A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a reporter for the East Bay Express, a free weekly paper here in the Bay Area. The reporter, a fellow Brown graduate, was writing about careers for creative people.
The article, titled “The Business of Art”, focuses mainly on how hard it is to make a living as an artist and how little most art schools do to prepare students to find work. I stand by my quote: ghostwriting provides a more reliable income than writing for magazines or pitching your work to agents and publishers. There’s that old joke: “The difference between a full-time writer and a large pizza is that the pizza can feed a family of four.”
I warn my clients that not many authors make a significant income from book sales. That’s not because I want to drive them off, but because I want them to have realistic expectations. There are many ways besides a six-figure advance and getting on the New York Times best-seller list to measure a book’s success. And many non-fiction books bring their authors considerable indirect revenue by boosting their consulting and speaking businesses.
But any book published today is competing for attention with a shockingly large number of other new books. (It’s hard to be quite sure just how many, but Bowker reported 764,448 self-published books and 288,355 traditionally published books in 2009.) Though most of these books are not real competition—they are in the wrong genre, or of laughably poor quality, or only produced for family members—the sheer number of them creates a lot of noise against which you have to make your book marketing signal stand out.
So will all that competition drive hordes of young to become ghostwriters instead of novelists? My guess is, “probably not.” Ghostwriting is definitely more popular as a career than it used to be, but it requires one skill that’s exactly the opposite of the one aspiring Hemingways and Byatts are trying to develop. You have to subsume your own style and personality into that of your client. It’s a better job for a beat reporter than for a columnist. While it’s a highly creative activity, it’s more like translation than like original writing.
Young artists, as I remember from being one, are often taught (by peers, movies, literature, and probably something hormonal) that being an artist involves certain behaviors and personality traits, most of them highly irritating to other people, and all of them egocentric. None of these are useful to a career as a ghostwriter. (They probably aren’t useful to any career, which may be why there’s a stereotype of a starving artist.) Ghostwriters are often legally constrained from walking around saying “Look at me! I’m so talented! See what I did!”
However, if you do have the temperament to become a ghostwriter, and an interest in it, I highly recommend you sign up for Claudia Suzanne’s Ghostwriter Certification Classes. Claudia has ghostwritten more than 100 books and has been teaching others to do so for years, and she’s brilliant. (And no, I don’t get any kickbacks for saying that.)
For many artists, it’s likely to be easier to find an ordinary day job than to retool as a commercial whatever. But don’t rule it out entirely—you might find you enjoy it if you try.