The Horrors of Being a Ghost: Ghostwriters Share Their Tales of Nightmare Clients

Gotham Ghostwriters’ Dan Gerstein reveals how writers can spot nightmare ghostwriting clients and take steps to avoid them when seeking work.
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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Writer's Digest magazine, themed “Villains.” This issue includes advice to help writers write better villains in memoir, thrillers, film, and everything in between, plus a WD Interview with bestselling author Susan Orlean.

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Gotham Ghostwriters’ Dan Gerstein reveals how writers can spot nightmare ghostwriting clients and take steps to avoid them when seeking work.

By Dan Gerstein

One of the first things fledgling ghostwriters learn about their job is how similar it is to dating. It can get very intimate very quickly—authors often share their deepest secrets with their collaborators within weeks of meeting. It usually involves ongoing negotiation—from deal points through communication styles. And clients will inevitably carry some emotional baggage into the relationship—from deep-seated insecurities, to professional or familial strains, to a scarring experience with a prior partner.

Most engagements are professional and productive. Many turn into lasting relationships, some even lifelong friendships. But much like dating today, almost every ghost pro will have at least one horror story to recount if asked. They come in many scenarios—clients who were emotionally and editorially unavailable, bombarded their ghosts with texts at all hours or ghosted their ghost (typically without pay). Most of these stories have two common threads: They tend to happen early in a ghost’s career, and there were clear red flags about the client that—much like in the early days of a romantic relationship—the ghosts were blind to because of the client’s charm, fame or wallet.

What makes this hazard challenging for new ghosts to navigate is the confidential ethos of the field. As with Fight Club, the rules of Ghost World discourage talking about what happens in Ghost World—even the clients who put a beating on you. This is one big difference between dating and collaborating: there are not dozens of websites like DontDateHimGirl.com that tell you how to spot an asshole client or call them out by name. As a result, this is a rite of passage that too many ghosts have to suffer through on their own.

To help remedy this situation, I asked my agency’s network of 2,400+ ghostwriters to share their ugliest experiences and the lessons learned. Here are the worst hits and best tips in spotting, handling and ideally avoiding difficult clients.

The Polygamist

One problematic situation ghosts encounter is the author who insists on bringing other partners into the relationship as a reader and critic. Sometimes it’s a threesome with a spouse. Sometimes it gets truly polyamorous, with multiple friends with too many benefits involved. Most times it leads to a mess. 

Marlayna Glynn says that after going through a trying conceptual evolution with a client, the author shared the second version of the manuscript Glynn produced with several friends, including some named in the book. It turns out ‘friends’ don't always like the way they are portrayed. The client took all their friends’ criticism to heart, regardless of its merit, and cited the friends’ negative feedback in terminating the relationship.

PRO TIP: To prevent disaster by committee, get to know the client’s inner circle before committing and assess if there is a meddling spouse or business partner looming. Then set boundaries in the contract. “I am very forthright now that the writing and editing process is between me and the client only,” Glynn advises. “I will not make any changes requested by anyone I am not contracted with in writing.”

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The Uncommitted

Another problematic profile is the author who is ambivalent about the project—or even worse, totally absent. More than one of our ghosts relayed stories of clients never reading the manuscript draft before it was submitted to the editor or, in one case, after it was published. This lack of availability can cause major headaches for the ghost. Sometimes in can threaten a publishing deal. Bronwyn Fryer says she collaborated with a medical doctor who went MIA for five months during the writing process, without one word of feedback on the drafts submitted. It turned out her client had serious medical problems involving an organ transplant, which the ghost never knew. Fryer eventually needed three extensions on the project and had to pen innumerable drafts.

Other times, it can cost the ghost serious money. To win his first big client – a chairman of a federal agency—Oren Rawls agreed to take only $1,000 up front and get paid upon delivering chapter drafts. He poured in more than 100 hours of prep work. But after Rawls turned in the first chapter, the Chairman disengaged without much explanation. Rawls spent months chasing him down and later found out that the client had been investigated for financial malfeasance. “The lesson learned (at $4.08 an hour): No matter how important a client may be to your business, never work too far ahead of your last check.”

PRO TIP: Be discriminating up front. “I’m happy to work with anyone honorable in any way that makes them comfortable,” Fryer says, “but if he/she isn’t an ethical, respectful person, I don’t want to be part of it.” Make sure the contract and/or work plan you start with spells out the client’s obligations and deadlines, with clear consequences for violating them.

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The “Should Be” Committed

The most dangerous authors are the ones that would be considered “psychos” in the dating world. They run the gamut from erratic, unreasonable, dishonest, paranoid and abusive. Here are a few of the more illustrative examples our writers shared:

Early in Louise Bernikow’s career, she was hired by a therapist and her patient who wanted to write a book together about the patient's journey to healing. Bernikow received her standard 10-hour retainer up front. The therapist then sent all her session notes in three huge binders, but never agreed to meet and discuss the project, and neither she nor the patient answered email or phone calls. “They really expected me to turn those binders into a finished book,” Bernikow related. When Bernikow explained why that wasn’t possible, the client sued her for the retainer. A lawyer friend eventually got the suit dropped. 

PRO TIP: Clarify expectations on obligations up front. Spell out what you will do and what the client will do and when. And be sure to include a timetable and any other appropriate details.

Justine Duhr’s nightmare happened during the negotiating phase with a client who strung her and her agency team along for months, haggling over every line of the contract. Over time his behavior grew more alarming, leaving voicemails in the middle of the night demanding to know why the ghost wasn’t picking up the phone, and sending 3 a.m. emails full of questions and commands, with angry 3:15 a.m. follow-ups wondering why we hadn't yet replied. He asked for new services to be added to the scope for no extra money. In the end, the client signed the agreement and submitted his first payment, only to demand a refund and threaten a lawsuit less than 12 hours later. He had changed his mind about writing the book.

PRO-TIP: If it talks like a schmuck and walks like a schmuck, it probably is. So heed the warning signs. “Sometimes for our sanity's sake it's best to say thanks but no thanks,” Duhr said.

Cliff Carle recalls getting hired to help a client pump up a thriller that was, Carle says, “devoid of thrills.” Carle returned a reworked manuscript that followed the client’s instructions to a T. The next day, the client called him screaming because he mistakenly thought he had only asked for line edits. Carle had the smart idea to ask an independent editor of the client’s choosing to arbitrate. The editor told the client that Carle’s version “greatly enhanced the story.” The client responded with an explosion of profanities, telling Carle he was a hack and “you’ll never make it in this business.” 

PRO TIP: To avoid misunderstandings, especially on editing jobs, get the client to provide specific guidance in writing on exactly what they want done. Have an early opt-out clause in your standard contract, Carle advises, “whereby if you can't see eye-to-eye, you can bail, but still get paid for the work you've done.”

The Common Enemy

John Kador had his share of projects blow up because of unreasonable clients. “But there was only one common element among all those disasters: me,” Kador says. 

“Clients, like boyfriends and girlfriends, will always show you who they are. The hard part is believing them when you’re desperate,” Kador added. “As I look back on the mishaps, I can see that in every case I had hesitations about the project and went ahead anyway. The key to protecting myself is to have good policies and stick with them. The power of a policy lies in protecting me from fear and seduction.”

Kador’s most hard and fast rule is meeting in person before doing a deal. This will add time and cost, but the payoff is worth it. “Pay for the trip out of pocket if you have to,” he says. “Most upstanding clients will agree to reimburse you. If a potential client can’t get it together to meet with you, walk away and consider yourself lucky.”

About the Author

 Dan Gerstein

Dan Gerstein

Dan Gerstein is the founder and CEO of Gotham Ghostwriters, and a nationally recognized political writer, communications strategist, and idea man who has been writing professionally for himself and others for 25 years. A graduate of Harvard College, Gerstein got his start in collaborative writing and thought leadership development as a speechwriter and policy advisor on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman from his home state of Connecticut. He went on to serve as a senior advisor and communications strategist for Lieberman in his vice-presidential and presidential campaigns.

Since forming Gotham Ghostwriters, Gerstein has become one of the country’s top experts on the ghostwriting market and a sought-after source for industry conferences and news articles. He is also a nationally-recognized leader in the speechwriting field, co-founding the Professional Speechwriters Association. Follow Dan on Twitter @dangerstein.