Marcia Layton Turner is an award-winning ghostwriter, who has written more than 50 nonfiction books, mainly about business and real estate. When she’s not ghostwriting books for clients, she writes for magazines like Inc., Entrepreneur, Businessweek, Black Enterprise, Realtor, Chief Content Officer, Woman’s Day, Health, and dozens of trade journals. You can find her work on CNN Money, AmEx OPEN Forum, US News & World Report, StartUpNation, and Forbes.
In this episode, Marcia talks to host Tivi Jones about passionately advocating for yourself, being an expert in You, undercharging for your work, and deciding to go premium.
BECOMING A GHOSTWRITER
Who is a ghostwriter, anyway? A ghostwriter is like a facilitator, someone who helps an author, a singer, or any other well-known figure or expert to share their story. Marcia ghostwrites books for entrepreneurs who have a message, a success story, or a methodology to share. She says that even 10-15 years ago, there was some shame around hiring a ghostwriter, and if you did, your expertise was questioned. Ghostwriting is less stigmatized now. Many celebrities have hired ghostwriters to help them share their stories.
Marcia emphasizes that there’s a difference between being an author and being a ghostwriter. “You could be really good at writing your own book or your own articles, but when you have to turn around and interview someone else and think the way they think and write the way they write– it’s a totally different skill, but it can be learned with practice,’ she says. The key is being a good writer.
Marcia shares her story of becoming a writer. She says in high school she was a really hard worker but English class was the hardest.
“I sucked at writing. I'm just going to put it out there,” Marcia says.
She jokes that her classmates would be shocked to hear that now she’s making a living from writing. After Marcia graduated high school, she went on to attend Wellesley college, and that’s where she learned her writing skills.
Some of her classes like psychology, sociology, and history gave students an option to choose how they wanted to take their finals–whether they preferred to take a two-hour exam or write a paper. “I always took the paper because I knew I might not know everything in the two-hour span of a final but if I have five days, I could write a decent paper,” Marcia says.
Every semester she wrote four or five final papers, plus all the papers in between. “And by the end, I had developed some skills. I didn’t really know it at the time, but my grades were pretty good,” she says.
After college, Marcia was getting her MBA at the University of Michigan, where she was writing many papers. “I was easily getting A's. And my classmates would look at me and say ‘Oh, you didn't say you were a writer” and I was like ‘Oh, I didn't know. Trust me.’ That's when it started. I was like OK, maybe I figured this out,” she explains.
When Marcia graduated, she worked in marketing communications at Kodak, where her boss was writing a novel. Curious, she started asking him questions about writing and publishing. That gave her an idea to write a book for her dad, an artist, to help him market his work. She figured out the process for writing a book, and even though it needed a lot of editing, the book got published. After publishing it, Marcia’s realized she can become a full-time writer.
Writing and publishing a book for her dad positioned Marcia as an author for publishers and she got an agent. One day he told her about meeting an editor who had a “problem project.” He had an author under contract whose books were already pre-ordered and it was going to be a blockbuster, but he hadn’t written a word for seven months. The editor was looking for a writer who could help finish this book. Marcia’s agent recommended her and that’s how she got her first book deal.
“I had never done this before so I had a lot of questions about how it would work– ’Where am I going to get all this information from? When do you want it by?’”
Thankfully, the author had put together a banker's box of notes, articles, and background materials organized by chapter because he’d had the outline already approved by the published. So he shipped this box to Marcia, she went over the materials and had meetings with the author 2-3 times a week, where she would interview him and piece together the information from the box. “I got it done and it went really well. I thought, ‘boy, that was fun. I learned all about this topic and got paid for it,’” she says.
The takeaway from Marcia’s story is to realize that it is never too late to change your career or learn something new. A couple of years ago, Marcia decided that she really wanted to get a doctorate degree because she loves constantly learning. So she enrolled in Doctorate in Business Administration at Temple University and will be finishing her degree in about a year.
Marcia is a member of a number of personal finance groups on Facebook and she says she sees a lot of people who ask questions such as, “Oh, I’m 30, is it too late to go back to school? Or I’m 40 is it too late?”
Marcia says her only answer to that is– “Are you breathing?” she jokes. “It’s never too late.”
ADVOCATING FOR YOURSELF
When it comes to wins, Marcia thinks all the way back to middle school. Marcia and her brother attended private school, where her mom also worked, but Marcia had a miserable time there–she was bullied and harassed. She wanted to transfer to another school. One night at dinner she told her parents she wanted to switch schools and they were shocked and said she went to the best school ever. But Marcia didn’t give up, she explained to her parents why she wanted to leave and laid out all the benefits. The parents thought about it and a couple of days later told her she could transfer if she could get into the other school. That was the first time Marcia learned how powerful advocating for herself is and has continued doing that ever since. “I realized, as long as I advocate for myself, I’m going to get good results,” she says.
Her second win came in college. Her first semester she signed up for a 7:30 am computer class, which was the worst decision she could have made because, like many of us, she was not a morning person and ended up not getting the credit for that class. So the next semester, she had to take more classes–five instead of four. Marcia found she did well under extra pressure. “So I went to the dean and said, “I want to get permission to accelerate to graduate early. And I remember the dean looking at me like you barely got credit last semester.” But I was doing really well that semester and the dean said as long as I maintained a good grade point average, then I could do it. “I graduated in three and a half years! I knew myself, I knew that I needed that extra pressure to be able to focus so that was another win,” Marcia says.
Career-wise, her biggest win was pushing to become the new director of communications of her division at Kodak after her boss left. People were telling her “there are so many others who’ve been here longer, Marcia, why do you think you should be the director?” And again, she had to make a case for herself– that she’s been essentially already been already doing this job. She ended up getting the “acting” director title. “That was really important because I understood that was going to position me for other opportunities. And then I took that title once I started writing and broke into some major national magazines,” Marcia says.
She thinks that we all have similar stories, but maybe we haven’t had the opportunity to reflect on them.
Tivi says the key is asking.
“You win when you ask for what you want. You might get a no but you can ask. I think sometimes we don’t recognize we have an opportunity to ask a question,” Tivi says.
One of the biggest growth opportunities for Marcia was becoming a professional writer through practice and study.
But more recently, she had one of her biggest and most significant realizations of her career– she had been undercharging for her work. When Marcia first got into ghostwriting 15 years ago, she got paid $15,000 for the book. She assumed that was the market rate and because she knew they needed that book fast she got a premium. “So I settled my rate on $10,000 a book she said. And then I started hearing other people were charging more so I increased my price to $20,000,’ she says.
Then, she started asking people around and verifying what the market rate was. Each year she’d raise her price by a bit. Last year she got up to $35,000 as her minimum and then something happened.
“There was a referral source, a gentleman who wanted to send me some projects, and he contacted me and said ‘Marsh, I hope this is okay but I quoted a rate to somebody for your work and said it’s $65,000– am I in the ballpark?’ And I said yes, for you I can make that work,” Marcia recalls, laughing.
“And then I realized I was undercharging all along. My rate went up because somebody else told me that I was undercharging. I didn't know I was undercharging. And since then, like last week, I got a project for $70,000. The demand has increased, it's not going down,” Marcia says.
Marcia also runs the Association of Ghost Writers, the first of its kind that she founded 12 years ago when she realized at a conference that there was no such association for ghostwriters. She always tells her members that they are undercharging. “I say– I don’t know what you are charging but you are undercharging because I have people who are falling over themselves to work with me at $65,00- $70,000 and they're not the only ones,” she says.
She recommends everyone find out what others are charging and keep informed on what the market rate is. But she also emphasizes, “go premium!”
“I hope any of your audience members will think about this and charge more–people will pay you,” Marcia says. She also warns you to not get discouraged if after you charge your rate, the phone calls and emails stop–that happened to her. “I freaked out and thought, ‘oh I priced myself out of the market’ but no–you’re just going to get a different audience, doesn't mean they're fewer. Even if they are–that doesn't matter because if you’re doubling your rates, you only need half as many clients to get the same amount.”
ADVICE TO YOUNGER SELF
Marcia’s advice to others is– ”realize that you are the expert in yourself and trust your gut.” She says if she had trusted her gut a long time ago, she would have avoided many uncomfortable situations. She also mentions the imposter syndrome women tend to have– ”who am I to write a book? Do I really know enough?”
To that she says – "Yes, you do. You know enough.”
I hope that you have enjoyed this episode as much as I have!
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