Derek Lewis has written dozens of books, but you won't see his name on any of them. He's the man behind the man or woman, a professional ghostwriter who specializes in business books. He talked to Pacific Standard about his unusual path to the unusual profession, getting CEOs to share their secrets, and his novelist aspirations.
How did you get into the business?
I have met upwards of 100 professional ghostwriters, and every one of them fell into it by accident. Nobody wakes up one day and decides they want to be a ghostwriter. Most ghostwriters come from the journalism field, or they were some kind of author or writer and somebody asked them if they would consider writing their book.
My background is in economic development. When I graduated at the beginning of the Great Recession, I could not find a job to save my life. I had a super specific degree and not a lot of experience. I wound up in middle management at a small business. While I was there, I got the chance to become the de facto marketing guy. In addition to everything else I was doing, I started doing their copywriting. The ads, the Web copy, etc. The more I did, the more they heaped on me. I thought I might be able to do that as a side job, and I started doing a little bit of copywriting for some other businesses. One day, one of the business owners asked if I could write a book for him. I said sure. I learned a lot in the first couple of projects.
I found out that I really, really enjoyed it. For me, ghostwriting fulfills the creative side where I get to take a story from scratch—material that has been rolling around in the head of my subject—and build it up. On the other side, I can pay the bills, the mortgage, and have a great income.
Do you do only business books?
That's what I market that I specialize in. That's my niche and that seems to be who I attract. This weekend, however, I'm going to see a client that's way outside of my wheelhouse. His brother was abused for years by a Catholic priest and finally committed suicide. This client came to be by referral, which is rare for me. We had a great connection. I'm a man of faith myself, so he felt that connection.
But to answer your question, I've only done business and leadership books to this point. This weekend will be way outside my comfort zone.
If you don't get many referrals, how do people find you?
Organic SEO is virtually my sole source of new sales leads. I have had some success with CPC [cost per click] advertising via Google, and absolutely no luck with CPC via LinkedIn.
Do you typically work on just one project at a time?
Oh no. I usually have two or three projects at a time. I generally do between three and four books a year, with a couple smaller projects too. Sometimes a person will come to me with a manuscript they need edited or some book coaching on a big project. I try to have one big project and a couple side ones going at once.
How long does one book take?
Usually about seven or eight months. That's generally how it falls out. I've done projects quicker than that, but the people who I work with are usually business owners and CEOs. Most of the time we spend is not the writing. The writing is pretty quick. It takes a lot of time to a) figure out what to write about and b) get their feedback once I'm done with the drafting or revision.
So you just sit and talk to them?
I have hours and hours and hours and hours of transcripts. It's unstructured, especially in the beginning. For most of these people, they have never had a chance to unpack the stories and experiences. For them, it's the first time in sometimes 20 years that they've had to talk at length about all of these issues. There's no time limit. You have days to think about what you have been doing for the past 20 years. It's more insightful for the author than for the ghostwriter.
How do you get paid? Is it a flat fee or a percentage of the advance?
Before the mid-2000s when you had the rise of e-readers and the cost of entry into the book market fell tremendously, ghostwriters traditionally worked on royalties. An author would get an advance from the publisher, then they would turn around and give that advance to the ghostwriter. They'd negotiate some split of the royalties.
Now because so many authors are not going through the traditional publishing routes, a lot of them don't have the volume that they used to. A lot of ghostwriters, including myself, work off of a flat fee. When you come to me, we talk about your idea and your project. My authors all tend to wind up in a very narrow category. In the first 30 minutes of talking to them, I know how much work is going to be involved. I have a flat fee, no matter how many words we write or how long it takes. That makes it comfortable because we don't have to worry about focusing on counting the words; we can focus on the quality of the work.
How much for a typical book?
Right now, I charge $50,000.
Most of your clients aren't looking to make money on the book itself, right?
For the people I work with, the book is not a product in and of itself. It's a marketing tool, just like a website, a billboard, or an ad in a magazine. You don't expect to make money off of your website. You expect to make money off the traffic generated to your website.
I know you wrote The Business Book Bible, but any aspirations to write fiction?
Oh yeah. A post-apocalyptic novel about the occult and a lone man's fight for individualism against the collective.
What stage is that in?
Mostly the imagination stage.
How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.