The Fiction Question

What’s the thing most consultants and professionals ask me when they first hear that my business is turning people like them into authors? Not the one you might expect. The first question is usually “How do you do that?” Almost inevitably, though, when I explain that I’m a ghostwriter and editor, they ask “Do you do fiction?”

No matter that their real need is probably marketing copy for their websites or a translation of their highly technical white papers into something that consumers can understand. Everyone on the planet seems to aspire to writing a novel. I’m one of them: I wrote several of them in my undergraduate and graduate student days. I just never published any of them, though I was shopping one 300,000-word monster around to agents when outside circumstances intervened to force me to focus my efforts very closely on my career, which had nothing to do with swords-and-sorcery adventure novels.

The answer to this inevitable question is that I can help people to write and edit fiction, but I rarely do. That’s only partly because I want fiction I write to have my name on it. I’d be happy to help someone improve the structure, style, grammar, etc. of a novel, if only for my own sake as a reader. The real reason that most of what I get hired to write (or rewrite) is nonfiction is economics.

Nonfiction book authors can sell books based on proposals and get an advance to cover the cost of completing the manuscript. (Funny how we still call them manuscripts when no agent or editor would even attempt to read an author’s handwriting on anything longer than a thank-you note.) Novelists don’t have that luxury: unless they’re well-established and have a good track record for selling earlier books, they have to hand over a finished product in order to get a publisher to sign on the dotted line.

Advances for first-time novels are pitiably small—as little as $3,000. Profit margins are almost nonexistent, so often enough the book doesn’t earn out that advance. There are two chances of $3,000 covering my services to revise a first draft (never mind create a novel from scratch): Fat and Slim.

Like most freelancers, I do work for hire. That means that my client owns all rights to the finished product, and I get paid for my work regardless of whether a publisher accepts the book. I do know one ghostwriter who charges half the author’s advance—but that’s after the author has gotten the advance, and the advance in question has to be in the vicinity of six figures.

To a businessperson who wants a book as a marketing tool, the $20,000+ it costs to have someone else write, or substantially rewrite, that book is an investment. Even if actual sales of the book don’t amount to much (and they often don’t), a consultant with a book can expect to make money indirectly by publishing. Authors are perceived as experts, making them more attractive to prospects and media alike than non-authors. One really good consulting gig can pay for the cost of producing the book.

In contrast, novelists only have the books themselves with which to make money. It’s possible, of course, that the book will be a hit and Hollywood will buy the movie rights for a nice chunk of change, and suddenly there’ll be a massive attack of merchandising, with toys based on the book’s characters appearing in McDonald’s Happy Meals. It does happen.

Unfortunately, you have better odds of winning the lottery than of striking it rich writing fiction. Success as a novelist depends on too many variables beyond the control of author or publisher. A well-written, entertaining book is only the minimum requirement.

Most people who advertise for fiction ghostwriters offer a percentage of royalties. That’s a sucker’s bet. Chances are there will be no royalties to take a cut of, and even if there are, the ghostwriter’s share ends up even more meager than the pittance the author gets.

No one who wants to stay in business is going to take on such a project in preference to one that pays up front. You can find someone on Elance to write you a book for $5,000, but you’ll still have to pay before you can get the finished product. A would-be novelist has to be very dedicated or independently wealthy to hire someone like me.

Hence the answer to the question “Do you do fiction?” is “Not very often.”

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