For first-time book authors, the difference between a ghostwriter and an editor can be confusing. To make matters even more complicated, there are different kinds of editors. Then, there are book coaches and literary agents. How do you figure out what you need?
First, let’s talk about ghostwriting. In this situation, you provide the information about your chapters to the ghostwriter, and he/she performs the actual writing of the chapters. You may convey the information through interviews, written materials, research, or a combination of all of these. The ghostwriter also (1) works with you on your book concept and outline; (2) makes sure the book is structured properly; (3) makes sure each chapter is structured well; (4) ensures overall clarity, flow, and readability; and (4) presents you with a publishable book.
Working with a ghostwriter is an excellent option for those who (1) hate to write, (2) can’t write well, or (3) have little time to write. This process still requires your time in conveying your expertise to the ghostwriter, but it requires less time than writing the book yourself.
But wait, can’t you just give your ghostwriter a topic, and let him/her go off and write your book for you? There are writers who will do this for you, but if someone can write your book without you, how is it your book?
On the other hand, as long as the information contained within the book reflects your expertise, it’s still your book even if you work with a ghostwriter. Think of it this way: Many wonderful non-fiction books would never have been written if people without writing skills decided they had no right to share their expertise. As a ghostwriter, I help someone with an expertise in one area by using my expertise – writing and editing – to make sure their message is clear and readable. Even if I put the words together, it’s still the expert’s information and opinions.
Note that a ghostwriter can also create a book proposal for you. This is a separate document that’s much like the business plan for your book. It allows publishers to decide if they want to buy your book idea. Even if you’ve finished the whole book, most publishers will still want a proposal. Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you’ve already opened your business, but you’re looking for investors. They’ll still want to see your business plan. (Note that the exception is fiction. In that case, publishers want to see the whole book. That’s because with fiction, it’s the writing rather than the information that takes precedence.)
What About Editing?
As I said, there are different types of editors, and most books use all of them throughout their journey to publishing.
1. Developmental Editor (also sometimes called a “substantive editor” or a “book doctor”). This type of editor works much like a ghostwriter to keep the totality of your book holding together. He/she might rewrite portions, or suggest that your book or certain chapters be restructured. This editor might also do some preliminary editing for grammar, punctuation, and clarity.
2. Line Editor. This type of editor corrects language use line by line and paragraph by paragraph. He/she will look for sentences that are too long, words that are unnecessary or used too frequently, tense problems, passive voice, unclear sentences, and more.
3. Copy Editor. A copy editor is sometimes called a “technical editor.” This person goes over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, correcting grammar, punctuation, spelling, tense, hyphenation, and inconsistencies as to capitalizations, numbers, etc. Often, this editor makes sure the manuscript conforms to a particular style sheet, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. These style sheets are how publishers maintain consistency. For example, a style sheet will specify whether percentages should be written as “five percent” or “5%.”
4. Proofreader. A proofreader does the final check for blatant errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. To catch as many mistakes as possible, it’s best to have your manuscript proofread many times. Even then, errors can be missed.
Most books in publishing houses go through all of these types of editors before they’re deemed “ready to go.” Yes, publishers have editors in-house, but if your manuscript arrives in poor condition, it might get sent back to you for more work (delaying production) or even a post-contract rejection. This is why many authors hire their own ghostwriters or editors to ensure the manuscripts they submit are in excellent shape.
What is a “Literary Agent”?
What do literary agents do exactly? First and foremost, a reputable literary agent will never ask you to give them money. Never. I mean it. A literary agent reviews your book proposal or manuscript and decides if he/she wants to represent you. If so, the agent “shops” your book idea to appropriate publishing houses, trying to sell it. The agent takes a small percentage of the advance you receive from the publisher if and only if the agent wins a publishing contract for you.
A literary agent might also help you improve your book concept and proposal. He/she will definitely negotiate your publishing contract for you. Don’t underestimate the importance of this, as most publishing houses provide first-time authors with pretty lousy contracts.
Here’s a quick word about advances since most people don’t understand how they work: A book proposal is used to sell your book so that you can get advance money from the publisher. You then use that money to go off and write your book. You do not earn any royalties until that advance is paid back to the publisher. For this reason, the majority of books never receive any royalties. Harsh, but true!
What is a “Book Coach”?
Yes, there’s yet another role within the publishing industry that might be helpful to you. A book coach is someone who can give you advice as you write your book or proposal. This person might help you hammer out the concept of your book, including the title (and subtitle, if you have one). He/she will then help you with your outline, and you might hire this person to provide feedback as you write your chapters. This role does not include actual editing or ghostwriting, although I’ve been hired as a coach, only to be hired later as an editor.
Your coach might also help you decide on traditional publishing versus self-publishing, or which literary agents or self-publishing companies to pursue.
I do this kind of work for some of my clients.
So, What Do You Need?
I have never met a first-time non-fiction author who was capable of structuring a book properly. I’m sure they exist, but they’re as rare as a spotted zebra. Most people need help of some kind because it’s a new skill that must be developed.
It’s up to you to determine the level of help you require. Just know that even the greatest writers – of both fiction and non-fiction – needed an objective eye to help them judge their work.
It can be painful to see your work edited, but your book will only be better for it. That said, it’s important to try to find a ghostwriter or editor who is in synch with you. If you find someone who “gets” you, this individual can be a powerful ally and a cheerleader for you during the painstaking process of birthing a book.