On Ghostwriters: What is a Ghostwriter & When Should You Hire One?

In the popular imagination, ruthless publicists seek ghostwriters to write books for feckless celebrities, so that soccer players and glamor models can cash in on fame’s brief bubble while it lasts, and perhaps gain a little credibility by showing that they possess basic literacy skills.

I’ve spoken to people who do this kind of work. It doesn’t come up very often, and it’s a tedious slog to do, even when it pays well.

But something about ghostwriting seems seedy. I suppose it must be because someone pays you to put their name on your work.

For most people, that feels like being paid to collude in a fraud, or to be paid to have your work plagiarized, or be paid to give up ownership of your own work.

You begin a ghostwriting job with an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) whose usual duration is “lifetime”. That’s yours and theirs. You have to both be dead before it can be revealed.

I’ve seen ghostwriting compared with being a professional assassin.

This, I think, doesn’t come across as a very attractive proposition.

How to See Ghostwriting for What It Is

Everyone is offering paid services for money. You could almost believe that the internet was invented for it. Forums and platforms where people post jobs for freelancers abound.

It seems to be natural to know when there is a skill you need, but lack, and you know that there are folks out there who will provide to you for a fee.

Can’t write in Italian – get a translator. Can’t edit images – get a graphic designer. Can’t sell, get a salesman, can’t organize, get a VA.

Any commercial skill you can think of, someone is offering it and someone else is paying them for it.

Writers’ expertise is writing.

Think about copywriters (the folks who do the text for commercial materials like advertising). Everyone thinks of them as professional writers. You need a writer, you hire a writer.

Think about technical writers (the folks who do instruction manuals and package labelling). They’re the specialists at explaining things clearly – so you don’t get sued.

Think about legal writers, medical writers. They’re all going to provide you with a text that will not be attributed to them, though if anyone wants to know who did the writing, a relevant paper trail will exist.

Some of my translations have been excellent creative work, but I get no public credit for them at all, because the work isn’t seen as creative. My friend Roland Glasser does literary translations, and he gets a credit on the cover.

And that’s revealing, I think. Because it shows that the rules change (for which read “stop making sense”) once you get into artistic creation. Literary translation may be more difficult than non-literary, but usually pays less well, (though more regularly and in much bigger chunks).

When you’re paid to ghostwrite, the skill you’re providing is your ability to:

Write what the client would have written if they knew how.

I tend to expect that to be quite a rare skill. Your success is predicated on your ability to convince readers that the client wrote it. So letting anyone know that the client didn’t write it is a little daft.

Why Would You Want a Ghostwriter?

The public perception aside, most ghostwriting today isn’t celebrity autobiographies and political speeches. Most of it is online content, for search engine optimization (SEO) or corporate reputation.

A significant chunk of ghostwriting is academic. Many University professors have a contractual obligation to keep to a regular publication schedule, and those that don’t have a stated obligation often realize that keeping up regular publications is the only way to improve their chances of obtaining tenure.

Besides this, there is a clear market for “collaborative fiction”. This is where a non-writer with a strong idea for a story hires a writer, and they do the work together.

So, here are the reasons why you might hire a ghostwriter:

  1. You’re a busy executive and you’re expected to provide corporate content for your company intranet, press-releases, etc.
  2. You provide third party SEO, and you need regular, up to the minute content to keep the search engines coming back to your customer’s sites, but of course, your customers have to be the ones who appear to be creating the content.
  3. You have a punishing academic publishing schedule to keep to. You hire a writer (who probably appears in your accounts as a secretary or editor) and send them large piles of research notes that they write up for you. They might get credited as an editor, even though they did the writing.
  4. You have recorded your memoirs onto audio and everyone says you should get it compiled into a book. In many ways, this is your creative work, but it’s worth having a professional writer who can create a literary framework for your memories, and write it in a way that authentically comes across as your own voice. In a sense, they’re imitating you.
  5. You have a killer idea for a book – and an urge to get it onto paper – but no clue about turning an idea into a book. This can be equally true for a work of fiction as for a work of non-fiction. If you view the project as a creative collaboration, it can be highly rewarding for both parties, and you may well end up wanting to share the author credit, rather than publishing exclusively under your own name.
  6. You have a public-speaking engagement and no idea how to present your ideas in a snappy 12.5 minute talk, or worse, you have been told that your presentations are lackluster and overlong.
  7. You’re an artists’ agent and publishers have been sounding you out for a book deal with one of your clients. The fact is, it could be a good revenue stream (or a bidding war and a nice fat advance if you’re lucky), and there are a number of ways to go, from hiring a writer to coach and collaborate with your client through to a completely hands-off ghostwrite.
  8. You are a professional publicist. I suppose we all gotta eat, right? Your client needs another revenue stream so you want a peon to bash out a departure lounge doorstep that you can put anybody’s name to. Go away. You probably don’t really exist.

How to Find a Ghostwriter

Nobody knows who they are… They move from shadow to shadow… Only in death are they revealed…

Or something.

Actually, finding a ghostwriter is pretty easy. Finding a good one may be harder.

I’m assuming that you want a ghostwriter for a fiction novel, because most of the writers visiting Narrative Path are fiction novel writers. If you want to reach them, try posting to the Narrative Path Facebook Page asking for private messages from interested parties.

If you know you have the budget for it, and you should expect a novel to cost at least in the region of $0.10 per word, contact me with as many details as you can of the project and I’ll let you know if I can recommend a suitable writer.

Otherwise, as with any other freelance services, start with the usual freelancer platforms like Elance (soon to be now part of Upwork, a merger with Odesk).

There are agencies that specialize in providing ghostwriters.
You can also find ghostwriters anywhere else that writers hang out, such as writers forums.

Contact writers that you admire or appreciate, or who write the sort of thing you want to write. They might not be willing to ghostwrite for you, but they may well know someone suitable.

Remember, you are going to put your name to their work, so before you hire someone, you will want extensive verified samples of their work, so preferably work they have published under their own name. You’ll be looking for versatility and adaptability.

During the early stages of your working relationship you will need to have a lot of contact with your ghostwriter. Drop anyone who is unresponsive.

It is best to able to meet up physically, so pay close attention to geographical location and maybe try craigslist.

You should have meetings with candidates before you choose one. Collaborating on a novel is creative; personalities are important. And you may be spending quite a lot of money.

Be very clear, in writing, up front, what the deal is going to be, with regard to ownership and credit. Experienced ghostwriters will adapt to your requirements. Having said this, if the collaborative relationship evolves, consider giving your ghostwriter a contributor’s credit or even joint-authorship.

This doesn’t have to change ownership or royalties. That’s still up to you to establish in a contract. Prepare a formal, separate and clear NDA and get it checked over by an expert.

Normally:

  • The resulting work is the exclusive property of the client
  • The ghostwriter is paid a fixed fee
  • The ghostwriter is not entitled to any share of the royalties, however…
  • All this is negotiable

How to Get Work as a Ghostwriter

Again, I’m assuming you’re here because you’re a novelist, so my remarks are addressed to getting work ghostwriting novels.

First of all, have some work published in your own name. Your potential customers need samples of your work that can be authenticated, and nothing is better than publishing under your own name.

It’s a basic assumption of your clients that you are a good enough writer to be published, so you should be published. Three titles should be the bare minimum. They should all be full length novels (80k to 120k words).

Second, be clear and open in ALL your publicity (website, facebook, forum profiles, etc) that you are available as a ghostwriter. Tell everyone you want to do it, especially other writers.

Potential clients will contact writers they like and ask them about ghostwriting, so make sure they know you want to do the work.

Advertise your services on all the freelance platforms, and scour them for jobs regularly. Once you’ve done a few you will be able to join associations and try to get onto agency panels.

There’s no point doing this until you have a couple of contracts under your belt.

How to Get a Good Deal as a Ghostwriter

Pay close attention to everything I said in the section How to See Ghostwriting for What It Is.

You are the expert in writing. You know you’re going to be paid for that.

Assume your client is smart enough to know what he wants, and to recognize it when he gets it. What your client lacks is the skill and/or the time to put it into action.

That means that you are going to be managing a creative process, which is an additional skill, for which you should expect to be paid.

You are giving up royalties and reputation – both of which contribute to your future profitability – so if the client doesn’t want to pay top dollar, and your work is good enough to sell well, then you could negotiate a royalty split and/or a writing credit – anything that gets your name on the cover: “story consultant” – “story editor” – “with …”. “With” is a very good credit. It says nothing whatever about your degree of involvement but gets your name on the credits.

Do not sell yourself too short. Look at what jobs are being offered, and be reasonable. When you are starting out, if you’re a good writer, you should be paid well for good writing even if you have no experience ghostwriting at all. Don’t expect 10 cents per word on your first job, but don’t undersell.

Potentially, ghostwriting fiction can be a whole lot more work than you expect!

Don’t quantify the work on word count alone. Think about the client’s requirements and the degree of involvement they want. How frequently they want to have planning and review sessions. How often they might ask for rewrites.

Make it clear in your terms and conditions that you will decide when the job is completed, and you will decide what constitutes additional work.

How to Get the Best Results from Ghostwriting

Again, this applies only to a novel, and comes with the additional caveat that it is largely anecdotal – based on my own experiences working with ghostwriters.

It is generally fair to say that the first time client doesn’t have realistic expectations – if they have any expectations – of how the process will work, nor of what the outcome is likely to be.

All the experiences recounted to me tell of clients who expect that by paying a successful author to write their book for them, the outcome will be a successful book.

Conversely, the ghostwriter, until they have got a few projects under their belt, will not be ready for the creative interference, crisis of self-doubt, alternation between dominating paymaster and groveling layman, floods of new ideas, changes of direction and priority. And believe me, this is a small subset of what can turn a creative collaboration sour.

Even after 10 years, the ghostwriter can still be discovering new ways that the client can destroy the project.

Additionally, it is true that the client is not a writer. He doesn’t know how fiction is created – though it can be hoped that he will learn this through the process.

It is also true that the ghostwriter’s main area of expertise should be expected to be writing, not client-relationship management or project management.

However, any creative partnership that has the potential to go horribly wrong also has the potential to strike sparks, catch fire, and produce something truly original and captivating.

The best thing you can do to ensure that the conditions are right for this is to bring in a third party who understands creation as a business collaboration. Most publishing professionals could probably do this.

Literary agents routinely act as mediators between ghostwriter and client. As a literary editor I’m well placed to recognize and prioritize the business requirements with the creative ones.

This third party role is largely of framing. Providing and setting expectations to ghostwriter and client and, yes, occasionally providing mediation and conciliation. When I’ve done this it’s been purely on a consulting basis, and rarely added more than a couple of hundred dollars to the overall project cost.

The outcome is that a third party can guide ghostwriter and client to a clearer view of each other’s role, and the value of each other’s contributions.

For example, the ghostwriter should not fall into the trap of thinking that someone who can’t write a story is not capable of inventing one.

The client should not make the assumption that the ghostwriter needs every detail dictated to him otherwise he’ll just write what he feels like.

Those are the most common – and understandable – fears.

Credit Where it is Due

Unlike other forms of ghostwriting, writing a novel together eventually becomes a creative collaboration. The best ghostwriter will take opportunities to teach his client about how to turn his ideas into a novel – if nothing else, this will make future collaborations more efficient and productive.

The best ghostwriter will deliver a manuscript that to the client feels like what he would have written.

For me, this isn’t pretense. To reach that point, the ghostwriter will have needed to form a solid understanding of the client, his personality, his goals, his values. In which case, it cannot be said that the client is not involved in the creation.

It is absolutely valid that the client should have his name on work that he has influenced, not just paid for. There’s no fraud there, no plagiarism.

So if that’s what the client gets, the writer ought to, too.

It’s true that if you are that nonexistent publicist I mentioned earlier, your client has probably had zero contact with the writer, and the writer should be happy to act like a paid assassin.

But if you’re anything else, consider what the writer deserves for their creative effort, and be proud to have worked with them, and created something with them.

Oh yes, and did I mention, your ghostwriter is a published author, and readers will buy your book if their name is on it.

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