the client and the ghostwriter have a good encounter. Occasionally, the conclusion is that the client will be better served by another writer. I consider that a success, too.  Second, the policy increases the probability that the client has the means and the motivation to take the project to fruition.

What I Look For in a Client

Every ghostwriter must decide this for him- or herself, but for me I use the visit to answer three questions beyond the most important one: does the client have the financial resources to see the project through to completion?  If they invite you to spend time with them and have a check waiting for you when you arrive, the answer is usually yes.

Do I respect the client? This boils down to does the client have integrity?  Do I admire them? I also notice if I like them. Affection is good and I prefer to work with clients I like, but affection by itself is not a reliable basis on which to make a judgment.  Many clients without integrity are very likeable, even seductive.  If I’m going to spend 6-10 months of my life with someone, I want to spend that time with high-integrity people.

Why does the client want a book? All of my clients have reasons that, to me, make a lot of sense. Most want to inject some thought leadership into their business environments.  Others want a legacy book to share with their friends and families. But some clients want to write books to settle a score or prove that they were right on some controversy.  I personally don’t want any part of such books.  Usually they fall apart under their own weight. And then once in a while I meet a client who wants a book to stroke their egos, to demonstrate their own significance. These books also never get finished because no book is equal to the task.  Again, that’s why integrity in a client is so important.

Will I learn something new? One of the best parts about being a ghostwriter is learning something new. I want each book I take on to teach me something I don’t already know. If I’ve done a book on, say, bullfighting, I will want the next one to be on something totally different.


Trust your instincts. If a client or project doesn’t smell right, let it go. No matter how hungry you are. We ghostwriters are good at rationalizing the disturbing things we see, thinking we can fix things or manage them.  But we can’t and it’s a mistake to try. The big fear is that this project may be the last one we’ll get, but the reality is that there’s always a next project. Having a long-term view helps.  Trust your instincts.  Take your time with potential clients.  The more selective you are, the more successful you will be.

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