A Genius Bar for Books
12 May 2016
Jeremy Dronfield, author, ghostwriter, book consultant and the agency’s reader interviewed.
You’ve had an unusual career trajectory, going from fiction to non-fiction and ghostwriting. How did that come about?
Being a writer isn’t what it used to be. The joy of creation may be timeless, but the way we research, write and sell books is changing constantly. At the same time, being a writer in the other sense – existing, earning a living from the written word – is changing too. Advances are declining in size and getting harder to come by, we have to work harder (and spend more) to do our own promotion, and sales are weakening as austerity infects the economy. Year after year, writers’ incomes are falling. Even with a bestseller or two under your belt you can find yourself struggling to make a living; luxury money one year followed by bread-crusts the next. Each of us has to have a strategy for survival. For some, branching out is the answer.
I began as an academic archaeologist. In search of a liveable income and hoping to realise a dream, I took up writing fiction (doesn’t sound like such a logical path these days, does it?). With the prolonged downturn in the book business, I eventually had to branch into manuscript reading, which led to consultancy and ghostwriting. Unexpectedly, I found a way of making my life as a writer sustainable. Because, somewhat to my surprise, it turned out that I was as good at reading as I was at writing.
How does manuscript reading lead to ghostwriting?
It started with manuscripts and book proposals – giving feedback and suggestions.
Is this in the academic book world, or commercial?
Strictly commercial. I’ve done a lot of reading (a couple of hundred reader’s reports each year). Instinctively (maybe because of my academic background) I take an analytical approach to the material – I identify the problems and work out how to fix them. My speciality is not only to critique a piece of work but (in problem cases) to suggest a revision programme.
I’m the main reader for the Andrew Lownie agency, and as many as a third of the book proposals Andrew has sold to publishers in the past few years have been improved by my advice. Being an experienced writer myself is the key to it. I understand the mechanisms that make books tick, and know from first-hand experience what it takes to craft those mechanisms and set them in motion.
My ghostwriting work has grown organically alongside reading work; often a ghosting project begins as a reading job, in which a would-be author has produced a manuscript or proposal but is unable to make it work as a readable, commercially viable book; if I can sense commercial potential and see the structure of a good book in the source material, I become fully involved as adviser, ghostwriter, co-researcher, or in some cases even a full-blown co-author.
What happens with authors’ manuscripts that are almost but not quite viable? Discard them and start over?
No. Most of those cases are resolveable by the original author, working from the insights that I can offer. Some, where the author can’t make changes (there may be many reasons, some beyond their control), I can clean, polish, and remodel an existing text for them.
How do you deal with the variety of books you handle?
Even though I’m in the commercial world, with some projects my academic background helps, along with a practised knack for quickly tunnelling my way into the subject matter. To take one example, in working on Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time (Oneworld, 2016), the biography of a pioneering woman surgeon, in just a few months I had to master the history of 19th century medicine as well as the source material for the life story; for Queer Saint (John Blake, 2015) it was the 20th century art world and the pre-war gay scene; for other books the material has covered everything from spies to ancient history via epigenetics and thriller fiction. It all has to be learned and assimilated.
Ultimately my job is to find a book in the material and bring it out into the light, in a form that people want to read. In the process, I usually become as passionate about the subject (and in rare cases even as knowledgeable) as the original author.
With all books, whether they’re historical or modern, memoirs or slice-of-life stories, I have to be able to get to the human heart of it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an 18th century duke or a 21st century golfer, if there’s no beating heart, there’s no story and no book. The voice, the heart, and the narrative have to be found. And to a great degree, those things are universally human.
So, do you think of yourself mainly an author, a reader or a ghost?
There isn’t really a job title for this. As far as I’m aware, I’m the only person in the business who does exactly what I do. I think of myself as A Genius Bar for Books. If publishers, agents or authors have problems with a book project, they can bring it to me and I can fix it for them.
It means working hard. Very hard. Writers have a notion of what constitutes “hard work”; what I’m talking about is much tougher than that – think of a real job, then add the inherent stresses of being creative full-time (to order), and then fill seven days of the week with it. But if you’re like me and you thrive on being challenged, exploring new territory, and sifting jewels from amongst dust, then you’d love it.
And if like me you rely on your writing talents to pay your bills, it may be a necessary pursuit.