Category Archives: ghostwriting

Ghostwriting with an undertaker

 

square pegs in round holes image copy

Working as a ghostwriter with an undertaker seemed  a perfect match. And it turned out to be far more fascinating than I could have ever imagined. And it was also great fun. That was because I was working with Barry Albin Dyer, an extraordinary man, who died on Saturday.

We wrote two books together, Don’t Drop the Coffin and Square Pegs in Round Holes. And I can honestly say the time I spent with Barry proved to be the most enjoyable in my ghostwriting career. I always left Barry’s funeral home incredibly inspired – and often entertained by his wonderful anecdotes.

His funeral company, and the ethics and spirit that underpin it, was an expression of Barry’s personality. It’s no wonder that F.A.Albin Sons were chosen by the Ministry of Defence to bring back the bodies of British soldiers from Afghanistan.

Barry saw his company as a family. That’s why the staff would often have breakfast together, sitting around a long table, helping themselves to toast and cereal, and discussing the funerals they were to do that day. Barry’s concern for his staff went far beyond the time they spent working for him. He took an interest in their life – and on many occasions offered help in some personal matter or another.

When many independent funeral directors were selling up to large companies, Barry refused to go the same way. He had some incredibly good offers for F.A.Albin & Sons, including from one company that wanted to take the Albin name and brand and roll it out across the UK, like Marks and Spencer. For Barry to take the money would be like selling his soul.

He viewed the area of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe along the Thames as his manor and saw supporting bereaved families as a sacred duty. He conducted funerals for royalty and film stars. But he was never happier than walking down Jamaica Road, with his top hat in one hand and his wand in the other, conducting a funeral for a little old lady on a Bermondsey council estate.

He ran a charity to help local people in financial difficulties. There was no complicated process or forms to be completed to decide who was given financial help. Barry decided. As he explained in Square Pegs in Round Holes, he had no time for unnecessary bureaucracy.

When Don’t Drop the Coffin was published in 2002, and a TV series of the same name followed soon after, Barry found himself in the media spotlight. He thrived on this, because he wanted to try and take away the mystery and fear surrounding funerals.

Jackie, his partner, and his sons, Simon and Jon, supported and comforted him all the way with his year-long battle with cancer. For someone so active and so giving, it must have been hard for him to come to terms with his incapacity. But, in his typical way, he learned to accept the way things were.

We were planning to write another book together. This one would be about some of the famous – and probably infamous – people he had encountered during his 50 years in the funeral business. Sadly, he died before we could begin.

Working as a ghostwriter

The recent publication of Confessions of a Ghostwriter by Andrew Crofts shines a rare spotlight on what can seem a hidden world.

Crofts has ghostwritten around 80 books, a number of which have climbed into the bestseller lists. With this sort of track record, it’s no wonder that his fees average six figures.

But most ghostwriters won’t earn anything near that amount, but they can often earn more than most publishers would pay in an advance.

Some people with stories to tell will approach a ghostwriter expecting that they will write the book for peanuts or, worse, for free.

I remember meeting a policeman who was about to retire from the Met. He’d had an interesting career, working in the drugs, robbery, and murder squads, and seemed to think his story would make him a fortune.

“The first thing we need to do is to talk about money,” I said when I sat down with him in a west London café.

“Oh, don’t worry, that’s not a problem,” he said with a shake of the head.

“But have you a figure in mind?” I asked.

“I was thinking of about five hundred quid. But we’ll go fifty fifty on the royalties.”

When I told him the true cost, his mouth fell open. “I can’t afford that – I’m going through a divorce,” he said.

No ghostwriter is going to work on the basis of future royalties, which, unless someone is a big name, are likely to be non existent.

Writing someone else’s story requires a huge amount of work. You have all the interviews to do, tapes to transcribe, research to carry out, a structure and theme to come up with (no, we don’t just write down what someone says), and then the writing and editing.

I hope Andrew Crofts’ book might lead a greater understanding and appreciation of the skills of a ghostwriter. And for those who might be thinking of hiring one, I hope they are more realistic in what it will cost them.