Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ghostwriting Workshop Takeaways (Part I)

The intro to ghostwriting workshop we co-hosted with ASJA Tuesday night brought together a crowd of more than 40 aspiring ghosts (and a few established pros) at the NYU Journalism Institute, with many others watching the livestream online. We plan to have the video available for download in the next few days if you want to watch the full program on your own time.

But for now, we thought it might be helpful to break down the main takeaways from the discussion, which was led by Gotham President Dan Gerstein and featured master ghostwriter Ellen Neuborne and Movable Type literary agent Jason Ashlock. We'll start today with the expert panel's advice on how win to your first client. Tomorrow we'll get down to the nuts and bolts of establishing yourself as a ghostwriting pro.

Landing Your First Client

Like so much else (exercise regimens, spring cleaning), getting started is the hardest part -- it's the classic "you need experience to get experience" job-hunting conundrum. So how do you establish a ghosting track record? Neuborne, formerly a business reporter at USA Today and Business Week, began her professional ghostwriting career by collaborating with a former source. "That's the way a lot of journalists get into it," she said. Perhaps the simplest and most effective way to drum up business, Neuborne counseled, is to let your professional network know you're setting up shop writing-for-hire. The goal, initially, is to get an anchor client -- someone with a story they want you to help them tell.

As with any business venture, kicking off your ghosting career will have start-up costs. While Neuborne said she's now able to support her own literary projects entirely through ghostwriting, she took a loss on her first few projects. Be prepared, she said, for the first book (and maybe the second) to be a "loss leader" -- at this stage, you're being paid less in cash than in experience and professional credibility.

Once you've got a book -- or two or three -- under your belt, you can start advertising yourself as a "professional ghostwriter." It's a title that's in demand, said Ashlock, who counts finding writers to attach to "established platforms" among his primary duties as an agent. If his first task is to find people with great stories who are well-positioned to sell books (think politicians, reality TV stars, celebrity chefs, etc.), his second task is to find the writers who can guide those stories to paper. Accordingly, agents can be a key source of work for ghosts with bookish ambitions.

A lot of the ghosts Ashlock now works with regularly were already collaborating with author/experts when they first caught his attention. Still, he said, it's possible for an aspiring book ghost to get the attention of an agent without being attached to a pre-existing project. It's even possible before you've got a bibliography of books to your name. Ashlock's main consideration: "What intersection does a potential ghost have with a particular market?" Often, he said, he'll work with a ghost who doesn't have a trail of best-sellers behind them if they have a track record of writing for national audiences about a particular topic and in a particular voice that matches a project he's got percolating. In other words: along with a healthy dose of serendipity, a strong package of targeted clips delivered at the right time can be enough to win a first gig.

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