After The Long Road North came out in 2017, a man who read my book contacted me.
“Would you write a book about my life?” he asked over the phone as I walked around aimlessly in my backyard on a cool summer day.
“I certainly could,” I told him, before eventually working my way toward the big question.
“Would you be willing to pay me, Chris?” I asked.
“Of course,” Chris told me.
Not long after, I was sitting in Chris’ living room and going over the key events in his life. Over the next few months, I would then begin to transform his memories into a book.
Chris was a pleasure to work with, and since that point, I have had the good fortune of writing for a number of different people.
Some days, I feel good about what I have accomplished, and on other occasions, I’m reminded that there is still so much to be done.
That’s because when compared to some of the most successful ghostwriters in the business, it’s clear I’m not even in the same stratosphere as them.
Which brings me to Heather Hummel, a professional ghostwriter and one of the aforementioned industry leaders who spends her time traveling along the east coast of America writing novels for an array of clients.
So far, Hummel has written for politicians, real estate moguls, and other successful individuals.
But she didn’t achieve that level of success overnight, and she also didn’t spend her early career trying to become a ghostwriter.
“I was an English teacher when I graduated from UVA [University of Virginia], and for my 40th birthday I gave myself the gift of quitting teaching to become a writer,” Hummel tells me as we settle into our Zoom call.
“I started working on my novel, which was about an English teacher, and right in the middle of working on that and starting to pitch to agents, my mom became a well-known model. She was on the Today show and her story went viral.”
Hummel then paused her personal work to focus on helping her mom write her book and land a publishing deal. Together, the two created a book proposal and a few sample chapters, then submitted that material to literary agents.
Perhaps surprisingly, their proposal was quickly picked up by an agent.
“It was like a Cinderella story because we got picked up right away,” Hummel explains. “We got a book deal with McGraw-Hill a couple months later and that was an instant exposure to being traditionally published.”
At the same time, Hummel also finished and independently published her own novel.
“That was just when being self-published wasn’t as taboo as it had been,” she says.
With her mom’s new book Gracefully: Looking and Being Your Best at Any Age set to hit shelves across the country, and with Hummel’s name gracing the front cover, her career as a writer was poised to take off.
“That [getting traditionally published] opened all the doors for me, and here I am fifteen years later because having that first go-around with traditional publishing really helped,” Hummel tells me.
Throughout these last fifteen years, Hummel has amassed over twenty clients. Her workload consists of 2-3 projects per year, and she couldn’t be happier with how her career has played out.
“That initial experience [with McGraw-Hill] was good for getting me exposure as a ghostwriter and the street cred that you need to get clients who want to be traditionally published,” Hummel says.
Yet, for myself and many other ghostwriters, landing clients is not an easy task.
For context, it takes me anywhere from six months to a year to come to an agreement with a potential client. After that, it’s usually another three months before we even begin working together because finding time to meet and discuss the details of the book can often be a challenge.
Adding to that, many new ghostwriters struggle to generate business because they don’t have a body of published work they can use to market themselves to prospective clients.
For Hummel, she was able to overcome this obstacle because she had already been writing and publishing content for years.
“When I was teaching high school English, I was also a feature writer for a family magazine, which was pretty hysterical because I don’t have kids, never had kids, was as single as could be, but here I was, a feature writer for a family magazine,” she says.
“And what I learned from that was that I could write in other people’s voices. I could put Heather aside and write for the mommy reader.”
It’s clear then that Hummel’s time writing for the family magazine was pivotal in helping her shape and craft her mom’s book years later.
“My mother and I are very different people, so for me to be able to write her book, even knowing her as well as I do, it still wasn’t me. When you learn that you can put your persona aside and write for other people is when you could make a good ghostwriter,” she says.
There is a market for talented ghostwriters, and depending on the type of clients, ghostwriting has the potential to be profitable.
“It can be very lucrative. 70% of non-fiction books are ghostwritten,” Hummel notes, adding that finding a quality ghostwriter is just as important to the bottom line as working with a client who is popular and well-known.
“It reminds me of a wedding photographer. You can get someone to photograph your wedding for $200, or you can pay over $2,000,” Hummel says in explaining the difference in quality between ghostwriters.
“Because there are people out there who are willing to ghostwrite books for very cheap, they taint the industry, and they’re also not the ghostwriters who are going to get you the traditionally published deal.”
Consequently, this has created confusion for prospective clients who have been inundated with a variety of prices. Just like with interior decorators or health insurance policies, no two services are the same.
“A lot of times they [clients] are not educated in how the business works. People will come to me and ask how much I charge to do a book, and it’s never that simple. There are a lot of factors that go into it,” Hummel mentions.
She explains that if your client wants to go the route of traditional publishing, like she did with her mom’s book, it’s best to write a book proposal and a few sample chapters because many agents will want to know a book’s direction before it has been fully written.
Therefore, going so far as to write a whole book and pitch it to agents and publishers is not a good strategy.
As a ghostwriter, it takes Hummel about three months to devise a book proposal and then create a few key chapters.
“The book proposal depends on a client’s platform because there’s a lot of different elements to it. If they have had a lot of TV or radio interviews, podcasts, or articles written about them, that’s going to make for a much more substantial proposal. That’s going to take longer and all that factors into my cost,” she says.
Since Hummel works with prominent figures and household names, she says that while marketing the proposal and developing a vision for the story are crucial, she again mentions that it’s just as important for clients to make sure they are working with experienced professionals.
“A poorly written book will always distract from the message, and it will always gain negative reviews, so when people question whether or not to hire an editor for their manuscript, and they chintz on hiring an editor, that’s going to hurt them because you can have a great story and a great book, but if it’s covered in typos, that’s not going to help.”
That much is obvious, and yet, the criteria for being a quality ghostwriter involves more than just catching spelling and grammar mistakes. Hummel says that what a lot of writers, especially inexperienced ones, miss is the big picture.
“Even with my mom’s book, McGraw-Hill wanted the second chapter to be on arthritis and things that would appeal to old people. I was like, `what? That has nothing to do with the narrative. The story is about her becoming a model after raising six kids,’” she says.
Back then, Hummel discussed this point with her editor at McGraw-Hill, who subsequently agreed and scrapped the idea of inserting a chapter on arthritis.
“Even an editor at McGraw-Hill didn’t have a good vision for the flow of the book, so yes, while there are good writers out there, they may not necessarily know how to make a book flow,” reveals Hummel.
Of course, no ghostwriter comes into the profession with a dearth of knowledge on how to make it in such a cutthroat industry, but it’s people like Hummel who are helping expedite the trajectories of so many aspiring ghostwriters.
“If you want to be a ghostwriter, find your niche, find what you love to write about, and don’t stray from that. I learned too late in my career to not spread myself so thin,” she says.
“I’ve written for dating coaches, real estate agents, politicians, business leaders, and people all across the gamut, but only in the last year did I narrow my focus to business leaders. They make wonderful clients because they typically can afford you and they’re not as emotionally attached to the book.”
Hummel is right.
In my experience, people who are willing to spend more money make for better clients, but the reason isn’t solely related to finances.
These types of clients are also more apt to cede artistic control and let me write the story without placing restrictive guidelines on the text.
I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but nonetheless it typically is the reality.
Yet, regardless of who your client is, Hummel again emphasizes how imperative it is that ghostwriters work in their area of passion or expertise.
“Find that one genre, become an expert in it and you’ll barely need to market yourself because you’ll get word-of-mouth referrals in that type of industry,” Hummel advises.
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