Monthly Archives: November 2010

Q&A on the ghosting life with Kelly James-Enger

Any freelance writers out there who haven’t heard of Kelly James-Enger?

Nah, I didn’t think so.

Kelly is a rock star among freelancers, working part-time hours while earning full-time pay and taking care of her two small kids. A former lawyer, she successfully switched to the writing life 14 years ago, specializing in health, fitness and nutrition topics as well as working as a licensed personal trainer and public speaker.

I was first inspired by Kelly’s writing a few years back when I devoured her book, “Six-Figure Freelancing,” a great guide to not only surviving, but thriving, as a writer-for-hire. Her newest book, “Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer‘s Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Co-Authoring Books,” offers solid advice on enhancing your freelance career with ghostwriting in friendly, let’s-chat language that walks newbies step-by-step through the process of setting up their first ghosting gigs.

Because I hope to add ghostwriting to my resume in the near future — and because I feel Kelly’s experience is so valuable — I asked her to do a Q&A for Write Around It All, and she graciously agreed. Thanks, Kelly!

Q: Even to many experienced writers, the concept of ghostwriting sounds mysterious and somewhat glamorous. What’s the reality?

Well, I wouldn’t call it glamorous. But I’ve found it’s an excellent way to write books and make good money in less time. Most celeb- and politician-authored books are ghostwritten, but those books are only a fraction of the ghostwriting work available. Experts of all stripes (doctors, lawyers, accountants, financial experts, you name it) hire ghostwriters to get their books in print, whether they’re working with traditional publishers or using POD, or print-on-demand, publishers. Publishers, book packagers, corporations, and non-profits hire ghostwriters. And ordinary people (I call them “Everyday Joes”) use ghostwriters to author their memoirs, family histories, self-help books, etc. I’ve never ghostwritten for a big-name client, but I’m plenty busy ghosting for experts and everyday people who want to become book authors but lack the time, writing ability, or both, to do so.

Q: It’s always easier to snag a gig when you’ve done a project like it before. But there needs to be that first time — especially with a book. How do you make it happen when you don’t have a track record in book writing?

Yes, it helps to have authored a book, even if it was your own book. But if you aren’t an author yet, you can ghost other things — articles, blog posts, speeches, etc. — to gain experience in writing in someone else’s voice.

Q: What are the best qualities to have if you’re considering becoming a ghostwriter?

Great question. First off, you have to be able to write like someone else — and that’s a challenge! You also have to have project management skills, especially if you’re writing a book or other lengthy project. Part of ghosting is keeping your client on deadline as well (say, returning chapters to you in a timely fashion), and that means you have to have some “client management” talents as well. A collaborative spirit is essential — you have to enjoy working as a team! And you have to not take things personally. I’ll state my opinion about how to approach a chapter, for example, but my client has the final say — and I’m fine with that.

Q: Do you need to accept ridiculously low pay for your first ghostwritten book just to get your foot in the door? What is reasonable?

I hope not! I’ve had offers as low as $2,500 for an 80,000-word book — I turned it down. I think it depends on how much work you’re doing (i.e., is the client providing you with background material, for example?), the complexity of the subject matter, the length, and the deadline, but even starting out, I don’t think a writer should take less than $5,000 for a short, relatively-easy-to-write book. At this point in my career, I typically charge $5,000 to $10,000 for a book proposal and $15,000 to $35,000 for a book, depending on those factors. (And I try to get a share of the royalties when the book is traditionally published.)

Q: If a client stipulates that you can’t take credit for the book in any way, or even tell others you’ve helped write it, how do you use the experience to your professional advantage?

That’s a tricky one. I’ve always asked clients if I can use their book on my resume/CV, and so far everyone has been fine with that. If that wasn’t the case, you could still say you’d ghosted a best-selling nutrition book (or whatever it is).

Q: Is there ever a point when you burn out from the ghosting process — dealing with clients, editors, and possibly-changing demands?

So far, no — at least not as far as ghosting goes. Each client is different and I will say that some are higher-maintenance than others. What I do to try to avoid burnout is to make sure I haven’t overloaded myself with work. I’ve found I can work on two ghosting projects at a time, but three would make me insane. (In addition to ghosting, I write my own books and promote them, write articles, do speaking gigs, and teach classes. Plus I have two little kids at home, so I only work a part-time schedule — but strive to make a full-time income during that time. When I ghost, I don’t have to promote the book as well, just write it. And that makes me far more productive than if I was only writing my “own” books.)

To purchase Kelly’s book on Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Goodbye-Byline-Hello-Big-Bucks/dp/145372480X/ref=sr_1

For Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Goodbye-Byline-Hello-Bucks-ebook/dp/B0046ZRKNK/ref=sr_1_3


Please don’t make me pitch

Last year, during a lengthy dry spell in writing assignments, I decided I’d take the time to pitch ideas to just about every major magazine in which I’d ever wanted to be published. What the heck, right? I had nothing to lose.

Except, perhaps, my time. But time was something I had far too much of. So I started brainstorming for ideas, coming up with what I thought were novel spin-offs of perennially popular subjects in all the women’s magazines: health, family, parenting. I pitched articles on Reiki for rescue dogs, on spanking, on 13 traditions to start the school year. I pitched an article on cyberchondria that even mixed in my husband’s experience with temporary paralysis. I pitched so many ideas that I needed to create a spreadsheet to keep track of them all.

I had high hopes, of course, but I also put a great deal of effort into my queries. As writers know, we (typically) can’t just dash off a two-line letter to an editor with our brilliant idea and hope it sticks. There’s research to be done, and sources to be lined up. There’s a coherent structure to lay out.

And for some of these magazines, even that’s not enough. They want a full-length proposal that practically requires writing the article before you know whether they’re going to pay you to write the article. They know they have the upper hand, and they use it to their advantage. Many writers — many experienced, talented writers — scramble around doing this spec work on the very off-chance they’ll get the golden Yes from these editors.

I willingly threw myself into this glut. Hey, no guts, no glory, right? Well, maybe. But after all my work, all my time, let me tell you how many magazine assignments I got: one. One article, to a regional magazine. I was happy to get it, and I enjoyed writing it. But still, I felt gypped. Overall, I felt like all that time was wasted.

I feel even more strongly about that now, especially since I embarked on a letter-writing campaign this summer that netted me clients with a shockingly higher rate of success. We call them LOIs in this biz — letters of introduction. We’re trying to get ourselves on an editor’s radar, to simply say, This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, and if you need writers, call me.

When I did hear back from them, I already knew two things: they needed writers, and they liked my portfolio. Another bonus is that these editors typically have a steady string of assignments to offer, not just the one-off project to complete for a magazine before getting right back on that hamster wheel to pitch again.

I know it would be foolish to abandon pitching altogether. But these days I’m reserving this tactic for truly unique ideas that literally scream how compelling they are in the midst of all the other noise out there. The best pitchers, after all — the real ones — tune out the noise of the crowd to deliver their precise, well-timed fastballs.

I’ll take a lesson from them, but I’m not going to wear out my arm in the process.


Networking: A necessary nightmare

You can probably tell from the title of this post that I’m one of those writers who likes to stay holed up in my house having as few social interactions as possible. Is that as pathetic as it sounds? Didn’t the Unabomber do the same thing?

The stretches of quiet are necessary for the job, of course. And I am on the phone a great deal interviewing sources — does that count? But this work model leaves out a very important element of success — networking.

When the Great Recession of 2007 finally dried up my previous client base in 2009, I think I understood for the first time how damaging it was to avoid networking. After all, who you know is often much more important than what you know. And I knew diddly-squat. Almost.

Social media has filled some of the gap. I Facebook, I Twitter, I blog. I’m on LinkedIn and Plaxo. And I like that I can do all of this from my comfy chair. But none of that has the same impact as face-to-face interactions. Nothing beats that intangible energy between people who “click” and realize they can help each other.

I get that. So I’ve gone to a couple of meet-and-greets over the past year. And last week I stumbled over the Holy Grail of events tailored for writers like me: Word Nerd Networking.

Run by career coach Steph Auteri and social networking “thug” Marian Schembari, Word Nerd had me at hello. It’s appealing to all the other writers, editors, agents and publishing people who want to projectile vomit when they think of a networking event. And it promises, speed-dating style, to take that nasty feeling away.

In case you’re interested, it’s next Wednesday, Nov. 17, from 7 to 10 p.m. It’s also at a fun venue — Galway Hooker at 7 E. 36th St., NYC. For ticket info (it’s all of $5), visit http://wordnerdnetworking.eventbrite.com.

OK, that’s the end of my plug. But I’m going for selfish reasons. Even if I have to leave my house to do it.


Should I unsubscribe from my newspaper?

We arrived home last night from a weekend away and I immediately got started doing the odds and ends that always await us after a trip, however brief. There were the suitcases to empty, of course, and the phone messages to listen to, and the mail to sort.

And the four newspapers piled at the bottom of our driveway.

But we were gone for only two days — not four. Rolling up the driveway, my tires crunching over the plastic-wrapped bundles, I realized I had never gotten around to picking up — much less reading — the papers from the two days before our trip, either.

I had simply been too busy — and more to the point, I had gotten my “news fix” online during that time. I hadn’t needed the newspaper to stay on top of the world, my state or even my little town. Everything I needed had come from the Internet.

Now, this trend is not news. Newspapers have been in decline for quite a few years for this very reason. Almost everyone consumes their news online these days, even if they supplement it with a newspaper or two. So why does it distress me to realize I no longer need my newspaper?

Because newspapers used to be my home. I not only wrote for the one gracing the bottom of my driveway, but a smaller daily paper before that. As a writer, I cut my teeth on newspapers, and the pace and camaraderie of the newsroom is something I will never forget. I had vowed that nothing could duplicate the feel of newsprint between my fingers or the relaxation of reading the paper with a cozy cup of tea beside me.

I saw the freight train of change, and I thought I would push it aside. But I hopped aboard just like everyone else. And you know what? I like it just as much. My laptop is my personal mini-heater as well as my information portal, and there is a certain coziness to scrolling through my favorite websites with a cup of tea beside me.

And the speed? Could never be duplicated by a newspaper. By the time the paper is printed, in fact, the news inside it is old. Online, in many cases, those same stories have been updated several times by the next morning. There’s really no comparison — or contest — between the two anymore. Maybe newspapers will adapt or specialize in a way that keeps them afloat, but I don’t think they’ll ever be the force in American society they once were.

Still, there’s a pang of sadness, of nostalgia, in understanding that. There’s resignation, but also eager acceptance. Either way, I guess the old saying really is true: You can never go home again.


Reality check

Some people get a dreamy look on their faces when I tell them I’m a writer. Even friends change their tone of voice when they ask about my work: “How’s your writing going?” can sound suspiciously like “How’s your vacation going?”

It’s the popular notion that writers tranquilly spend their days in their PJs, occasionally looking off into the distance to think of just the right words to express themselves. Um, no. The time I spend tapping on my keyboard often only follows frenzied arrangements for interviews, transcribing notes, researching multiple topics and making sure my to-do list is set up to do it all over again tomorrow.

So, what these people are thinking about my work life is “Ahhhh . . .”

When in reality, what I’m often thinking is “Ahhhhhh!”

Add in the WAHM factor and “tranquil” is about as accurate a description of my work day as it is for a traffic cop in the middle of a four-way intersection. Today and tomorrow, for example, my kids are off from school for the NJ teachers’ convention. Translated, that means a four-day weekend — for them.

It also means there are four teenage boys in the next room raiding my freezer, making inappropriate jokes and loudly yelling at TV game show contestants they think are stupid. And two tween girls up in my daughter’s room blaring Justin Bieber music, giggling wildly. And me thinking that somehow I’ll be able to tune all this out enough to write two articles before 11 a.m. tomorrow.

And I will, even if I’m still writing at 9 pm tonight. But I won’t correct people’s misconceptions of my work. After all, I am sitting in my favorite leather chair right now wearing a cozy fleece sweatshirt and listening to the rain tapping on my windows as I tap on this keyboard.

Hey, I never said they were all wrong.


The thrill of the hunt

I’m not a hunter, and I don’t like the idea of killing animals. Still, I have to imagine that standing over their “prize” is a hugely satisfying moment for hunters. They’ve likely gone to great lengths to bag their kill — often getting up before dawn, dressing in camouflage, preparing their weapon of choice, and waiting in silence for exactly the right moment to pounce.

Freelance writers are always on the hunt. It’s simply the nature of the business. We can’t be complacent about last month’s or yesterday’s accomplishments because there’s no guarantee that our prey will continue to line up in front of us. I once made that mistake — which is to say, I stopped marketing myself when my coffers were full. I could barely keep up with my existing clients’ steady work and told myself I didn’t have time to look for more. But that mistake left me right in the bullseye.

Then, in a month-long span, all my clients were gone. Poof. The economy played a role, sure, but I hadn’t cleaned my weapon in awhile, and my cupboard was bare. It was a vital lesson, one I won’t soon forget: Don’t stop hunting, no matter how full your belly gets.

Today is an especially delicious day because I just bagged a new writing credit — US News & World Report. Seeing my work there feels something like finishing a big piece of pie a la mode after an enormous Thanksgiving dinner. I’m stuffed, and the lingering taste is sweet.

For almost any writer, I think seeing our work in a well-known publication — where it will surely be read — is one of the best perks of the job. We want to be paid (and paid well), but we want to know that someone is actually reading what we’ve written. We want to have an impact. We want our work to mean something.

So I’m enjoying my full plate these days, and particularly this piece of pie. But after I read my article and posted it on Facebook and Twitter, I emailed another new editor to see if she’s interested in my writing. If so, well, I’ll just figure out a way to jam it in — there’s always room for a little bit more, right?

I may be standing over my fresh kill, but no way am I letting my gun get cold again.


Joining the conversation

I’m late to the party. And not even “socially late”  — really late, sneak-in-the-back-door late. But here I am.

This is my very first blog post. The number of newspaper, website and magazine articles I’ve written since college probably total in the thousands, but I’m a blogging neophyte who’s finally decided to embrace every possible form of social media.

Why now? Because there’s a massive conversation going on out there, an interesting, enriching conversation I’ll miss if I don’t show up at the party. Introvert that I am, I’ve been tempted to sit it out, thinking it will eventually lose its luster.

But the party’s just getting bigger, louder and more impossible to ignore. And I’ve decided I don’t want to ignore it after all. Write me a name tag and give me a noisemaker — I’m in.

I’m a wife, a writer and a mother who happens to work at home (everyone knows what WAHM means by now, don’t they?). And none of this is particularly remarkable. There are thousands, if not millions, of others like me whose multi-tasking skills have been honed to a science by folding laundry while researching a topic, or by phoning a source while stirring dinner.

Some days I question my sanity in deciding that this was the ideal. Other days — maybe most days — I feel it really is the ideal. It satisfies me to no end that I’m taking care of my family in all the ways I’ve always wanted to — in person, present and accounted for, and monetarily besides.

But still. There’s more to it than that. I’m running a one-person business, one where my kids may have to suck it up and wait for me once in awhile as I meet a deadline or take a call. It’s never that simple. In embracing both identities under the same roof, I have to embrace the imperfect nature of trying to. Repeat after me: I. Cannot. Do. It. All. Nobody can.

So this blog is joining the mighty conversation about writing, about freelancing, and about parenting while doing the other two. I can’t promise to be unique — heck, I can pretty much promise you I won’t be.

But I’m ready to come to the party, chat it up and make a few new friends. Maybe even dance once in awhile. Thanks for joining me.