What a Ghostwriter Really Does: Alice Sullivan

This week's #CuriouserFave is my friend and editing mentor, Alice Sullivan. She has worked on right around 1,300 projects, 11 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Today, she's going to talk about ghostwriting. 

Without fail, at least a few times a year during networking events or in exchanging niceties with strangers, this exchange happens:

Them: Hey! My name is So-and-so and I’m a banker/plumber/doctor/contractor. What do you do?

Me: My name is Alice, and I’m a ghostwriter.

Them: A what? So you write about ghosts? I think I saw a movie about that.

I’m always amused at the responses, but it also reminds me that there aren’t very many people who do what I do, so it’s a perfect teaching opportunity.

Me: Nope. I write books for other people.

Them: Is that legal? Who needs someone to write books for them?

Me: Perfectly legal. There’s always a contract. And lots of people use a ghostwriter. Many politicians, pastors, professional athletes, reality TV stars, and CEOs need help to write their books. They just don’t have the time or the desire to do it.

Them: That sounds like the coolest job ever! 

They’re right. Overall, it’s a pretty amazing gig! Today I’m going to address some of the most common questions about my line of work.

Q: What exactly does a ghostwriter do?

A: A ghostwriter is someone who writes books, articles, updates social media, and produces any other written material that is credited to someone else considered to be the author. In the book world, a true ghostwrite means there’s no credit given on the title page or copyright page to the ghostwriter, though the author may mention the person in the acknowledgments with a general thank-you.

Q: Why would someone need a ghostwriter?

A: Many high-profile people use ghostwriters because they don’t have the time or desire to write their own books. Some call that being lazy, but honestly, it’s a win-win. The “author” meets their publishing deadlines and has a new product, and I get to pay my bills. Plus, there are other circumstances that warrant a ghostwriter. I’ve worked with individuals who’ve had serious medical conditions, such as cancer, and weren’t able to write. And I’ve worked with authors who are dyslexic and simply can’t write, due to the time and stress it would take to write a full manuscript. 

Q: How do you make money?

A: I can be paid several ways. Most of the time, my contract is with the author who pays me directly. Sometimes I’m hired by a literary agency or publishing company. And sometimes there’s a mix of money up front and royalties from the sales of a book.  

Q: Does it bother you to see your books in print and receive no recognition?

A: My first few years in the publishing industry, yes. I wanted to see my name in as many books as possible because I was just beginning to build my reputation as a writer and editor. Almost fourteen years later, I don’t care. My primary concern is to produce a great book that reads well while entertaining and educating the author’s audience.  

Q: How does the process work?

A: Sometimes the author has written an initial book draft, a few chapters, or an outline that needs to be completely redone and fleshed out. Sometimes we don’t even have an outline to begin with—only an idea—so I interview them, develop an outline, and fill in the chapters from interviews. It can take 3 months to 9 months, give or take, before a finished manuscript is ready to be edited.

Q: How do you write like someone else?

A: I believe I have a gift. Writing has always been easy for me. I wrote my first published article when I was six years old and I never stopped writing. And I’ve always been extremely observant of people’s behavior, language, and personality. When I accept a new project, my first job is to study the client. If they have any videos, a personal or professional website, previous books written, or a blog, I start there. My goal is to understand their personality, learn their vocabulary, and be able to emulate their voice because I need to be able to write as though I’m that person. It’s like the adult version of playing make-believe. I’ve gotten to be professional athletes, a reality TV star, politicians, and musicians, among other fascinating professions.

Q: Is it glamorous?

A: Not in my experience (yet), though it is extremely rewarding. Most days are spent working from home in pajamas, eyes glued to my monitor, writing someone else’s story. One day I hope to do the same from the deck of a yacht. I’ll let you know when that happens.