Confessions of a Former Apocalypse Survival Guide Writer
The first time I bid on a freelance job to ghostwrite a doomsday survival guide, I was only asked one question: Did I have experience writing for middle-aged Republican men? I told the client that I had experience writing for a wide variety of ages and political affiliations, which was noncommittal enough to be true.
The client said, “Sounds good, bro.”
We were off to the races.
It was 2009, and a surprisingly high number of people thought society might collapse in 2012, on or around December 21, in accordance with a supposed doomsday prediction in the Mayan long count calendar. (Unsurprisingly, this was not a view held by many scholars of Mesoamerican culture.) The film 2012, which concerns itself with the same subject matter, came out the same year. This was to be the basis for our apocalypse guide, my first. I'd just quit my full-time job and wanted to try my hand at ghostwriting, and this particular job listing was right at the top of the search results on a freelancing website. It certainly sounded more entertaining than most of the other job listings.
I didn’t know anything about the client, let’s call him Dimitri, other than that he lived in Florida, and that he had about $600 for me if I could pump out 100 pages on how to survive the end of the world. The only way to make a living on writing projects at these prices is to do them quickly. In some cases, freelancers are asked to “spin” extant books—that is, to essentially copy the structure and content of those books but to make them new enough to reasonably (and legally) market them as new products. This is related to, but still distinct from the practice of article spinning, in which the same human-written article is quickly reorganized and reworded to create one or more additional “new” articles. (This is often done by software that has a built-in spintax that replaces keywords in the text with synonyms.)
I had no particular survival expertise, but I could regurgitate reliable reference materials as well as anyone else.
I set to work. My plan was to keep the fringe thinking to a minimum and just provide basic entry-level survival information: ways to purify and store water, what foods worked well for stockpiling, signaling and first aid techniques, methods of cooking without electricity, and so forth. I had no particular survival expertise, but I could regurgitate reliable reference materials as well as anyone else.
Ultimately, with that first guide as well as future guides, I was always asked to include more extreme material. “That’s what the audience really wants,” I was told by another client.
But you don’t generally thread it throughout the entire guide. In the case of the 2012 guide, for example, I was eventually asked to explain the Nibiru cataclysm theory but to avoid addressing it until the last chapter. That’s because when the world didn’t end in 2012—and at least part of Dimitri knew it wouldn’t—you’d be able to easily take out the section on Nibiru theory and insert a new chapter about whatever the hot new doomsday theory is, which these days appears to be the threat of an electromagnetic pulse.
The first book went off without a hitch. After that, it became easy enough to get additional projects. I wrote seven over the course of about six months, and my name appears on none of them.
For a while they became my primary source of income, and every single time I was hired by a company that catered to the survivalist market, not a traditional publisher. Each time, the company’s name would be listed instead of an author. There are thousands of prepping guides available on Amazon right now— 2,849 in the “Survival and Preparedness” category alone and 4,214 matches for the keyword “prepper” across categories—and only a small percentage are produced by dedicated book publishers. Companies that sell survivalist products and services produce the lion’s share, and on any given day, if you peek at freelancing sites like Upwork, you’ll see at least a couple of ghostwriting projects dedicated to survivalism being advertised.