Helen Chang explains how she makes a living as a ghostwriter.
Let’s start with a little information about your background. Schooling, work history, and all that.
I have always loved writing. I started writing poems when I was five. I wrote for the high school and college papers. After college, I did an internship at a magazine and fell in love with the mix between stories and photos. I got my graduate degree in journalism.
I started my journalism career in Singapore covering business stories, reporting and writing for publications such as Time, Business Week, San Francisco Chronicle, and International Herald Tribune. I also produced shows for a TV channel started by Dow Jones, now run by CNBC.
Back in the US, I worked at a Buddhist magazine and later freelanced for MSNBC.com, Fodors.com and San Diego Business Journal. As a business editor at SDNN.com in 2009, I got to use all my print, TV, and online skills.
So how did you get started as a ghostwriter? What gave you the idea?
I was covering real estate in 2003 and met a real estate investor who wanted to launch a speaking career. He needed manuals for his courses and hired me. That led to other entrepreneurs who also wanted workbooks and later books, ebooks and web content. In late 2009, I went full-time as a ghostwriter.
Tell me how it works. What steps do you take from beginning to end?
Well, writing books is similar to writing journalism stories. The process is similar, just longer.
I have what I call an “8-Step Bookwriting Process”:
Plan the project (purpose, intended results, target readers, launch date, content, voice, etc),
Gather information (interviews, blogs, workshop, speeches, etc.)
Create the outline (table of contents, chapter headings, etc.)
Create the rough draft (organize and edit the text)
Give it substance (write, revise, and edit the text)
Look for information holes (edit with a critical eye for content, flow, etc.)
Make it sexy (make the title and chapter headings attractive to readers)
Make it perfect (proofread for accuracy, spelling, grammar, etc.)
How do your clients find you?
Mostly from referrals. I also have a lot of repeat clients.
I also get a lot of leads from my website www.ghostwriter-needed.com. I have clients from across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. who found me that way. I also pass leads to other writers who can handle certain projects better, like a screenplay or fiction novel.
What kinds of projects have you done so far? Can you share the names of your books, or is it usually a secret?
One book I did was for Armando Montelongo, who starred in A&E’s “Flip That House” show. The book is “Flip and Grow Rich.”
Another workbook series was for a TV celebrity on HGTV. I have ghostwritten books for many national entrepreneurs, speakers, and business leaders. I am also editing a book series for Michael Gerber, author of “The E-Myth Revisited.”
I also work with individuals on their memoirs and personal essays. Last year, I worked on books about men-women relationships, spiritual entrepreneurs, and spiritual growth.
I sometimes joke that I can tell you everything about how to make money in real estate, stocks, the Internet, running a business, getting out of debt, going green, having great relationships, being healthy, and being spiritual.
Do you have a favorite type of project? Are, say, memoirs more fun than business writing?
Honestly, no. I really enjoy telling stories, helping people learn, grow, and prosper. That can be done through memoirs, as well as business books.
More than anything, I am interested in working with authors who have a compelling reason to write a book, who have great experiences, knowledge, wisdom and even humor to share.
I went to a bootcamp run by a real estate investor client of mine a couple of years ago. He very generously introduced me as his writer. Just about everyone in the room had read his book and workbooks. Later, so many people came up to me and told me how much they enjoyed reading the book and those manuals over and over, because they learned so much and were so inspired. They had used the manuals to go out, invest, make money and uplift their families’ lives. Some even had tears in their eyes.
To me, those were just workbooks. To them, it was their families’ lives. I was amazed. That’s what makes this worthwhile. That’s why I love what I do.
I have to ask. How much do you make per project?
I have done projects ranging from $45 to about $50,000. It depends.
The $45 was for a manual that someone was writing and wanted me to look over. It didn’t take long to review, so it only cost that much. The $50,000 was for a memoir. The author had many life changes going on as we wrote it, so we had to keep revising the chapters. I think we did 15 drafts. But the finished product was very good and the author made back the investment many, many times over.
Tell me two things you love about your work.
Telling stories. Making a difference in people’s lives.
Now, two things that you could do without or that you merely tolerate.
Filling in timesheets. Writing invoices.
And what advice do you have for someone who has the writing skills and might be interested in becoming a ghostwriter?
Choose a niche, and specialize in a particular topic or type of writing. Learn to be an entrepreneur, so you can create a business that supports your passion. And find mentors. You’ll learn from their experiences.