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How Do You Make a Living, Bestselling Ghostwriter?

Noah Davis talks to successful ghostwriter Andrew Crofts about how he got started, recent shifts in the publishing industry, and why he prefers to take on projects he knows nothing about.
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Andrew Crofts. (Photo: Toby Phillips)

Andrew Crofts. (Photo: Toby Phillips)

For a man behind more than a dozen bestsellers on the Sunday Times list, Andrew Crofts remains under-the-radar. That's because he works as a ghostwriter, producing books for a variety of world figures, from the leaders of countries to renowned CEOs. BBC News called him "a hugely successful author—a literary gun for hire." Crofts talked to Pacific Standard about the advantages of being the only game in town, how you make a name for yourself when you can't talk about your projects, and why he prefers to take on projects he knows nothing about.

How did you get started writing?

I left school at 17. That's really when I started. From the financial perspective, that was an enormous advantage because you can survive on a lot less when you're 17. It took me 10 years until I was supporting myself on a level that was comparable to other professions. I couldn't have afforded to take those 10 years if I started at 30 or 40.

I was doing any sort of freelance writing that I could get to keep the money coming in, and then at the same time, trying to write the "Great American Novel." Living the dream. One of the subject areas I was really interested in was marketing because this was in the 1970s, and there were a lot of marketing magazines coming out. I was genuinely fascinated by how the big companies marketed, so I interviewed as many marketing managers as I could for a couple of regular features I had. I also did travel writing, which gave me a better grasp of the world. I was writing fiction. I would write PR. I would write business. Anything where someone would give me a commission. I was quite disciplined. I was quite frightened by the idea that if I got it wrong, I would have to get a job.

The ghostwriting came out of that work?

I was interviewing someone for a business magazine. At the end of the interview, he said he had been commissioned to write three books about being a business guru. He didn't have the time and, for him, the money was pathetic. He wanted the promotion, but he didn't want the money. He asked if I would write them. He could have the glory, and I could have the money. I was insulted for about 10 seconds, then I thought it was actually a really good idea. It took off the stress of finding a publisher. The money was already in place. All the research was in one place. It could all be over in two months, and I could move on to the next project, which could be something entirely different. I would get the variety, which was important to me.

How did you move from a one-off to getting more work?

After that, I started taking an ad out in Bookseller that read "Ghostwriter for hire." Ghostwriting was still secretive then. Nobody really talked about it. I was pretty sure that people wouldn't know where to find a ghostwriter if they needed one. I was pretty sure that there must be plenty of people like the first business guru who had good stories and needed a writer. If I could get my telephone number on to the desks of the people who would be the first port of call—publishers, librarians, booksellers—they would think of me. But the ad had to be there every week. It was a big expenditure then since I was fairly hand-to-mouth. I also wrote letters, hundreds of letters, to every publisher, agent, etc. I was writing letters constantly, constantly.

It was quite nerve-wracking at first because there were months when I got no responses at all, but within about a year, I got one or two really big commissions where I was on a royalty deal. Sold was colossal. I think we've sold five or six million copies now. That helped the finances at the beginning. It confirmed in my mind that I was on to the right track.

On the whole, I think I was the only person setting out and saying, "I am a ghostwriter." All writers would do it if somebody asked them, had an interesting story, and waved a check under their nose. But they didn't actually want to say that's what they were. It wasn't long before anyone in the business who was asked about a ghostwriter could only think of me. I got quite a bit of publicity. If anyone wanted to interview a ghostwriter, they couldn't think of anyone but me.

Other writers started to notice. One or two of them started to put their ads in Bookseller as well. But they didn’t have the staying power. If they didn't get a response in a week or two, they pulled the ad. The secret was that you had to keep the ad there constantly to keep your presence. That kept going until the Internet came along. I did the advertising for 15 or 20 years.

Every week for 15 or 20 years, you had a ghostwriter ad in Bookseller?

Yeah. I experimented with other magazines as well, but Bookseller worked the best. I tried in the American version, but I couldn't afford to keep that up permanently. It built up from there. Within about 10 years of doing the first ghosting book, I was doing nothing but ghosting. The flow of work was so steady, so varied, and so interesting that I really didn't need to do anything else.

Where did the work come from?

Some direct from publishers. Maybe they have a rubbish manuscript, but it was a good story and they needed someone to re-write it. Quite a few literary agents made contact as well. The general public started coming in when they woke up to what ghostwriting was. The Robert Harris book helped ghostwriting in general and me specifically because a quote from my book, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, starts every chapter. The only ghost visible is me. Also, several celebrities were pretty open that they used ghostwriters. It became this respectable thing.

Now, it nearly all comes from the Internet. I get two or three inquires a day. That's about 1,000 a year. I do about three books a year.

How do you pick what you want to ghost? I would imagine it's some balance between an interesting story and a commercially viable one.

Those are the only two criteria. The first one is, "Is it interesting?" Because I'm going to have to spend four months listening to the subject in my head, even when I'm not listening to them on tape or in person. It has to be interesting, which means it's probably going to be something I don't know anything about. Once I've done that, I have to think, "Can I make it pay enough to support me for three months?" That means either, "Is it likely to be a bestseller?" or, "Can they afford to finance it themselves?"

Now that we have the self-publishing route, someone who runs a country can publish it themselves. We don't have to worry about publishers. The thought of trooping some of the people I work for—who do run countries or have created international banks or whatever—into a publishing house and having them audition for a 25-year-old editor, only to be told that their book lacks substance, is absurd. It's easier to say to them that we should control the whole process ourselves. At the same time, some people want to get their book into the supermarket. In that case, we'd either go to an agent or go straight to HarperCollins, Random House, or one of the big publishers to get a bidding war going the old-fashioned way.

Does your record of success help in those negotiations with the big houses?

If I'm not sure about a book and the person doesn't want to self-publish, they can commission me to do a synopsis, like a 10,000- or 15,000-word treatment. We'll take that to the publishers, and my name being attached to it means that they will read it. It doesn't mean they will buy it because my name doesn't mean anything to the general public. Nobody buys a book because it's been ghosted by me. But a publisher knows that there's something there if I have gone to the trouble of doing a synopsis. I'm like a filter, an agent in a way. It can help in that way. Sometimes, an agent will ask me to put my name on the synopsis for that reason.

Could someone follow your path today?

Everything is possible exactly the same way if you can do the 10 years of getting established. The one downside from the marketing point of view is that you mostly can't tell people what you've done as a ghostwriter. You'll be doing a world leader, a book everyone is going to read or at least know about, and the world leader's lawyers will come out of the closet and make you sign hundreds of NDAs. You can never tell anybody ever that you worked for them. It has no marketing value at all. That slows progress down a bit.

But you can't just do a book for a world leader and hope that the money comes in. You have to think like a craftsman, not an artist. If you were a carpenter, you can't spend a whole year building a piece of furniture that you've always dreamed about out of the finest mahogany on the off chance that someone will buy it and pay enough to justify your entire year. You have to bang out some coffee tables, and you have to mend a few kitchen cabinets. You have to have cash flow all the way along.

I think the biggest problem with freelancers is keeping yourself in business through the tough times. You have to have the cash flow. That's where the publishing model falls apart. If it takes you two years to write a book, but the publisher won't give you two years' worth of money in advance, well, what are you going to do? You have to go down and work at Pizza Express in the evenings, which is going to sap your will to live a little.

It helps if you're right at the beginning when all you have to do is feed yourself, keep yourself warm, and have a computer.

It probably helps to have a specialization. Tell people that you're a business writer, and you'll do ghosting as well. That doesn't mean you can't go to people who do human interest stories and say that you do that as well because they will never talk to the business people.

What are some disadvantages about trying to get started now versus when you did?

There are so many more of you out there hustling for the same pie. At the same time, you have all this technology. If I wrote 100 letters a week, I had to type 100 letters, get envelopes, get stamps. That cost money. It's sort of pathetic to say that, but 100 letters a week is a lot of hours and, if it costs a pound a letter, it adds up. Today, you can send out emails, blog, build websites, all these things for nothing. As long as you keep your overhead down, I think you can survive. I think in some ways, it's easier now.

There's a downward pressure in the publishing industry. Are you immune because you're at the top of the field? Or has it affected you as well?

It absolutely has. That's why a lot of projects have moved to self-publishing. There are books where I'd be getting a quarter of a million pound advance 10 years ago, and now we'd be lucky to get 20,000. It's a huge deal. There are still books where people pay a lot, but not many. And they shouldn't. As a business model, it was incredibly flawed.

You have to have a mixed portfolio. You have to have some speculative projects that get you up in the morning because they might pay off big. Like Sold. If we hadn't been able to sell it, I wouldn't have earned a penny, but because we sold five million, we did really well. Looking back now, it was the ones where I took a speculative gamble that were always the biggest earners. But I could never anticipate when they were coming.

When I started to accrue responsibilities like a house, children, and wives, I couldn't bank on the fact that there would be a big book because it might take two years or five years. I had to have lots of projects that I knew would pay consistently. I constantly have scribbled bits of paper with cash projections just to see roughly that we can keep our heads above water. Then every so often something wonderful happens. If it only happens once every five years, great. If it happens once a year, if you have one lucky break a year—which isn't asking too much of the gods, is it?—that pays for the holiday, changing the car, or buying a house.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.