SPS-363: Writing With the Devil – with Alex Cody Foster
Best-selling ghostwriter, Alex Cody Foster has traversed the world working with clients as eccentric as John McAfee. In this conversation, we learn all about making money with ghostwriting, finding ghostwriting clients, negotiating rates, and turning someone’s ideas and life into an amazing story.
- The 2022 Author Income Survey and Facebook Ads Challenge
- How Alex Cody Foster got into ghostwriting
- Alex’s experience with eccentric-mogul John McAfee
- Tips for finding and working with ghostwriting clients
- How to craft a client’s proposal into a best-selling story
Resources mentioned in this episode:
ALCS SURVEY: 2022 Author Income Survey.
SPF COMMUNITY: Join the thriving Facebook Group of 25,000+ authors.
NEWSLETTER: Join to learn more about the 7-Day Facebook Ads Challenge.
GHOST WRITING UNIVERSITY: Alex’s course on being a successful ghostwriter.
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.
SPS-363: Writing With the Devil - with Alex Cody Foster
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self Publishing Show...
Alex Foster: It was a very untraditional approach to ghostwriting for me, because I'm used to being the interviewer. But with John, I wasn't allowed to do that. I had to literally go on the run with him. I had to travel Europe with him. Allegedly, we were on the run from the cartel, across America. That was a weird time.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson, and first-time author James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello, and welcome to The Self Publishing Show with me, James Blatch. And welcome back, Mark Dawson.
Mark Dawson: Oh, hello.
James Blatch: You had a sabbatical.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, not one I intended to take. It's been a difficult few weeks with the illness and other things going on. So yes, well done for holding the fort. I'm back.
James Blatch: That's all right. Well, you know you have lots of support and friends here in the community. And I know we all go through these life events, so it's better to do it together.
Okay, let us press on. We've got a few things to talk about before we have our interview. A very interesting interview today, about somebody who's had an extraordinary experience recently, writing a non-fiction book. And is talking mainly about ghostwriting, about that work when you work alongside somebody else to produce a work, and very often your name's not on it. We've talked about it a little bit before. But he's in a very good position at the moment. He's a very sought after ghostwriter, and you'll find out why, coming up.
We noticed this week, Mark, that there was a survey produced by... I can't remember who actually produced it.
Mark Dawson: The ALCS. It's the body of the UK responsible for providing authors with remuneration when their copyright is used, so it's libraries and things like that.
James Blatch: Okay. And they found that authors are earning less than ever before. When you look at the average, what they call the median, one type of average earnings, it was basically the minimum wage, or even less than minimum wage here in the UK.
Mark Dawson: Way less.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: Way less. It's a regular survey. They've done it several times before. It's done in conjunction with The Society of Authors. ALLi were involved, although I don't know quite how much. I think some indies took part, but mostly not. They kind of make a big play about how 60,000 authors were surveyed. Only 2,500 responded, so that needs to be borne in mind.
But I think the message is quite a valuable one, and worth just us having a quick chat about it. I think the last time they did the survey two or three years ago, the median was about £11,500 to £12,000. It's now £7,000. So that's way, way below the national average.
James Blatch: That's UK pounds. Which, by the way, is about the same as UK dollars at the moment. Not much different.
Mark Dawson: UK dollars? Are you saying that-
James Blatch: Sorry, US dollars.
Mark Dawson: Has something happened that I don't know about?
James Blatch: No, not yet.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, so it's £7,000. About $10,000, in that kind of area. Yeah, you can't live off that anywhere. London or anywhere else in the UK, it's impossible. That's basically an electricity bill at the moment. It's not great. So we've had lots of commentary on Twitter, from people understandably bemoaning the fact that creators couldn't create if they were paid that way.
So I've read the report. It's quite a long report. It is worth reading. And if we get around to it, we should put a link to it in the show notes. It is quite bleak. And obviously, the newspapers the next day were full of, the sky is falling. Headlines about how authors can't write like that, which is true.
But what it didn't really pay attention to in any kind of substantial way, was what's possible as indies. So it was very much focused on the trade industry with agents, and publishers, and all of that kind of stuff.
James Blatch: Yeah. It was all about advances and stuff, wasn't it?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, advances were covered. But generally, the income that you can make. But it didn't cover what we can make.
So I did a very unscientific poll in the SPF community, which just had one question, "Did you make more or less than £7,000 last year?" We had about 500 responses to that and over half, I think 52% or 53%, made more than £7,000. And obviously, of that number, some made much more than £7,000. Some would've made £7,000 in a couple of days. Obviously, that's at the top end. But many more made more than £7,000, and that seemed to be the case in the survey.
So I posted a thread on Twitter that I don't normally do, but I thought I'd just kind of at least flag that. And I got a couple of likes from some of the involved parties, The Society of Authors, and things like that.
It's all well and good, but authors still don't know what's possible. It's ridiculous. There are many authors for whom, traditional publishing will be the way to go, no question. And I'm still traditionally published, with my books getting into stores. I might mention that in a minute, because there's been some changes there. But anyway, so there's that.
But of these authors, I'm reading in the comments that I'm seeing on Twitter from some of the people who are responding to the survey being posted. Were like, "I'm thinking about giving up. I've got a manuscript, it's not selling. My rights have reverted. What was the point? I can't do anything with them." And I'm just kind of thinking...
James Blatch: What? Yeah.
Mark Dawson: Well, it's easy to say, "What rock have they been living under?" But I suppose also, as someone pointed out to me the other day, it's very easy for us to think that. But we are in our own little echo chamber, where we know everything about indie publishing, and we know how to do it, we know what the possibilities are.
But most authors, and most people, still don't know. They don't know. Or if they do know, they think, "I can't possibly do this. It's too difficult. I'm not technical." All of those kinds of things we see all the time for people who are finding reasons not to get their books out there.
So I suppose what I take away from it is, number one, being traditionally published is definitely not a guarantee of riches, and fame and fortune. It's never been less likely to deliver that.
And number two, most people don't know what the alternatives are. I've been doing this for 10 years now, and I spoke to Darren Hardy the other day, and I think KDP is 15 years. So this is not a new thing. It's been going for ages and people still don't know.
James Blatch: No. It's amazing how quickly bands appropriated platforms like Spotify and Napster, and how quickly fans realised that was what was happening, and the world changed over in terms of indie music. And how slowly that's happening in publishing.
Whereas, you've got this hardcore of authors, which may be half a million strong, something like that, who are indies and have adopted it and are very passionate about it. But outside of that, which is millions of people around the world involved in publishing, is a slow take up. And the public are at arms length from that.
So, it is odd. But I think it's always heartening for people listening to this podcast, to know that you are in a smaller group than you think you are, of people who are aware of indie and the levers to pull to make that career happen.
But I also think that the survey itself was a bit flawed, because it doesn't really take into account the changing nature of publishing. I mean, "What is an author?" Is a good question to start with here. I think in the traditional sense, somebody who's been offered a deal, I suppose at that point onwards. You know, has a deal and has income. And in the old days, that was a moment to quit your job as a solicitor, or a journalist, or whatever you were doing, and live off your income as an author.
That's simply not possible anymore. The advances aren't there. The income from traditional publishing is nothing like what it used to be. And so, I suppose they replicate a little bit more like what we are like. Which is, someone in my position has a full-time job effectively, is writing on the side and building up an income. So my median income at the moment's going to be on the lower scale of that... Or actually, it might be above £7,000. The lower scale of that.
And there'll be people who haven't published yet. Many, thousands of them listening to this podcast probably haven't published yet. And a few hundred who are making seven figures. And a lot of people in between. And that's almost impossible to do a median income, I think. It doesn't take account of the nebulous... Is that the right word? Nature of how publishing operates now. It's a survey design for 20 years ago, I think.
Mark Dawson: I think it's possible to do it. I mean, if 1,000 people give you all their income, you can find what the median is. It's simple math. But what this doesn't do is, number one, they only had 2,500 people responding. So that's a very small sample size.
And of that, as you say, there were some indies who responded. I think maybe 500 of those were indies. But that's a drop in the ocean. I didn't respond to it. I didn't know about it.
James Blatch: No, I didn't know about it.
Mark Dawson: There are just aren't enough people responding to actually do that properly. I mean, thinking out loud here, we should commission a survey and do it for the show next year.
James Blatch: Well yeah, I think I know... I mean, there's another thing that I'm thinking about how that survey might work. There's another thing to consider, which is when you are traditionally published, your income is profit. But when you are indie published, your income is just your revenue side of a business, and you've got expenses going out as well. So I'm interested to know, somebody in my position, who has an income of $10,000 a year, but I spend $5,500 on ads. So my profit... If you want to do a like-for-like with a traditional author, I do wonder if the per book thing is a better measure. If you say, "How much do you make per book?" So your profit, if you are indie, or income, if you're traditional, divided by the number of published books. That, for me, is an interesting figure. Because that takes account of somebody who's an indie but hasn't got going yet really, has like one or two books. Or takes account of somebody who's got 30 books. Maybe that's what we should do.
Mark Dawson: I don't know, we'll think about that. But maybe we should think about getting someone professional who knows about surveys more than we do.
James Blatch: Well, we need to get that Nielsen guy on, don't we? We were going to get him on a while back. I mean, this is somebody to talk to about this. They do a lot of-
Mark Dawson: Not quite. Not surveys. We'd need a specialist. We need Gallup, or someone. I don't know, is Gallop still around? Probably not.
James Blatch: Sock... What are they called, Socket? No?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, that'd be quite interesting. We've got to think about it. I may do a session at next year's SPS show, and that would be quite a good one, wouldn't it? To kind of compare and contrast between the ALCS survey and a kind of indie survey. I think that'd be quite a good one to...
People should be interested in that. We get newspapers kind of posting headlines like, "Authors can't turn their heating on, because they don't make any money." Would they say, "Indie authors have heating on all the time."
James Blatch: Yeah. "Indie authors wander around their house in just a towel, because it's so warm in their house."
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: We could get together with 20Books and Reedsy, a few other organisations, and commission. We need to start that now though, because there'll be a lot of lead up work to that.
Mark Dawson: Absolutely. We do.
James Blatch: I'm keen on that. Let's do it. I'm sure everyone else will say yes to that.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: And I tell you what we'll do, we'll include trad authors in that as well. We should.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, any authors.
James Blatch: Absolutely. All authors. So it takes over that survey, rather than does the indie version of it.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Sounds good.
James Blatch: Okay. Anyway, you can comment below if you have anything to say on this subject, or preferably in our Facebook group. We can have a discussion on it. Good.
Okay, I think we are going to just quickly mention our challenge. So Facebook ads, which are absolutely a driver for my growing income, 100%. I am getting more and more into Amazon ads, and I am running them at the moment actually, and knocking around the profitable bit, but I need a few more books I think, for that to work properly.
But Facebook ads are my bread and butter, both for me and for Fuse Books, our in print. And we want to get you running Facebook ads, familiar with the platform, competent to a level where they are going to be working for you. So we're going to run a challenge. We're going to do this in January. It'll be over a few days, five to seven days. I can't remember, have we settled on-
Mark Dawson: Seven days.
James Blatch: Seven days?
Mark Dawson: Seven days, yeah.
James Blatch: Seven days. So there'll be something to do every day. You'll get instructional videos and help, and discussions in the Facebook group to do that. We'll do it all together. And yeah, I just want to flag that up.
So the only thing you need to do at the moment is be on our mailing list, if you're not already. SelfPublishingFormula.com, just enter through the front door there. Or be in our Facebook group. Preferably do both of those things. And if you just search for SPF Community on Facebook and join that group.
I'm looking forward to that. We've got Christmas. We're going to have some downtime over Christmas, but then we can get going in January, and get off to a flyer in January.
Whatever anyone says... And we always have these rumours about the Apple iOS changes, meaning this doesn't work anymore. But Facebook ads not only drive profit for me, drive profit for our Fuse authors, but they've actually got much better.
I don't know what it is, in the last two or three months, I'm getting back down to 11, 12, 13 pence per click on my books, which I hadn't seen for some time. I don't know whether it's the recession, that bigger businesses have pulled out, it has cut it's advertising budget.
You can imagine in a big corporation, the first thing the crusty old CEO's going to do... It's a bit of a cliché. Is say, "Well, what's this money on Facebook? We're not giving them any more money." And so they've slashed that budget and put it back into billboards and magazine. And that's to our advantage. That's just a guess, by the way.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, maybe. It's definitely not a bad time. Also, yeah, kind of pre-Christmas, not quite into Christmas yet. Yeah, no, I still run plenty of Facebook ads.
What we'll be doing in the challenge is this building, so we'll be finding new readers, which is very, very important. And yeah, I think it'll be fun. So join the list. And we'll do it, I think through a Facebook group, that we'll start to promote quite soon, where people can join that. And we'll have videos, and conversations, and things that will help you to start running those ads.
James Blatch: Yeah, good. I'm going to hopefully have my novela, which I'm very busy revising, to get off to the copy editor this week. Next week, probably. So that will be my lead magnet. It's good timing for me actually, Mark.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, very good. Very good.
James Blatch: Okay, should we have our interview?
Mark Dawson: Why not? Yes.
James Blatch: So it's Alex Foster. Alex very recently interviewed a very well-known person. I'll let him... Well, well-known and notorious for all sorts of reasons, and did his autobiography. Came within inches of losing his life during the process.
But understands, more than anybody, that process of turning someone's life, or the story of a corporation, or whatever it is, into an actual readable story, which is the trick of non-fiction and autobiography. And how to be a ghostwriter. How to compile that information. The process to go through to make that work for you.
His name, as I say, is Alex Foster. It's a very interesting interview. He's written a very interesting book to go along with it. And Mark and I will be back for a quick chat at the end.
Speaker 1: This is the Self Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: So Alex Cody Foster, welcome to The Self Publishing Show. Great to have you here. We're going to be talking about ghostwriting. I know you do a bit of non-fiction writing, helping authors as well. And you spent a rather incredible period with a man doing his autobiography. It turned into a bit of an adventure. So we've got a lot to cover.
Well, why don't you start by telling us a bit about yourself, Alex?
Alex Foster: Sure, absolutely. I've always been a writer. I've always been a storyteller. When I was eight years old, my dad let me watch the film From Hell starring Johnny Depp. It was about Jack the Ripper. And so I was eight years old and I was watching this crazy horror movie. And it inspired me so much, that I just stole my dad's yellow legal pad and I wrote a 33-page single line story about who I thought Jack the Ripper was.
James Blatch: Wow.
Alex Foster: And that sort of catapulted me into the world of storytelling. And I was a very avid reader ever since I was a kid. In high school, I was kind of a bad kid actually, and I got in trouble and I was almost expelled. But my guidance counsellor argued on my behalf, because I had spoken to him for hours and hours about literature. And he said, "He's a bright kid, let's give him another chance."
But as part of that deal, he gave me a writeup, a piece of paper he printed out. It was The Times Top 100 Books of the 20th Century. He said, "Alex, you have to read all these books by the end of your stay here at the academy." So I had four years to read those 100 books. I read them all.
James Blatch: Wow.
Alex Foster: And then I was 18, and I hitchhiked across the country. I became homeless in Los Angeles. I had a life-changing experience there that kind of broke me down, broke my mind. And I spent the next couple of years just sort of travelling the world as a vagabond, trying to get my mind back, trying to get my identity back.
And it happened during a four-month journey by sea, along the inside passage to Alaska. I had an epiphany and for the first time in years, I became a person again. I had an identity. And that day that I got it back, it was in Seattle after four months, and it's the day I decided to become a writer.
And quite quickly. I mean, I was 21 years old. And within a year I had secured my first ghostwriting client by accident. It turned out to be a sociopath. It was a bad intro into ghostwriting. But I fell in love with it, and I just continued to optimise it in every way possible.
And I took that model that my guidance counsellor had given me, those top 100 books, and I applied it to ghostwriting. So I read probably 50 or so, of the best selling books of the 21st century, to get an idea of what sells and why. And so, I've used that model for all of my books and all of my writing. I managed to get eight #1 Amazon Best Sellers using that model, for a client.
And yeah, that's the background. That's how it started.
James Blatch: What was your favourite novel out of the top novels of the 20th century?
Alex Foster: This is going to sound cliche, but it was The Great Gatsby. I just thought that was such a classic beautiful book. It's just a classic story. And I loved Of Mice and Men. Pretty much anything by Steinbeck. I'm crazy about it.
James Blatch: Any British novelist got in there? It was a Times list, wasn't it? Or was it The New York Times?
Alex Foster: Oh, of course. Oh, Anthony Burgess. I've read A Clockwork Orange. That one was incredible. It's such a powerful book.
James Blatch: I was surprised reading that, because the film's quite full-on. Then you read the book and it goes a lot further than the film does. It's a quite disturbing novel, isn't it?
Alex Foster: It is. And it's weird, it took me months just to get past the eight-page mark, because of the slang that he writes in.
James Blatch: Oh, yes. Yeah.
Alex Foster: But once I did, it was incredible. Such a visceral experience.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, that sounds like an interesting start to adulthood, put it that way. And you've obviously had some experiences.
The ghostwriting for a sociopath, is that the John McAfee book?
Alex Foster: No, I've worked with a few sociopaths.
James Blatch: Oh, okay. He's just another one.
Alex Foster: He's just the last one. Yeah, the most recent.
James Blatch: Because that's quite prominent. I mean, John McAfee, people only really know the name McAfee. And it is the same person from the antivirus software. But you somehow ended up writing his autobiography, and he did not turn out to be a straightforward character.
Alex Foster: No. No, he did not. I mean, I took the project on with full knowledge that maybe he was a dark guy. Maybe he had done terrible things. But I wanted to prove that he hadn't done those things. Or I at least wanted to know whether he did or not, because I've always been a black sheep.
And when I saw what was happening to John in the media, I thought, "Man, he reminds me of myself. I want to get to the bottom of this story." And when I did, it was a very harrowing journey and experience. And I realised that actually, he was a dark guy and he had done terrible things. Some things that aren't covered in the Netflix documentary, or the SHOWTIME documentary, and some things the public doesn't even know about, that I discovered during my time with him.
And it was enough to end our relationship after six and a half, seven months. I terminated our agreement. Even though we had a pretty awesome agent on board, out of New York. And he said that we could easily get six figures, possibly even low seven for the book. But I didn't want to compromise my integrity by doing that. I couldn't do that.
James Blatch: Because you felt the book would somehow sanitise what was a bad character?
Alex Foster: Absolutely. It was a very untraditional approach to ghostwriting for me, because I'm used to being the interviewer. I set up the interviews, we're in a quiet place and there are no disruptions.
But with John, I wasn't allowed to do that. I had to literally go on the run with him. I had to travel Europe with him. I had to go to bars and drink copious amounts of alcohol with him and just have a recorder ready.
And he would talk about anything. The sex lives of the samurai. Or his librarian phase, when he only would sleep with librarians for years. And the time about his daughter, or something. It was always so random and all over the place and it was my job to capture it.
But I realised at some point he was trying to paint himself as this sort of heroic figure, as this counterculture sort of icon. A guy who speaks truth to power, and who is against corruption, and so on. But so much of it was fabricated.
James Blatch: Did you ever feel scared for your own security with him?
Alex Foster: Scared? I mean, technically, allegedly, we were on the run from the cartel across America, and he told me some really crazy things about why that came to be. That was a weird time. I wasn't scared, I was more so excited.
But we got sort of kidnapped in Barcelona the last time I saw him. And that was a pretty weird experience. I was very uncomfortable for sure, because they wouldn't let me go.
James Blatch: There is a McAfee autobiography out there, so how did that end up?
Alex Foster: There is, yes. So this fellow Mark Eglinton, a really wonderful guy. He got in touch with John after John and I severed our ties together. I haven't read the book, but I guess he interviewed John from Scotland where he lives, and he put together a biography of John's life, of John's timeline.
I'm not really sure what's in that. Because at that point, the interesting thing with John is that, when we were working together, he wasn't on the run from the SEC. He wasn't in their purview. So he told me crazy things that would probably get him imprisoned.
So I don't know, because I haven't read Mark's book, but maybe he gave Mark the sanitised version, because he was on the run, he didn't want to say things that would get him into further trouble. But again, I'm not sure.
James Blatch: Yeah. But you have written your account of what happened, and I think you published that recently, right?
Alex Foster: Yeah, a week and a half ago. And I think what's really cool about Mark's book and my book is that, Mark was writing the biography of John. But the way that my book is written, it's not a biography of John, it's sort of a gonzo journalism take of being with a madman. So the things I saw, the things I heard, the things I experienced, more so than John's history. I tell everybody, it's not a biography, it's more of a story.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, that's called The Man Who Hacked the World: A Ghostwriter's Descent into Madness with John McAfee. And that's available at the moment, as you say, a week and a half ago.
So that's one aspect of ghostwriting, which people mostly understand. That David Beckham doesn't sit down at a typewriter, or whatever, these days, and write his own books. That someone writes biographies, very often, for the principal character.
But you ghostwrite fiction, as well?
Alex Foster: I used to. Yeah, I did. I did everything, really. I did fiction, non-fiction, self-help, historical fiction, business, entrepreneurship, whatever. Back in the day, my colleague Kathy Pelatir, who's been like a mentor to me. She called me a writing whore basically, because I would take on anything, because I was so interested in so many different topics. I didn't want to get pigeonholed into any one genre.
So yeah, I worked on fiction, but solely phasing that part out.
James Blatch: Okay, so you're not doing that so much anymore. And I often wonder with ghostwriting... We had Kara Thorburn, who ghostwrites romance fiction at the moment.
And I often wonder what the attraction is of doing that, when you could just be writing it and putting your own name on it?
Alex Foster: That's an excellent question, and that's what a very prominent novelist asked me way back. And he's the fellow that I got the Best Sellers for eventually. I said, "Well, it doesn't really pay. It doesn't really pay to just be a writer these days." They say don't quit your day job, and it's accurate for writing. Oftentimes, I mean, the top 1% or 2% of writers really are able to write full-time and earn income.
But with ghostwriting, I probably earn five, or seven times more than I would make as a traditional author. Because unlike the crap shoot of traditional publishing, if you're a ghostwriter, you get paid to write. That's a job. That's a gig.
James Blatch: By the way, that was Kara's answer as well. She said, "Because it pays really well." And I don't know how long she's going to carry on doing it, but she does do it.
Yeah, so moving on to where you are today. Obviously you've written this book about your experience with John McAfee, but what is your day-to-day? What's your intention now? Are you going to stick with ghostwriting for other people?
Alex Foster: You know, that's been a strange transition for me, because I've been, as you know, in the shadows for the last eight or nine years. I've been a ghost, and then I had this book come out with my own name for the first time ever. And I thought, "That was a lot of fun. I kind of want to keep doing that."
And I got on this podcast, Writers, Ink, and JD Barker, who has been James Patterson's co-author, he was impressed. He was so impressed with the interview. He said, "Hey, you mentioned you have some fiction projects under your belt that you've never published. Can I check them out?"
So I sent him some and he really liked them, and now we're working on a series together. So I think I'm going to slowly phase out of ghostwriting. I have an online course called Ghost Writing University, and a lot of people are signing up to that. That's a fun project for me, because I can teach people what I do in a very uncharacteristic, non-traditional way. And I love it. It's fun teaching people. It's fun giving them the power to harness their own creativity and monetize it.
So that's probably what I'm going to be focusing on in the future, as well as working with JD under my own name.
James Blatch: Yeah. And JD is a really good example of how ghostwriting's evolving at the moment. Because when I first started chatting to JD, maybe four or five years ago, it was a secret that he was working with James Patterson. In fact, I was with him once, and he answered a phone call and said, "Hi, Jim." And it was actually... He was very hands-on.
Whereas now, I'll walk into my local bookshop here in Huntington in the UK, and there's JD Barker's name in bold print underneath a James Patterson book. And I think that seems to me, a better way of doing things. A more honest and fair way of doing things for both parties.
Alex Foster: I think so too, but it really depends on the client. Sometimes they want your name on it, sometimes they don't. For me, it was that I built up a successful platform as an author. And now my few ghostwriting clients, who are ghostwriting clients, they're asking if I can put my name on the cover.
So I think really, you build your way up to it. It's like building a brand, and at some point when your brand is attractive, they want your name affiliated with the project.
James Blatch: Yeah. Okay, well let's talk about ghostwriting then.
Alex Foster: Sure, yeah.
James Blatch: So you teach it. I mean, I guess the fundamentals of writing are writing, and some will overlap, and it would be useful for people listening to this who are writing for themselves. But how do you structure a course for ghostwriting?
Alex Foster: The honest answer is that, I woke up one morning when the film crew was coming to my house and I just unloaded everything that was in my brain. I had no syllabus. I had no outline or anything like that. And I was afraid it was going to be chaotic, and I'd run out of content, but we talk for like 12 hours.
And the ghostwriting course, it's all pre-recorded, but I also do one-on-one sessions. It's six hours of professionally curated content about everything you really need to know to get started as a ghost.
So the basics of interviewing, the power of asking why. That's one of the modules, it's the power of why. Asking, "What was the most impactful thing that happened in your childhood, the thing that you can never forget?" And they tell you something like, "Well, I fell off my bike, I landed on my head, I got a concussion. And then I discovered that there is this underlying health issue that changed my life."
You've got to say, why? "Why did it change your life?" You can't just let it end there. "Oh, okay, cool. Moving on. So blah, blah, blah. What was it like..." You've got to get into the depth of the story.
So that's one of them, interviewing. Contracts negotiations, finding what I call the mythical white whale. The white whale client is the client of all clients. It's the one that will net you a lot of money, a lot of further opportunities, a lot of recognition. These are celebrities, rock stars, John McAfee's, things like that. And I teach people how to find them, how to locate them, and how to negotiate deals with them.
Really, there's so much to ghostwriting people don't really think about. It's not like you just sit down with a recorder and you interview someone, and six months later you've got a book. There's so many subtleties to it.
James Blatch: Well, this interview process, that is something that's different for... I mean, I write historical fiction and occasionally, I will organise a phone call with somebody who flew military aircraft in the 60s, and pick their brains and make some notes.
But what you are doing is absolutely fundamental to the process, and I guess that has to be a kind of structured approach. Do you record the interviews, transcribe them? And how many times do you go back and re-interview?
And I've got a supplementary question. Are there tensions that bubble up when you are probing somebody's deepest, darkest life?
Alex Foster: Excellent questions all around. So to answer the first one, yeah, you interview at length. Usually 8 to 10 hours. And each interview hour is 8,000 written words in transcripts. And so, you do 10 hours of interviews, you've got 80,000 words, which is the average length of a memoir.
A lot of my colleagues, a lot of ghostwriters... It's the sad truth. They take that body of transcripts, they edit it and change some things. They polish it a bit and they call it a book. But that's cheating. That's not writing, that's editing. And it's also editing a conversation which lacks the fundamental intrigue of a good story told well.
So what I do is, I take that body of transcripts and I use that as my content blueprint. That's basically my Bible to refer to. And I start with a blank page and I write the story the way that I feel intuitively, it should be written. Using that content, again, as my basis.
And to answer your next question, are there tensions that arise? Yes, absolutely. Because your job is to find the heart of the story of your client. And in order to do that, you need to sort of mine their deepest, darkest secrets. You need to psychologically profile them in a way. You need to ask questions that are uncomfortable.
I've had people cry during interviews before. I've had people laughing and falling out of their chair recounting this incredible experience that they had forgotten about. And to round out that question, it's very cathartic. It's a super cathartic experience for people.
But it can be a little unfortunate for the ghost, because if you get somebody who's a little emotionally unhinged like John McAfee was, and he threatened to murder me. It can be dicey. It depends. Don't hire crazy people. Don't work with insane people, that's just rule number one.
James Blatch: Good tip there.
Alex Foster: Yeah.
James Blatch: So searching for the story, I mean, that's something... It reminds me of Aaron Sorkin and his masterclass, actually. And he talks about someone that comes to him with project ideas, like The Social Network, like the story of Facebook. And he often is dismissive with their first approach, because he said, "Well, that's not the story. You were telling me what happened, but that's not the story."
And he will spend a year going around interviewing his personal assistants. And look at the way he wrote the Steve Jobs... I think that was Aaron Sorkin that did the Steve Jobs biopic. I think it was him, anyway.
Alex Foster: Oh, okay. That's interesting.
James Blatch: Yeah. The story turned out to be just the relationship between Jobs, his assistant, and his ex-wife. And that told the story of Apple. And The Social Network became really about Mark Zuckerberg's personality and some share stuff. But, he digs away.
So I think that's something we can take into our fiction books, when you come up with your story, but, "What is the actual story? What are you telling here? What's the change?"
And I imagine sometimes... Well, not sometimes. I imagine almost every time you sit down with a subject with an autobiography, they've got an idea of what their autobiography is going to be like. But you are searching for the actual story.
And again, that's going to be an even bigger clash. When you start to draw this together and say, "This is what I'm focusing on." That might not be at all what they thought when they started the process.
Alex Foster: Oh, absolutely. I mean, usually it's what I call finding the diamonds. Those are the little bunny trails, the little anecdotes that they drop on you like a bomb. And you're like, "Wow, wait. Back up. Back up. You said that you were a drug kingpin when you were in high school? Oh, my. Let's unpack that. How did that affect your business practise? Now you're a multimillionaire and super powerful, I would imagine there is some correlation here."
And so yeah, I hope that answered the question. I kind of ramble sometimes.
James Blatch: Oh, no, no. That's good. Well, I don't know how that circles off a square though. Do you ever get to the point where your subjects are saying, "Yeah, but I just don't want to go down that track." And you're thinking, "But this is..."
And that happened to me as a journalist, by the way, a lot. Off-air, before, when I used to be a news reporter. People would often say amazing things off-air and then say, "Yeah, but I'm not going to say any of that on-air."
Alex Foster: Yeah, that has never happened to me, aside from my time with John. John would tell me things, and then realise he slipped up and he shouldn't have told me as much as he did, and just say, "Hey, I get final say over everything that's in the book, right?" And I'd say "Yes." And he said, "Okay, well I don't want that in the book."
James Blatch: Right.
Alex Foster: Or I would be interviewing him and I wanted to ask about his daughter. And I wasn't allowed to ask about his daughter. That's something that his executive advisor always cautioned me against. But I had to, it's part of the story. How do you be John McAfee without ever talking about your family? And why is that? Why doesn't he talk about his family?
So I had to ask that question and he just lashed out at me. He did not want to talk about it at all. He threatened to leave and fire me.
James Blatch: You don't think he was delusional about some of the stuff he talked about? The stuff that slipped out, do you think it was all true? I mean, in the end you walked away, because you felt he was a dark character. But do you think he might have been psychotic as well as sociopathic?
Alex Foster: I think he was on the psychopathic spectrum, absolutely. And delusional, in a way. Drug-induced paranoia. He was also paranoid, because he knew a lot of dark secrets on powerful wealthy people, sort of ala Epstein. And so that made him very paranoid. He had information.
A lot of what he told me was factual, but also a lot of what he told me was just a pack of lies. So my job was to be discerning enough to try to understand when he was telling the truth and when he wasn't. And being that I worked with him for so long, I got to know him. And we got very close. He used to call me son, and he only did that with a handful of people. I started becoming more adept at understanding when he was telling the truth or not.
James Blatch: Still, and you are all the time thinking, "What shape is this book going to take?" And, "Where's the story?" Having to do that. And at some point in that particular case, ending up walking away.
But going back to that, going back to this idea of trying to find the essence of the story. I guess this is something you could do with somebody without their cooperation, right? In fact, I suppose Aaron Sorkin probably didn't have the cooperation of Mark Zuckerberg when he wrote The Social Network.
And you could choose a character, you could choose Jeffrey Epstein, or Ghislaine Maxwell, or someone. And people presumably have done that, and write those stories. That sounds to be a similar approach to what you are teaching.
Alex Foster: Yep, exactly. And that's sort of the white whale approach right there. Is, pick a story, pick a person who's well known in the public domain. And if you want to write a book about them, go ahead. But depending on who it is, it would certainly benefit you to have a collaboration with them.
Not Epstein, or Maxwell, or anybody like that. But someone who's famous and someone who's in the public lexicon.
James Blatch: And have a lawyer, I think probably-
Alex Foster: Absolutely have a lawyer. That's a good one.
James Blatch: So this course, where can people find it, Alex?
Alex Foster: Sure. They can find it at GhostwritingUniversity.com. You can sign up for a free mini course. I give seven valuable lessons that I learned.
Man, I wish I had this course when I was younger. I wish I knew these things, because I had so many pitfalls, and time wasters. One of the things I talk about is, I get 30 requests every week from potential clients. 85% to 90% of which will ultimately lead nowhere. It's roughly 20% of potential clients I actually speak with.
But every email, every message, every project request that I receive, I ask three questions right off the bat. One, "What is your ultimate goal for this book?" Two, "What is your budget? Or if you don't have one, are you familiar with ghostwriting rates?" And three, "When do you want to get started?"
Based on those three answers that they provide me, I know early on, whether I would consider working with them or not. And that's just a super simple hack to save you so much time. So you don't do four or five one hour phone calls with someone and then broach the subject of budget, and they say, "Oh, I was going to spend $3,000 on the budget." And you're thinking, "Wait, I could make more working minimum wage at McDonald's for six months. This is crazy."
So, a lot of hacks in the programme.
James Blatch: Well, let's talk about budget. I imagine you are quite sought after now, and it must be a marketplace to an extent. But, is there a guideline for what people should be charging?
Alex Foster: There is no definitive guideline in the industry. There are some benchmarks. If you're just starting out, and you have not written a book, but you're a skilled writer, it wouldn't hurt to be charging $10,000. Maybe more, maybe $15,000.
Also, it's very different between the markets of the UK and the US. I've noticed that for some reason, ghosts in the UK charge less than the ghosts that I know in the US. I'm not sure why. I mean, we're a very materialistic country, that's probably why, America.
James Blatch: You've got to pay for that wooden lodge you're in.
Alex Foster: Exactly. But if you're a published author, or if you have written a book before, it wouldn't hurt to charge $20,000. If you're sought after, maybe you have some Best Sellers, you go up. You do $55,000, $75,000, $100,000 plus.
Depending on your efficacy and your track record, if you're successful and you're sought after, you can charge six figures easily.
James Blatch: Okay. And that's going after the more serious end of things. I mean, I guess every major politician and major sports star at some point, signs a deal with a big trad company. And they have their in-house staff do they, or do they call people like you to write those?
Alex Foster: It depends. I got a guy over at UTA, United Talent Agency, who's worked with some billionaires, and rock stars and stuff. I'm on his list. He's got a shortlist of ghosts that he reaches out to. That's really something that happens as you get more sought after in the business.
Otherwise, you have agencies like Gotham Ghostwriters, and Reedsy, both of which I'm a member of. They get a lot of those kinds of clients, politicians and celebrities and such.
But oftentimes, publishing houses will have some ghostwriters that they reach out to on the regular for these big clients.
James Blatch: Does what you teach, Alex, pertain mainly to this type of autobiographical book? Or is somebody who's in a stable of romance writers under a pen name, would it be useful for them?
Alex Foster: It's useful for all demographics. It's primarily geared toward interviewing, so that would be in the non-fiction and fiction sector. Mostly business and memoir as far as non-fiction goes.
But absolutely, it's fundamental. So whether it's fiction, it's romance, or it's business, it teaches you the fundamentals of ghostwriting and how to build up a successful business.
James Blatch: Okay. So going back to your process, you've done your interview, you have your 80,000 words transcripted. And from those discussions, you, I suppose, have been searching for these diamonds, for these moments that tell the whole story and the shape it's going to take.
There must be some traps here, I imagine. One is maybe, subjectively trying to force a story onto the situation. Thinking, "Well, that would make a good story, but it's not really the case."
The other trap, I suppose, is not really having a coherent structure to it. Which, I have read some multiple biographies where I think, "It could have done with a rewrite at some point to structure this better."
But yeah, talk to us about that process, about once you've got your interviews done.
Alex Foster: Once you have the interviews done and you have your content blueprint, all of the transcripts indexed according to your outline. Then you need to pour over that content, because you're going to do some follow-up interviews. That's usually when you find the diamonds.
I mean, for me, I usually find the diamonds during the interview process, so I start unpacking it during the interviews. But starting out, you probably won't pick up on it until you start reading the transcripts. And that's when you get your client on the phone, and you do a round two of interviews, and you start talking about those big topics.
And then it's just, at least for me, the magic of creation. You're sitting down with a blank page, drawing from your transcripts and visualising the story in your head like it's a movie, and then writing baby steps. You want to talk about... Well, let's say they're a very powerful businesswoman who's built an empire, she's got a unicorn.
And they are not a whole lot of women in tech these days. It's becoming more and more prominent, which is good. She's had a hard life. She grew up with no dad, but her mother was an addict, and she had five siblings. And she essentially had to become a mother for, when she's a teenager. And that level of responsibility is directly related to her tenacity in business.
I'm just making that stuff up, I haven't worked with that person. But you've got to intuitively then, unpack the story page by page, chapter by chapter, in a way that you think will resonate the most with the reader.
And it's an intuitive process. I talk a lot about it in the course, but it's one of those things that you can't really quantify. It's hard to describe, "How does one use creativity? How does one find it?" It's just kind of there. But you've got to technically find it in your client, and you got to mine that creativity for detail. And then you present it word by word.
Sorry, I'm rambling again.
James Blatch: No, no. So I think what you're basically saying is, you've got to put the work in. You have to put the graft in. You have to be really familiar with everything that you've got, and go over it again. Because I can imagine it is easy to skip some stages at that point. You've got the 80,000 words, as you say, some people just organise that.
I'm trying to think about... I've read some really great biographies that I love in historical books. And I think very often, the technique that I like in these books is, they start with one scene, which doesn't necessarily sit at the beginning of their life or not. It might be the middle, it might be the end of their life. But it's a scene that somehow does, I think what you were talking about there, it captures that one thing. So in the case of that businesswoman, it might be her as a child, an episode that illustrates her tenacity.
Alex Foster: Absolutely.
James Blatch: So that's the sort of thing you are talking about?
Alex Foster: 100%. 100%. That's the diamond. You've got to open with the diamond. And if it's this incredible story of this entrepreneur who's founded a billion dollar plus company, you might not just start with the predictable. You might not just start with some boring boardroom meeting where she decides to merge with this other huge company, and it becomes massive.
People don't want that. They want to see the mother having a drug overdose when she's 13 or 14 years old. And her siblings are all starving, because there's nothing in the fridge or in the cabinets to eat. And she's got to rush to the phone and frantically dial 911 to hopefully save her mother's life, and save her and her siblings from having to enter child services.
And so, that's what draws you in. That's when you see a different side of your subject, and you're like, "Wow, there's more to this person. I want read more. I want to continue." That's what you've got to do.
James Blatch: Yeah. So what's your life look like at the moment, Alex? You said you get pretty much inundated with requests from people. What sort of person is contacting you now?
Alex Foster: Oh, so many. My God. Just imagine every demographic of people. And since that film came out, they're reaching out to me, which I feel very humbled by. I can't take on all that work, but I refer a lot of it to my colleagues.
But my day-to-day, it's pretty peaceful. I have this beautiful log cabin home on the coast, and I live with my girlfriend and our two dogs. And I take the dogs on walks every day when I'm in between breaks from writing. And I interview a lot of people. That's still going on. I'm still interviewing lots of clients.
But yeah, that's it. I wake up, I get coffee and I write. That's all I do.
James Blatch: So sticking with the ghostwriting other people's lives, that's what you found yourself best at?
Alex Foster: Absolutely. Yeah.
James Blatch: Fantastic. Well you better remind people where they can find the course, Alex, if they want to learn from you.
Alex Foster: Sure. They can find the course at GhostwritingUniversity.com. And the book, The Man Who Hacked the World, it's not just the story of John, or the story of me. It's really the story of the evolution of a writer, and how one can become a writer, and become a ghostwriter. So if you're interested in that sort of thing, I would recommend it.
James Blatch: Yeah. Fantastic. And I can see it on Amazon. Is it wide? It looks like it is wide, actually.
Alex Foster: Yep, all over. Barnes & Noble, Turner Bookstore. It's all over, now.
James Blatch: Superb. Well, if you're watching on YouTube, one of your dogs did make an appearance in the background. Silently, because I think you took off the jingly collar beforehand, which is great. And it looks idyllic.
It's been a real pleasure talking to you, Alex. And yeah, I suspect we might even talk again in the future, because it's a big area, and you've had an extraordinary last 12, 24 months or so, I think.
Alex Foster: I'd love to.
James Blatch: Well, in fact, you've had a fairly extraordinary 20-odd years.
Alex Foster: That's what people keep telling me. That's why I wrote the memoir. At some point... An agent out of New York, a really wonderful guy. He's my agent now. He said, "Alex, I don't care if you work with me or you work with somebody else, but you've got to tell this story man, because it's crazy."
So I decided, "It was so cathartic being in that Netflix movie and talking about my time with John, I'll just tell the whole damn story." And I did. And I tell people, it felt like an exorcism. It was a very wild experience, but people like it. I don't know, I can't judge them.
James Blatch: And it's raised your profile, which has helped in your business as well.
Alex Foster: Absolutely. Yeah, I'm very grateful.
James Blatch: Alex, thank you so much indeed for joining us.
Alex Foster: Thanks for having me. Have a great day.
Speaker 1: This is The Self Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: There you go. You know, I wasn't completely across the John McAfee story. I mean, when Amy talked about it, I remember stuff being in the press at the time. But it's funny to think, we all used that McAfee virus software without really knowing there was this frankly sociopathic, possibly psychopathic person behind it.
Mark Dawson: There's a really, really good Netflix documentary about him.
James Blatch: Yes.
Mark Dawson: Is he alive or dead? I don't know.
James Blatch: He's dead now.
Mark Dawson: He's dead? Yeah, so I can speak completely freely without fear of libelling anybody. No, he was a very interesting, colourful character to say the least. On the run for ages, from various governments trying to find him.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: Very interesting.
James Blatch: Well, that was interesting talking to Alex. And you can hear in the interview, that Alex is convinced that this wasn't an act, that he... I mean, he didn't say this, and I'm not going to put words into Alex's mouth. But my inference is that McAfee has killed, and done lots of dark things, and had very good to be on the run. But yeah, interesting anyway.
Mark Dawson: Well, the reason he went on the run was because his neighbour was killed, and the allegations were that McAfee shot him. I don't think it was ever proven, but it certainly was a little bit murky.
James Blatch: Very murky. Anyway, very interesting. And Alex is now the new thing in ghostwriting. People are kicking down the doors to sign him up. He's in a good position.
But most of that interviewer was about the interview process that he carries out, the methodical process of finding the story. And we talked a bit about Aaron Sorkin and others, who get stories thrown to them, and then they find what it's actually about and then they make the film. And that can take a year or so of work.
If you're into that sort of thing, ghostwriting. We've talked about ghostwriting a little bit recently, haven't we? And it's still a controversial subject. But that's the arena, I think, that's absolutely part and parcel. We accept, don't we, that when David Beckham writes his autobiography, in reality, somebody who can write has written his autobiography, having interviewed him. And that's how that works.
Mark Dawson: What? No.
James Blatch: I'm sorry.
Mark Dawson: No way. I don't believe it.
James Blatch: They get the Private Eye, which is a satirical magazine in the UK, and is very old school and very snobbish about publishing. But it always talks about, that sports biographies are read by people who don't read. So they're literally books bought at Christmas for people who will never read them. And there's probably some truth in that, but they sell well at Christmas.
Mark Dawson: Okay.
James Blatch: Snobbish, isn't it? Okay. Right, I've got to go back to my revision. You've got to go back to a house of chaos.
Mark Dawson: Yep. I mean, yes, I have got chaos today. Yeah, my daughters at home and all kinds of stuff going on, so.
James Blatch: Well, I hope you look at the swans to calm you down a little bit, occasionally.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. They were over there a minute ago, now they've buggered off. But I've got a kingfisher going around quite a lot, which is quite nice.
James Blatch: Oh, wow. I love seeing that.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. He lives just down there. I'm pointing out the window. But yeah, herons, cormorants today. It's all very nice.
James Blatch: Such a treat seeing a kingfisher.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay, great. Thank you very much, Mark. Thank you to the team. And thank you to Alex, our interviewee for today. All that remains for me to say is, it's goodbye from him...
Mark Dawson: And goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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