I had the privilege to interview Michael Levin, New York Times bestselling author and CEO of Business Ghost (www.BusinessGhost.com) about why corporate executives and professionals should write a book. Having written novels, business books and co-written with or ghost written for many high profiled professionals, such as Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, football broadcasting legend Pat Summerall, FBI undercover agent Joaquin Garcia and E-Myth creator Michael Gerber, he offers a unique insight that is a wealth of information.
Michael has also written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and many other top outlets. Plus he is an eight-time national best-selling author and his books have received outstanding reviews in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, People Magazine, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Examiner, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, the Boston Globe, Esquire, Booklist and other leading publications.
So relax and learn how you can become an author of a book in just 13 weeks and help propel your business to the next level. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting the interview.
Marsha: Why do you recommend that people write books in order to promote their businesses?
Michael: That’s a great question. We live in an era where the Internet is turning practically every business, service, or consultant into a commodity judged primarily, if not only, on price. In other words, the only way a lot of people are able to get business is by competing on price, and the rule in business is that any business you get by competing on price, you’ll lose when someone undercuts your price. So the question becomes this: how do people stand out in an overcrowded marketplace, where consumers and prospects have access to more information about your competition than ever? How do you make people realize that you are the most trustworthy advisor and that you can solve their problems?
At the end of the day, every website pretty much looks like every other website. They’re all attractive. They’ve all got blogs. They all kind of look the same. So even spending a lot of money on a website, let alone on traditional stand-alone marketing material like brochures, just doesn’t cut it. There’s nothing as powerful as a book to get people’s attention.
With a book, you’re able to demonstrate that you understand like no one else the specific nature of the problems that your prospects face. I always recommend targeting a niche with a book instead of writing for the general public. Write exactly for the people you’re trying to sell to. Show them that you understand their problems and that you offer solutions. In a book, you can lay out everything that you do to solve these problems. The goal is that if your book is generous enough with information, they’ll say, “I could do this on my own, but I would be much better off hiring the author to solve this problem for me.” That’s the result we’re looking for. That’s why you want a book.
Marsha: What can a book do that a good website can’t?
Michael: It really comes down to what I said in the previous answer—help the author stand out from the crowd. Again, everybody’s got a website, but how many of your competitors have books? Probably none. A book is an outstanding “leave behind”—you can’t exactly print out your website and leave it on the prospect’s desk. You can send your book in ahead of you and it’s so impressive that you’ve written a book while everyone else just has a website. You can get radio and TV appearances, as an expert or as a guest, because you’re an author. If you want to be a speaker, you really have to have a book, because the first question people ask you if you want to speak is, “Where is your book?” You can get lucrative speaking engagements, media exposure, a presence on the Internet beyond your own website…all with a book. Not just with a website. Of course you’ve got to have an attractive website, but again, so does everybody else. What’s going to make you unique?
Marsha: Why should someone consider using a ghostwriter to write their book?
Michael: We’re all good at what we do and not everyone has the desire, inclination, or experience to write his or her own book. Typically, for my clients, even for those who could write their own book and might even desire to do so, it’s really not the highest and best use of their time. It might take them, say, a hundred hours over six months to write their book. I can get it done for them in about twelve hours over ninety days. So you’re saving time, because you’re bringing in the expertise of an experienced person—in our case, our company, BusinessGhost, has done more than a hundred books. Then you’re able to use the same time you would have used writing your own book doing things that create the most leverage in your business or practice. It sure isn’t hunching over a computer and typing paragraphs out.
On top of that, a ghostwriter does more than write. A really good one will help you determine exactly what the right book should be for you at this time. You could write a lot of different books and maybe you’ll write many books over the course of your career. But what’s the right, best book right now for you? That’s awfully hard to determine on your own. It really is worth bringing in the guidance of a professional to solve that problem. I’m not sure I would equate ghostwriting and brain surgery, but if I needed brain surgery, God forbid, I wouldn’t’ do it myself. The work of ghostwriters isn’t quite as dramatic as brain surgery, of course. But we do have our clients’ reputations on the line and we have to take that responsibility incredibly seriously.
Marsha: What if someone does a lot of letter writing and blog writing—can they just write their own book, or is a ghostwriter still a good idea?
Michael: In my experience, a book is just a different animal. How do you sustain the interest of a reader over a document that runs not just a few thousand words, but 150 or 200 pages? How do you know how to organize the thing? What goes where? How much of a “call to action” can you include without offending the reader? By the way, how are you going to publish it? These are issues that even people who enjoy the process of writing their own blog pieces, articles, and [why] papers may not have the experience to answer as effectively as if they had brought in someone with specific experience in that field. Books are just different. They’re not just bigger; they are orders of magnitude more complex. I don’t want to make what we do sound like it’s overly important. But it is important. A book has to be right. If it feels like a collection of blog pieces, people are going to say, “This isn’t really a book! If you’re not credible about this, why should I trust you on anything else?”
Marsha: What are some of the things someone should look for in choosing the best ghostwriter for them?
Michael: I had a client in the area of HR who said that the key to hiring anybody is not to focus on the usual things—resume, education, how many years of experience they have, prior job titles. The only really important question is this: “Where have you solved this same problem elsewhere?” In reality, anyone can call himself or herself a ghostwriter. There is no licensing structure. The state doesn’t regulate ghostwriting. You’re on your own if you’re hiring someone, because anyone can “hang out a shingle.”
The thing you’ve got to ask any potential ghostwriter is this: “Where have you solved this problem before?” In this case, the problem is translating the appropriate body of knowledge in the client’s head into a book that will convince a specific niche audience to take a specific action that the client desires that niche audience to take. We’ve done that a hundred times.
Marsha: What are some of the pitfalls people need to avoid in hiring a ghostwriter?
Michael: Lack of experience is one thing. Ironically, not charging enough. Books are a lot like cars, in that you get what you pay for, except that it’s easier to cut corners and get something good with cars than with writers. There really is no such thing as getting a bargain when it comes to hiring a professional writer. If you want a good book, be prepared to write a serious check. On the other hand, you’re going to make so much more money from the book than you ever could have imagined that it’ll be worth it, and sooner than later.
By the way, you don’t need to be a bestseller and you don’t even need to get a deal with a New York publisher to have your book succeed for you. The sole measures of a book are these: has it increased your stature and earned you money? If the writer you’re considering has not written books that have done these things for other people, keep looking. Ask to speak to past clients and learn not just about how the book came out, but how the experience was working with the writer. Some of my brethren are not as professional as they could be. They hold onto that “artiste” mentality and have disdain for anything to do with business. I don’t feel that way at all. Sometimes people say, “Michael, do you ever get writer’s block?” My answer is always the same: “No, because I have writer’s mortgage.”
What’s behind that little joke is the reality that we’re being judged not just by the quality of our product but by the customer service we provide. If people aren’t happy with the experience they have with BusinessGhost, it doesn’t matter how good their book is. So you’ve got to find somebody who can provide both quality service and a quality book. And the only way you’ll know is by checking the writer’s references.
Marsha: How important is it to find a ghostwriter educated in their field of business?
Michael: It’s not as important as you’d think. It’s the writer’s job, essentially, to stand in the shoes of the reader of the book and ask the kinds of questions the reader would ask, if the reader had access to the author. So it’s the client’s job to educate the writer as to who the audience is. That’s my starting point when I work with a new client—we determine exactly who the audience is for the book, what their needs are, what their problems are, what their concerns are and what their fears are. Who are these people? It’s a little like method acting. If I know who I’m representing when I’m doing the interviewing, I can ask the right questions.
I would never take a book on that has a scientific or medical bent, simply because I don’t have a background in those areas. We don’t do technical writing in any form at BusinessGhost. It’s just not our strength. But we’ve worked with business people in so many different fields, including healthcare, real estate, consulting, finance, investing, event planning, sports, broadcasting, coaching, body/mind/spirit—at this point, we’ve done a book in just about every field you can think of.
The one thing you don’t really want to ask your writer is, “Have you done a book exactly like mine?” Chances are no one has. What you want is an individual who has enough of a business background to grasp the core of what you are trying to get across in the book. I have a law degree from Columbia Law School and I’ve been running my own business now for more than seventeen years. So I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it takes to run a successful business and that helps me understand where my clients are coming from as they run theirs.
Marsha: How does the process typically work for a busy executive or professional?
Michael: My role as ghostwriter is to have the smallest possible footprint on my client’s schedule. I learned the hard way that busy people just don’t have time to spend hour after hour chatting over a glass of wine on their private jet with their writer. That’s not the real world. In fact, I like to say, “If you’ve got enough time to talk with me, you probably aren’t busy enough to need a book.”
To best answer your question I can tell you how I work, which is unique, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect how other ghostwriters work. First, I personally work with the client in order to come up with the table of contents for the book. This involves us discussing the audience for the book, the action we want that audience to take, the body of knowledge in the author’s head that would convince that group of individuals to take that specific action, if only they knew the author knew that stuff! That body of knowledge then becomes chunked down into the table of contents. We can typically work through this process in an hour on the phone. Indeed, there are many clients of mine I’ve never met face to face and we’ve done all our work on the phone.
After that initial hour, all we need is an hour a week. In an hour a week, we can do an interview that would serve as the raw material for each successive chapter. So you know that Tuesdays at 9:00, you’re talking to your ghostwriter about chapter one this week, chapter two next week and so on. Our schedules are flexible so that when our clients need to move meetings, which often happens, we can accommodate them. As long as we keep up that basic pace of an hour a week, we can generate a chapter within ten to twelve days of that hour-long conversation. So you’ve got chapter one in your inbox ten to twelve days after the interview on chapter one. You can give us guidance, which we can apply as the writing goes forward, even with chapters two and three—so that by the time you’re getting those chapters, the book is already essentially in the second-draft phase instead of you getting a big pile of papers that doesn’t sound anything like you when the manuscript is delivered, which often happens with other writers.
So what’s nice about our process is that in an hour a week, you can just do a “file dump” of everything you’ve ever known, thought, believed, expected, case histories, war stories, whatever, about a given topic and you don’t even have to organize it in your head to deliver it to us. That’s our job. You give us the hour and we can give you a twelve to seventeen-page chapter within ten to twelve days. And since most of the books we do are under 200 pages, because people like shorter books today, we can have the whole writing and editing process done within about four months… and it only takes a client an hour a week. It’s a lot of work for us, but not for the client. And that’s how it should be.
Marsha: What final product should someone expect when hiring a ghostwriter?
Michael: It shouldn’t be a pile of pages! The final deliverable should be a beautiful book that celebrates you, your business, your service, your product, your ideas, or whatever you are bringing to the marketplace. The book has to be brilliantly written and extremely attractive. As they used to say on that old commercial, anything less… would be uncivilized!
Marsha: Michael, thank you so much for your time and for sharing this valuable information for our readers!
Marsha Friedman launched EMS Incorporated in 1990. Her firm represents corporations and experts in a wide array of fields such as business, health, food, lifestyle, politics, finance, law, sports and entertainment. She consults individuals and businesses on a daily basis and is frequently asked to speak at conferences about how to harness the power of publicity.