Archive for category The writing business
This week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.
It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.
What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:
- Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
- Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?
I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.
Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.
What about the sanctity of the byline?
In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.
Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.
Books are rarely solo projects
Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.
A quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.
In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)
Art v commerce
Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).
Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me) and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.
Books are not just books
And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.
Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?
I’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.
Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business
But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial. Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.
This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.
‘Let’s not lose the writer’
In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’
Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.
Matt Haig also said:
‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’
I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).
I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.
It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.
That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.
Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr
And, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.
Some of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)
And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this…
We’re in an age of new publishing models. And two of the emerging trends – crowdfunding and hybrid publishing – seem to meet in the organisation Unbound.
The principle of Unbound is simple. Raise enough money to publish the first print run. After that, the profits of any sales are split equally between the author and Unbound. Two editions of the books are made; a special, higher-spec edition for subscribers, and an edition for the trade.
When my friend Claire Scobie told me she was using Unbound to launch a UK edition of her novel The Pagoda Tree, I decided it was time to dig further. So as well as Claire (an Unbounder in progress), here are two fully graduated Unbounders – and clarifications from Unbound themselves.
Salena Godden @salenagodden is a long-established spoken word artist, poet and memoirist. She tops the bill at literary events nationally and internationally and has numerous credits as a guest and a writer for BBC Radio and Channel 4 arts programmes and documentaries.
Robert Llewellyn @bobbyllew is a writer, presenter and an actor in the cult BBC science fiction show Red Dwarf. He presented Scrapheap Challenge from 1998-2008 and now produces and presents Fully Charged, an online series about the future of energy and transport. He’s the author of 11 books, including non-fiction, humour, memoir and science fiction.
Publishing background and experience
None of my panel are first-time authors (but first-time authors aren’t excluded, so read on). Salena has run the full gamut from indie to traditional. She self-published her own chapbooks in the 1990s, published her Fishing In The Aftermath poetry collection with indie publisher Burning Eye Books. And she crowdfunded her memoir Springfield Road with Unbound.
Robert Llewellyn had 11 books published traditionally and has been with a literary agent since 1990. He said he became frustrated by the restrictions and financial deals in the traditional system, but didn’t want to go it alone entirely. ‘I was very keen to self publish. I knew I had a large enough potential audience to make this viable, but I also knew that I’m not very well organised and would find it a real challenge to do on my own.’
Claire has a literary agent and has been traditionally published. Last Seen in Lhasa was placed with Random House UK. She’s based in Sydney, so she sold publishing rights of The Pagoda Tree to Penguin in Australia and New Zealand in 2013, but is now seeking wider exposure in English-speaking territories.
UPDATE 1 July 2016 – Claire has now hit her funding target – so you can regard her advice as officially tested in battle!
How are books chosen for Unbound?
Here I’ll bring in Georgia Odd @whengoddcries), editorial and marketing assistant with Unbound.
‘We have a team of commissioning editors who both read submissions and scout for books and authors. The main things they are considering is the strength of the pitch – which might be the concept of a book, the writing or the author’s ability to crowdfund. The projects that work best have a great concept that can be easily explained in a line or two, and a clear audience who are already engaged with either the author or the topic.
‘We don’t always require a finished manuscript – particularly in cases where the author has a proven track record of strong writing – but with new authors we always ask for a substantial example of their writing.
‘We have a fairly even spread between fiction and non-fiction, and we accept any genres. If it’s a great book, we’ll take it on.’
Salena says she chose Unbound because: ‘We got on really well. You know the saying “Go where there love is”? There is a lot of love at Unbound.’
Robert says: ‘I loved the business model. I understood crowdfunding and I had enough of a following to launch the books. I don’t know how I got selected, it didn’t feel like being selected. It felt like we agreed to work together which was much nicer.’
Claire said she’d had her eye on Unbound for several years. ‘I like the philosophy of the company and the fact that it was founded by three authors who felt that readers were often left out of the equation. My agent pitched the book to them (although any author can submit directly). One of the co-founders loved it and my crowdfunding journey began.’ And Claire points out that Unbound offers a more equitable arrangement than most publishers. ‘Unbound splits a book’s net profit 50/50 (after costs/retail discounts) with the author. With traditional publishing, an author is lucky to earn 10% of the cover price.’
But can you bring your indie team?
It’s likely, of course, that authors who’ve already published their own work might want to bring their own editors or designers. Georgia from Unbound says: If an author does have an illustrator or editor they have in mind, we always have discussions about this, and the best route to take.
The campaign trail
Clearly, everything hinges on how much the author can raise awareness. And this effort shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve been watching Claire on Facebook and she’s tirelessly producing interviews, posts and following up any lead that might create more exposure. ‘I’ve run a focused Facebook campaign on my author page, sent out a lot of emails to family, friends, friends of friends, written blogs on various sites such as FB historical fiction sites or indie publishing sites, made contact with my old school and university and contacted former work colleagues. As I am based in Australia, I’ve received a lot of support from students who’ve done my writing courses and writers I’ve worked with professionally. It’s been harder to tap into some of those networks in the UK.’
Salena says she was already well versed in selling and promoting her work. ‘I was in a band called SaltPeter for over a decade and we used to put out our own music, so I applied those cottage industry skills to the book, booking radio and gigs and promoting things.’ All the same, she says she remembers her funding campaign as full-on effort. ‘I worked my arse off. I hustled up hundreds of radio slots and gigs and events and festivals and talks and blog tours until I was sick of myself. When the book arrived I remember spending afternoons walking around book shops asking for it to be stocked; both indie shops and big chain stores too.’
Robert has managed to be more laid back, and says he mainly raised awareness through Twitter. ‘None of my Unbound books have had traditional reviews. They’ve not been featured in the traditional press in any way I’m aware of. I do a great deal of public speaking and sell books after these events.’ Reality check: he has 130,000 Twitter followers.
So it has to be asked: what proportion of projects fail to reach their funding target? Georgia says: ‘The success rate is 66%. There isn’t an obvious difference in the success rates between fiction and non-fiction; it depends on how active the author has been throughout their campaign, and how effective they are at communicating directly with their audience.’
With knobs on
One of the features of a crowdfunding campaign is the extra rewards for higher pledges. So what do authors offer? And when they have to fulfil them, are they worth the effort?
‘This was a steep learning curve. My assumption was that everyone would go for the cheapest option and no one would go for the most expensive. The most expensive options (tickets to exclusive events) were sold out within a couple of days. These involved complex and costly arrangements that were very stressful although we managed to fill 90% of our obligations to supporters. For instance, a picnic at William Morris’s house – there were so many takers we had to do it over two days. Since this experience we have wound down the top-level promises to events that are a little easier to set up.
Claire’s offering a range of goodies. ‘For readers I offer a double whammy of my first book and the novel for £75; for writers, I offer professional one-on-one mentoring sessions and a creative writing workshop in London; for general supporters, I offer the novel + a beautiful handmade Indian journal (which has been really popular.) I also offer ‘the story behind the book’ for £100 and some bigger pledges at £1000 for someone to be a patron. I think it’s important to have a range of pledges at different prices and for different sectors of your audience.’
All the same, Georgia confirms that some authors can be uncomfortable with the amount of self-promotion. But she provides some figures to help make the job more manageable. ‘The average book needs about 300 supporters. Authors have to be able to confidently pitch their book to their networks, including friends, family and colleagues. Some find it daunting to ask people they know to pledge money, so that’s something they have to really think about, and overcome if they’re to have a strong campaign.
‘The most effective way of driving pledges is through personalised one-to-one communication, usually via email. This does take a lot of time and effort, so authors find it helpful to create a plan and schedule. They then have to stick to it. It’s all about engagement, rather than broadcasting. If authors aren’t engaged with their fans, then they are less likely to see those fans pledging.
‘The campaign process has to be led by the author, as they are the best advocate for the book, and it is their network that will support the book in the early stages. But we do have resources we offer to authors as guidance and support throughout their campaign.’
Have you considered – or even tried – crowdfunding? Any thoughts to add? Questions? The floor is yours.
And finally, here’s where to find our people again. Unbound is here and is on Twitter as @Unbounders. Robert Llewellyn is most at home on Twitter where he’s @bobbyllew . Salena Godden is @salenagodden and her website is www.salenagodden.com . And Claire Scobie is, at the time of writing, in full campaign swing. You can find her on Twitter at @clairescobie and her Unbound campaign is here https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-pagoda-tree/
In this post at Jane Friedman’s blog, I outline the mindset and skills needed, some of the challenges you might encounter …. and most of all, why ghost-writing is an attractive option.
Rachel Anderson asks: How did you get into editing? Did you start writing first and then take on editing as a natural second, or was it out of necessity since there are more opportunities for editors than writers?
Oof, talk about cutting to the quick. It’s certainly tricky to make a living as a full-time writer. So most writers also use their wordsmithing in some other way – teaching or working in the publishing trade.
But does that mean all writers could be editors? Not necessarily. There’s a lot of difference between tidying your own work and shaping someone else’s to professional standards.
And you need different skills for the various strains of editing.
Copy editing and proof reading These are the nitpicky, forensic phases. Fact-checking and querying. Reading for consistency, clarity, correctness, house style, possible libel. The copy editor and proof reader are a human error trap – they have to catch anything that might be inaccurate, or would spoil the reader’s experience or undermine the author’s command. They have to spot anything that could possibly go wrong such as characters’ names changing half-way through, repeated passages from copy/paste mistakes, and snafus that no other human has yet encountered.
Rachel: I’ve been reading articles and stuff about developmental editing…
Aha – the creative stuff! For developmental editing, you need a mind for detail and a solid grounding in the mechanics of fiction (or non-fiction or memoir if that’s where you want to specialise – they need developmental editors too). Developmental editing is part diagnosis, part teaching. You need sharp radar for what isn’t working, and you need to explain this to the writer in a way that helps them solve it. Equally, it might be your job to solve it.
The best developmental editors understand how writers work and think – and this is where it helps to be a writer yourself, although it’s not an essential. You need to appreciate what havoc your suggestions might cause – for instance, if you recommend a writer rejigs a plot thread or combines two characters.
You also have to be a mind-reader – the best editors can figure out what the writer was aiming to do and advise them on how to achieve it. Or how to steer them to a wise course with their material. Developmental editors also need to be steeped in the genres they’re working with – the advice you’d give a paranormal writer would be very different from the way you’d direct a literary one.
Rachel: Do I need to get certification or training before trying to get people to trust me? Should I try to land a traditional job with a press or publishing house instead of (or before) striking out on the freelance path?
You can get training in copy editing and proof reading – in the UK a good place to start is the Society for Editors and Proof Readers . It’s trickier to learn developmental editing as it’s a matter of experience and I don’t know of any vocational courses. Even if there were, it’s the kind of thing you have to develop a sense for.
Here’s what I’d advise – read all you can about how fiction works. Join a good critique group where some of the members are working authors. Most freelance developmental editors, though, earned their spurs in a publishing house – so yes, I think this is the best path and it’s the surest way to prove to writers that you’re bona fide. And you’ll usually find yourself doing the copy editing and proof reading as well. Even if that doesn’t light your fire, it’s a useful string to your bow.
If you want to know more about the world of editing, you might like this recent roundtable from Indie Fringe 2016.
Are there any editors out there? What would you add? Aspiring editors, what would you like to ask? And has anyone had bad experiences with an inexperienced editor?
Yesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.
1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.
Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)
So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.
2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.
How did they do that? By reading with awareness.
Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)
Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.
You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books, courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.
BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.
3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.
Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.
But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.
(Pic by MC Escher)
That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!