What is a ghost writer?

A ghostwriter collaborates with an author/client to write a book based on the vision, ideas, and voice of the client. The ghostwriter does the research and writing and the client publishes the book in his or her own name. The client retains the copyright—you’re paying, so you own the rights to the work! Generally, the ghostwriter is not credited as an author (hence the term “ghostwriter”), though in some cases the client and ghostwriter agree to share author credit.

Why use a ghostwriter?

There are two main reasons to use a ghostwriter: to leverage the ghostwriter’s skill, and to save yourself time.

First, ghostwriters are, obviously, professional wordsmiths. They have spent their lives mastering their craft. Writing a book is a complex skill that involves a lot more than just ordering words on the page in an appealing and logical fashion. Book writers must be adept at structuring the story (if fiction or memoir), honing the thesis (for nonfiction, self-help, and other genres), and organizing the content. You must know what to leave in, and what to omit, and you should also have an understanding of the book market and reader taste, even if you’re just self-publishing for a limited audience of friends and family.

Writing a book is not easy and writing a book well, much less one that has a shot at getting published or creating buzz.

If you’re not a trained mechanic, you probably wouldn’t try to replace your car’s brake pads yourself. And if you found yourself pitted in a high-stakes civil trial, you’d likely enlist an attorney’s help in lieu of representing yourself. Book writing is like any other professional service: if you want it done right, hire an expert!

The second reason is time. Hiring a ghostwriter compresses the 100-200 hours it takes to write a book into a time commitment (for the client) of just 20-30 hours. So even if you happen to be a proficient writer, it is advantageous to have a ghostwriter do the heavy lifting. Even bestselling authors sometimes use ghostwriters, not because they can’t write, but because they can maximize their time and boost their “production” with the help of others.

If your supply of money significantly outstrips your supply of time, you’re probably a good candidate for ghostwriting.

How does ghostwriting work?

First, the writer and client will sign an agreement stipulating the terms, including guarantees of confidentiality for the client and stating that the client owns the intellectual property.

The next steps depend on how far along the author/client is in the book writing process, and how fully formed are their ideas. Most of my clients are starting from scratch, with just a general idea of what they want to write about. But some clients come to me with a completed outline or even a half-finished manuscript. In that case, I’ll read what they’ve written so far and assess whether it provides a strong foundation or whether we need to start over.

Next, a few hours of “book planning” ensue, during which we discuss the main ideas or story, the client’s vision and goals, i.e. the real-life results they seek—publication, profit, glory, creative expression, establishing themselves as a thought leader, leaving a legacy for friends and family? All are valid reasons for writing a book.

During the book planning sessions, we also outline the book, chapter by chapter. This serves as the “book plan” which guides the remainder of the project.

Once the book plan is in place, the ghostwriter will gather material for the book, which in most cases is based on interviews between writer and client, spread over several months. The interviews may be supplemented by outside research, including interviewing other individuals or combing through magazine articles, journals, the client’s own notes and documents, and other sources.

The ghostwriter takes the interview notes and other source material and pens a draft, usually a few chapters at a time, and submits that draft for the client’s review. The client makes notes, gives feedback, and puts in revision requests to ensure that the content and, importantly, the voice and style accord with their vision.

Basically, as the client, you can be assured that your ghostwriter is producing work to your satisfaction, not merely disappearing for four months with some interview transcripts and re-emerging, like a bear coming out of hibernation, with a finished manuscript that you may or may not like.

The whole process takes anywhere from three to twelve months. The timeline depends partly on the ghostwriter’s availability but more on the availability of the client to commit to interviews and reading drafts. With my clients I aim for four to six months.

How much does a ghostwriter cost?

Expect to pay between $25,000 and $75,000 for a book. That range encompasses the “average” of what a qualified ghostwriter will charge for a complete manuscript.

You will find many outliers above and below that range, but be wary of any ghostwriter who charges under $20,000 for a book, and definitely avoid a writer willing to do it for less than $10,000. Almost invariably, they are undercharging because they are not qualified, not because you have found a hidden gem in the bargain bin of the internet.

Most ghostwriters charge a flat fee for the project up to a certain number of words; some charge by the page or word. I don’t like charging by page because what, exactly, is a page? It varies greatly by font type, size, spacing, and dimensions of the page, so it’s just confusing. A per-word rate is objective because the software tells you exactly how many words are in the doc.

Less common is charging by the hour.

Furthermore, expect that this fee will be “up front” rather than some form of deferred compensation or sharing of future royalties. A well written book, especially business books, can certainly earn back its expense, but more often in the form of less quantifiable benefits such as authority building, enhancing the authors’ reputation, and winning new clients rather than book sales. I would only consider a royalty sharing agreement in lieu of up front compensation if the client already has a deal in place with a Big Four publisher, had a track record of publishing bestsellers, or wields a very large platform (for example, millions of followers on social media or other mass media access that position them for big sales numbers.)

Yes, quality ghostwriting is not cheap. View it as an investment. For business books, the book is likely to pay for itself. If it’s a passion project (a novel, a memoir) that isn’t produced primarily for economic reasons, it is harder to earn back your investment from book sales alone (though it is certainly possible). However, even then, consider it a “lifetime investment,” something you can hold on to, be proud of, share with friends and family forever. It becomes your legacy.

Many people express a wish to write a book; fewer actually start it; even fewer finish it; and vanishingly few write a good one. Hiring a ghostwriter enables you to join the elite ranks of people who have authored a well written book. It’s a lifetime achievement worth the expense.

How to hire a ghostwriter

1. Vet Them

Look at their bio and CV, review their testimonials, scrutinize their website and LinkedIn, etc. Ghostwriters are often bound by confidentiality agreements that prevent them from revealing certain of their clients but some clients are less finicky about anonymity and grant the ghostwriter permission to divulge, at least privately, the titles they have worked on. Beware any ghostwriter who tells you, “I’ve written many books but I can’t name a single one, you just have to trust me.”

Therefore, a qualified ghostwriter will always have feedback from past clients who can vouch for the writer. Testimonials really only count if the client is identified by first name. Glowing feedback from “Steve S.”, “Christina J.”, or other semi-anonymous mystery people aren’t worth much. They’re too easy to fabricate.

There is no real barrier to entry into working as a ghostwriter; anyway can throw together a website and slap the “ghostwriter” label on their LinkedIn. The majority are scrupulous professionals with excellent writing chops, but many are in fact poor writers—probably people who took an expensive course in “how to become a ghostwriter” that convinced them they’re qualified (when they’re not), or are just looking for an easy path to a work-from-home career by fleecing unsuspecting clients. And believe me, if your ghostwriter is willing to write a 60,000-word book for five grand, you’re getting fleeced.

Needless to say, avoid ghostwriters with a poor command of English. They are more numerous than you think. You can usually find them hanging out on shady Facebook groups for “ghostwriters,” bottom-feeding in search of naïve clients.

2. Review the ghostwriter’s writing samples.

Clients infrequently do this, which is a shame because what better way to gauge their skills than examining their work? Every ghostwriter should have at least 3-5 excerpts from past works that demonstrate not only that they can write but that they excel in different voices, genres, types of book, etc.

3. Do you want a generalist or a specialist?

Most ghostwriters are generalists, adept at writing on a range of topics and genres. I’ve penned memoirs, business books, self-help, and other works, for a wide range of individuals, and my screenwriting work has honed my fictional storytelling skills, so I have broad expertise. Although most of my experience is in business books and memoirs, I still consider myself a generalist.Some ghostwriters operate in a specific niche. They might only do memoirs. Or self-help books.

Some business book ghostwriters might specialize in a certain industry.

I’d suggest interviewing a couple generalists and a couple specialists, if you can find specialists who offer what you’re looking for.

4. Schedule a 15-30 minute call to discuss your ideas, your needs, and get a feel for the writer.

You can find out a lot about a writer, their demeanor, and their qualifications in 15-30 minutes. During the initial consult, you can discuss your ideas for the book, and ask about the ghostwriter’s unique experience and their process.

Don’t expect ghostwriters to offer longer consultations (beyond a half hour) for free. In fact, if you want to explore the relationship more thoroughly, or discuss your book ideas in more depth before committing, consider paying for an hour of the writer’s time. It might cost $100-300, but this will give you a greater opportunity to feel them out and you’ll earn their trust by showing that you respect the value of their time and that you are serious about your project.

5. Find someone whom you get along with on a personal level.

It’s not just about their writing skills—you should trust them and enjoy working with them. You’ll be spending a couple dozen hours speaking to the ghostwriter as your book is developed, and depending on the subject matter of your book, you may be discussing personal things.

6. Working over the phone/Zoom or in person?

Most ghostwriters work remotely for clients all over the country or world so the usual means of communication is phone/email/Zoom. This works well, and in my view, a face to face engagement, beyond an hour or two past the initial meeting, is not necessary. That said, there are benefits to in-person interaction, especially because, as I mentioned, you’ll be spending 10-20 hours being interviewed by your writer. So if you prefer the intimacy and connection of face-to-face collaboration, look for a writer who works locally. Some ghostwriters are willing to travel long distances to meet clients but this extra demand on their time will likely merit a much higher fee.

7. Freelancer vs. agency?

As you search for a ghostwriter, you’ll encounter both agencies/companies and freelancers. There are pros and cons to both. But you get the most bang for your buck if you hire an independent writer.

Ghostwriting agencies (or self-publishing companies that offer ghostwriting services) operate on the following business model: they charge high fees (usually starting in the mid-five figures and going up to $100,000 or more), then subcontractor a ghostwriter (sometimes excellent but often of middling quality) a small fraction of their fee to write the book. Sometimes you’ll be able to choose your writer among a pool of several candidates at the agency; other times you’ll merely be assigned an anonymous writer (avoid!). Some agencies compensate their ghostwriters well; others pay peanuts. And the best writers are not working for peanuts, so you’re left with the dregs.

If you hire a freelancer, however, you “cut out the middle man” and contract with the writer directly, which means you get the same service you would with an agency but for much less money.

Ghostwriting/publishing companies can function more like book factories than editorial specialists adhering to a high standard: churning out book after book with little regard for quality, hiring freelancers and editors who are probably earning below the market rate for their work and thus might be underqualified.

Some agencies do offer other benefits. They may provide a small editorial team in addition to the writer that usually consists of a project manager, an editor, sometimes a senior editor as well. However, not to discount the role of a qualified editor, but the ghostwriter accounts for 80-90% of the quality of the work, so everything else is secondary. And in my experience, the “editorial team” touted by the big ghostwriting/publishing companies are just window dressing. The value you get is generally not worth the extra cost you pay for this team.

Agencies might offer a full range of editorial and publication services (such as cover design, layout/typesetting, marketing) that freelancers don’t have, but again, you pay a lot for these add-ons.

Sometimes the larger size of agencies can actually work against your interests. They can be more bureaucratic, slower, and inefficient. A one-man shop or a small team is more agile and often more attentive to customer service.

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