Writer, editor, ghostwriter; what I learned from 11 book projects

In the last decade I’ve been intimately involved with 11 nonfiction book projects. I wrote or cowrote four, edited five, and ghostwrote one-and-a-half (one is not yet complete). These were the most rewarding experiences in my career. Here’s what I learned: the keys to success in a book project are planning, passion, trust, perseverance, and a relentless commitment to quality.

I specialize in one type of book: business books with a focus on marketing or technology (or both), rich with case studies and advice. My value is greatest on those types of projects because of my experience. When I’m working on a book like that, I feel great confidence about what will work, what directions to go, and how to get to a successful published book.

My 11 books. First row: books I wrote or cowrote. Second row: Books I edited. Third row: books I ghostwrote. Marketing to the Entitled Consumer will be published in October, while the manuscripts for Clarity Wins and the unannounced last book are still in process.

Common experiences across writing, editing, and ghostwriting

What amazed me most was how much the process felt similar across all of these different roles. These are some of the commonalities:

  • All my authors and coauthors were filled with fantastic new ideas about business, informed by their own research and experience. In all these projects, I made it my job to do everything possible to help realize those ideas in the most powerful possible way in a book.
  • I developed warm and friendly relationships with all of my authors. I cannot feel anything but warmth as I think about incredible thinkers I’ve had the privilege of working with, like Charlene Li, Ted Schadler, Harley Manning, Kerry Bodine, James McQuivey, Shel Israel, Nick Worth, and Dave Frankland. Working on a book together is an intellectual marriage, one in which the partners (ideally) develop mutual trust and respect for each others’ ideas. This is not to say that everything was peachy — as in marriages, there are spats. (One of my authors stopped speaking to me for two days when I accused him of being unable to do fifth-grade arithmetic, and another had to withstand me shouting at him on a mobile phone from a meadow in Vermont for ruining my vacation by making too many changes too late in the manuscript.) But in relationships that are, by their nature, characterized by ego and intense and firmly held beliefs about words and ideas, we hassled it out and found the best possible solutions (never compromises). When you’ve created something like this together, you end up loving or hating each other. I was pleased to find myself nearly always loving.
  • Few authors recognize the urgency — or the challenges at the end. You can’t write a good book like these by leaving everything to the end. Authors tended to underestimate the time it takes to plan properly, conduct research, review each others’ recommended changes, and get the whole book to be a unified and consistent piece of work in the end. The result was that in most cases, there was an intense rush at the end that consumed all of us. I tend to get sucked in to these projects regardless of my role, and found myself just as intensely involved in the books I edited and ghostwrote as I was in the ones I authored and coauthored.
  • Three is a hard number to make work. Writing Without Bullshit was a solo project. Most of the other books had teams of two, but there were three of us on Outside In, The Mobile Mind Shift, The Fourth Transformation, and Marketing to the Entitled Consumer. Three people intensely involved in a book project can lead to factions forming; the other danger is inefficiency as people review each others’ work. On the projects that worked well with three contributors, we spent significant time early to develop a common plan and vision and also developed a clear and efficient process for managing reviews. For example, on Outside In, Kerry and Harley had a tightly shared perspective on everything from structure to tone to ideas, and when one wrote a chapter, the other two of us reviewed it quickly and then shared our perspectives in a meeting. Coordinating three people is extra work, but it’s nothing like the hell you experience when not everyone is on the same page. And never assume that three authors (or two authors and an editor) can complete the work more quickly than two people; each author will write less, but you’ll swallow up that time in coordinating your perspectives.
  • The only thing that’s different between publishing models is the schedule. Of the books I’ve worked on or am currently working on, seven had traditional publishers, three had hybrid publishers, and one was self-published. The self-published book was the fastest into print, and the traditionally published books were the slowest. But the processes around planning, content, words, graphics, editing, copy editing, and page production were virtually the same in all cases. Each of these books between 50,000 to 75,000 words and eight to 14 chapters, for a total of 180 to 280 pages. When it comes to these case-study-heavy business books, a book is a book regardless of how it gets into print.
  • Publishing virgins have no idea what they’re in for. Only two of my authors had published books before: Shel Israel, who’s written many, and Ted Schadler on our second collaboration. The rest were amazed at how much work was involved. They didn’t understand how much research it takes, how slow publishers work, or all the time-consuming elements of the publishing process that must take place to turn a finished manuscript into a book, from copy editing and fact checking to page layout and distribution. On these projects, I get paid to write or edit, but spend an inordinate amount of time explaining processes.

Writing: making our ideas and words sing.

I only have one author voice. If you read the books I wrote, with our without coauathors, you will recognize that voice. It’s authoritative, lively, and a little mischievous. It’s personal but not egotistical — in books, I use the word “you” a lot, but the word “I” much less.

On books I cowrote, the concept, the ideas, and the words are shared. These are “we” books — it’s impossible to tell which parts are mine and which belong to the other authors (except the indexes, which are mine).

The difference between writing and editing or ghostwriting is in that level of possessiveness about the ideas. If it says “by Josh Bernoff,” I have to believe every word of what’s in there, regardless of whether I wrote that passage or not.

In a collaborative project, that might mean arguing intensely over what order things go in, which case studies belong and what they say, which words to use, or even whether to refer to people by their first and last names. None of my coauthors would back down on these issues; we’d just wrestle them back and forth until we got to an answer we could all get behind. As Ted Schadler said, the process was “not always easy, but always compelling.”

Editing: making your ideas and words sing.

When I edit a book, the ideas and words are not mine. My job is to help the authors to say what they want to say, as powerfully as possible.

My experience of editing seems very different from my experience of being edited. The editors I’ve had at Harvard Business Press and Harper Business have taken a very light touch — this might be because my writing is pretty good or because editors in publishing houses generally don’t get to deep into the manuscripts these days.

But when I edit, I am quite critical. I worry about the power of the ideas and the persuasiveness of the cases as well as the words. I’m hard on the text, if not necessarily on the authors. But it’s never about what I want to say, it’s about what they want to say. Authors I work with tend to feel that my editing made their jobs harder, but the result better. The greatest compliment I got was from James McQuivey, who said I “see your ideas better than you can sometimes and work relentlessly to help you express them in the most powerful way possible.” Dave Carroll said I think like a writer with the skills of an editor. That’s my philosophy in brief: I I sympathize with you and empathize with your reader.

Ghostwriting: making your ideas sing with my words.

This year I had a new experience. I ghostwrote Marketing to the Entitled Consumer (which will be published in October) and am currently ghostwriting a second book, not yet announced.

My experience of ghostwriting is probably not what you imagine.

In the case of Marketing to the Entitled Consumer, I guided the whole project to help it best accomplish the goals of the authors, Dave Frankland and Nick Worth. I wrote a lot of the words and conducted some of the interviews, but the authors wrote drafts of a lot of the words themselves, and we got research help from others as well. This is definitely their project, with me working for them to get it written as effectively as possible.

Is this my book? No. It’s their book.

Are they my ideas? No, they are the authors’ ideas, although I contributed to making those ideas better.

Are they my words? Many of them. They’re certainly words I feel responsible for.

I didn’t know how I would feel writing a whole book for hire. As it turns out, I feel great. I believe in the message of this book and the authors’ ideas, and I believe in the value of the work we created. The book has “with Josh Bernoff” on the cover along with the authors’ names. Nick and Dave were incredible to work with and valued my contributions and my counsel. I was every bit as passionate about this project as the books I wrote or cowrote.

Unlike the other books, though, it’s not my job to promote this book — they’ll do the speeches and get the value of the being seen as thought leaders. That’s exactly as it should be, since the ideas are their ideas.

The experience of the other book I am currently ghostwriting is not the same. Since the book is not yet announced, I cannot go into more detail, but what I have learned is that “ghostwriter” as a term covers a multitude of possible ways to contribute. What I can tell you is that, like Marketing to the Entitled Consumer, I believe in the message of this new book, I am excited to be working on it, and I take pride in what I am creating.

I want to ghostwrite more. I want to edit more. I want to write more books for myself. I love creating and helping others create. As writers’ lives go, this is a good one.

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  1. When you first read a manuscript you’re going to edit, have you ever wished you’d had the idea for the book and feel that you could’ve done a better job writing it than the author?

    1. Before I edit, I have an extended conversation with the author. People don’t just toss manuscripts over the transom at me.

      If the manuscript is about an idea I had or am working on, I can’t edit it, conflict of interest.

      If the manuscript is about an idea that I find interesting, I would never steal it, that is unethical.

      I don’t get my book ideas from other people’s manuscripts, basically, because that would show a complete lack of imagination on my part.