Busting Ghost-Writing Myths: a From-The-Hip Conversation with Leah Nicholson of the Jenkins Group

Editor’s note:  On Friday, Nov. 17 and Saturday, Nov. 18, ASJA will be hosting a dual-event conference in Chicago. A deep dive into book ghostwriting with separate tracks for experts, executives and communication professionals, Friday’s Spotlight on Ghostwriting” will focus on those wanting to publish books as well as experienced nonfiction writers looking to cultivate their ghostwriting practices. Saturday’s event, “Content Connections,” offers up a full day of inspiration and information about content marketing and nonfiction freelancing with tracks for both experienced freelancers and those wanting to break in. Register for one or both here; register before Tuesday, Sept. 5 and take advantage of early bird savings

Among Friday’s presenters is Leah Nicholson, production manager of the Jenkins Group, one of the premier custom book publishers in the US, who will be discussing various aspects of ghostwriting. With 15 years of editorial and acquisition experience, Leah has extensive knowledge of each aspect of custom book production, including pairing ghostwriters with clients. She sat down with ASJA Confidential for a deep-dive dish, including busting some common ghostwriting myths.  

How did you get into the ghostwriting game? Although I’ve been with Jenkins since 2002, we really didn’t begin working with ghostwriters until about five years later. People started coming to us and asking for writers to help them shape their material. Many [clients] were subject-matter experts who had no idea how to put together a book and needed assistance. It grew exponentially from there as custom publishing became more of platform from which people could expand their businesses, ideas and marketing efforts.

It seems like a lot can go sideways in ghostwriting, even more so than in regular journalism. What are some of the pitfalls? It can be a very slippery slope, especially if there’s not a good contract or parameters. You need to educate clients properly. The client needs to understand that they have to spend an hour a week or whatever time it takes to provide information to or give feedback to the ghostwriter. I also ask clients questions like, “How are you going to market the book?” and “What do you want to achieve?” Each project should align its marketing plan with its goals before even getting started. Otherwise it is almost doomed to fail.

The contract must clearly spell out the expectations for the writers, what they are supposed to produce and when. The writers themselves must also have the confidence to guide the client in the right direction and make sure they stay on course – and do so with finesse and delicacy. This is where new writers can encounter difficulties. They lack the experience to say, “Nope, this isn’t what we’re going to talk about today, this is what the plan says…Just follow me and I will get you there.”

I act as the middleman and problem-solver, telling both writers and clients to come to me right away if something feels wonky or strange and we’ll talk about it. Because if things aren’t handled immediately, people stop communicating and that can kill a project faster than anything.  

Who has an edge in terms of getting ghostwriting gigs, the generalist or the specialist? Frankly, it’s easier to sell a ghostwriter to a client if [the ghostwriter] has a niche. And we have ghostwriters for about every specialty, from yachts and boating to green construction. Insider knowledge of the field makes it easier to communicate with the client and gives you a solid starting point. However, there’s something to be said for the generalist, who can provide a fresh perspective and ask questions that offer new insights and understanding for readers. Our niche ghostwriters are usually quite busy but there’s room for generalists too—so it depends on the situation, the topic and the client’s needs. You can make an argument for either one.

What are the “hot topics” in ghostwriting? Lately there’s been tremendous interest in AI, artificial intelligence, and how it will affect business, employment and logistics—if robots are taking over many jobs, how can they make operations more profitable and efficient? CEOs and COOs are really pushing to be thought leaders in their particular field. So writers with a background in AI and computer technology have an advantage here. And there are always business and financial books—how to disrupt an industry or become a leader by making big changes, shaking things up and coming out on top.

Any advice for beginning ghostwriters?  I tell people starting out to not worry so much about a niche, but do whatever comes their way. Then they can develop a niche if they get a couple of books under their belt. If they specialize, they can become a content expert and people and publications will seek them out. And more often than not, they will be kept quite busy.