Ghostwriting and book development are profitable areas for nonfiction writers to consider. Mark Morrow recently guided CEO Roy Williams’ Only Retire Once: How to Avoid the 9 Deadly Mistakes of Retirement into publication. He took time out from a busy schedule to talk with HDYWT about his work as an editor, writer, and book development specialist.
In this interview, Mark shares
- The value of a book proposal—even if you plan to self-publish.
- His favorite online tools.
- How he keeps a project on track.
Mark: I got a call from a New Jersey public relations firm in the Spring of 2013 about a ghostwriting project with a “tight deadline.” Not a good sign and a situation my experience has taught me to avoid due to its train wreck potential. Still, I was willing to listen since my friend at McGraw-Hill had recommended me for the job.
The project I’d be working on, according to the PR firm, involved the CEO of a large financial planning firm. The CEO wanted to write a book, but unfortunately he was too busy to do the writing, a very a typical scenario for busy, successful people.
I was told that the raw content would be delivered in the form of a transcribed interview based on a detailed outline of the book. That also sounded like something I could handle. As a veteran developmental editor and journalist, I’ve transformed and in many cases completely rewritten dozens of books (some with even less solid content than what the CEO was offering) on a range of business topics. In fact, being handed a “train wreck” of a manuscript with the instruction to “fix it” has always been a challenge I relished.
Then I asked about the deadline—six weeks I was told. After taking a moment to squelch a less dignified and professional response, I simply replied, “That’s not possible.” I went through a laundry list of reasons why the deadline wasn’t reasonable and why attempting it would be a “train wreck” (I did use that phrase). In the end, I just said “No thanks.” But PR folks are persistent and so I agreed to participate in a Skype interview with the client and his team just to hear them out.
In the interest of brevity, I’ll provide Cliff notes version of the rest of the story.
I did the interview and I really liked the CEO, and it turns out he felt the same at least to some degree, I guess, because we both had Southern roots, or maybe because I was honest and said right up front that his project couldn’t be done with a six-week deadline—at least done in any form that we’d want to call our best work. We signed off from the call and a few weeks later I was working on the project. The resulting book, Only Retire Once: How to Avoid the 9 Deadly Mistakes of Retirement, was published in May 2014 as a self-published book.
This narrative, of course, does leave out a few project plan changes that I’ll mention here as flavoring for my main point. I never got the recordings since the CEO was too busy, so I ending up traveling to the client site and doing two days of interviews as content background. And, since a substantial part of the book involving tax, estate and Social Security law needed interpretation and explanation for the “every person” audience, a considerable amount of research was required. Along the way, I offered the book to several major publishers who took a pass despite the CEO’s marketing platform and investment in the project, so the client self-published.
We’re working on some follow-on books now and perhaps will have better luck with traditional publishing next time—although it’s not essential to the client’s business strategy.
And your point, you ask? I guess my point is that it’s important to be flexible and approach each project with a learning attitude. Had I walked away from this project, not only would I have lost an excellent client I really like, but I would have missed the opportunity to do something we all need to do in a serious and methodical way—plan for retirement. If fact, I learned so much doing this book that when we met with our own financial advisor recently, both he and my wife were impressed with my knowledge and understanding of the financial details. That’s some benefit for an aging writer and journalist.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Mark: One advantage of preparing a formal book proposal for a publisher is the requirement to distill the book’s raison d’etre down to just a few sentences—a pitch, really—and I’ve found the process helps keep me moving in the right direction throughout the book writing process. If I have a question about including content or digressing in a certain way, I just have to go back to my road map, and if the content doesn’t fit, then that’s a data point to not go there. I often tell my clients to prepare a proposal as if they are preparing to submit to a publisher even when they plan on self-publishing. In most cases, these proposals are an essential business plan for the project since one of the requirements is to spell out specifically a marketing plan and to project how many copies of the book you might sell through various channels.
For the Only Retire Once project we had gone through an extensive content and proposal crafting process so I knew exactly where I was going and what should be included in the final book. In addition, part of the proposal process is to write a first chapter so I had established the tone, voice, pacing and approach to the material (client approved) so I had what you might call a “running start” to finish the book.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Mark: For this project, I did all my research on the internet using trustworthy sources such as federally sponsored data (Social Security, census and actuarial data) or brand name research entities such as Pew Research and/or well-regarded financial data sites.
One of the difficulties with the project was that I had to fill in various gaps in the narrative that occur when the content source isn’t sure about the statistical accuracy of the data they cite to back up their points or corroborating data is missing for a general conversational statement, i.e. a statement such as “The 2008 financial crisis impacted the retirement plans of millions of Americans.” I used internet resource organizing tools such as getpocket.com as my research folders, and detailed bookmark folders organized by subject areas so that I could go back and check data and sources.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Mark: I typically work—if nothing intrudes into my day—5 to 8 hours a day with lots of short breaks as a reward for finishing a section, a chapter or definable amount of work. It’s easy to burn up 4 hours at one sitting if I don’t pay attention, but I find it’s good to go out and stand in the sun for a few minutes or take a walk through the garden or just see what my dog is up to—no surprise, sleeping usually. These minibreaks help me refocus and work more efficiently.
If I have more than one project due within the same time period, I organize my time to write in the morning on one and the afternoon on the other. My journalistic ADD training allows me to easily switch between projects and focus.
Finally, after a long time of intending to do it, I spend exactly one hour a day working on my fiction projects, i.e. the ones that will never pay. I belong to a local fiction writing group and they’ve been encouraging me to “finish something” for two years now, so that’s what I’m trying to do. The main problem with fiction is that I get so involved I often blow past the 1 hour alarm and continue working, sometimes for 3 to 4 hours. Not recommended for making a go as a writer for hire.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Mark: I don’t have any particular writer’s tool I use other than the amazing world of Google and Chrome browser. Having every account on a single sign-in—email, bookmarks, extensions, Google+—is a comfortable and efficient platform for me.
One tool I have been using successfully is a Google extension called todoist.com. For me it’s an amazing organizing tool that follows you everywhere on all devices and is seamlessly integrated with gmail and a related app for smartphone devices. I highly recommend it.
Bonus question: What advice do you have for a someone who would like to get into business or technical writing?
Mark: First, I don’t have to say that it’s a difficult business to be in these days for so many reasons beyond the fact that there’s not a lot of financial respect for what a good editor or write can do except at the top of the scale, i.e. Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone. Writing has become pretty much a winner-take-all business due to the collapse of the middle tier of writing, editing and journalism—the thousands of jobs lost writing for good or even excellent newspapers, magazines and other print media. Digital media is the way forward, and I adore the technology that has undermined the middle—I absolutely never buy a print book. I love my Kindle.
Eventually, we’ll sort it out and it will be great, maybe better. But for now, it’s tough to make a go of it at 5 cents a word or $1500 for an 8,000 word piece that takes 40 hours of research to produce. Just not enough money, but someone’s got to be in the club of extraordinary writers that Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone and the New York Times (the holy grail) hires, so if you think you can, go for it.