ISTM #23: My Interview with a Ghostwriter

A little over six months ago, I announced I was going into the ghostwriting business and would dedicate half my time to writing tech-business books for aspiring authors.

I’ve had inquiries, but very few situations have come up where I saw a good match for me in both the subject matter and the author. For example, I was not a good choice for writing a celebrity cookbook, which someone suggested to me; nor did I feel inclined to work with the CEO who told me he had a low budget and wanted the book completed in four months. Nor did I get inspired to write a memoir for a former drug dealer who is now a biz dev executive for a publicly traded company.

These are not quite what I have in mind. I’ve written seven books, each of which was about transformative technologies for business audiences and this is where I add the most value to a book-writing collaboration. 

Still, every conversation I have had on this subject makes me better equipped to understand what I need to know to be a particularly great book-writing consultant. 

I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve come to understand that most people have entertained fantasies about writing a book and that they are usually pretty clueless about what that entails. It is not very much at all like posting one very long blog. It is more like being an entrepreneur who starts with a clean sheet of paper to create something new and important. It involves discipline, planning, research, revisions, teamwork, timing and major marketing efforts at launch time. And of course, it also involves passion and dedication. There’s also the chemistry between authors and their ghostwriters: if that is missing the book will be disjointed, boring or both.

Since I announced my availability, I had hoped some news writer would interview me about why I had decided to write books for other people rather than keep writing them myself. It has not yet occurred and lately, I have felt a bit like the kid at the prom who doesn’t get asked to dance.

Then it dawned on me: Hell, I’m great at interviews. I’ve conducted thousands of them. 

Why don’t I just interview me for my own newsletter? The upside would be that I get to answer the questions I wish to be asked: The only downside is that if I say something stupid, I can’t claim that I was misquoted.

Another option would be to claim these are FAQs and post them to my blog site. But actually, many of these are rarely asked questions or ones that I have never been asked. 

So, what follows is my interview with myself. It is edited by my wife Paula Israel who tries hard to prevent me from saying anything stupid, and sometimes she succeeds.

So here goes: 

An Exclusive Interview with Shel Israel

By Shel Israel

We caught up with Shel Israel recently, while he was sitting at his desk waiting for the phone to ring or a text message to arrive. We popped him a few questions about what Inquiring Minds might want to know from him. We recorded it so that he was sure we got his story straight. What follows is the result.

Q.  You call yourself both a Ghostwriter and a Book Consultant. What’s the difference?

Great question! I’m glad you asked. I use the term Ghostwriter, so that I can use the cute little icon to your right.

Ok seriously, as a ghostwriter I articulate the Author’s best thinking. My clients are business executives—usually CEOs—with great ideas. I am a professional writer who can articulate those ideas in ways that are valuable to readers who matter to them.

People who need ghostwriters almost invariably need book consultants, who manage the process and help with tough decisions such as whether to self-publish or traditionally publish. Also, I assemble a team of people to edit, index, link check, design, produce and distribute the book as well as promote it at launch time.

I simplify the process for you and the book content for its readers.

Q. OK, but then what is the difference between a book’s Author and the Writer?

If the book is your idea, then you are the Author. Your name is prominent on the book cover. Your objective is to use the book to become a thought leader.

As your Writer, I am another vendor with special skills and experience. My job is to find the best words to express your best thoughts. It’s your decision on whether my name goes on the cover at all, and if it does, it will be far less prominent.

Q. Should I self-publish or go with a traditional publisher? 

This is an important question and needs to be answered before the project can actually get underway. 

There are pluses and minuses to either route. 

Traditional publishers are a great choice for established best-selling authors such as Bill Bryson, or celebrity non-authors like Michelle Obama. If you are of lesser stature, you may still want to go through a traditional publisher for your first book because it simplifies the process.

But, if you do, you should expect a miserly financial advance and it will most likely be the only money you ever see from the publisher who then owns your intellectual property. You will not get their top editor to work on your book because they are too busy helping celebrities like Obama and Bryson. Lately, publishers have even started demanding a share of your speaking revenues.

While I will work with authors who choose either route, I prefer the self-publishing route. You have greater freedom on every decision; access to abundant freelance talent, and you have potentially a much larger financial upside—although your production costs will be steeper. You also can get a book into distribution several months faster by self-publishing. 

Q. Speaking of costs, are you expensive? How do you charge?

I am higher-than-average and have the credentials to justify it. I bring the experience of writing and launching seven books. I have sold over 200,000 copies. I am plugged into a great network of freelance talent and I know a lot about the speed bumps and pitfalls we may encounter along the way.

I cannot estimate what I will charge you until we have talked. It’s one reason I offer anyone considering a book a free hour of consultation before I make a proposal.

But I can tell you my pricing strategy: I charge a monthly retainer based on the number of hours I expect to work on an average month at $250 an hour. This loosely will come out to between $6,000 and $12,000 a month during the period when we are developing and writing the book. Expect the cost to be cut in half for assistance in producing and launching the book.

Total cost for me roughly ranges between  $36,000 to $144,000. The remainder of the team for self-publishing will cost between $7,500 and $20,000 depending on multiple factors related to your preparation.

Q. That’s a big range. Just what are those factors?

Simply put, it depends on how prepared you are when we start. 

If you have already determined the title, target audience and have a detailed outline of the book with summaries for each chapter, you can cut my retainer by as much as half, and it allows me to focus on what I do best: writing. If you conduct your own interviews, that can help—if you ask the right questions. If you agree to work with just me and to keep your company committee out of the loop, the work will go faster and the message will be clearer in the book.

If you haven’t done any of this, then we will need to start by creating these deliverables and that process can be time-consuming, which of course, adds to your cost.

Q. What sort of book projects appeal to you?

My strong suit, as I mentioned, is writing about transformative technologies for business audiences. I like writing books that make business points through anecdotes and case studies. I am also interested in biographies and memoirs. I am a history buff and would love to be contracted to write a history book related to many aspects of the digital transformation.

I believe in simple stories well-told, with a clean, straightforward style and a humble but proud tone. I like to make serious points garnished with a touch of humor.

I probably am not a great pick for a highly technical book or one that aspires to be more inspirational than informative.

Q. You make authoring a book sound like it’s a lot of work and money. Is it worth it?

I have often asked myself that very same question and so has my wife. It really depends upon what you dream of. It depends also on how that book will change your influence, business, stature and the quality of your book idea.

If you happen to be an entrepreneur intent on changing the world then a book is a catalyst to making change happen sooner. If you want to establish yourself as a thought leader, a well-written book is a required credential. Books have been described as the new business card and it does introduce you in a new way.

If you aspire to be in the front of the room, addressing your peers, then a book is a short route to getting there. 

Not only that but your mom, spouse and kids will be proud of you. So will your work team and existing customers.

Plus, every now and then, you can actually make a good deal of money from it.

Q. OK. How do I learn more? 

I offer anyone seriously considering a business book one free hour of my consulting time. It helps me understand more about this new book and more importantly whether you and I would make a good match for a book-producing project.

Also,  I get to keep updating this post with new answers to the question.

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Augmenting Umpires with HAAI 

In my last ItSeemstoMe issue I talked about Human-Augmented AI (HAAI), a new term I coined to describe companies using humans to back up Artificial Intelligence-powered technologies: Deep Sentinel, you may recall, is a startup in the burglar alarm business. While Innodata is a publicly traded Global Technology Services company.

I thought these two examples showed the diversity of HAAI. But now comes an example that hits a home run for diversity.  The NY Times reported how baseball’s Atlantic League was testing AI to call balls and strikes. The umpire hears the call in an earbud, then either confirms or overrides it.  

This a great call, if you ask me. AI can be far more precise in measuring a strike zone, but it lacks the common sense, as I keep mentioning. So if a pitched ball bounces in the dirt then bounces into the strike zone, it gets called as a ball, not a strike.

In covering this same story in Without Bullshit, Josh Bernoff, a friend and fellow ghostwriter wrote, “the future of customer service is not robots answering questions — it’s robots and people together figuring out the best answers to questions.” 

I agree. AI may be tireless, precise and objective, but it also is ethically agnostic, lacking in empathy and insensitive to humor or nuance. As most sports fans will attest, it takes diverse players to make up a winning team: AI backing people makes for a good team, but when AI pushes humans out of the loop the unintended consequences can go deeply into foul territory.

I will keep reporting on HAAI as I learn about it. Please let me know if you can point me in the right direction.

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AI Discovers What Humans Missed

Every now and then AI demonstrates it can be helpful by backing us up with its tireless probers. This article in Vice magazine shows how AI pieced together from multiple and unrelated resources thermoelectric materials, which convert heat to energy and are used in many heating and cooling applications.

AI may lack common sense, but they do wonders in connecting obscure dots that even the most brilliant of our species might miss. In this particular case, possible new sources of clean energy seem to me to be a pretty good thing.

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Is YouTube Too Big to Fix?

So many of us are very fixated on Facebook’s reluctance to fix those things it has broken such as personal privacy or free elections, that we sometimes forget the significant damages accomplished by a rival company: in this case Google.

Last week, Sundar Pichai made what I think is the most irresponsible statement I’ve heard from any senior Google official. He asserted that Google will never be able to prevent all the hate speech, harassment, unsubstantiated conspiracy allegations and sundried slime that seeps out of YouTube because YouTube is too big. 

He did not go on to say how much of it Google can filter out or what steps Google is taking to prevent future crap being posted. That’s ironic: In China, Youku Tudou has reportedly reached a half-billion uploads per month and it reports no such problems. 

My guess is the Chinese government manages to instill sufficient fear of wrath upon the company management to filter out such crap while the head of our government has become legendary in using social networks to spread crap around.

My point is this: Google—and of course Facebook—should fix what they broke. If they are too big to fix it as Pichai alleges, then our government should take appropriate steps to make YouTube smaller. 

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