All professional writers share the challenge of creating a profitable business around their passion. Ghostwriters often have the added challenge of not being able to discuss or share the work they have done for their clients because of the terms of ghostwriting nondisclosure agreements. (Which is probably why you never hear about any conferences for ghostwriters—what could anyone talk about?)
I had started out well enough. I’d written a number of my own books, but it was hard making a living that way, and so I began freelancing on Elance.com (now Upwork.com) as an editor and ghostwriter. I started small and built a solid reputation among the clients using the site, but it was hard to gain traction elsewhere. Like many ghostwriters, for years I had no portfolio, no leads, no presence and no plan. I felt as though I was chasing money all the time just to keep my lights on.
This guest post is by John Peragine. Peragine is a published author of 12 books and has ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is contributor for Huffington Post, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and the New York Times. He was a columnist for Speaker Magazine, the official magazine of the National Speakers Association. He has written for WineMaker magazine, Writer’s Digest, and the Herb Companion. He has been writing professionally since 2007, after working 13 years in social work and was a professional musician in the Western Piedmont Symphony as their piccolo player for over 25 years. He has been providing services through the National Speakers Association and the Global Speakers Federation since 2013. Peragine is a member of the National Writer's Union (UAW-Local 1981), and American Society of Journalists and Authors.
I spent hours tweaking my website, but it was like building a shopping mall in the middle of some random prairie in Montana. Then, I had a stroke of luck when one of my long-term clients, Dawnna St. Louis, asked me to help write her newest book, 6ix Kick-A$$ Strategies of the Million-Dollar Entrepreneur. In working over the content, the solution to my dry spell became obvious.
Ghostwriters, like other savvy entrepreneurs, can build solvency into their careers simply by restructuring daily tasks and priorities. To start, this requires a change in how you think about your work. The key is to view yourself not as a contractor—always at the mercy of the next job—but as a business … in control of how you operate.
Ghostwriting Blueprint for Success
St. Louis’ book provides a Business Builders Blueprint (shown at bottom right) that I found to be filled with lightbulb moments for struggling professional writers. Using this tool, you can pinpoint the blind spots in your business strategy. Let’s break it down.
In an effort to define the core of your writing business, answer these key questions:
- Expertise: What one thing do you know at an expert level that others could benefit from? Keep it simple and succinct: Aim for three to five words.
- Target Market: Who wants and will benefit from your expertise? Focus on potential clients who you could naturally convey your value to, rather than having to convince them of it.
- Offerings: How would you deliver your expertise to your target market? How do your offerings solve the challenges of your target market?
As ghostwriters, our expertise is that we can write books and, more important, we can write other people’s books. I identified my target within that framework as professionals who want a book to leverage their business or brand but do not have the time or skill to write and publish alone.
Until then, I’d been writing books for anyone who would hire me. While that strategy might work for those just trying to start building a bio, it was not a good long-term approach: My target was too wide and vast. I was relying too heavily on referrals, which were sporadic at best. To secure the future of my business, I had to decide what that future would be. I had to decide what kinds of books I wanted to be hired to write.
To determine how you communicate your writing services to your target market, how those communications translate into opportunities, and how those opportunities become sales, address these key areas:
- Marketing: What challenges does your target market have and how do your writing services solve those challenges? Is your marketing congruent with your expertise?
- Leads: Where can you find your target market? How can you connect and communicate with them? How do they typically take advantage of opportunities?
- Sales: Have you competitively priced your services to meet the budgetary constraints of your market?
Without truly targeting your market, your efforts can be ineffective. In my case, I could not market to every businessperson on the planet in hopes that something might stick. Picking a niche gives you the greatest chance for securing more consistent work.
Think of it like fishing. If you’re a shrimp fisherman, you wouldn’t throw a wide net into the middle of the ocean—instead, you’d find out where the shrimp are, and be strategic about where to steer your boat. Without choosing a target market for your writing services, landing a client has more to do with good fortune than with business savvy.
I figured out that I most loved ghostwriting about wine, and focused my efforts on business people in that industry. I was growing my own expertise with my experience, and I knew my market better with each project.
Once you figure out specifically who you want to offer your ghostwriting services to, then you can determine how best to connect with them. Answers might range from cold-calling to buying email lists, writing blogs on the subject, or becoming involved in conversations about that industry either online or at events.
Knowing your market means knowing what your market can bear to pay for your services. This is a delicate dance, because you want to be paid what you are worth (and don’t want to send the wrong message about the quality of your services by underbidding), while not pricing yourself out of work.
When you are beginning, you may take lower-paying writing gigs, but if you’re not careful you can get stuck there. An influx of smaller jobs can cause burnout, and if you’re growing your portfolio through referrals, having clients coming to you knowing what others have paid can prevent you from increasing your rates incrementally. The goal for successful ghostwriters (and perhaps all writers mindful of the bottom line) is this: work less, make more. Your eventual goal is to increase your prices to reduce the number of clients you need to keep salient.
Success is a funny thing. If you aren’t prepared for it, it can overwhelm you quickly. There are only so many working hours in a week. The next quadrant addresses operations of your business. For the purposes of this article, these are the activities not directly related to actually sitting and writing a book.
It’s time to identify the people, processes and technologies required to deliver the best experience to your clients while streamlining operations within your business. These questions help define operations at a high level.
- People: Who (aside from you) is critical to the success of your writing business?
- Processes: What processes do you use?
- Technology: What technology can you leverage to automate some of those processes and improve connections with your contacts?
For those just starting out as a one-person show, operations may not seem important—but the foundations you lay early will help you grow and scale your work.
Eventually, it was no longer the best use of my time or resources to figure out how to create a better website or do my own accounting. It was better business to outsource those needs. Ghostwriters might also employ sales/marketing assistance and even legal counsel. You have to decide who is critical for not only maintaining the day-to-day operations of your business, but growing it to where you want to be.
Today, in my ghostwriting business as it stands, this is my process of acquiring a new client:
- My hired salesperson sends me a hot lead to discuss my services and assess the potential project.
- I send a proposal for the work.
- Once the client agrees to the proposal, I draft a contract from my template and pass it to my attorney to make sure everything is in order.
- The person in charge of finances sends out an invoice for the deposit and makes sure it is paid.
This kind of outsourcing might not make financial sense for you at first—but when the day comes that it does, use it. Technology helps, too, with services such as:
- Adobe Sign for the sending and signing of contracts.
- PayPal for invoicing and payments.
- A CRM (Customer Relationship Management) program to keep up with leads and clients.
- A project management program such as Google Drive or Scrivener to interface with the client and the book.
The final piece is the vision, mission and goals of your business. For this quadrant, consider the following:
- Vision: What do you want to be/do for your clients?
- Mission: Your mission defines the people you work with and what services you plan to provide them.
- Goals: What are your objectives for the coming year? Where do you want to be in five years?
It is never too early in any kind of writing career to begin to think about your future, because it pushes what you do day to day. Knowing what you and your business are about is important. It is what sets you apart from other writers and appeals most strongly to your clients.
It’s good practice to list long-term goals, quarterly or annually, for both your writing (improving on a technical level, for instance) and your business (which, as I hope we’ve established by now, is an entirely different thing).
To implement this blueprint for success, set short-term goals at the beginning of every week (yes, every week). Examples might include:
- I want to close a deal on a magazine article.
- I want to develop new leads for my editing services.
- I want to connect with three authors in my market.
With those goals in your mind, you can structure your workweek around this six-step success strategy (adapted from what St. Louis refers to as her “6ix”). Each day, you do two activities in each of three categories:
- Income Producing
- Relationship Building
- Professional Development
Set a time limit for each task, aiming for a 45- to 60-minute window. (I follow St. Louis’ recommendation of 48 minutes, an odd but memorable number that you’ll be more likely to actually stick to.) Resist any urge to push yourself further—just as with a workout at the gym, you don’t want to end up being so sore the next day that you just give up. A task is complete when either your set time has elapsed or you have accomplished your goal.
Here’s how it breaks down:
- 2 Income-Production Tasks: “If you’re not making money, you’re not in business,” St. Louis advises. “The first thing you should do every day is be in business. So start with income production first.” In other words, rather than starting your day by catching up on emails, prioritize tasks that relate to converting an opportunity to a sale. Think: Networking with potential clients, sending queries or proposals, introducing yourself to a new market.
The concept that you have to do this every day might seem far-fetched or overwhelming, especially when you’re embroiled in a current ghostwriting project. But many of us support our work with our own bylines (this article, for instance). I’ve found that never letting up on your pursuit of these opportunities is the best way to ensure that you are always adding new clients and work to your pipeline and to avoid the dreaded dry spells.
- 2 Relationship-Building Tasks: Good business hinges on good relationships. Essential relationship-building tasks might include going to conferences, commenting on blogs and hanging out in wine bars. (Well, my niche is wine, so I can justify that last one.)
The time you set aside for these tasks should be focused on outreach and the strengthening of current relationships. Do not try to sell during this time. Instead, lay a natural groundwork for relationships that could eventually turn into writing gigs in the future.
At conferences, I don’t spend time outside of sessions sightseeing or checking email. I attend social mixers and dinners, or even just make a point of meeting people at the lounge. There, I connect with others about what they are working on and answer questions about what I do. These networking efforts have been hugely lucrative and cannot be understated. After the event, I reach out directly and continue the conversation.
A lot of your relationship building will likely happen online. You can become a regular on social media or popular blogs that fellow writers or potential clients frequent by regularly commenting or otherwise responding to others’ posts.
Don’t overlook old-fashioned etiquette: Send a card to contacts on special occasions. People love real mail.
- 2 Professional-Development Tasks: Aim to learn or share two new things every day. These tasks might include any work directly related to educating yourself about your subject matter or offerings (sitting in on a webinar, going to a writing group or book club meeting, doing topical research) as well as business development (sharing information about your offerings with your target audience). If you think every day is too often to read up on your industry or subject, think again. Especially in publishing, the landscape can change quickly. You need to keep up.
To grow your writing business, you have to be ruthless in your pursuit. Every night, make a plan of what you’re going to do the next day in reference to the above six activities. Put them on your calendar. Even if this starts to seem repetitious day after day, ask yourself: Is it working?
You should be witnessing results within a few weeks. If you are not closing deals and getting assignments or ghostwriting jobs, something is wrong with your process. You need to go back to your quadrants to discover what it is and then adjust your daily activities accordingly.
Building a business takes time. But thinking of yourself as just that—a business owner in addition to being a writer—can put you on a more direct track to satisfying, long-lasting results.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.