When do you need to hire a ghostwriter?
by Sera James
A ghostwriter is a professional author who is contracted and paid to furnish a client with a complete manuscript of publishable quality. The majority of patronage a ghostwriter will see falls into the categories of craft stories (such as an anecdotal book about the ins and outs of training different breeds of dog), memoir (the story of a real life, often collected through a process of recorded interviews and other forms of research), and fiction (such as the unfinished novel percolating on the backburner one year too many). Due to the importance of an eloquent business persona, it’s also possible to contract a ghostwriter for anything from a LinkedIn profile to a cover letter.
- Do you need a ghostwriter?
That is a personal decision. Clients are people who want to have a book written, but for one reason or another, lack a certain tool which allows them to get that job done. A better question might be, “Can I write this book alone?” That having been said, writing a book is a unique kind of beast. It requires absolute solitude, hours of effort, a surprising amount of research (for fiction too), and a palette of literary savvy (with a dash of technique). Not everyone can invest to that degree, but that doesn’t mean they can’t publish their book. In fact, 80% of the non-fiction at your local bookstore (if you’re lucky enough to have one) is ghostwritten.
- How does the credit work?
Ghostwriters operate on incredibly flexible contracts which vary from one client to the next. Some clients keep their ghostwriters on the by-line as an editor or a co-author, and some demand such discretion from their ghostwriters that they are legally bound to never mention their full names. Most clients fall somewhere in the middle, maintaining their own by-line while allowing for samples to appear in the author portfolio.
- How much does it cost?
Like any other service or product, the scale can range from “basically free” to “insanely expensive,” and the same rules generally apply as would with the purchase of a car. A manuscript worth a pittance will probably collapse in on itself the first time you take it for a spin, whereas something worth an arm and a leg will come with a sophisticated and ironclad pedigree, like a New York Times bestselling portfolio. Going on with the car analogy, there is an average market value. For a ghostwriter, that value (for a manuscript of roughly 150 pages) starts at $12,000 – $20,000, or a minimum of twenty-five cents per word. (In Canada, the mandatory minimum fee for a ghostwritten manuscript is $25,000. Did I consider relocating? Maybe…) You can find the “same” services online for a few hundred dollars from unverified freelancers, like on Upwork, Guru, or Outsource, but they almost never brandish a contract and have no paper trail to follow, should they disappear. As with Craigslist “deals,” the Internet is replete with tales of scam artists, and my advice would be to exercise extreme caution dealing with someone who could delete their profile and vanish with no documentation of the exchange or their identity.
You’ll also find companies which represent professional ghostwriters, as well as freelance ghostwriters like myself. Some of these websites use scare tactics to make themselves seem more secure, including things like “plagiarism insurance” or a “vanishing clause,” as if other contracts won’t. They note that you will approve every word of the manuscript, as if other ghostwriters don’t. It’s just a sales trick. All you need from your ghostwriter is verifiable credentials, samples, and identity, a solid contract (which should automatically protect against plagiarism and “vanishing”), and steady communication, whether it comes from a company or an individual, so don’t let Fancy Name, Inc. scare you into paying twice as much. As long as you’re on contract with a real person, you’re safe. What it comes down to is personality (do you WANT to talk to this person for an hour or two every week?), credentials (can they prove what they’ve accomplished, such as their degree?), rates (am I paying top dollar for someone just as good as Shayn?), and most importantly, contract. That contract is what will protect you from the slight risk involved in the exchange of money and ideas.
- How do you typically begin a relationship with a ghostwriter?
Start off doing your research. There are many individual sites like this one, showcasing portfolios and offering consultations. Figure out your budget, because most have a bottom line for which they work. Initiate contact. Look for someone who is communicative and prompt, because their approach to their inbox is the same approach they will give to your phone calls. Expect perfect grammar!
During the early stages, you’ll scratch out a timeline and an agreeable rate. You’ll sign a contract before any work begins. Be wary of a ghostwriter who does not want to be contracted immediately. Those contracts are a safe-guard to both of you. They need to be legally bound to this project. Ensure that the contract states as much. When you sign, there’s a typical advance of a certain percentage (20-30). Mine is 25%. There will also be an agreed-upon number of drafts and revisions. This is to protect you both from being caught in some infinite loop of drafts. I revise twice. Contracts define milestones at which to review the manuscript and exchange payment, and there is another percentage due upon final delivery.
Sharing royalties is not unheard of, but it is rare. Most ghostwriters work for a flat fee, and expect nothing more upon completion of the contract. This is a benefit to both of you. Although some business relationships develop into enduring friendships, most of us don’t want to be financially tied to anyone, even our friends, forever.
- How long does this all take?
The entire process ranges from three to six months on average, though some manuscripts (like Hilary Clinton’s latest work) can last over a year. Most ghostwriters figure the project length into the cost, with less expensive projects being shorter.
- Is there any guarantee of publication?
No, but some ghostwriters offer additional services, such as referrals to particular agencies or connections to a publishing house. These are figured into their market value as well. Remember that a ghostwriter is contracted to produce a complete work of publishable quality. Many have some experience in publishing, but it’s not a part of the average job to follow-up with the manuscript’s submissions, and even though many of us know publishers, there’s no guarantee that the house is currently open, or a good fit, for the work in question.
Considering the simplicity of e-publishing, many clients can invest a small amount of time into marketing and/or a sale to turn the expense of the ghostwriter into a profit for themselves. One client of mine went on to the Kindle Top 100, and easily reimbursed herself all my costs within two weeks. Still other clients want nothing more than a hardcopy of their family’s oral history.
- What should I be looking for?
As with everything in life, the most important factor is the fit, and I don’t mean financially or in scheduling. Look first for qualifications: a relevant degree, and/or track record of publications. Verify their identity. Trust is important when you’re dealing with thousands of dollars and your great untold story. Then, during your contact and consultation, get a feel for their personality. A firm atheist might struggle with sincerity while they tell the story of a devout preacher finding God. Might. A good writer should be able to tell any tale well, but as a client, I would prefer an empathetic ghostwriter. If my tale focused on the trials of my relationships, I’d be more likely to select a female writer. On the other hand, it may be the writer who ultimately refuses the project. I’ve known ghostwriters to reject projects which cover material too violent or depressing, such as stories in the true crime genre.
So, to summarize: ask yourself if you can write the book alone. If not, research your options. Do you just need a coach to structure you, an editor for the first half of a book and ghostwriter for the second, or a complete creative face-lift to an old, old idea? Like I said, ghostwriters are flexible. Some clients dictate their own notes while others e-mail an outline and say, “Call me when it’s ready.” Then, determine your budget. A few hundred dollars will not secure a professional ghostwriter. Many even reject several thousand, so understand that this will be a serious investment. Schedule a consultation and secure yourself with a thorough and immediate contract. Then, in a few months, you should be the proud author of your very own book!