With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Kim Pearson
Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and the owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of polished, professional, and compelling books. She is the author of many books, including Making History: how to remember, record, interpret and share the events of your life; Dog Park Diary (ghostwritten for a dog!), Eating Mythos Soup, three short story collections, and the 7-book series The Haiku Book of Days. Her Author page on Amazon is: https://www.amazon.com/author/kimpearson. She has ghostwritten (for people) more than 45 non-fiction books and memoirs, which tell the stories of a wide variety of people and cover a broad range of topics, from saxophones to finance, city histories to hypnotherapy, psychic horses to constipation, and many points in between. Her online program “Learn to Ghost” teaches others the fine art of ghostwriting: www.LearnToGhost.com. Her blog From the Compost shares her musings about the writing and ghosting life: www.FromTheCompost.com. To learn more about her books or services, visit www.kimpearson.me.
You have a strong background in ghost writing with over 15 years experience and more than 40 titles! How did you get into this intriguing career?
The first book I ghostwrote, about 20 years ago, was for my own grandmother. I wrote the story of how she came to America as a child, her experiences as a “flapper” in the 20s, her housewife life in a tiny logging town during the Depression, and her volunteer service in World War 2. I interviewed her and recorded our conversations, and she lent me a box of old letters in spidery handwriting, plus about 30 photo albums full of pictures of people even she couldn’t remember. My grandmother was delighted with her book. She showed it off to all her friends, and one of these friends raved about the book to her own daughter, who then called me and asked me to do the same thing for her mother. That was my first paid ghostwriting job. I charged a tiny amount considering the time and energy I spent on it, but it was a great learning experience. For the first time it occurred to me that I might be able to make a living doing what I loved – writing – and had been doing “on the side” since I was a kid.
For those who are unfamiliar, can you give a brief overview of what you do as a ghostwriter? What does an average day look like for you?
There’s no such thing as an average day, because the ghostwriting process is unique to each project, and varies each time. I could be researching the topic, which I usually know little about at the beginning of the project; constructing interview questions; interviewing and recording my client; reviewing interview transcriptions; organizing the materials; writing a chapter; or responding to my client’s questions about the last chapter I sent them.
How long does it usually take to ghostwrite a book? What does the process look like? Do you work with both nonfiction and fiction?
Since each project is unique, there is no one answer to how long it takes to finish it. An average lead time for me for a book of around 200 pages is about 9 months — about the same time it takes to make a baby. But I’ve written books in less than 6 months. It depends on the length of the book, what else is on my plate, and the quality and speed of communication with my client. And other factors.
Regarding the “typical” process, here’s a brief idea of how it might work if a typical client did exist: My client lends me anything that will help me get inside their head, which may be anything from marketing materials to scribbles on napkins to videos of them speaking. I’ll then do some research online on their subject (I do not ghostwrite fiction, only non-fiction and memoir), prepare interview questions, and conduct and record interviews with my client (or others), usually on the phone. I have our conversations transcribed, then pore over all the accumulated materials. I’ll develop a tentative structure and write one chapter. I send the chapter and the structure to the client for feedback to make sure I’ve included what they want included, and have their “voice”. Then I’ll focus the topic, identify “holes,” and create titles, sub-titles, and so on, and finally write the book. I send the rough first draft chapters to my client to make sure I’m continuing down the right path. Then when the book is done I self-edit and rewrite, and send them the second draft, or third draft if necessary.
What are some of the challenges of writing for others?
Besides the challenge to your ego (you have no say about what happens to the final product you sweated blood over), a practical difficulty is that it can be challenging for ghostwriters to market their services. Even if you are an experienced ghostwriter, your portfolio of past work is often hidden from view. Many of your clients will be protected by confidentiality because they don’t want to admit they hired a ghostwriter. This is even tougher when you’re a novice. The basic problem with marketing ghostwriting is that ghosts are supposed to be invisible. But if you’re invisible, how do people know you’re here? How do you say Boo? This is one of the subjects I cover in my course “Learn to Ghost” www.LearnToGhost.com.
How do you choose which projects to take on? Does one project draw your interest more than another?
Ghostwriting requires intimate collaboration – you must move into someone else’s head and learn how to think like them. Not easy. So of course no ghostwriter can be a fit with everyone. I identified my niche early on. My #1 favorite genre to ghostwrite is memoir, preferably inspirational. My second favorite is to highlight small organizations, especially service organizations, and help them build their brand by authoring a book. I also identified who I don’t fit with. I don’t ghostwrite medical or technical books, unless they’re written for laymen, or ghostwrite scholarly research papers. I also won’t take on projects which espouse causes or beliefs that are drastically different than mine.
What I think I’m best at are books rich in storytelling, especially stories with historical elements. I’m simply a sucker for good stories, and I find it hard to turn them down.
You offer a course on becoming a ghostwriter. Are there any special skills a ghostwriter must have that differ from a ‘regular’ writer?
Writing for yourself is very different than ghostwriting. A ghost needs to write compelling prose that is close to another person’s voice, not their own. You need to put your ego in the background and write what is important to your client, in a way he or she might say it – only better. This skill involves more than writing ability. You must be able to ask penetrating questions that elicit sparkling stories and deep emotions. You must be able to listen compassionately to the answers, and then delve even deeper. You must be able to translate what you find in someone else’s head into written words that convey someone else’s truth. You must be fiercely dedicated to producing an excellent work of art, yet recognize that this work does not belong to you. A ghost is a different kind of writer. Not all good writers make good ghosts.
What do you hope your students come away with after taking your course?
I hope they fall in love with ghostwriting and become excited about helping others tell their stories and get their wisdom out into the world. (Non-writers have good stories too!) What I want for myself is to create a referral list of excellent ghostwriters I can personally vouch for – so when I have to pass on a job opportunity because I’m too busy or the subject isn’t a fit for me, I can still help prospective clients find a ghostwriter.
Have you found teleclasses to be an effective medium for teaching? What made you decide to take this format for instruction?
I originally started speaking and teaching as a marketing tactic, to get my name out there. But a lovely thing happened: I discovered how much I love teaching, both in-person classes and teleclasses, and how energized I felt when speaking to groups. I’ve given teleclasses on memoir writing, using historical details in your writing, and ghostwriting, for various organizations. My book Making History is based on the writing and history classes I’ve taught over the past 15 years.
The “Learn To Ghost” course is not a teleclass. It is comprised of ebooks covering many aspects of ghostwriting that I’ve learned doing this job, individualized personal coaching, and actual practice in ghostwriting (including interviewing) combined with personal critiques. Ghostwriting is an intimate collaboration, so I felt that a course in ghostwriting needed to be intimate and personal as well.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about ghostwriting?
Some people may think that hiring a professional writer will guarantee an offer from a publisher, or even a movie producer. I am just the “Word Woman,” yet after 16 years I know some things about the publishing industry. A big challenge in the beginning of a project is to give my clients a realistic picture of what they might expect, without dampening their dreams. Authoring a book is always rewarding, but those rewards are not always fame and fortune.
Another thing I wish clients knew is that I am not a Mozart who needs no revisions or edits (this is a Mozart myth – he revised and edited, just like anyone else.) Because people who hire ghostwriters are not professional writers, they often expect first drafts to be polished and so perfect they would make angels weep. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what does happen. Professional writers know the first (or second or third) draft is not the last, and that revisions and edits are the very factors that make them a professional.
Do you still receive credit for the work you do, even though it is published under another’s name?
No, the credit and the profits go to the author of the book, not the ghostwriter, unless this is negotiated differently upfront. Confidentiality is part of my standard agreement. I have ghostwritten a few books that credit me as “by XYZ, as told to Kim Pearson” which was agreed to by the author before we began to work together. I took a lesser fee to ghostwrite those books, in return for being allowed to use these books in my marketing efforts. But these were the exception. It can be challenging for my ego to not get credit, but it is fair – the stories or ideas I ghostwrite are not my stories or ideas, after all.
Are there any downsides of ghostwriting, for both the “author” and the ghostwriter?
Two downsides for the author are 1) ghostwriters are not cheap, because writing a book is a huge project calling for skill, art, and a lot of time; and 2) there is a stigma attached to ghostwriting. Because we all learned to “do our own work” in first grade, having someone ghostwrite your story can sound like cheating. In my opinion this stigma is unwarranted. Just because someone is not a good writer, hates to write, or doesn’t have time to write, does not mean that their ideas or stories don’t deserve to be shared in a book. The ghostwriter makes this happen, and can be seen as one of the author’s tools. However, not everyone will see it that way, and this is the main reason people want to keep the ghostwriter’s contribution confidential.
The biggest downside for the ghostwriter is that your work does not belong to you. Not only do you get no credit, your clients have control over what you write and how you write it. If they don’t want to tell the whole truth, if they want to make juicy details into safe generalities so they feel safer, I have to work with that. I may argue passionately for artistic integrity, only to be overruled by my client’s fear that they will upset Aunt Martha if they say “that.” It’s their book, not mine.
You can’t marry your writing. You can’t even get engaged to it. At the most, you’re simply dating. And if the book is published and critics say nice things about it, all you can do is smile and agree. You can’t tell anyone you’re the writer. If this will bother you a lot, ghostwriting may not be for you. (But I find that the benefits of being a ghostwriter far outweigh the challenges. Plus I find it good to be reminded that it’s not always about me.)
Do you have any projects or special engagements that we can look out for?
Besides teaching my “Learn To Ghost” course, I’m ghostwriting two books right now (one small and nearly done, one large and not even close), but due to confidentiality I can’t tell you about them. For my own work, I recently published a 7-volume set of haiku, the result of a 20-year haiku practice. Here’s a link to one of those books: http://bit.ly/HaikuWriters. I also just finished writing a novel in the magical realism genre, The Masks on Grandmother’s Wall, and my next step is to write a book proposal and get it “out there.” I have other projects in the works in various stages, but I’m not quite ready to talk about them.
Thanks so much for interviewing with us, Kim!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.