“There’s an old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. Today, perhaps, that conventional wisdom has rarely had more meaning.” — Robert McCrum, “The Guardian”
A book or guest article in a leading publication will take any expert and turn them into a thought leader in no time flat, right? It’s not quite as simple as that.
In the world of PR and business, “thought leader” is a term which is thrown around quite loosely these days. Many industry leaders are publishing guest articles and books with the aim of raising their online social proof and reinforcing their personal brand. However, while business experts have piles of valuable information they want to share, few have the skills, time or energy needed to put pen to paper and write the book or article. Consequently, more than ever ghostwriters are being hired to shoulder the burden of extraction, ideation and writing. And all too often, authors’ books are being left devoid of their own voice and personal brand.
We are living in the “on-demand” era. As thought leadership and ghostwriting is on the rise, so are platforms and startups like CreateSpace and Upwork, which are offering the option of hands-off, “book in a box” style ghostwriting or self-publishing contracts. Through these services, clients can pay for a finished piece of work on a set theme or topic, with very little input or inclusion on their part.
But if someone else writes your book or your content without meeting or speaking to you, what are the chances of that material conveying your true voice and expertise? I spoke to TED Talk contributor and Blooming Twig founder, Dr. Kent Gustavson about the best tactics for “working with a ghost” to create valuable content that will really make an impact.
Write for a reason.
Between 2010 and 2015, the number of print books published per year in the United States rose from 114,215 to 573,965. This massive increase of books published can be explained by a number of factors, including on-demand printing providers, such as CreateSpace, Lulu, or LightningSource, which enable users to print books inexpensively, as well as the rising popularity of on-demand service providers, like UpWork, Freelancer.com or even Fiverr, where users can pay as little as $5 for editing or copywriting services. Nowadays, pretty much anyone with an idea, story or in need of a shot of publicity, can directly contract writers to write content, whether for guest articles in leading publications, or full-length ‘traditional’ books.
Just because you publish a book, however, it doesn’t mean that anyone is going to buy it. U.S. publishing industry sales peaked in 2007 and have either fallen or been flat since then. In a market inundated by hundreds of thousands of new titles each year, sales per title have plummeted. Once friends, family and clients have purchased a book, there isn’t much market runway left.
However, for many people who hire ghostwriters — be it for an article for a leading publication, a business text or an autobiography– it is not sales that they are interested in, but more-so the reputation which comes from having their name placed in front of the wider audience as a thought leader.
Kent Gustavson talks about the “priceless yet worthless” value of well-written and well-crafted books. He argues that a book can be priceless for the thought leader who sells their book in the back of the room. But the book will also be worthless if it is poorly written, poorly marketed, and sits alone in the author’s basement, or at the bottom of Amazon.com.
Ultimately, value comes from the content: “Many business books and articles are now being written with next to no input from the so-called author,” says Gustavson. “This ‘book in a box’ approach is not designed to create valuable material which offers real takeaways to the reader and unique thought and expertise. It is meant to stroke egos.”
The first step is to ask yourself: “Why am I writing this content and are my views, experiences and opinions going to be useful, interesting and new to the reader? Will this make an impact on the world?”
Gustavson leans on an example of Eric McElvenny, a former U.S. Marine who lost his leg to an IED in Afghanistan, and has since gone on to become one of the top Ironman competitors in his class.
While his story is amazing in itself, Gustavson advised McElvenny that without a target demographic and a deep reason for writing, there would be little value to his upcoming book, despite the incredible challenges he has overcome. This allowed McElvenny to write for a reason, tailor his story into an inspirational text which offers advice as to how to move past hard times, and keep on moving even when it seems impossible. In doing so he gives people a reason to read his book, and is able to channel his true voice through sharing his anecdotes and opinions.
Speak to a targeted group of people.
When writing any type of content, it is important to have a clear idea of who your audience is. If your content has real takeaways, the chances are that it is not going to be suitable or interesting for everyone.
“In ghostwriting, the cart comes before the horse,” says Gustavson. “The purpose and target audience should be set in stone before any content is created. Ask yourself who you are speaking to, why you are qualified to do so and whether your chosen writer is suitable to spread your message in an interesting manner.”
Highlighting your target reader demographic should be the first step in the process of working with a ghostwriter. It is important to choose someone who has experience in this style of writing, and who has preferably published this type of work before. Your target audience, and the strong takeaways that you want to place in front of them, should be obvious to both the ghostwriter and the reader themselves, from the very first page.
“People shouldn’t have to dig through hundreds of pages to find something useful to them,” continues Gustavson. “Not knowing who you are speaking to is the tell-tale sign of a vanity piece, which doesn’t really offer any value to anyone.”
Be part of the process.
Ghostwriting traditionally required a close relationship between ghostwriter and his or her employers. Testimonials from ghostwriters for public figures like Julian Assange and Donald Trump paint a brutally honest picture of the challenging and draining process of pulling out the information for the book through months of lengthy interviews, phone calls and transcripts.
However, in the era of “pay to play” ghostwriting, many clients are looking to make the process as ‘hands off’ as possible. But while not everyone has weeks to devote to the process, it is important to put aside time to converse with the writer, and give them as much material as possible — be it previously published content, diaries, memoirs, blogs and social media posts, YouTube videos or recordings of speeches or presentations — that will allow the writer to tell your true story.
Rather than simply waiting to be presented with a nicely wrapped final copy, those who hire ghostwriters should ask for regular updates. In the media and publishing industries, professional writers are used to rigid editorial processes including drafts, edits and changes, so ghostwriting should be no different.
A tell tell sign of “book in a box” style pieces is that they follow generic templates and lack an original style or flow. Gustavson states that a great ghostwriting or editorial team, if they are doing their job properly, will extract rather than contrive content. He says that great ghostwriters are able to channel their author’s voice and style, but that even the best ghostwriters should insist on an author’s candid feedback and rewrites.
Find the right match.
While you might not go as far as classic authors from the past, who often had live-in editors, it is important to have a close relationship with your ghostwriter throughout the writing process. The writer you choose should be experienced in writing the type of prose you want to publish, and more importantly resonate with the message you want to share.
On-demand services might streamline the process of finding affordable writers, but they also make the experience more impersonal. In the same way as Tinder makes it easier to meet new people, but dramatically increases the chances of uncomfortable dates, misleading photos, and bad matches, hiring a writer you have never met before based on an unqualified profile and potentially fabricated work history has its risks too.
Leaning on the dating reference once more, Gustavson states:
“You should put as much effort into finding a good match for a writer as you would a potential partner. In the same way as you are more likely to trust a date recommendation from your mother, or friend, you should lean on personal and industry contacts for writer recommendations.”
But as anyone who has ever been on a blind date will know, just because your mom thinks you’re a good match doesn’t mean you will really hit it off. Gustavson continues, “Finding a good match goes further than a strong resume, there should be some sort of connection there on a personal level, too.”
Leave a legacy.
Great content should outlive its author. For this reason it is important that content not only shares a strong message which is of value to the reader, but also that this message is conveyed in the style and character of the author.
Getting a book, article or any content written in your name is like getting a stone sculpture made of you, which will sit in public view for hundreds of years to come. You want the likeness to be flattering, but the finished piece has to resemble you. If it goes too far in either direction, ending up more like a badly-crafted Picasso or a Greek Adonis then eyebrows will be raised.
Always remember that the end goal should be for people to read and engage you about your content, so it is best that your true opinions and voice are included. It will change your impact on the world, and it will cement your legacy. It’s not every day that you publish a book or write an article for a leading publication, so put in the time and effort to make sure your voice and your vision remain at the center of the final piece.