Friday, January 29, 2010

Chapter 11 • 2005-2009 • Reinventing Myself

Life takes the most unexpected twists and turns. So many times over the years, I was heading down a path when I came to a bend in the road. The question was always the same: Should I turn or keep on going straight? There is no right answer, which was probably what inspired Robert Frost to write “The Road Not Taken.” So many times, as Frost suggested, I took the road less traveled, and that made all the difference.

The path I was on in 2005 was teaching, polishing my little 36-page workbook, and looking for freelance work. My luck was changing, and I was landing well-paying projects at last. One of the most interesting assignments came from a client who had just been promoted. There was a search on for her replacement as director of communications at a catholic health care system of hospitals. This was my dream job, and even though I had not considered full-time work for years, I submitted my resume. As an outsider, I had already observed the intensity of the place. Everyone juggled multiple responsibilities and worked long hours. I wondered if I could maintain that pace at my age and state of health. The CEO was a year older than I but seemed indefatigable, setting a daunting standard for the entire staff. Nonetheless, I was definitely in the running for the position when an “internal candidate” surfaced. Since this was an organization that promoted from within, the opportunity evaporated. I was both disappointed and relieved.

There’s an old saying about one door closing and another one opening. Before I could even feel discouraged about not getting the job, I was standing at one of those open doors. The CEO was thinking of writing a book. Well, to be honest, she was being urged to write a book by her senior communications staff. Convincing her took some doing. While she was a powerhouse of a leader and a great speaker, she was, by her own admission, an introvert. She didn’t want to do it, but her staff prevailed and asked me if I would like to be considered as a ghostwriter.

I was at the proverbial bend in the road, and the impulse to turn in a new direction was too strong to resist. I said yes. The competition was stiff. The other candidate was an experienced ghostwriter, a referral from someone with influence, and Catholic. His proposed fee was much too high. I was hired.

This was a watershed moment in my career. I promised to complete the book within six months without having a true understanding of what was involved. In 2001, the entire system of nineteen hospitals had won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, becoming the first health care institution in the country to be so honored.

When I began, I knew nothing about this hospital system; its twenty-year quest for quality; the Baldrige award; or the CEO, a nun, who was to be the author. I had six months to learn everything and write the book. Until that moment, the most challenging projects I had undertaken were corporate annual reports and books about subjects with which I was already familiar. This was a whole new ball game.

I would need many more chapters to describe the scope of the research, the hours of interviews, the organizational challenge, the editing process, and the amazing education I received. I had been insane to think it could be researched and written in six months. Nine would have been more realistic, twelve even better. The process was, on one hand, grueling and, on the other, exhilarating. I made the deadline, but we all realized the book needed more—more stories, more humor, more institutional memory. Essentially, I had built the foundation; those who had been there from the beginning would have to build the house.

As always, when a big project ended, I felt like a deflated hot air balloon. I thrived on the writing; having written was a letdown. I knew that from my own books. Much like running a race and stopping with no cool-down period, my mental muscles cramped.

Around this time, I met a young woman who would come to play a major role in the development of my business. Bobette was a marketing guru who had been a panelist at the St. Louis Publishers Association meeting. She looked at my Web site and asked, “What is it you do? You can’t possibly do everything.” During all the years I had been in business, I had been a generalist—someone who could write about anything for anyone in any format. No wonder no one knew what I did. I had positioned myself as a writer who did whatever a company needed. Now, I had to commit myself to one, possibly two, areas of specialization. She suggested I scrap my entire site and start over.

Finding someone to design and develop a Web site had proven to be an expensive nightmare over the years, and this time was no exception. I finally decided to do it myself, an interesting decision since I didn’t understand HTML code or Web design. Undaunted, I plunged in anyway. Fortunately, Bobette did know HTML and worked behind the scenes to correct my mistakes.

I bought her basic marketing package, which forced me to clarify my overall business goal and the three strategies I would pursue to achieve it. Based on my single experience as a ghostwriter, that was the area I chose. Then, I set about becoming one. To that strategy, I added book-writing coach and editor. My Web site now had a focus, and I had a new job description.

Despite getting a late start, with Bobette’s guidance, I tried to become Web savvy. What a truly eye-opening experience that effort turned out to be. Where had I been all this time while others were surfing and communicating and creating their Internet presence? Cyberspace was the best of all possible worlds; I was instantly hooked. I launched my new site, became listed in directories and search engines, wrote articles, and let the world know where to find me.


Ghostwriting is not a career for the faint of heart. When I decided to become a ghostwriter, I was quite naive. I had been writing professionally for close to four decades and freelancing for most of that time. I had writ­ten 12 nonfiction books on a range of topics. I had developed a workbook and taught many people how to write nonfiction books. I had even written the first edition of this book, So, You Want To Be A Ghostwriter? I thought I knew the score. Boy, was I wrong.”

2008 • The Invisible Author

More as a result of a personal referral than my sparkling presence on the Internet, I received another request to ghostwrite a book. This one was on a topic I knew something about, which augured well for success. The author presented training programs to executives and thought nothing of dropping in from across the country for a daylong meeting. We drew up a contract, created a plan, and began.

My second attempt at ghostwriting was almost enough to make me change my game plan. The number of drafts per chapter grew beyond reason; the agreed-upon schedule flew out the window; six months turned into nine. The client paid me the amended fee for services, and I sent him the book files. To my knowledge, he neither read the completed manuscript nor did anything with it. As far as I could discern, he just abandoned the whole idea. Our agreement was, if he ever published the book, my name had to be on the cover. From time to time, I checked his Web site and found no evidence of a book.

Walking away from a finished book is not as unusual as one might believe. At least, that client paid me. Another one walked away from the bill, as well as the book. A contract means little if it can’t be enforced. Small claims court is frustrating and costly. First, you have to pay the sheriff to serve the summons. Then, the sheriff has to find the defendant. That doesn’t always happen. Next, the plaintiff and the defendant both have to appear in court. That doesn’t always happen, either. I was shocked to learn, even if I won the case, the court had no means of enforcing its own verdict. the injured party is responsible collecting the money. One thing I know: I will never again sue someone in small claims court.

Ghostwriting is expensive. Most individuals can’t afford to hire a ghostwriter; and I had not yet returned to the corporate well. So, much of my new identity was as a book coach and editor. Editing frequently turned into a total rewrite, which more accurately fit in the ghostwriting category. I leaned the hard way to determine up front whether a manuscript needs a bandage or major surgery.

In between learning all of these valuable lessons, I was still teaching and finding that several students needed help after the six-week continuing education class. If they hired me as a coach or editor, I gave them a hefty discount because they had been my students. It was a perfect win-win situation. The more I taught and coached, the more material I added to my workbook, which was shrinking in dimensions but growing in the number of pages. The most recent edition, the fifth, is up to 119.


“Marketing is a frequently misunderstood term because it has so many totally different interpretations. I checked six online and print sources, and found six different definitions. Most of them were wordy and overly complicated, yet still managed to miss the point. OK. I'll admit it; that's harsh. But nothing I found was of much help in terms of marketing my business. So, here is my definition:

Marketing is identifying a need in the market I serve and communicating to potential clients or customers how my products or services will meet that need.”

2009 • News & Views

For all the years I had been on my own, successful entrepreneurs had counseled me to market, market, market. I knew they were right. I knew marketing spelled the difference between filling the pipeline and running out of work. I knew I should be marketing regularly, but I had a thousand excuses for not doing it at all. Though I could instruct my clients on how to market their businesses, I didn’t seem to know how to market my own.

Having a knowledgeable professional to advise me on the subject made all the difference. My Web site and the other activities I engaged in to augment it—social networking, a newsletter, online articles, Amazon, and two blogs—were producing results. People found me online and e-mailed. They subscribed to my newsletter, commented on my blogs, connected to me on FaceBook and LinkedIn, signed up for my classes, bought my books, and, best of all, hired me.

Such is the power of Web 2.0—the name for how tech-savvy people connect and relate to each other in the twenty-first century. I was a late adopter but an enthusiastic one. Technology just keeps on changing, and I have to keep on changing right along with it or I will become a dinosaur.