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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Self Publishing, Screenplay Agents, and Ghostwriting

Q: I am thinking of getting a good edit, printing a few hundred copies [of my novel], sending it to major bookstores in the country, and seeking an agent who would want to do a movie manuscript. How do you find an agent or publisher that is interested in meaty, meaningful writing that says something and doesn't have triteness?

A: Before I answer, I have to address a few misconceptions that many people have. First, sending a printed book to a bookstore doesn’t ensure the store will put it up for sale. You must have a consignment agreement with the store or arrange distribution through one of the traditional book distributors, such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, or Simon & Schuster. Most stores will not take books except on consignment, and many subsidy presses do not make consignment arrangements for you. Before you go to the expense and trouble of self-publishing, be sure you can indeed get the book into bookstores or that you have a sales and marketing plan for your book.

Next, I am familiar with literary agents who handle books, but I am primarily a book editor, so I do not know any screenplay agents. If the two careers are similar, though, it means a screenplay agent won’t represent an idea, but only a well-written screenplay that is complete and ready to go. If you haven’t written a screenplay before or studied screenplay writing, chances are low that you can create one without serious assistance on the first try.

As for an agent or publisher interested in meaty, meaningful writing, you’re looking for an agent or publisher that handles literary fiction. The reason they are rare is that literary fiction is difficult to sell, and agents and publishers have to make a living, so they choose to represent manuscripts that are easier to sell. A few agents and publishers interested in literary works are still out there, though. The best way to find them is to go to the bookstore and read the acknowledgments in other books of literary fiction and see if the authors thank their agents. If so, write down the names. See who the publishers are, as well. Contact those agents and publishers, and your chances of success are higher.

Even if you don’t plan to self-publish, you may have to pay a good editor to line edit and evaluate your novel, if you want to get your manuscript past the gatekeepers who allow only the best to get to the decision makers.

Q: Is ghostwriting (nonfiction) a viable niche for a freelance writer? If so, do you have any tips on finding clients and sources?

A: Ghostwriting articles and books is certainly a viable addition to any freelance writer’s repertoire. Like any independent career, ghostwriting work is not something that falls into your lap and immediately fills your schedule and your bank account, but if you’re already selling articles and/or writing books that get published traditionally (not self-published), you have the credentials you need; the only tough part is finding clients.

Because I have been actively working as a writer and editor for decades, and because I get good publicity and word-of-mouth referrals through my speaking engagements, columns, books, and past clients, potential clients seek me out, and I don’t have to go searching for them. Some work comes through my Web site, too. Even so, I am not a full-time ghostwriter; it’s simply an addition to my other income from writing, editing, and book sales.

My advice for finding clients is simply to do all the marketing and publicity you would normally do, and make sure word gets out that you ghostwrite in addition to your other services. A few agents also connect established ghostwriters with celebrities or others with good life stories but who lack writing skills.

A word of warning from an experienced ghostwriter, though: When I was younger, many people wanted me to ghostwrite their life stories for them. I soon learned they were time wasters who wanted someone to listen to their stories. They weren’t willing or able to pay me for my time—it often takes six months to a year to write a book—but promised to give me a portion of the profits. Unless you are hired by the publisher to ghostwrite, the chances of a book getting published are only one percent. I know of few people so wealthy they who can afford to work six months to a year on a project that has only a one in one hundred chance of paying even a single penny.

As for me, I work strictly on a prepaid basis; that is, I do not rely on a sale or participate in royalties. If you choose to work on a contingency basis and participate in the royalties, though, be sure your name is on the publishing contract, so you get sales reports and royalty checks directly from the publisher.

–Bobbie Christmas is the owner of Zebra Communications, a literary services firm providing manuscript editing services to individuals and publishing houses since 1992. Contact her at 770-924-0528, visit her Web site at, or e-mail her at Be sure to sign up for the free Writers Network News by visiting her Web site and clicking on Free Newsletter.



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