October 6th, 2008

Ghostwriting 101

My dad has finally figured out that my mom gets her consultancy business into the land of stress and all night marathons because she's never learned the basics of how to deal with clients and how ghostwriting really works. This comes from her spending most of her career running large newspapers - where editors are treated like gods and people simply do what you tell them because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

Editing or ghostwriting as a consultant is a very, very different animal. So, he asked Rome Girl and I for "Editing And Ghostwriting As A Freelancer For Dummies." Here's a basic roundup of the advice we sent him, but I'm willing to hear and pass on any additional advice other freelance people may have.

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Keep organized, maintain constant contact with the client and do a little bit of work every day - rather than trying to do large chunks of work at a time.

Send each chapter off at a time and get client feedback before moving onto the next chapter, because that prevents you from getting into a situation where you have to go back and make huge style changes on large blocks of copy.

If you are sending the client small amounts of copy every day or every other day, he or she always has a sense of where you are in the timeline of things, so there are no deadline surprises. If it looks like the deadline will have to be pushed back it will become clear to both you and them well before the original deadline, which allows both of you to figure out how to adjust things.

The simplest and most secure way to back things up as you are writing is to create a gmail account and email the work to yourself as you do it. That stores the backup on Google servers - which means even if your house was to burn down, you'd still be able to get at the files.

Figure out exactly what the client needs before you start and get your ducks in a row. I.e., if they need the book paginated, and you don't know how to do pagination, find someone who does and get them on board before you write the first sentence. Then, send them the copy as it is approved by the client. Even if they don't start paginating right away they'll be involved in the process and know what's coming which will allow them to be prepared. The same goes for any element of the book. For example, in this case, I would have hired the translator on Day One and started sending them the copy to translate in small blocks as it was approved. This would have streamlined things a great deal.

Be very, very clear with the client about what you can and can not do. Nothing makes a project more stressful than over promising or trying to figure things out as you go. And, most clients appreciate honesty and will give you more business down the line because you admit what you are not good at - it makes them believe your promises in the future.

Don't get blinded by money. When they are in a rush position clients will often offer what seems like a huge amount of money to get the job done in weirdo ways on weirdo deadlines. But the extra money is almost never worth the extra pressure if you can't realistically do what they want in the time frame they are requesting. Giving the better product is always a better idea than turning in a product quickly for an arbitrary deadline. Even if that client doesn't hire you again, he or she will mention the great job you did to other people, which will bring money in down the line.

Set up a tiered payment system. Don't take all the money upfront or at the end. It just creates stress. Ask for a deposit of some sort up front and then build in several delivery milestones during the project. For example, ask for 25 to 50 percent at the start of the job and then 25 percent when a third of the book is approved, another percentage when two thirds is approved and the balance when the full project is approved. The payment milestones will help keep you to your schedule and again, keep away the distraction and tension of "the big payday" blinding you.

Never have a single file that is more than 10 pages long. It's always possible even with gmail backup for a single file to get fucked up. It happened to me last month. It will still suck to lose 10 pages, but this way that's the most you'll ever lose.

Try to avoid having any discussions of expectations or requirements over the phone. If you can, always have those discussions via email so there is a written and dated record of what you have and have not promised the client that you can refer to down the line.

Before you start writing ask the client to send you two to three samples of writing they like. They can be small samples - a couple pages of three different books will do. This is will help you get a better sense of the style they'll like before you start writing.

Also, make sure they understand that when they sign off on a section that it's done, the end. Sometimes clients will look back on Chapter One while you are in the middle of Chapter Eight and then decide they have some great idea for changes. If that happens, explain that they already signed off on that chapter and that the changes will effect both your workload and your deadline. If they insist on the changes then you need to negotiate both more money and a longer deadline. Don't write a single additional word until more money has come in. Don't accept a response of "Sure, I'll be happy to pay more, just let me know at the end how much more work was involved." This will keep them from trying to do the same thing to you on the rest of the chapters. If you let clients give you open ended promises of more money they'll take advantage of you. If they realize that making changes late in the process means they have to open up their wallet, they'll make sure to only bother you with changes that are seriously important.

This is particularly important if you are paying someone to either paginate or translate the book - because if you've set yourself up right they will have already started with layout and translation and you'll be asking them to do more work, and they'll deserve more money and time. If they don't know right off the bat that they'll get both, they'll get bitter and their quality and concentration will suffer.

Set clear boundaries with your client. There are times of day when it's appropriate for them to talk to you and other times of day when it is not. Never, ever varry from this rule.

When negotiating a full book edit and design sometimes the client will want photographs included. If this is the case you have to talk to your designer before you sign the contract and finish negotiating the price. It costs money to license images and the fees for various images can varry widely. Some pictures cost as little as five bucks to include in a book and some cost as much as $5,000. So, your designer will have to research the images and get back to you with the licensing costs. You then need to say, "Ok, these images will cost $xxxx" on top of the cost of the work. Does that work for you or would you like us to research similar images that may cost less." Don't start writing or sign anything until they've agreed to all photo licensing fees.

When doing a job that requires you to hire anyone else be their paginators, designers, translators whatever, build in a cushion of reserve money in case you need it.

In other words, if your translator tells you the job will cost $100, tell the client the translation will cost $150. That way if for some reason the translation ends up being more of a pain in the ass than you expected you can easily kick your translator a few extra bucks and if the job goes smoothly you can simply pocket the difference.

Lay out your schedule and your method to the client before you do an ounce of work, let them know what you will be needing from them in order for you to complete the job - and then stick to it like glue. If they start to go off the rails, make sure to adjust your schedule and then communicate to them how their changes will affect the schedule and/or their deadline. Don't "yes" them, and don't try to be their savior - be honest and professional. I've said to clients, "Look, your deadline is a little tight. What is your drop-dead date? I probably won't need the extra cushion, but I'll be able to deliver a better product to you if I know I'm not racing the clock."