I made a good living as a ghostwriter in 2018. Is that who I am now?
When I stopped working for a company and became independent three years ago, a prominent ghostwriting agency reached out to me. I told the owner, “I do not ghostwrite books for others.” But to keep an open mind, I stayed on their mailing list and watched the possible projects go by.
Last year, two ghostwriting projects appealed to me. One I fell into: the authors came back to me after I’d worked with them on a proposal and said they needed my help to actually write the book, and I felt I could not let them down. The other project I pitched for, enthusiastically, after seeing what looked like the perfect opportunity from the ghostwriting agency. Both made their heaviest demands on my time in 2018, so I ended up focusing on writing two books in one year, which I’ve never done before.
I’ve now done the math for my income in 2018. About 78% of my revenue this year came from ghostwriting those two books. The rest came from editing three other books along with reports and newspaper op-eds; helping other people get book ideas off the ground; helping companies with writing workshops, value propositions, and new businesses; giving speeches; and the occasional index. I had 19 different clients. But two of those clients, the ghostwriting clients, accounted for by far the greatest share of my pay.
This was quite different from previous years. In 2016 and 2017, I made most of my income from book proposals, royalties, and workshops.
Am I a ghostwriter now?
Both of these ghostwriting projects excited me. One, Marketing to the Entitled Consumer, came out this fall; the other, an as-yet unannounced book on artificial intelligence, will be published in the spring. What’s it like to spend a year ghostwriting?
It was an excellent way to earn a living.
I loved researching new concepts and ideas and then crafting them into coherent perspectives and chapters. Writing books and book chapters is always a problem-solving exercise, one for which my skills are well suited. These book chapters were 20 intriguing puzzles that I solved, and then fit together into larger messages.
I love writing. The act of writing is an act of flow and joy for me. That is true regardless of whether I am writing for me or for someone else.
I liked collaborating with smart people. My author clients had great ideas; it was exhilarating to immerse myself in their worlds and then try to do justice to their visions. On one project, the authors were vigorously collaborative, which required me to work and rework text to meet their objectives; on the other, I was left very much to my own devices. Both approaches were challenging.
I’d never before created anything on this scale to meet somebody else’s needs. I could never have done that if I hadn’t believed in their messages. But I found I could believe, and that the thrill was close to what I felt from writing books for myself. Both projects will have my name on the cover as “with Josh Bernoff,” and I’m pleased with that, since it recognizes work I am proud of (and it’s also pretty good advertising).
It also felt good to be the trusted expert. I ended up advising both clients on research methods, publishing models, publishing processes, launch schedules, and book marketing.
Despite this level of success, I am hankering now to go back to authoring on my own. I feel I have things to say and want to say them. I want to go forward on my own schedule with my own content for a while.
I am not ready to define myself as a ghostwriter. It’s clear from this experience that I could do that, and make a good living from it, but I think my soul needs to sing without any restrictions from time to time. Like a method actor, I found the challenge of becoming someone else for a while demands effort and time to recover.
But I will definitely do ghostwriting again. It’s just a question of when, and for which projects.