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Posted on Feb 14, 2024

Panel Discussion — Ghostwriting Memoirs & Narrative Nonfiction

Below is the transcript from our live panel on February 9th, 2024, where Reedsy’s Head of Learning, Tom Bromley, discussed the ins and outs of ghostwriting memoirs together with two of Reedsy’s top ghostwriters, Alee Anderson and Kendall Davis. The advice covered includes how to get clients, how to build trust and deal with sensitive material, how much to charge and much more!

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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Skip to 3:56 for the start of the talk.

Starting out as a ghostwriter

Tom Bromley: I've been a ghostwriter for about a decade. I worked in publishing for a number of years and also did my own writing, and the two of those sort of came together. I have ghost written around 15 to 20 books, predominantly memoirs. The subject varies from celebrities, politics, economics, music, sport, and popular culture.

Tonight we have two brilliant ghostwriters joining us to discuss just that: memoirs. Firstly, Alee Anderson. Alee is a former senior editor with HarperCollins, and she's been a full time freelance ghostwriter and developmental editor since 2015. Alee’s clients have been published by everybody: HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Mifflin Harcourt, Hachette, Hay House, and Bella Books Alee, how did you get started as a ghostwriter?

Alee Anderson: My body of experience prior to starting to ghostwrite was editing. I was involved in mostly nonfiction manuscripts working for Thomas Nelson Publishers, which became a division of HarperCollins during my tenure there. I loved everything about editing, but I had a colleague who was a ghostwriter and my dream was to be a writer. I find it so rewarding, I still love editing but there's something different about sitting with somebody and processing through the story with them and putting it on a page. 

I’ve ghost written about 30 books at this point. My books are getting bigger and longer, so I think my ability to do so many per year will shrink.

Tom: Our second guest is Kendall Davis. Kendall is a writer and editor who's worked for several years in editorial at Penguin Random House. As a ghostwriter she has also written several memoirs. Last year she wrote an officially licensed Captain Marvel book released with DK Books in July last year. 

How did you get into ghostwriting in the first place? Was there a particular job or project that came your way or something else?

Kendall Davis: I was an entertainment journalist for several years during which time I've written for outlets like Nerdist and Geek & Sundry, so I went through those connections in the geek space and . 

I first started out in editorial at Penguin Random House. I never really thought that I wanted to ghost as I thought it was a huge burden to take on somebody else's story and to write it in an authentic way. At first it felt weird, but the process was so exciting. I realized that this was something that I wanted to do for a long time. Now I’ve written about 10 or 15 books.  Definitely not up in the thirties like Alee yet!

Helpful experience for ghostwriting

Tom Bromley: Do you think there’s a particular area or field of work that is useful if you want to become a ghostwriter?

Alee Anderson: Honestly, editorial. Being far removed from my in-house position, it's easy to not appreciate the time spent within the four walls of a publishing house, but the reality is that working with manuscripts in editorial taught me how to build them.

Taking these massive amounts of data, just words on a page, and professionally shaping them from the ball of clay that's been slapped in front of me into something better really prepared me for writing things from scratch.Truthfully, I find that writing is a little bit easier than editing now.

Kendall Davis: I totally agree. When I got started in publishing, I was really lucky to have a mentor who really showed me how to edit and take apart a book. He even brought me along when he would work with some of our authors that were writing their own memoirs. He’d tell me the things that he would do to push them to expand on something or would try to delicately walk around something that was perhaps traumatic or maybe a little challenging to think about. He was teaching me this with an editorial lens, but it translated easily into my work as a ghostwriter: from working on developmental editing to writing from scratch.



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Different types of ghostwriting

Tom: I don't know if you’ve had the same experience as me, but looking back over some of the books I've done, sometimes when I'm writing a memoir it feels like a straight ghostwriting job; you're sitting down with a client and a tape recorder and you're doing interviews. However, I've also done projects where it felt more hybrid, where there's been a bit of ghostwriting, but there's been a bit of editing as well. Sometimes the person has written some other book or you're rewriting. 

In your experience, what types of ghostwriting do you do? Have you had a range or has it primarily been a cleaner kind of ghostwriting gig? 

Alee: I find that my best relationships with clients are when they come to the table with nothing. I think it's really complicated when somebody comes to the table with 20,000 words written and they don't know how much of it you should use or what you could use it for. 

If I am going to be in a working relationship with somebody who's coming with content, I agree from the beginning that what they provide is just for context. If they want to do some kind of collaborative writing, that's a little bit different. 

The reality is that it's not any easier for me to build your book if you give me 20,000 words of garbage. I’ve found that keeping it clean that way has been really helpful.

And to your point Tom, I think the interesting thing about memoir is that it allows you to flex your creativity a little bit. I find that with my client interviews, they're very good at building these scenes. It’s really exciting to sit with a client and talk to them about their summer as a child in Michigan, and then go off and research the animals and trees that are present. Such a cool part of ghostwriting is the ability to build something out of nothing.

Tom: That's really exciting when that happens for sure. Kendal, have you had experiences where the ghostwriting has been less clean, where it's been a mixture of writing and editing? 

Kendall: Yes I have. I definitely agree with Alee that I like being able to start with a clean slate. Equally, I love it when they come to me with, for example, 20,000 words where they tried on their own. I think it's useful whether or not it gets used in the book because it’s helpful for me to understand how my clients think and speak.

The more that I can understand the succession of events, but also how they thought about it, how their brain reacted, how they're talking to themselves, and how they speak to others, the better I am able to help them see themselves and recognize themselves on the page. At this point in my career, it hasn't been detrimental when someone has come to me and said ‘here's something I've already written’.

Tom: From my experience, as Alee was saying, it's more work to rewrite something that isn't in good condition in the first place than to start with a blank sheet of paper or something.

I have also done collaborative ghostwriting where I worked with one person who was a fantastic writer himself, but was too busy to write the whole book. We wrote the book together and divided it by chapter and then we sent them to each other. That was quite an interesting, creative thing, but I suppose that was different to someone coming in with 20,000 words of badly written stuff that is going to take a lot of time to sort out. 

I think it's quite interesting that people sometimes have an idea of ghostwriting as being one particular thing, but from my experience, it can be a sliding scale of editing or rewriting elements too.

Getting clients (who are right for you)

Tom: I want to talk a little bit about choosing clients and how you decide which books to work from. This is a two-part question: firstly, I’m curious to know where the majority of your gigs come from. Are people approaching you? Are you approaching them? And then Secondly, when you get a prospective client, how do you decide whether this is a project that you want to take on? 

Alee: The majority of my clients come from Reedsy, but I've also been on a lot of podcasts. I also get people coming to me from having books on the market. 

As a ghostwriter who mostly does grief and trauma, I have to be very careful with the people that I partner with solely because their mission is what matters to me. You probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that I have a lot of people who come to me to write things about their ex-husbands or ex-wives or their jilted lovers. That's not a mission for me to get behind. I really like people who are looking to catalyze systemic change or add to a cultural conversation. That's really the starting point for me in terms of whether or not somebody is right for me. 

A successful relationship, for me, starts in that choice of whether or not to move forward with somebody. I have learned to be very cognizant when coming into contact with somebody and my body will tell me ‘this is the wrong person for you’. It can be the way that they're handling the initial conversation or when I ask how they provide feedback and they say they're really direct, which usually means that they're super mean. I've learned to hold myself accountable to not going down that path if I don’t think it’ll work out. 

I think as ghostwriters and freelancers, money is important and we get stars in our eyes when we see the dollar amount that somebody is willing to pay you. But there's no amount of money that's worth you being miserable for six months at a time. That lesson took me a long time to understand and I was miserable for many months before realizing that this is not going to be a fruitful relationship. I'm going to say no because that money is not going to come to me anyway because you're going to fire me or I'm going to crawl into a ball and die!

Tom: When I think about my own career, when you're looking for those initial gigs it's quite hard to turn stuff down. Have you found it easier to say no the longer you've gone on with your career? 

Alee: It has totally changed and my confidence has obviously become much higher with the work that I've done. I think it's also just me reminding myself that if I say yes to something that my body is saying no to, it's not going to work anyway and I'd probably get fired because there are specific types of people who want things from me that I won't be able to give them. I've also learned to honor the fact that I can be sensitive. Yes, I have thick skin and I get criticism constantly, but I also don't enjoy it when people are nasty to me.

Tom: That's really good advice. Kendall, same question to you.

Kendall: I also get some from Reedsy and  I have some professional contacts where either people will reach out to me directly or an agent or an editor at a publishing house will come to me and try to pair me with a project. 

When it comes to knowing if I'm going to be a good fit, I think that the initial meeting is really important. There are some obvious indicators that things won’t work out, like if they’re completely rude to me on the call, but there are some intangible things that won’t be obvious to start with too. For example, if they say that they ‘give direct feedback’, that can indicate they're mean. That's something that you have to just learn through trial and error. 

The more that I've been able to have those calls with people and hear them say things like ‘we need you to be fast, but we don't know what we want’ — having a lot of expectations for me, but zero expectations for them — or when people talk about what they want to do with their book, the better I have become at determining if a client is right for me. Hearing what their goal is from their book can help me decide if we should work together. Some projects were delayed by months because they were still actively processing past events, for instance. The calls that were meant to be for feedback become like therapy sessions. That's another thing I tend to kind of look for: where are you in processing the events?



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Managing client trauma

Alee: I feel like that's something that I can add to just because trauma is what I do. I am pretty careful initially to make sure that we are dealing with processed trauma and that my clients have a support team. In my experience, unprocessed trauma comes across like that on the page. So when you're writing something that's ongoing, it's very hard to isolate lessons learned or the greater impact of what they're processing.

I also have a form that I ask my clients to fill out that identifies whether they’ve been diagnosed with PTSD. Do they have a care team? As a ghostwriter,  when you're dealing with somebody in the middle of trauma, you're also signing up to trigger them because you're going to unfortunately bring them back to those moments of deep struggle.

So as a word of caution to anybody who is going to work on trauma: pay attention to that and recognize that your job will potentially trigger these people. So it's important to have conversations at the beginning.

Tom: I think that's really good advice, and Kendall as you were saying earlier about that idea of almost being a therapist, I've certainly had experiences with people who have started telling me stuff that they haven't spoken about before. I've been ghostwriting and after two or three interviews they start revealing additional information. You're not a complete stranger, but you're not someone close to them, so they feel they can talk to you in a free way.

It's quite a privilege but also a big responsibility and I've had experiences where I've said that it’s great you're talking about it, but I'm not a professional therapist. I don't know whether either of you have had similar experiences?

Kendall: Absolutely, I’ve had experiences where I agreed to work on a book if they spoke about their trauma with a therapist first. It can be really hard especially when they don't see that you’re not a therapist.

I spoke with a couple who had lost an infant  on Christmas day. It was a really gutting story. The wife went to therapy and was doing all this great work to deal with the pain of what happened, but the husband didn't do anything and said that he was fine. That was the point where I was like ‘maybe we should explore that a little bit more’. It was challenging because the point of the book was to not only discuss what happened to them, but to also help others in similar situations.

It's tough to figure out a gentle way to say ‘maybe we should explore some professional choices and pause the book to get you into a place where you can talk and we can write this book in a good way’. Like Alee was saying, you can read unprocessed trauma on the page and especially if it's something that was public knowledge, like this couple's loss of their child had been.

Ultimately it’s hard but when you can, you need to say ‘we'll talk, but I'm not your therapist’.

Alee: I've had so many experiences of this too. For instance, I was working with a couple, mostly talking to the wife. We did the whole book but at the very end, the two of them were divorcing. There was this moment where I sat with the wife and she told me that she hadn’t been honest about what the experience was like for them as a couple. So we went back through the manuscript and brought some more truth into it. It was interesting because I felt like things were a little cold in terms of being a couple.

The thing for ghostwriters early in their career is to pay attention to the fact that these relationships get very intimate, but it's important to remember it's not a two way street. In my very early career, I remember getting myself into trouble sharing with somebody. I think it's okay to self-disclose to a point, but it's also important to remember that this is a business relationship and you're dealing with traumatized people sometimes. 

In my experience, I had shared a little too much about myself and when we came to the last payment, this person decided to not pay me fully because I apparently “had an emotional time back in February.” It was so ridiculous, but ever since then, I've really trained myself to remember that it’s my job to take what you say and be the scribe. It's not my job to share how my day is going. Of course you want a relationship but remember it's a business relationship and  to be careful.

Being stuck between the publisher and client

Tom: This is a linking question: have you ever been stuck in the middle between the client and the publisher? I can think of a number of occasions where the client has told me information that is quite personal, which is good for selling books and making headlines and the publisher would want that included, but as the ghostwriter, I’ve almost felt a bigger responsibility to the client so I kept certain information out of the book. 

I always say to people, ‘once material is printed on the page in black and white, you can't take it back’. It's one thing to be chatting in a relaxed conversation but it's a different thing to see it on the page. I've sometimes found myself in the position where I felt the need to protect the client because if that material ended up in the draft, the publisher would be desperate to have it included.

Kendall: For sure. I think the key when you're a ghostwriter is that your client has to trust you. If they’re guarded in what they tell you because they don't know what you're going to do with it, then you're not going to get the book you need.

I had a client who was telling her story and there was material that would have made her story richer in a business sense and I knew one hundred percent that her publisher would want it included. I ended up telling her that what she revealed wasn't just some personal story but would also be really bad for some very close family members. I try to be as frank as I can with my clients. I don't know if I always make the right call, but ultimately I try to be clear that once it's in black and white, we can't unpublish it. Instead of putting it in the book — because it would have dropped an absolute bomb on her family and she wasn't willing to do that — I talked to the publisher. I was reserved but revealed that there was material that we should perhaps find a safer way to explore.

I've had another client that had this whole scandalous story that would have made her book so much juicier. We eventually agreed that her story didn’t make sense if we didn't include it. In that case it was vital to what was happening in her story. I brought in the publisher and we brainstormed how we could find a way to talk about this really sensitive thing in a way that made her feel safe and want to speak up. She didn’t want to talk about it, but without that material the story was missing a huge piece. The final product was probably not what me or the publisher would have wanted business wise, but we were able to agree on a story that made sense and helped our author feel safe.

Tom: That sounds like a good outcome for sure. Alee, have you had similar experiences stuck in the middle between what you think the client would want and what the publisher would like?

Alee: I had a really bad situation one time. I was working with an influencer who had a story about triumphing over a lot of adversity. It was the two of us having the interviews and her husband waited in the bedroom for seven hours each day while we met, which was super weird. I found out through this series of interviews that the root cause of all of this trauma was the fact that she caught her husband voyeuristically spying on her sister. No one knew, meanwhile I'm thinking this man committed a crime and I'm just sitting here listening to the two of them debating how we're going to tell this story without outing him as a criminal.

Getting into a situation like that where you suddenly have recordings that could be brought into a court of law at a point when I was new in my career, I didn’t know what to do So I just pushed it under the rug and wrote around it. But the result was a book that was pretty watered down because we were avoiding something super massive.

The question is typically what the right thing to do in that situation is. Is it just to drop the project and move on? I don't know. I still don't think I know the answer to that. 

Tom: I think every project is different and it's really interesting to hear what you did to resolve the situation.

The ghostwriting process

Tom: Each book has its own challenges to resolve and I just want to ask about your writing process. My normal setup is that I will do around 30 to 50 hours of interviews depending on the book. I then have the transcripts and shape the book around from that.

I tend to have a period where I'm doing the interviews and I try to keep them concise. I find that if the interviews are over three or four hours at a time everybody gets tired and the material isn't good. But I'd love to hear from both of you about your own process of how you go about doing the interviewing and the writing. 

Kendall: I also don't like to do long days if I can help it because it just makes you tired. What really works for me is to break it up into chunks and  have my clients tell me the story from top to bottom in a way that makes sense to them. That helps me see the narrative arc that they see and what they think is important. Then we'll take some breaks and it becomes more of a discussion where they'll tell me things and I'll ask them questions to fill in any gaps.

I'm always thinking how this is going to build up into a book. I'll try to get them to not just fill in knowledge gaps, but tell the story from a different angle. So ideally, I have the event from a proverbial 360 perspective that I can shape from there.

Tom: And how long does it usually take if you're writing a  standard length memoir? 

Kendall: Depending on the client, we'll have around 30 to 50 hours of interviews. If everything goes to plan, I'm usually able to get that initial book outline within a week or two.

Alee: I typically start with the outline, which is a series of maybe three two-hour meetings where I have the client tell me the story from a very high level. I encourage them to not go into detail, but just to give me kind of a series of events that make sense. I typically tell them that the outline will serve as a checklist when we go through our interviews later. We get a pretty solid outline in place. Then, depending on the client's preference, we either conduct the interviews over a series of three-hour Zoom meetings, or I have clients come to Nashville and we typically do three eight-hour days in a row. 

Because of the subject matter that I deal with, people really like to be in sweatpants and socks and sitting on a couch and wrapped in a blanket, just talking. It's a great bonding experience. We order junk food and spend time getting to know one another. Through that interview process, Iget to know their voices very well because we're not simply doing interviews. I often hear them on the phone with their kids, sometimes they'll bring a dog or their partner which gives me the chance to kind of create a lot of color and texture with my writing. 

I start with a chunk of sample material around 2,500 words where we can get on the same page about tone and pacing. I'm then producing the book in chunks of 10,000 words until I'm done. For the entire process, I typically quote six to nine months, but that’s subject to their availability. If you're somebody who can turn around content quickly, then the process will go faster. But if you are somebody who likes to take a month to feedback 10,000 words, that's obviously going to extend the timeline. 

I feel that sounds like I'm a content pumping machine, and in some ways I am. Having written as many books as I have and doing it for this long, I find that 10,000 words comes pretty naturally to me in about a six to eight hour chunk of time. It's just important for me to trigger clients as little as possible and to have an enjoyable time in some ways. Our processes are pretty enjoyable and as dark as the content is, there's a lot of light and laughter in my sessions.



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Q&A Session

Must interviews be in person or is Zoom fine? Is the outcome just as good?

Kendall: Zoom is fine. 

Alee: I agree, Zoom is fine. 

Tom: I think, for me, you need to be in the room and see them and get the feel for their experiences. 

How do you charge for ghostwriting services? The hours are extensive and ghostwriting is a highly specialized service. How do you avoid under-charging?

Alee: I charge $125,000 for a memoir. That is largely based on industry standards; you are highly specialized and as you gain traction with your work, you have to value yourself. The reality is, somebody might not pay you that amount of money, but  somebody else will. When I first started, I was charging $15,000 to $20,000 a book.

It’s a big chunk of your life and time and sanity. If you undercharge, you're going to be miserable and your work isn't going to be as good because the lower you charge, the more clients you have to take on to make a living!

So in terms of quoting realistically, start by looking at industry standards and being honest about your skill level. You will be surprised that you are probably undervaluing yourself, no matter what you're charging.

Tom: Do you always work for a flat fee or are there royalties or percentages included in that too?

Alee: That's a great question. No royalties. My deals are simple and straightforward. You, pay me 10 percent down and I get the full payment when I deliver. With Reedsy, I work with a schedule so that they're receiving continuous material in return for the payments.

Kendall: I also definitely work for flat fees. I tend to fall more in the range of undercharging for my services though. The issue is that you have to take on more work to accommodate for the projects that you are undercharging for, which will ultimately impact on your quality of work, so I've found it really helpful to have colleagues that I can discuss what’s happening in the industry and what they charge for different books.

It’s great to have colleagues in the industry that can help you understand what prices are standard and to remind you of your worth. It's super scary to say your fee and to get that number rejected! 

Alee: I agree. I get rejected constantly,  but even if I only turn around 5 percent of the people who come to me, that’s enough to make an amazing living and live the life that I want to live while pursuing the art that I’m passionate about. 

Have you worked on a memoir that is not by a known person, celebrity or something with news coverage?

Alee: Yes, I have. That’s a complicated question because platform does play into a publisher's decision. Your client might not be a celebrity but having that social capital is a driving force for acquisitions editors. The number one thing to remember when you're pitching somebody to a publishing house is that this is not being considered by a creative mind, it's a sales team that's looking at the book and deciding whether or not it's going to be successful.

They're going to place value on the social capital that you have. Your platform is gold to them. That part is often vital when you're thinking about pitching somebody who is not otherwise known to the media.

Kendall: Yes, a publisher is often looking at the client’s platform or they're looking at news coverage. I've definitely had colleagues work with clients that hadn't been in the news recently and weren't an influencer or celebrity, but their story was so incredibly unique or outrageous. So it's possible, but not usually something I work on.

Martin: I suppose not every client or author's goal is to get that big publishing deal. They might be writing it for all sorts of reasons.

Tom: Absolutely, some people simply want to have the story written down for their family or for records rather than wanting to end up on the bestseller lists. 

Alee: I find that with the self and hybrid options available, a lot of people are more interested than with traditional publishing. People don't like to know that they're going to finish their book and then it's going to be a year and a half before it's on shelves. They also don't like the notion of losing control. They don't like the low royalty rates. 

Most of my clients are people who are looking to kind of build a career as a speaker and what I always tell them is that a book on its own is a poor business investment, but if you’re willing to put in the time to build your platform, then the book becomes more valuable because you're able to get much larger fees for speaking. I have found that fewer people are looking for these traditional deals.

Martin: I had a previous guest who was a ghostwriter as well and one of his clients was a Hollywood plastic surgeon to the stars who wrote a memoir for the specific purpose of getting on  daytime TV and morning news shows. A book can be that foot in the door for a lot of speaking opportunities and other promotional opportunities.

Do you tend to work on one project at a time, or do you overlap projects? 

Kendall: If I'm working on a memoir, I tend to do one memoir at a time. Maybe I'll have a couple that I'm signed for, but I've staggered out the schedule. A memoir can be intense, particularly the first stages, so I really want to be able to focus solely on them. If I'm doing something like a gift book or a pop culture book, that's a little bit lighter so I can work on them at the same time. Overall, especially for intense emotional memoirs, I stick to one for my own emotional capacity.

Alee: I overlap. I typically have four that I do in a year, but I don't write two at the same time. So I basically have one going out when the next is coming in.

Tom: I try to keep them apart, but sometimes it’s difficult with a deadline shift or if a project takes longer than the other. It's quite hard writing two at the same time when you're getting clients whose voices are unique and separate without them merging into each other.

What level of completion do you usually take the manuscript to? To first draft and then pass it to an editor, or to final draft ready for a copy edit? 

Kendall: It depends on what me and the author are working out. Typically, if I'm working with an agent I send it to an editor. So I would do a good first draft that’s probably more like a second or third draft; something that's ready for the editorial process. I wrote the material so if I'm also editing it, I feel like you miss a step. I do a self edit but I typically send it to an editor after I'm done.

Alee: Because I’m also an editor, my final drafts are pretty tight. I would say it's much closer to a final draft, but with the caveat that, nothing is ever final. If they're handing it to a publisher, it will get moved around!

Reasons to ghostwrite

Martin: Because you all talked about moving from different aspects of publishing, from editorial largely to ghostwriting, and it seems you're largely happy with the move, I just want to know if you can remember any great moments while you were working? That sort of magic transcendent moment of ‘this is precisely why I got into this kind of work’. 

Tom: I've done books with quite successful people, so you find yourself in different countries, in different situations, and you're in someone's house and you just think, ‘this is really weird, why am I here?’ It's also about when it gets published and you read the review or you see them talking about the book on TV and you feel that you've managed to capture their voice and you feel that you've done a good job. I'm happy when they're happy with the product that you've produced for them!

Kendall: I really love getting to know the people that I'm working with and getting to hear them tell their stories. There's something really magical about when you start collaborating to form a new book. Almost every book I've worked on the client will say ‘I didn't know how you're going to turn my story into a book’ but they can see it coming together. Ultimately holding it in your hands is so rewarding.

Alee: I had a moment when a potential client came to me whose therapist had given her a book that I wrote. I ended up working with that client and we wrote a beautiful book together. That was such a cool moment for me, knowing that somebody had found healing and a doctor had found enough value in my book to recommend it.

Martin: Amazing. I think that’s all we had time for today. Thank you everybody for joining. We’ll see you in the next live.


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