The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Ghostwriter to Produce a Personal or Family History Book

07 May 2021

THE PROS AND CONS OF HIRING A GHOSTWRITER TO PRODUCE A PERSONAL OR FAMILY HISTORY BOOK

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”—George Bernard Shaw

Deciding to produce a book can be quite daunting, especially when it is about personal or family history. It can prove to be an even more daunting task when the book is about an important family event meshed within history’s broader context.

Naturally, there may be a plethora of questions surrounding the process of producing such a literary piece. For individuals undertaking this process, choosing to hire a ghostwriter to aid in the process may seem like a viable alternative.

In some instances, the professional writer may come in the form of a co-author. In other cases, it may come in the form of a ghostwriter.

But is a hiring a ghostwriter really worth the expense?

In this article, we will explore the advantages and disadvantages that come with hiring a ghostwriter and will also shed some light on the often misunderstood role of a ghostwriter.

Deciding to Write a Personal or Family History Book

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Popular belief states that only wealthy and renowned families write books on their family history. Likewise, the common thought is that only celebrities and other notable people write books on their personal stories. However, this assumption could not be further from the truth.

People from all walks of life may feel inclined to chronicle their past experiences at one point or another in their lives.

These chronicles serve both an archival and didactic purpose. First, writing a memoir provides a record of a person’s experiences. This exercise helps to preserve personal history by way of first-hand accounts.

In addition, preserving personal and family history provides lessons learned for future generations.

In olden times, oral tradition—usually storytelling—allowed one generation to pass on its knowledge and experience to future generations. With the emergence of written language, preserving tradition was no longer limited to mere storytelling. The printed word enabled generation after generation to pass on valuable insights to the next generation.

Passing on knowledge, wisdom, experience, and lessons from one generation to another has been a staple of human society since its beginnings. Therefore, it is only reasonable to assume that this tradition would endure into the current age.

Thus, deciding to write a memoir or chronicle a family’s history isn’t an odd or even a new compunction; it is a desire as old as the human race.

Penny Stratton, Publishing Director at American Ancestors, offers this insightful tidbit into publishing family history:

Think about the legacy you will be leaving if you write and publish your own family research: not only a legacy for current and future family members, but an important resource for current and future genealogical researchers.

Indeed, there is no question that recording individual and family history is a valuable resource for present and future scholars.

When deciding to write about such personal details, many factors come into consideration. Initially, the most significant factor pertains to the type of information included.

For instance, will the book be a collection of family stories and anecdotes? Will the story center around a specific event or time? Will the book focus on one character?

Additionally, how many details is the family comfortable in divulging? Are there any secrets that ought not to be revealed?

Then, it is also necessary to consider the book’s theme. For example, the book could focus on a dramatic journey from one country to another. Also, the book might have more of a funny spin to it. Perhaps the book is meant to preserve cultural or ethnic heritage.

The book’s central theme should provide readers with an identity of the characters in the story. The aim should be to create a truly authentic experience.

Additionally, the book’s narrative style needs careful thought. Some memoirs have more of a storytelling feel to them. Others read like a history textbook in which dates are interlaced with anecdotes. Furthermore, some biographies tell specific stories within the overall architecture of a historical period. A good example of this would be the story of a well-known war reframed through the harrowing tale of a family escaping the conflict.

Elements of a Personal or Family History Book

Writing about personal family history may seem relatively straightforward on the surface. But beneath, there are multiple layers of complexity.

These layers pertain to the various facets surrounding a family's history. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the elements that make up a successful depiction of a family's history.

After all, a work such as this will become part of a family’s legacy. As such, it is crucial to consider the following elements.

Genealogical Formats

When writing about family history specifically, the book’s genealogical format is highly significant. There are two types of genealogical formats to consider: the register style and the ancestor table.

The register style is a descriptive format that uses a paragraph-by-paragraph depiction of a person’s or family’s history.  In this style, the aim is to provide as many factual details as possible. Here is an example of what this style would look like:

John Doe was born in New York, New York, United States, on January 11, 1912. He was the son of Jack Doe and Jane Doe. He married Mary Doe on May 17, 1950. He died on September 27, 1989, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The description above represents the information about John Doe. This example highlights factual data extracted from legal documentation such as birth, death, marriage certificates, or court documents. Newspaper reports may also serve as proof, though it would be worthwhile to ascertain their accuracy.

The ancestor table is a format in which a table shows the ancestry of an individual or family. The table attempts to go as far back as possible to establish the relationships between current members and past generations.

A family tree is the most common means of representing this table. Conventionally, the tree begins with the current generation and works its ancestry up.

Generally speaking, the number one person on the diagram is the subject of the work. From there, subjects two and three would represent their parents, while subjects four, five, six, and so on would be siblings. These numerical representations allow the reader to get a better sense of the lineage in each generation.

Organization and Scope

One of the most common issues with family history is casting too wide a net.

Some works attempt to capture stories regarding all members of a particular family. However, the family may be so big that it would be impossible to describe every member appropriately.

There are other families whose ancestry is so rich that they can trace their heritage back several generations, leading to a significantly broader scope.

Consequently, it is important to narrow the focus to one or two generations. This may imply multiple volumes in order to encompass all members and their generations.

When the work focuses on a single person, the issue then becomes about how many other members to include. Naturally, the most important members should be described throughout the work. Thus, any other members who do not play a significant role should be left out of the book’s scope.

Madeleine L’Engle, the creator of A Wrinkle in Time, had this to say about family history:

If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them, too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.”

The book’s aim should therefore be about preserving the ties that bind entire generations together. These links transcend individuals as they make their way through the annals of time.

Narrative

Both the ancestor chart and the genealogical format tend to be somewhat rigid. As such, they do not necessarily lend themselves to a more narrative style.

If the book aims to share stories, anecdotes, and experiences in addition to factual data, a storytelling-type format will likely suit the book best. That way, the book can transition easily from objective to anecdotal information.

In this case, following an exact, chronological order is the most effective way to balance factual and anecdotal information.

Photos and Images

Whenever available, photographs, paintings, or drawings all serve incredibly well to highlight the information presented. Therefore, this material should be utilized as much as possible. Doing so allows readers to gain a clear vision, particularly when making references to past eras.

Moreover, entire discussions and narratives can be constructed around images.

Deciding to Hire a Ghostwriter

Seeking to produce a text, like a personal or family history, can easily seem like an overwhelming task. After all, the lack of experience in producing written materials may lead to procrastination—the issue of not knowing where to begin may ultimately delay the production of much-anticipated family history.

When it comes to memoirs or autobiographies, individuals may find themselves at a loss for words. In some instances, highly articulate individuals may find it challenging to put pen to paper. Some get lost in a sea of notes and materials.

It’s not unusual for people to retain a professional ghostwriter’s services. Especially for older people with a unique family history, or busy professionals, who just don’t have the time to write their own history.

These people often find that it is much more sensible to hire a ghostwriter than to take on a co-author.

To begin with, a co-author usually receives credit for the book’s production. Naturally, this entitles them to receive a portion of the proceeds from the book. Moreover, a co-author may hold copyright claims over some or all of the material included in the publication.

In contrast, a ghostwriter does not receive any credit for their work. They are simply paid for their writing services, thereby leaving them with no claim over any material in the book. The person hiring them is the author; the ghostwriter is just the person helping the author put their story on paper.

This arrangement provides greater peace of mind for the author, as they retain full control over their published works.

The decision to hire a professional ghostwriter facilitates the production process. As a professional, a ghostwriter can create the content needed for the book within a specified scope. Moreover, they can use the narrative style that best suits the author’s style.

Additionally, hiring a ghostwriter tends to be more cost-effective, especially considering they have no claims over the book’s content.

Yet, the thought of hiring a ghostwriter may not sit well with some people. There is a negative perception of the ghostwriting profession due to the prevalence of unscrupulous individuals. Some of these individuals produce low-quality work that fails to meet industry standards. In other circumstances, some of these individuals create plagiarized works.

To avoid such issues, it is always best to hire a reputable writing company. Professional companies hire qualified writers with proven track records. Additionally, like any other business, these companies stake their reputation on the quality of their output and their clients’ satisfaction. Hence, they offer a better alternative to merely hiring a so-called writer from a shady ad.

When hiring a ghostwriter, it is a standard practice to meet with the writer (or the company representatives) to request sample work. Often, samples may include the introduction or a chapter. This practice serves to gauge the quality of the work before committing to any contracts or payments.

Once the book’s author is ready to move forward, standard confidentiality and non-disclosure contracts must be signed to hold all sides accountable for the content. Additionally, waivers on any copyright claims need to become a part of this process. If possible, book authors should check with their legal counsel to ensure no potential legal issues may arise.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hiring a Ghostwriter

Using the services of a ghostwriter has both advantages and disadvantages. Thus, it is worth looking into both sides of the argument before making a final call on the effectiveness of hiring a ghostwriter to produce a personal or family history book.

Attribution of Work

The clearest advantage of hiring a ghostwriter lies in the attribution of the work. Mainly, the author gets to keep all rights and takes credit for the work’s production, which does not occur with a co-author. Hence, using a professional ghostwriter allows the individual to produce high-quality work without sharing any of the credit or earnings.

Protecting Family Legacy

Working with a ghostwriter enables the author to fully control the material and how it is written. This ensures that no surprises become part of the book. As such, having full control over the material enables the author to ensure that their legacy, as well as their family’s legacy, is protected.

While co-authors may not have free reign, they might make decisions without consulting the family. Such actions may lead to issues that could ultimately jeopardize the book’s publication.

Full Creative Control

Authors retain full creative control over every aspect of the book. If they dislike anything in the text, they can request a change. If their standards are not met, the author can fire the ghostwriter and start over. Naturally, firing the writer isn’t the ideal scenario. Nevertheless, the author has that option should they choose to exercise it.

By contrast, when working with co-authors, disagreements over style and prose could potentially lead to the author losing valuable creative control.

It is important to keep in mind that hiring a ghostwriter has disadvantages as well. Here are the most pressing concerns regarding this issue.

Ghostwriting Can Be Costly

Generally speaking, co-authors do not take an upfront payment. They usually get a cut of royalties or a percentage from book sales. Other co-authors do it for the exposure that may come from publication.

While this may not represent an upfront cost, it may represent a considerable payment down the road.

In the case of ghostwriters, they can command a substantial fee for producing the book. It may range from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars. Yet, the upfront cost would undoubtedly offset the book’s potential long-term earnings, especially if it is a commercial success.

Some Ghostwriters Are Unreliable

Unfortunately, there are unreliable and even unscrupulous individuals out there. In some cases, these so-called writing companies swindle unsuspecting clients.

For some, it might be just about money. For others, it might be about stealing intellectual property. Thus, it is essential for authors to vet any company, or individual ghostwriter, before working with them.

The most effective way of finding a reputable ghostwriter is through word of mouth. In addition, legal paperwork is a must. Any individual or company that balks at signing non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements should never be trusted.

Ghostwriting Can Be a Slow Process

Producing a professional book can be a laborious process. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect high-quality work in short order.

Individuals and companies that claim they can produce top-tier materials on a tight schedule might be attempting to fool their clients. Authors should be aware that creating great content takes time. While this does not mean it should take eons, it does mean that patience is necessary, especially when there are multiple revisions and changes.

Conclusion

Hiring a ghostwriter to produce individual or family history is a serious decision. After all, entrusting precious family stories to a third-party is an extremely delicate business. As such, it is crucial to find a reputable ghostwriter who has a track record of meeting their clients’ expectations.

The ghostwriting process could prove to be time-consuming and somewhat arduous, but the overall result can exceed expectations when done appropriately. Consequently, engaging in a trial run is the best course of action before committing to a full book deal.

In the meantime, legal paperwork must be completed to ensure the proper protection of a priceless family legacy.

Author
Zach Richter 

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