How to Be a Successful Ghostwriter

I can still remember the first time I saw my byline in print. After years of writing articles, essays and short stories, I’d finally sold one—and had the magazine to prove it.

When I started writing books, the thrill was even bigger. I dreamt of the day when I’d fill an entire bookshelf with books with my name on them. I never considered ghostwriting. Why would I spend months of my life toiling away on someone else’s book? No thanks. I only wanted to write my own books, and that’s what I did.

I soon found, however, that the life of a book author wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned. I was working long hours, yet making less money than I had before, when I was writing only articles. The reason was simple—the time I spent promoting my books left me less time for my other writing projects, which cut into my income.

Then, I had the good fortune of being approached by a nutrition expert about co-authoring her book. I found I enjoyed collaborating with her, but the real payoff came when we finished the manuscript. As the lead author, she now had to start promoting it—but I was all done! 

That was enough for me. I decided to pursue co-authoring and ghostwriting, and “my” next book was ghostwritten for a client. (Typically a “co-author” is identified on the cover, while a “ghostwriter” is never named or identified.) Today, most of my books are published under my clients’ names—and I’m making as much money working part-time hours as I did as a full-time freelancer.

You probably know that many celebrities and politicians use ghostwriters to pen their books. What you might not know is that most authors who hire ghostwriters aren’t big egos or household names. Instead, they’re professionals (think physicians, attorneys, financial advisers) who want to publish books to attract clients and establish themselves as experts in their field—but who lack the time and/or ability to actually write the manuscripts. They’re willing to pay, and often pay well, to get “their” books in print.

In the last couple of years, my ghosting projects have paid: 

$20,000 for a 60,000-word health book
$15,000 for a 40,000-word business book
$12,000 for a 55,000-word memoir (The book had been written but needed reworking.)
$25,000 for an 80,000-word nutrition/fitness book of which my client wrote about one-third of the manuscript and I wrote the rest

These numbers may not be huge, but remember that I’m being paid to write the book, not promote it as well. Once it’s completed, which typically takes four to six months, I’m done. I can ghostwrite two or three books a year in addition to writing my own books and articles, which makes for a comfortable income.

An informal survey of other writers reveals similar fees. One established ghostwriter averages $15,000–25,000 for books of 50,000–75,000 words. Another just made $12,000 for a 30,000-word book. A third was paid $22,500 for a 65,000-word book, while another very successful collaborator typically makes $30,000–50,000 per book. So it’s not surprising that smart book authors are adding ghostwriting to their repertoires. “I ghostwrite for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the steady stream of revenue,” Marcia Layton Turner says. “I [also] find that, in most cases, ghostwriting is easier than authoring a book myself, because there is less research to be done: The client/author is generally responsible for providing background material or for pointing me in the right direction. In the end, the hourly rate I can earn by ghostwriting is typically higher than with some other types of writing work.”

And despite the perception of the writer toiling away in his lonely garret, many ghosts enjoy working as a team. “Writing tends to be such a solitary endeavor that ghostwriting allows me to collaborate with someone else and help them to bring their book dreams to fruition,” Melanie Votaw says. “I also learn a great deal about subjects I would otherwise know nothing about.”

As I hinted at earlier, another plus to ghosting, especially today, is that you needn’t worry about the size of your platform, or your ability to sell a book once it’s published. If your client is pitching a traditional publisher, only his platform matters—because as the author, he’ll be the one selling the title.

Want to know more about this lucrative field? Read on for a closer look at the skills you need to succeed as a ghostwriter—and at how to break in. You’ll also learn how to market those skills, what to ask potential clients, how to set fees and how to develop an efficient process for completing each project successfully.

Understanding Your Role
The first key to success as a ghostwriter is a clear understanding of your role in the process. Whether you get cover credit or not, you’re writing someone else’s book. That means being able to collaborate, and to set aside your own ideas about how to approach the book if your client disagrees with them. That’s why successful ghostwriters keep their egos in check. You may be writing the words, but the book itself is your client’s. And that means your client has the final say. 

In addition to a collaborative spirit, you’ll need management skills. Depending on the project, you may be responsible for conducting interviews and research and keeping your client on schedule, in addition to writing the book itself. And when it comes to writing, you must be able to structure and organize material and capture your client’s voice.

As a writer, you likely already know something about the publishing industry. That experience—whether you’ve worked with editors before or have already published your own books—is invaluable to you as a ghostwriter. The more you know about publishing, the more you can assist your clients, whether they’re submitting their work or deciding whether to opt for self-publishing or pursue a traditional publishing contract.

Breaking In
Besides celebrities and subject-matter experts, everyday people who want to get books in print but lack time or ability also use ghostwriters in crafting everything from memoirs to novels to how-to guides. Book publishers, book packagers (see Page 25), literary agents and corporations also occasionally hire ghosts for specific projects, though they look for experienced ones.

You basically have two ways of getting ghosting work. The first is to search for posted gigs and go after them. Check sites like Craigslist (craigslist.org), JournalismJobs.com and Freelancedaily.net for listings of possible ghostwriting and co-authoring opportunities.

The second is to proactively spread the word that you’re a ghostwriter to potential clients. Make sure your website and blog specify that you ghostwrite. Mention it in your e-mail signature. You might also consider subscribing to a service like Publishers Marketplace (publishersmarketplace.com, $20/month), where you can promote your services and stay up-to-date on publishing news.

Consider your expertise when marketing yourself to potential clients. For instance, I specialize in writing about health, fitness and nutrition, and almost all of my ghosting work is for professionals in those areas. The idea is to start with what you know and let editors, story sources and colleagues know you’ve added ghostwriting to your repertoire.

I’ve found the best way to approach potential clients is with a letter of introduction, or LOI, describing your qualifications. While it helps to have published at least one book before you start ghosting for others, any experience writing and publishing articles and other shorter pieces can help you pump up your résumé to appeal to prospective clients.

Establishing Parameters 
How you work with a particular client depends on the project, budget and time frame. For example, you may interview your client and write the book from scratch, relying on your notes; your client may write some of the book while you write the rest; or your client may provide you with background material that you use as a starting point. It depends on how much work your client has already done (and is willing to do) and how he prefers to work with you.

That’s why before you take on a project, you should know what the client’s expectations are—and exactly what you’ll be responsible for. “It’s important to know how the information will be given to me—i.e., written notes, interviews or a mixture of the two,” Votaw says. “Interviews take more time, so the cost to the client will be higher in that case. I also like to be given a title or two that are similar to the tone and style the client wants.”

Some clients (like book publishers and agents) will already have a set fee in mind for a project; others will ask you to make a bid. Make sure you know what’s expected of you, how you’ll be working and how long the book will be before you quote a fee. (See the sidebar at right for a list of questions to ask.)

When it comes to how you charge, there are three basic ways—by the hour; by the word or page (e.g., $10/page or $0.25/word); or by the project. Most ghostwriting clients prefer to pay a flat fee for the entire project, which is a big reason you need to know what you’re committing to before you say yes.

What you’ll charge depends on your experience, but an informal 2010 poll found that ghosts were averaging between $10,000 and $50,000 for both fiction and nonfiction books of 50,000–70,000 words. Most charged between $5,000 and $10,000 to write a book proposal. 

As a ghost, you’re in a unique position. You’re not a literary agent, but you may give your client publishing advice, such as whether to pitch to traditional publishers or choose the self-publishing route. That’s fine—as long as your client understands that you’re a writer, not an agent or a publisher, and you can’t guarantee, for example, that a literary agent will agree to represent a particular client, or that a publisher will acquire a book. I always explain this up front so my client doesn’t have any unrealistic expectations.

Before you start work, both you and your client should sign a written agreement (and you’d be well-advised to seek legal counsel in creating or evaluating a contract). At a minimum, it should include a description of the work you’ll be doing (the more specific, the better); how much and when you’ll be paid (e.g., in certain amounts throughout the duration of the project); your deadline; and who will own the copyright to the book (almost always the client).

You may also want to include elements like:

THE DIVISION OF LABOR. Who is responsible for doing what? Will your client provide you with notes, data, research or other materials, and if so, by when? Will you write chapters and then send them to your client for her review?

INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS. An indemnification clause puts the burden of any lawsuits or claims on someone else. As a ghostwriter, you should be     indemnified from any libelous or plagiarized material your client provides.

COVER CREDIT—OR NOT. Are you truly working as a ghostwriter, or as a co-author? For the latter, you should get cover credit.

TERMINATION PROVISIONS. What happens if one of you wants to back out before the book or project
is complete?

EXPENSES AND HOW THEY’LL BE SHARED. What if you have to travel to meet with the client in person? Who will pay for that? Who is responsible for other expenses?

A CONFIDENTIALITY CLAUSE. Many clients will ask for a nondisclosure agreement.

Getting the Job Done
With signed contract in hand, you’re ready to get to work. If your client hasn’t created an outline already, that’s your first step. Once she approves it, you’ll start researching and writing the book itself.

How you proceed depends on the project and the client. “In most cases, especially if we’re starting from scratch, I have found that the client prefers as much face time with me as possible as we ‘talk out’ their story and get it on tape or paper,” says Ed Robertson, a ghostwriter and collaborative writer. “Once the story is ‘out of their head,’ so to speak, and I start the ‘sitting down and writing’ part, follow-up correspondence via phone or e-mail is usually sufficient.”

But everyone is different. I usually don’t meet my ghostwriting clients in person. We speak by phone, and then work through e-mail. I ask my client for his thoughts about the upcoming chapter, do any necessary research, and then send the chapter to my client for his review. The Track Changes function in Microsoft Word enables me to review the client’s edits or comments when he returns it to me.

“TK,” a publishing term that means “to come,” can be another timesaver. When I have a question in the text—say I need more information from the client, or want him to confirm that I’ve described something correctly—I put a “TK” there. That’s an easy way to draw attention to the relevant section, and I instruct clients to do the same thing with edits they want me to double-check. You then can use your word processor’s Find function to search for “TK” and locate all the unresolved issues at once.

Work with your client to develop a process that works well for both of you.

Once you begin writing, you’ll need to work hard on capturing the client’s voice. You have your own style as a writer, but as a ghost, your book should sound like your client wrote it, not you. “I see myself as the vessel through which the author or expert tells his or her story in the way they would like it told,” Robertson says. “For me, that begins and ends with listening.”

As you listen, note the words and phrases your client uses frequently. Does he speak in short, abrupt sentences or longer, more complex ones? Does he pepper his speech with industry jargon or tell “war stories”? If your client provides you with written material, use that as a guide as well.

Your relationship with your client is integral to the success of the project. I suggest you have your client approve chapters as you write them. If he requests minor changes, you can simply make them and move on. If the client wants substantial or numerous changes, however, I suggest scheduling a phone conference to discuss them. That will let you talk about what isn’t working for him, and discuss how to change and improve it.

What happens if your client is unhappy with much of what you’ve written or wants to take a different approach? “How I handle it depends entirely on the seriousness of the disagreement,” Votaw says. “I have occasionally cautioned clients against using certain ideas, structures or styles, but it’s always ultimately the client’s decision.”

Once all of the chapters are completed (or the sections of the book proposal are written) and approved, create one “master” document that includes everything—the final draft—and send it to your client for one last review. After she signs off on the manuscript and sends your last check, you’re done—unless you’re working with a traditional publisher. Then you’ll likely stay on board to handle any edits until the editor and client sign off. 

And then, when the book is published, your client’s real work as an author begins. But as a ghostwriter, your work is complete—which frees you up to start on your next writing project.

Not sure how to get your ghostwriting career started? Consider:
Ghostwriting: How to Turn it Into a Lucrative Career

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