Thursday, January 28, 2021

 Dear O'Abby,

I read the Operation Awesome post about ghostwriting this week with interest because I have been approached by someone who asked if I would ghostwrite her memoir.  She's a fascinating woman with a life story well worth telling, so it's something I'm very interested in doing.  

I'm not a published author (although I've written a number of so-far-unpublished novels), and this woman is a friend and doesn't have a lot of money right now, so I'm wondering how best to approach the financial side of this.  I don't want to work for free, but I also don't want to bankrupt my friend.

Do you have any advice?



Dear Memoirist,

I think you should think really hard before you dive into this.  I know from personal experience that there can be many pitfalls along the way, especially if you and the subject are friends.  Finances and friendships can be uneasy bedfellows...

Writing someone else's life story isn't as easy as you may think, and selling memoir is not an easy task either, no matter how fascinating the life you are documenting.  Make sure you both know what the ambition for this project is before you start.  If she just wants something to share with her grandchildren down the track, it's a very different proposal than if she's expecting to rocket to the top of the bestseller list.

First up, make sure your subject has realistic expectations about the project.  She may be diving into this with the idea this will make her a millionaire, or launch her into the stratosphere in her chosen field.  She may think it's something that can be done in just a few weeks or months.  She may think she just needs to dictate her stories to you and you will write them down and that will be it.

None of this is true.

To write a good memoir/autobiography, you will need to shape a compelling story from whatever she tells you.  This will involve a lot of back and forth as she tells you stories, you write them into beautifully crafted narratives, and then go back to her to fill in details she may not have mentioned the first time she told the stories.

Scenes and events need to link to each other and drive the narrative forward.  Things she may believe are super important to the story may not fit into the arc you create as you write her life story.  Other events may not seem relevant or believable within the context of what you have written.  You may need to work closely together to identify which parts of her story are worthy of being put to paper.  Not all will be.

Be prepared for pushback.  Some of the things she tells you may paint her in a less than flattering light and until she's confronted with them in black and white, she may not recognise this.  She may ask you to change the narrative to make her look better.  Which is fine, as long as there are no other people involved who could dispute her side of the story and make her look dishonest later.

In terms of financial arrangements, it will depend on the plans for the book.  If she wants it to be traditionally published, you have every right to ask for a share of any royalties.  But if this is the only payment you ask for, you may end up doing a lot of work for nothing if the book fails to sell.  But on the other hand, if you ask for a flat fee or cents-per-word payment, you may miss out on a nice financial bonus if the book does sell well.  If this is the plan for the book, it is probably worth asking for a smaller up-front/hourly/cents-per-word fee with the caveat that you get a percentage of any advance and royalties.

Make sure whatever you negotiate is fair.  This is going to take a lot of hours of your time and those are valuable.  No one likes feeling undervalued and there could be a lot of resentment if you spend a lot of time and energy and your subject not only gets all the glory, but also all the financial reward.  remember, it's her name that will be on the cover.  If you get referenced at all, it will be as [SUBJECT'S NAME] with [your name].  And that is only if you negotiate for that too.

And that's just a handful of things from the top of my head.  If you have any specific questions about any aspect of this, please flick me an email at OperationAwesome6 (at) gmail (dot) com.  I'd be happy to share some of my own personal experiences in this area. 

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