Many business professionals who have published a book have found that it was a major career milestone; one that helped them put their career on a fast track to success. I’ve talked about this previously in my blog.

But the sheer effort of writing the text (called a “manuscript”) of your book can be daunting. Maybe you’ve started a book – you wrote an outline, a few pages of text, or a few chapters – and it’s stalled on your computer’s hard drive.

Working with a ghostwriter—someone who uses your ideas and words to create the manuscript—has several advantages:

  • Your book is more likely to get done during your lifetime :) , because your ghost is pushing you
  • The book will contain the perspective of someone who is new to your topic, and that serves your reader
  • The writing will almost certainly be better than you could produce yourself
Much of my own work involves ghosting articles, blog posts, eBooks and other content for my business professional clients. But to learn how business professionals can benefit from a ghostwriter of books, I contacted Jonathan Verney of The Corporate Storyteller Inc. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, from the perspective of a would-be author.

Friesen: I’m thinking of writing a business book, but don’t have a clear idea what it should be about. Is that something you can help with?

Verney: The answer is yes and no. You have to have some idea of what you want to write about and why. If you have no idea, it’s going to be hard for me to help you unless we spend quite a bit of time brainstorming. By that I mean we start with a kernel of a kernel of a kernel of an idea and then build that up into an actual idea.

On the other hand, if you have a good idea of what you want, then the brainstorming takes much less time, but I still brainstorm with you, because it’s my job to clarify your thinking before we start writing. I want you to think of me as your communications consultant, not just your writer.

Friesen: How do you define brainstorming, from a ghostwriting perspective?

Verney: Brainstorming is asking and answering a lot of “why” questions. They might include: What is the key takeaway you really want to get across with your book and why is that important to you? Why do you feel you’re an authority to talk about (subject X)? If money were no object, how would you use it to help improve your customers’ (or readers’) lives? Why do you believe their lives need improving? How would you like to be remembered, both professionally and personally?

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Friesen: Who organizes the ideas that make up the book? Is that part of your job or do I have to set out how I want this topic covered?

Verney: That’s mainly my job, although it depends on the client/ author. I help you organize your thoughts through a gradual process of asking questions. Again it ties into the brainstorming idea. I don’t have a fixed or structured set of questions. I tend to go with the flow depending on your level of articulateness, depending on your knowledge level, depending on your comfort level, depending on how you respond to my questions. Some people don’t like to have a lot of questions asked of them, some do.

I start with whatever idea you have, but I will tell you quite frankly whether it’s just an idea for an article, or whether it’s got the legs to be a full length business book. There’s a big difference between the two. A business book has to have multiple levels, multiple dimensions and oftentimes deep research on a topic, while an article is usually just one (intelligent) opinion about one aspect of one business topic. If you don’t know the difference, I’ll help show you the difference. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do my best to turn an article idea into a book, but I’m not going to force it or waste your money.

Ideas become structure by talking to you about what you think is the theme of your book or what might become the theme. We may discuss what’s been bothering you so much that you want to write about it or why you reached a point in your life that you want to write a book, and why it wasn’t, say, ten years earlier.

Specifically, in terms of structure, I develop an outline, usually a table of contents more so initially than an outline. Creating a table of contents is a great “forcing” exercise. A table of contents is very hard to put down on paper until you can actually see in your mind’s eye what the book might be about, and that’s a good process to go through.

The table of contents is never fixed in stone but it’s something that I show my author and it usually opens their eyes to “Oh yeah, this is great, this is a good flow.” Or it could be, “This isn’t exactly what I wanted to talk about.” So we restructure the table of contents until we get it right.

Once we’ve got a rough idea of how the contents might look, then I will proceed to write a preface or an intro, which is a description of why the author wrote the book, what’s in the book, why it’s different from any other book out there—and why it’s the same, in many key ways, as some very popular (read: bestselling) books.

Friesen: So, if the book is to be about 40,000 words, do I need to dictate all 40,000 words to you, or do I give you some ideas and you can somehow pump them up into a book from there?

Verney: It’s probably in between those two extremes. If I were to just get a dictation from you, it wouldn’t be much of a book. It would be a lecture. It wouldn’t be a very interesting lecture and I wouldn’t know the context of what you’re talking about. I could of course fluff it up, dress it up, make it look prettier, but it would ultimately be empty if it was just a polish of a dictation of 40 hours.

If you give me ideas, that’s great, but again I have to bounce those ideas back to you in order to clarify the context and understand the nuance. Everything is about context and nuance. Because everyone has ideas, ideas are a dime a dozen, but developing the right context and theme and platform for an idea is what separates a really good book from a forgettable one.

Friesen: How do I work with you—is it interviews and then you transcribe what I say?

Verney: The initial phone conversation is very free-form. It’s about what you really want to say, as opposed to what you think you want to say. It’s asking a bunch of questions about where you came from and where you’re going. I’ll ask you about your background, and your family life if it’s a memoir, but if it’s a how-to business book I might still ask you that because I’d like to know where you’re coming from.

I take notes on every conversation I have with you, but I’m also recording it so that I can go back and look at how exactly you said things, and there are times when that’s very important. So it’s a combination of free form and structure.

Friesen: What kind of research do you carry out?

Verney: Every client/author I’ve worked for has had a lot of great ideas and a lot of work experience. But there’s no substitute for deepening your story and ideas, and giving extra credibility to those ideas, by doing research.

This is proper business research, using credible sources like The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, or whatever is relevant to the topic. Why is this important? Because unless you’re a world-famous celebrity, the book is just one person’s opinion about a particular topic, but nobody knows who you are, so the credibility factor just isn’t there.

We need to show the reader that not only do you know what you’re talking about, but that you have a balanced point of view, that you are reasonably well-read, that you understand that there are differing views on certain topics, and you are happy to bring those views into a given chapter, depending on how useful they are. So research for me is deepening and enriching the thoughts and ideas of the client/author.

Friesen: How much of my time will you need?

Verney: There’s no set amount of time. It depends on the author. My general rule of thumb for a business book is six or seven months, but it varies. I require weekly phone calls initially (sometimes daily phone calls at the very beginning), and then as momentum builds it can become biweekly over the remaining months. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it keeps me on track, and it keeps you on track.

We might be looking at a couple of hours per call for the initial free-form conversations where we are trying to work out an angle, work out a theme, and work out a positioning for the book. Later on it’s usually just an hour per week. I don’t know how many hours that ends up being exactly but it can vary anywhere from 20 to 60 hours of client time. It depends on the author.

Friesen: How would you suggest I prepare myself for these weekly calls?

Verney: It’s all based on the table of contents initially. In terms of the intro to the book, I’m going to need background as to what you’re trying to say, why you’re trying to say it, why the book is better than other books that are out there, and yet why is it similar to books that have done well and will have a readership. That’s what the top publishers look for, so we need to think that way even if the book is to be self-published.

In terms of preparing for interviews, I generally don’t submit key questions in advance so you don’t have to do a lot of preparation. I may send you research material and their links, or questions that I need answering, but I don’t stick to that in terms of the structured conversations.

So the emails will help you prepare but you will also be getting draft copy based on previous calls. That will often twig new ideas, new thoughts, and make you see things from a fresh perspective, in many cases for the first time. So, that will help you when you are on your next call with me.

In the early stages, I’ll also ask you about business or fiction books you like, and why. It helps me understand your tastes. In many cases I will go out and buy one or two of those books because I want to understand what you like, so I can get an approximation of the voice, tone and style that you like, or the way the topic is covered by an author you like.

Friesen: What tends to get in the way of making the book happen?

Verney: If you get too busy to be interviewed, that slows things down to a crawl. If you’re preoccupied, if you’re not prepared to have an uninterrupted hour on the phone or in person with me, that’s a problem. I make it clear at the very beginning that that’s an essential part of the process. I find that 90% of the time it holds up. Obviously 10% of the time there may be an emergency, there may be critical meetings, whatever. But generally speaking when a ghostwriter establishes that upfront with the author, the author understands and parcels away uninterrupted time.

Friesen: How much does it cost?

Verney: If it’s a full-length business book, 200 to 300 pages, it runs anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000 (or more in special cases depending on the scope of the project). I work on an initial deposit, plus a monthly retainer, which is roughly divided by the number of expected months to completion. What you get for that fee is my uninterrupted focus, time, expertise and perspective. If I do anything else during that time, they’re very small projects and won’t get in the way of writing the book with you. I never write two books at the same time. I just don’t think that’s doable for me, personally, and I don’t think it’s helpful to creating a really good book.

What you also get for that fee is in-depth research that’s current and that you’ve likely not seen before, along with fresh quotes and stories if and where necessary. The point is not to lose the author’s voice but to deepen and enrich it. Writing is a process of discovery. You carve away at the stone until all that’s left is (hopefully) a beautiful statue. Everyone is more eloquent in print than they are in person, for the simple reason that writing is a multi-dimensional process of thinking and polishing and iterating and revisiting until the words fly off the page.

Friesen: How do I either find a ghostwriter or determine which to work with?

Verney: One way to find a ghost is start asking friends and family. It’s not always the best way because lots of people call themselves “ghostwriters” but most do not have experience writing multiple books and even fewer are experienced business book ghostwriters. It takes skill and experience to structure and organize a book.

So you learn from that experience and move on to more credible sources like LinkedIn and professional ghostwriting associations where they list business book ghostwriters who do it fulltime. Or just Google “business book ghostwriters.” LinkedIn profiles give you an opportunity to see a ghostwriter’s credentials, see how they think, write, what they’ve published, which organizations they’re members of and who they’re linked to and so on. You’ll find quite a narrow group, as opposed to searching for ghostwriters in general, which opens up the door for all kinds of people, many of whom, as I said, are not really ghostwriters but, put call themselves that because they’ve written a one-page blog post for somebody.

Friesen: What’s the first step? How do you hire a ghostwriter?

Verney: You don’t. That is, you need to get to know a ghost a little bit before taking the plunge. You need to develop a level of trust and comfort and belief that you can work with this person for several months. You don’t need to become friends with your ghost. In fact, that can be detrimental, because they need to be Devil’s advocate at times or the book can become very narrow and one-sided. And you need to believe that your ghost shares your vision; or at the very least understands what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it. That comes with asking lots of questions. If your ghost doesn’t seem to be asking enough of them or asking the right ones, stay away.

A couple of forty to sixty minute phone calls (coupled with a look at their credentials and samples of their work) should be enough to establish a baseline trust and belief. Don’t rush in to the process, but don’t dawdle either. Pick someone you are comfortable with and who makes you think. After all, working with a ghostwriter is not only a process of discovery, it is a true collaboration. You’re partners with that person for an extended period of time, so mutual compatibility is important.

Friesen: Thank you for your time, Jonathan. It was most enlightening.