Should You Hire a Ghostwriter for a Memoir?
Guest blog post by Jenna Glatzer
There are three main reasons to seek out a ghostwriter for a memoir:
- You want to write a “legacy book” for your family and friends,
- You want to use the book as a calling card for a career as a speaker or business leader, or
- You have a story you think a wide audience will be willing to pay to read.
Depending on which of these is your goal, it may or may not be financially worth it for you to hire a writer.
After I wrote Celine Dion’s book, I began getting book offers at least once or twice a week—the vast majority memoirs, which I love. I think people are fascinating, and getting to know someone well enough to write a full-length book in their voice is a challenge I enjoy. But I write just two or three books a year, so I have to be choosy. Factor one is the simplest: Do I connect with the story and like the person enough to want to spend six months or more in close contact? Factor two is more complex: Can I reasonably help this person reach the goal for this book?
When the goal is one of the first two (legacy or calling cards), we’re more likely talking about self-publishing or hybrid publishing, and I don’t have to worry about whether my client will be disappointed if Simon & Schuster doesn’t offer up a mondo advance. As long as the client is okay with paying my fee, I know I can write a book they’ll love and everyone will be happy. We’re generally talking people with high-level, successful careers: C-suite executives, entrepreneurs or other business leaders, doctors, and so on.
But if your intent is to sell to a mass audience, then you need a book that’s marketable in today’s publishing landscape. With memoirs, that’s shrinking territory; many of the literary agents I used to work with regularly ten years ago now don’t handle memoir at all. It’s become harder and harder to sell non-celebrity memoirs, and even the ones that do sell often go for low advances—lower than any good ghostwriter would charge. Then you’re left to figure out if you want to (and can) pay a ghostwriter out of pocket, knowing you may never make back that money in royalties. Top ghostwriters charge upwards of $100,000 to write a book; advances for non-celebrity memoirs may not get anywhere near that.
So the question becomes: should you forget about it, or can you make it more marketable? If you choose the latter, here are the three factors that can improve your memoir’s marketability:
- Build Your Platform
Once upon a time, publishers had to take wild guesses about how popular a new author might be, and how much of an audience would take an interest in their story. Now they’ve traded in their wild guesses for hard numbers: social media followers, podcast subscribers, newsletter subscribers, article commenters…
If you want to prove to an agent and publisher that your book will have an audience, you have to do some of that legwork upfront. The simplest way to do it—though not quick—is to get popular online in one or more of the big social media outlets (YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc.) on a topic related to the book you’re pitching, whether that’s about how to build a successful business as an entrepreneur or living as a survivor of domestic violence.
It’s not just about the numbers; it’s also about engagement—so buying lists or just randomly following thousands of people to get “follow-backs” isn’t going to fool anyone. Doing it right takes at least several months. If you’re not willing to do this, why should a publisher invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in your book?
A potentially faster way to build a platform is to have one or more essays or articles go viral. Authors have nabbed terrific book deals from one big essay—an agent or editor happens to read something that feels like it should be a bigger story, and sees that readers are connecting with it and sharing it. So you may want to test the waters by trying to place an essay before you pitch a book.
- Pitch a Prescriptive Angle
Memoirs are often more marketable when they have a self-help or how-to angle to them. These are called “prescriptive memoirs” because they aim to teach lessons while they share personal stories. Sometimes these books lean more toward self-help than memoir and sometimes vice-versa, but if you can market a book in a way that makes it clear that the reader will learn something valuable, you often have a better shot of selling.
Twice, I’ve been able to position a book better with an “expert” co-author attached. Consider pairing up with a psychologist, doctor, business leader, or whomever might be the most appropriate expert to offer commentary on your topic.
- Set it Apart from the Competition
I’m often surprised when potential clients admit to me that they’re not readers themselves. Good books come from good readers. You need to know what’s out there on your topic or with similar themes, and then you need to know how yours will be different or better.
Let me tell you what memoir topics I see most in my inbox:
- Drug or alcohol addiction
- Abusive relationships
- Sexual trauma
These are also the hardest to sell because there are already so many of them, so you’d have to justify why readers will buy your book if they’ve read many others covering similar ground. What insights do you have that are fresh and relatable? Your ghostwriter can help you develop this, but you must have a strong idea of what you want to say.
Hiring an experienced ghostwriter or collaborative author is never a cheap proposition, but it may help you publish exactly the book you’re meant to publish.
Jenna Glatzer is the ghostwriter or author of more than 30 books for all five of the “Big Five” publishers. She collaborates with celebrities and “regular people” with fascinating stories and ideas, mainly in the areas of memoir, health, self-help, and business leadership. She lives in New York.