Monday, February 27, 2012

Guest Post: The Ghost's Dilemma


The central challenge for every ghostwriter is to graft her own ability to use words onto someone else’s memories in order to speak in her voice. It’s never easy, but what happens when the voice belongs to someone of a different age, race, and nationality, who lives on the other side of the globe, and whose experiences are so different they might as well have happened in another universe?
Leymah Gbowee, photo by Jon Styer/EMU

I met Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee in 2009. Filmmaker Abigail Disney had featured Leymah’s stunning work organizing women to demand peace during her country’s brutal fourteen-year civil war in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The women became good friends, and Abby thought Leymah’s whole story needed to be told. A colleague recommended me to her; in 2010, Tina Brown’s Beast Books bought the book.

Leymah’s life story—her movement from sheltered child to shattered war refugee to  defeated, battered wife to a triumphant reemergence as the bringer of peace to her land—was as dramatic as any novel, which made the project thrilling. Logistically, however, it was a nightmare: Leymah and I lived 7,500 miles and eight time zones apart, we both had families and responsibilities, and Leymah’s diplomatic work kept her on the move almost every day. The only solution was to meet for extended sessions in New York, halfway between her home in Ghana and mine in LA, whenever she was in the United States or had time. Emails and phone calls helped clear up small questions. The infrequence and pressure of meetings was always frustrating.

Other hurdles were even more intense. A great memoir reads like a great novel, with dialogue, scenes, and vivid details. But not everyone recalls the past so specifically or knows what would be interesting to an outsider, and if the events in question were traumatic, someone may have spent many years trying not to remember them. At the beginning of our working relationship, I didn’t even know what to ask Leymah to elicit those buried memories; like most Americans, I knew shamefully little about Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves and which modeled itself on the United States, or about the nightmarish conflict that so completely shaped Leymah’s life. (To top it off, I loved Leymah’s gorgeous, lilting accent, but sometimes I struggled to understand her.)

The solution was unpretty, unglamorous grunt work. I always record interviews and often transcribe them myself (I’m a really fast typist). Getting through all the hours Leymah and I spent together was something beyond horrendous, but it also acclimated my ear to her inflections, then moved the rhythm inside me so thoroughly that when I wrote in her voice I could “hear” when it sounded right. Between interview sessions, I read every speech and interview Leymah had ever given and did compulsive amounts of research on Liberia and the civil war, reading newspaper reports in both U.S. and African publications, as well as magazine features and academic books and papers, with a special concentration on events that I knew had affected Leymah.

Without this work, I simply couldn’t have asked the right questions. In 1991, for instance, Leymah returned to Liberia after a year in a refugee camp. If I hadn’t learned that the capital’s plumbing had been destroyed by then, I wouldn’t have known to ask “How did you get water?” and she, for whom this lack was too much a given to mention, wouldn’t have brought it up. In 1996, Leymah and her family again fled Liberia, this time on the freighter Bulk Challenge, a journey so horrific that she would speak of it only in generalities. I used what I’d learned of the voyage from American newspapers to ask the kind of specific questions that eventually brought out the whole story.

Research also helped me put Leymah’s experiences in a wider context. Someone in the midst of a historical event like a war knows what’s happening to her, but not necessarily what’s going on with others, not to mention the outside forces that are fueling the conflict. Those facts were crucial to a global audience that didn’t know Liberian history, and details that weren’t part of Leymah’s personal story deepened the overall tragedy of the war, making Leymah’s work to end it even more remarkable. Watching YouTube videos that included wartime footage and chilling interviews with young soldiers, and seeing photographs, notably those taken by Carolyn Cole of the LA Times, helped me feel the reality of life during that time. And, of course, visiting Liberia to meet Leymah’s family and see where she’d lived and worked helped in a big way, though I didn’t get to go until I was well into writing.

Praise for Mighty Be Our Powers from people as diverse as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, as well as from magazines as varied as Newsweek, Oprah, and Forbes, told me that my effort to tell Leymah’s story had succeeded. An even more important cheer came from Leymah herself: “It’s almost frightening, “ she said, “how deeply you’ve gotten into my head.”

Carol Mithers is a Los Angeles–based book author, feature writer, and collaborator known for her storytelling skills and ability to explore social and womens issues in a human, compelling way. She has written for the Los Angeles and New York Times, the Village Voice, and L.A. Weekly, O the Oprah Magazine, Town & Country, Architectural Digest, Parenting, Glamour, Self, and Ladies Home Journal. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

GG Featured on paidContent

Our firm is spotlighted today on the front page of in an article cheekily headlined Boo! Ghostwriting Grows in Age of "Book as Badge". The piece unmasks a trend we have known about for some time: as our president Dan Gerstein explains, the book is the new threshold of credibility for business executives and other experts who want to be regarded as thought leaders. That has led to a serious spike in demand for premium ghostwriting services, Jeff Roberts reports, adding: "Ghostwriting offers non-celebrities the opportunity to bypass industry gate-keepers and still publish a quality book."

Friday, February 17, 2012

Writer Profile: Michael Thomsett

Gotham Ghostwriters knows a lot of writers. In our Writer Profile series, we share some of them with you.

The incredibly prolific Michael Thomsett has been writing professionally since 1978, and is the author of more than eighty books and fifteen ghostwriting projects. He's published twenty books with John Wiley & Sons, and also writes for FT Press, Amacom Books, and a few other trade houses. His main focus is business trade, but he has also written four specialized dictionaries, five books of quotations, and three history books for McFarland. In 2011 he published five academic articles in double-blind peer review journals, he was one of the speakers at the American Association of Individual Investors annual conference in Las Vegas, and he taught five classes at the New York Institute of Finance on options and candlestick charting.

How do you spend a typical day?
A “typical” day begins at about 6 a.m., when I take care of non-writing business and have a leisurely cup of coffee. I start to work at about 7:30. I try to write for at least three hours per day, and my goal is usually around 10 pages. That might not sound like a lot, but if you write 10 pages for 250 days, that’s 2,500 pages, or around 625,000 words—about eight typical books. I always end my day by planning what I am going to do the next day; I believe that sleeping with this knowledge floating around gets me in the right frame of mind for tomorrow.

How did you get your start as a writer?
In 1978, I was working as an accountant in a big San Francisco–based company. I enjoyed the work, but I was getting tired of accounting and its inflexibility. I wanted to be self-employed. After resigning, I got a job at a public relations firm. That was a disaster. The owner fired me after eight weeks, telling me I had no future as a writer. Undeterred, I planned out a strategy for selling magazine articles. I figured if I sent out five query letters each day, I’d eventually start getting an average of one assignment per day. It worked.

Another attitude I had was that I could approach any market. In those pre-Internet days, I relied on Writer’s Market to get leads. Their listing for American Way (the in-flight magazine for American Airlines) said, “We are a tough market for freelancers. On average we hire only one new writer per year.” As daunting as this was, I wrote a query that began, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am the one new freelancer you are going to hire this year.” They loved it, and soon they were publishing my articles every other month.

What are some writing projects you're most proud of?
My bestselling book is Getting Started in Options. Back in 1989, when this was published, options were fairly new, and few people knew anything about them. The editor I worked with told me that he couldn’t offer much of an advance because they didn’t expect to sell many copies. This year I’m working on the 9th edition, and the book has grown so much that it's being split into two. It has been translated into Russian and Chinese, and has sold over 250,000 copies.

More recently I have become very interested in technical analysis. This month Wiley is publishing my newest book, Bloomberg Visual Guide to Candlestick Charting. This is also my first full-color book and contains dozens of illustrations. Currently, my agent is marketing two options book ideas for me, as well as a specialized business/history project concerning risk management and disaster preparedness. The market is tough, but I think all of these eventually will be placed.

As a financial writer, are there some topics you find yourself explaining again and again?
In the trading and investment books I write, there is a constant need to remind readers to be aware of risk. It's so easy to focus on the profit potential, and many traders overlook the risks they might be undertaking to pursue a favorite strategy. Besides that, I often find myself explaining taxation in my investment books. This is a relatively dry topic, but it's easy to overlook and very important, for taxes and inflation eat up profits, and tax rules can take you by surprise. I would enjoy writing a book about taxes on investments, but that would be a tough sell.

What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
More than anything else, know your market and send your ideas to the appropriate place. Don’t submit poetry to a business book publisher, and don’t pitch an idea for your life story to a fishing magazine. Also, always send your materials in the format the company specifies. If publishers have a proposal form they want filled out, use it. Amazingly, many writers ignore the forms as well as writers’ guidelines, which is not a good start to a relationship.

If you succeed, be generous with your success. Always be willing to advise new writers. The field of authorship is not difficult to break into as long as you view it as a business and take a realistic marketing approach. Even so, it makes a big difference to have help from someone who has been where you are. When you are established, don’t forget what it was like to start out.

Where can readers find out more about you?
I have one site for my trade publications and one for my reference books. I also have several blogs, at CBOESeekingAlphaGlobal Risk CommunityMinyanvilleMint, Benzinga, and FT Press. And of coure you can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gotham Ghostwriters Internship

Our team is seeking an editorial and social media intern to support our growing workload.

The intern will be responsible for:
• following the latest developments in the publishing and content industries
• helping to expand our social media presence and networks
• performing a range of research and administrative tasks

To fill this role, we are looking for a can-do college or graduate student with:
• excellent writing and research skills
• an aptitude for social media
• strong interest in learning about the craft and business of content creation
• at least one prior internship in publishing, media, or PR

We will be asking the intern to work 12–16 hours a week, days and times negotiable, for the rest of the semester (and possibly beyond).

Interested applicants should send a resume and cover letter to

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Guest Post: Malicious Obfuscation


I advertise myself (accurately) as a “linguistics expert,” so people often ask me questions about language usage. One recent correspondent was wondering whether—given all the usage “errors” people commit these days—the English language isn’t losing its nuance, becoming reduced to the lowest common denominator…generally being “dumbed down.” Maybe, the reasoning goes, if we lose too many important distinctions, we won’t be able to communicate at all.

To those people I say: chill out. (Unless you’re someone who likes to play gotcha games with other people’s speech “errors,” in which case I say: shut up.) Language is a complex system that won’t be severely impaired by a little variation and change. A much more urgent concern, because of its dire economic complications, is the spread of deliberately complex, opaque language.

Yes, paradoxically, although English prose has become simpler over the years (even sentence fragments regularly appear in print), the complexity of grammatically and mechanically perfect legal and financial jargon can create a dialect that’s unintelligible to most native speakers, even educated, literate ones.

Such writing (chief characteristics: specialized jargon, impersonal phraseology, extended sentences, useless repetition) can be merely tedious and opaque, but it can also become a vehicle for vagueness and evasion. Recently, legalese/bureaucratese has been exploited, by devious corporations, accountants, and lawyers, to supply a house-of-cards foundation to the financial machinations that caused the nation’s economy to implode. 

In “The Analogy of Avarice” (a review of James Stewart’s new book Tangled Webs: How False StatementsAre Undermining America), Jennifer Szalai says that the financial industry, unlike Bernie Madoff, never had to lie, because it was so good at creating complex financial instruments and hiding its duplicities under a fog of words.

“Banks structured derivatives and other securities to enable their clients to take on a massive amount of risk that was nevertheless legal; accountants and law firms ensured that those risks would remain hidden from investors, who could be counted on to trust the triple-A rating or to avoid the eye-glazing chore of reading the fine print… [There were] rules about ‘disclosure,’ [but those]… disclosures in a financial report could be buried in the footnotes and, with some clever wording, made sufficiently dull to ensure that they would barely be seen as red flags."

Want an example? Here’s a short selection from page 30, note 3 of Enron’s 2000 annual report, written just one year before the firm imploded:

“Securitization. From time to time, Enron sells interests in certain of its financial assets. Some of the sales are completed in securitization, in which Enron concurrently enters into swaps associated with the underlying assets which limit the risks assumed by the purchaser. Such swaps are adjusted to fair value using quoted market prices, if available, or estimated fair value based on management's best estimate of the present value of future  cash flow. The swaps are included in Price Risk Management activities above as equity investments.”

What does that even mean? Not much, according to Szalai:

“The text was undoubtedly fussed over by a platoon of lawyers in order to achieve just the right balance of disclosure and evasion [all emphasis mine]. The company might have sold some assets, or it might not have sold some assets; those sales, if any, might include securitizations, or they might not have included securitizations; the securitizations might have had a market price, or they might not have had a market price; if they didn't, then Enron's management gave them a price according to ‘management's best estimate’—which is to say, whatever management believed they were worth….

“All this would merit the word ‘monstrous,’ except the adjective implies an element of excitement and drama, whereas this is a system that thrives on obstruction and boredom. According to [its] conventions…the footnotes are more important than the main body of the text. Sentences are crafted so as not to be read. Language should confound rather than communicate.”

All too often, it does confound. And that obscurity—in an account of what companies are doing with the wealth of the people reading the account—is intentional. We don’t have the time or inclination to wade through it all, and it’s doubtful that clarity would emerge even if we did.

The principles of clear communication haven’t changed: shorter sentences, simpler words, less jargon, concrete examples, and clear explanation of technical terms. Disregarding them in order to confuse and deceive is unconscionable. Deliberate obscurity does irreparable damage to the thin bonds of trust that are supposedly encoded in words on a page. It buries—in a steaming pile of verbosity and BS—the premise that the writer is actually trying to tell the reader something.

Alan Perlman is an executive speechwriter and ghostwriter/editor. He has an AB from Brown University, an MA, and a PhD from the University of Chicago in linguistics. (His doctoral thesis examined variation in Hawaiian pidgin and creole.) He wrote executive speeches and other communications, mainly at GM and Kraft Foods, for twenty years, and he is the author of two books on speechwriting. As an expert witness and consultant, he advises attorneys on matters of language, including plagiarism, anonymous documents, trademark/copyright infringement, and document interpretation. Write to him at

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Around the Word

Big, bad Amazon. Tech news site PandoDaily doesn't feel bad for publishing companies these days. They share a long email from an anonymous publisher that's well worth a read, as it lays out a very pessimistic, very paranoid, and very probably true view of Amazon's long-range plans for a publishing industry takeover. The publisher's verdict: "Publishing is a quaint little industry based on romance and low profit margins. But now we're in Amazon's sights, and they're going to kill us."

Pin that speech! Are you using cool new social sharing site Pinterest? The site allows users to "pin" items of interests (videos and images) to themed boards, which are then visible to anyone who follows you. While early adopters have mostly been interior designers and wedding planners, speechwriting blog The Eloquent Woman shows how versatile the site can be, by creating a Pinterest board full of speeches by famous ladies, as well as "Ideas, information and inspiration for women (and men) on public speaking and presenting."

Novel groupthink. In Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald has facilitated the creation of the first crowdsourced novel, GalleyCat reports. The newspaper published each chapter, giving readers two days to submit the next one, and an editor selected the best of the bunch to publish. You can read the entire novel, called The Necklace, here.

Kill "caps lock"? Over on Slate, there's a terrific article filled with suggested commonsense tweaks to the modern computer keyboard, along with clear, justified reasons for each. It's terribly nerdy, but also terribly smart. Why do we still need keys like "pause/break"? Why don't we have a dedicated key for an ellipses or em-dash? Why is the exclamation point so far away from the period and question mark? We'd love to see some or all of these changes implemented. Do you have other ideas for a better keyboard? Share them in the comments.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Guest Post: Why Every Entrepreneur Should Self-Publish a Book


This article originally appeared on TechCrunch.

I’ve published eight books in the past seven years, five with traditional publishers (Wiley, Penguin, HarperCollins), one comic book, and the last two I’ve self-published. In this post I give the specific details of all of my sales numbers and advances with traditional publishers. Although the jury is still out on my self-published books, How to be the Luckiest Person Alive and I Was Blind But Now I SeeI can tell you these two have already sold more than my five books with traditional publishers combined.
If you, the entrepreneur, self-publish a book, you will stand out, you will make more money, you will kick your competitors right in the XX, and you will look amazingly cool at cocktail parties. I know this because I am seldom cool, but at cocktail parties, with my very own comic book, I can basically have sex with anyone in the room. But don’t believe me; it costs you nothing and almost no time to try it yourself.
The rest of this article is really three discussions: Why self-publish rather than using a traditional publisher; why entrepreneurs should self-publish; and finally, HOW does one go about self-publishing. 
A) Advances are going to zero. Book publishers are getting more and more squeezed by declining booksellers so they, in turn, have to squeeze the writers. Because of so much free content on the Internet, the value per unit of content is going to zero unless you are already an established name-brand author.
B) Lag time. When you self-publish, you can have your book up and running on Amazon, paperback and Kindle, within days. When you publish with a traditional publisher, it's a grueling process: book proposal, agents, lawyers, meetings, edits, packaging, catalogs, etc., which ensures that your book doesn’t actually get published until a year later. Literally, as I write this, a friend of mine just IMed me the details of a book deal he just got with a mainstream publisher. Publication date: 2014.
C) Marketing. Publishers claim they do a lot of marketing for you. That’s laughable. I’ll give you a very specific story. When I published with Penguin, they then met with a friend of mine whose book they wanted to publish. They didn’t realize she was my friend. She asked them, “What marketing did you do for James Altucher’s book?” They said, “Well, we got him a review in The Financial Times and we got a segment about his book on CNBC and an excerpt in”
Here’s what’s so funny. I had a weekly column in The Financial TimesI WROTE my own review. As a joke. For CNBC, I had a weekly segment, so naturally I spoke about my book during my regular segment. And for excerpt, I had just sold my last company to So instead of doing my usual article for them, I did an excerpt. In other words, the publisher did NOTHING, but took credit for EVERYTHING. Ultimately, authors (unless you are Stephen King, etc.) have to do their own marketing for books. The first question publishers ask, even before they look at your proposal, is “How big is your platform?” They want to know how you can market the book and whether they can make money on just your own marketing efforts.
D) Better royalties. When I self-publish I make about a 70% royalty instead of the 15% royalty I get with a traditional publisher. I also own 100% of the foreign rights instead of 50%. I hired someone to sell the foreign rights and they got 20% (and no upfront fee).
E) More control over content and design. Look at this cover for SuperCa$h, designed by a traditional publisher for me (this was my third book). It’s hideous.
Now look at the cover for my last book (self-published), I Was Blind But Now I See. You may or may not like it, but it’s exactly what I wanted. Publishers even include in the contract that they have final say over the cover, and this is one detail they will not negotiate.
You also don’t have any teenage interns sending you editorial comments that you completely disagree with. YOU control your own content.
A) You have content. I have enough material in my blog right now (including my “drafts” folder, which has 75 unpublished posts in it) to publish five more books over the next year. And I’m sure that number will increase over the next year as I write more posts. You’re an entrepreneur because you feel you have a product or an idea or a vision that stands out among your competitors (if you don’t stand out, pack it in and come up with a new idea).
You know how to do something better than anyone else in the world. How do you let the world know that you are better? A business card won’t cut it. People will throw it away. And everyone’s got a website with an “About” page.
Give away part (or all) of your ideas in a book. You’re a brand new social media agency? How should social media work? Write it down. You’re a new CRM software package? How should CRM be better? Tell me. How should online dating services work? Tell some stories. Heck, make them as sexy as possible.
Don’t have time to write it? Then tell it to a ghostwriter you outsource to for almost no money. You don’t need 60,000 words. Do it in 20,000 words. Throw some pictures in. Just do it. Then, when you meet someone and they ask for your business card, how cool will it be when you can say, “Here, take my book instead.”
B) You have more to say. More and more companies have blogs. Many of the posts on the blog are “evergreen,” i.e. they last forever and are not time-specific. If you just take the posts (mentioned in the point above) and publish them, people will say, “He’s just publishing a collection of posts.” A couple of comments on that.
1. So what? It’s ok if you are curating what you feel your best posts are. And for a small price, people can get that curation and read it in a different format. There’s value there.
2. Don’t just take a collection of your posts.  A blog post is typically 500 to 2,000 words. Usually closer to 500. Do a bit more research for each post. Do intros and outros for each post. Make the chapters 3,000 to 4,000 words. Make a bigger arc to the book by using original material to explain WHY this book, with these chapters, presented in this manner is a different read than the blog. Have a chapter specifically explaining how the book is different from the blog.
With my last book, I Was Blind But Now I See, I had original material in each chapter, and several chapters that were completely original. Instead of it being a collection of posts, the overall book was about how we have been brainwashed in society, and how uncovering the brainwashing and using the techniques I describe can bring happiness. This was covered in a much more detailed fashion than the blog ever could, even though the material was inspired by several of my posts.
C) Amazon is an extra platform for you to market your blog. Or vice versa. You won’t make a million dollars on your book (well, maybe you will—never say never), but just being able to say, “I’m a published author” extends your credibility as a writer/speaker/enterpreneur when you go out there to sell your book, syndicate your blog elsewhere, or get speaking engagements, etc. And when you do a speaking engagement, you can now hand something out—your book! So Amazon and publishing become a powerful marketing platform for your overall writing/speaking/consulting career.
D) Nobody cares. Some people want the credibility of saying “Penguin published me.” I can tell you from experience—nobody ever asked me who was my publisher when Penguin was my publisher. And, by the way, Penguin was the worst publisher I ever had.
E) How will I get in bookstores? I don’t know. How will you? Traditional publishers can’t get you there either. Often bookstores will look at what’s hot on Amazon and then order the books wholesale from the publishers. In many cases, tradtional publishers will take their most-known writers (so if you are in that category, congrats!) and pay to have them featured at a bookstore. As for my experience, my traditional publishers would get a few copies of my books in the bookstores of major cities (i.e., NYC and that’s it), but nothing more.
There are lots of ways to do it, but I’ll tell you my experience.
A) First write the book. For my last two self-published books, as mentioned above, I took some blog posts, rewrote parts of them, added original material, added new chapters, and provided an overall arc as to what the BOOK was about, as opposed to it just being a random collection of posts. But, that said, you probably already have the basic material already.
B) CreateSpace. I used CreateSpace because they are owned by Amazon and have excellent customer service. They let you pick the size of your book and then have Microsoft Word templates that you download to format your book within. For my first book I did this by myself; for my second book, for a small fee, I hired to format the book, create the book design, and create the final PDF that I uploaded. He also checked grammar, made proactive suggestions on font (sans serif instead of serif), and was extremely helpful.
C) Upload the PDF. Createspace approves it, picks an ISBN, sends you a proof, and then you approve it.
D) Within days its available on Amazon. It’s print-on-demand as a paperback. And by the way, your total costs at this point: $0. Or whatever you spent to design your cover.
E) Kindle. All of the above (from Createspace) was free. If I didn’t hire Alex to make the cover I could’ve used over 1 million of Createspace’s possible covers (I did that for my first book) and the entire publishing in paperback would be free. But with Kindle, CreateSpace charges $70 and they take care of everything until it’s uploaded to the Kindle store. Now you are available in paperback and Kindle.
F) Marketing.
1. Readers of my blog who asked for it got the first 20 copies or so for free from me. Many of them then posted good reviews on Amazon to get the ball rolling.
2. I’ve been handing out the books at speaking engagements. Altogether, I’ll do around 10 speaking engagements handing my latest book out.
3. I write a blog post about how the book is different from the blog and why I chose to go this route.
4. Writing guests posts for blogs like Techcrunch helps, and I’m very grateful.
5. Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and Google+ are also very helpful.
G) Promotions. You’re in charge of your own promotions (as opposed to a book publisher). For instance, in a recent blog post, I discussed the differences between my latest book and my blog, and I also offered a promotion on how to get my next self-published book (Bad Behavior, expected in Q1 2012) for free.
Entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to stand out, promote their service, and get validation for their offerings. Writing a book makes you an expert in the field. At the very least, when you hand someone a book you wrote, it’s more impressive than handing a business card. It shows that you have enough expertise to write the book. It also shows you value the relationship with the potential customer enough that you are willing to give him something of value. Something you created.
And you can’t use the excuse “I don’t have time, I’m running a business.” Entrepreneurs make time. And they have the ideas, so, again, at the very least you can use to hire a ghostwriter.
Over the next year, I have five different books planned, all on different topics. I’m super excited about them because I’m allowed to push the barrier in every area I’m interested in, and there’s nobody to stop me. There’s nobody I need validation from. I get to pick myself.
You can do this too. And you should. There’s no more excuses in this environment. Good luck, and feel free to write me with any questions.