Q&A with Martin Toseland

By   John Bond 6 min read

Martin Toseland has worked at a senior editorial level at Penguin Press and HarperCollins until October 2006, when he decided to concentrate on his own writing. Since then he’s written or ghosted over twenty books – fiction and non-fiction – on a comically broad range of subjects including misheard song lyrics, a CFO’s view of good business practice, the Grand Harbour in Malta, a novel set in the Amazon rainforest, and, recently, a book written entirely in emoji. He’s currently working on a television biography, a book about drinking, a travel book and a thriller. He also provides editorial consultancy for fiction and non-fiction titles and represents a select list of authors.

Image result for martin toseland1. You are an experienced freelance ghost writer who used to be an in-house editor within some of the major publishing companies. What are the fundamental differences going from a salaried publisher to living the freelance life?

Well the commute takes a little less than 15 seconds and the dress code is ‘sleep-casual’ but, smug observations aside, I think the main difference is control: I can now shape my working life to suit my working style and I do have much more of a say about what ends up on my ‘To-Do’ list.

I have four major projects on the go but the deadlines are manageable so being a bit more in control allows me to decide what to do on any given day. Today has been all about writing the introduction to a book coming out in September but I could as easily have worked on any of the other projects. When I worked in a large publishing company, I had a To-Do list as long as a marathon runner’s playlist but, more often than not, I wasn’t in control of what got added to it or the sequence in which I tackled it. And very often a piece of work required more than one person to do something before I could make my contribution. Freelance is a bit more self-contained.

Ghosting has brought me into contact with some remarkable people and put me in some unusual situations. In the last few years, I’ve found myself being part of a Guinness World Record attempt, being put up in a hotel in Dubai to write a novel, shadowing TV personalities as they drank their way around the British Isles, being driven across ‘the Bridge’ from Copenhagen to Malmo in a limited edition Ferrari trying to understand the complexities of IPOs and spending the day with an Indian MP hunting for Banyan trees in Delhi. As an in-house publisher I did meet lots of interesting people but usually across a desk and with a narrow agenda.

The one thing I miss about office life is the impromptu conversations with colleagues in the corridors or lifts or leaning on the doorjamb. These conversations almost invariably sparked a thought, an angle, a line, or an idea for a book which was the day’s real reward

2. How do you choose which projects you want to work on? 

Logistical issues aside, there is really only one question: is there any ‘chemistry’ between me and the person I’d be writing for? If there is, we can probably work together.  The reason is that collaborating on a ghost-written book is an incredibly intimate and revealing experience. As a ghost, you uncover things about a person that even they themselves might not have been aware of – and certainly things that their family and closest friends didn’t know. Once I found myself in a taxi on the way to interview a subject’s ex-wife tasked with asking her why she had left him. They had never discussed it.

3. How easy is it to find a tone of voice with each new project you work on?

Again, it varies depending on the subject. In some rare cases, the subject has spent a lot of time thinking about his or her story or message and can express these thoughts in well-structured, flowing paragraphs. My job is then to prompt with questions, make sure that I mine absolutely everything of interest and structure the narrative so that it all skips along and keeps the reader engaged.

Rather more frequently you have to wrestle the voice onto the page.  This is just a matter of persistence: trying different narrative or format approaches until a gate opens and you can really get going. If repeated attempts fail, then it can be down to a mismatch between the subject’s voice and the book that the publisher had envisioned.  At which point you have to go back to the publisher with suggestions about format, market and so on

4. What makes a good ghost writer?

Obviously as a ghost, you need to be much invisible to the reader. You are a bridge between the subject and the page but that doesn’t mean you aren’t shaping what appears on it. A good ghost has to push the subject constantly to be interesting by asking searching and challenging questions because in the end you also have to deliver a book that will generate interest and sales.

So, you have to be mindful of the publisher’s brief while also respecting the voice and wishes of the subject. That requires objectivity and sensitivity. And it also requires building a trusting relationship with the person you’re writing for – you are writing in their voice, articulating their thoughts so they have to be able to trust you completely. To do that, you have to be able to hear not only the subject’s stated worries or concerns but also the unstated ones. There is a lot of psychology involved. (And, as it turns out, often quite a lot of therapy!)

Clearly you also have to be able to adapt your writing style to suit the person you’re writing for so literary impersonation is essential. At the foundation of that is something perhaps less obvious which is I think that you have to be an avid and diligent reader – aware of what’s new and what’s working in publishing and being open to trying new styles to make the most of the subject’s story.

Ghosting is a collaborative process – and the word ‘process’ is as important as ‘collaborative’ here. Finished books very rarely if ever, in my experience, precisely match the original proposal. They develop as they are being written which is natural given that this is a creative exercise. So, you have to be flexible in the way you approach the way the book is developing and always consult with the editor when things start to move in a new direction

5. Tell us about a recent project you’ve been working on?

I can talk in general terms about a book I’ve just finished (discretion is another essential aspect of being a good ghost writer!)  It’s taken over a year to write which is unusual in itself these days. The book was a commission from a businessman (via whitefox!) who wanted to write down his thoughts about how finance and business should work together based on the principles he’d developed during his (very successful) working life. So far, so straightforward. However, it grew into one of the most complex books I’ve ever worked on and the process was certainly one of the most intense. We discussed at great, great length social, political, philosophical, economic as well as business issues to get to the heart of what he was really thinking. Having spent a few months understanding and articulating the fundamentals, we then had to construct a coherent narrative from them. I ended up with hundreds of hours of recorded interviews from meetings in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, India and London and a very creased passport.

John Bond
John Bond
John has been involved in publishing for more than thirty years. He held senior positions at Penguin and at HarperCollins, where he was on the main board for nine years, running sales, marketing and publishing divisions including the 4th Estate imprint and their stable of award-winning authors such as Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen and Nigel Slater. He co-founded Whitefox in 2012 on the principle that the future of successful publishing would be based upon external managed services and agile, creative collaboration with the highest quality specialists. Nothing that has happened since has dissuaded him of this view.