It may seem like a minor miracle that athletes, actors, and other celebrities find time in their hectic schedules to also write bestselling books. In fact, it can be downright daunting to think that a single person can be such a multi-talented multi-tasker.
But the story behind the story just might be that the author had a little help. In fact, it was probably a lot of help. By some estimates, as many as 60 percent of the nonfiction books on bestsellers lists are ghostwritten.
As a ghostwriter of nearly two dozen books, I’m often asked what exactly the job title means. To which I reply: “I get paid to write other people’s stories, and they get the credit for my work.” Many of my clients are actually decent writers, but their busy schedules don’t allow for them to write a book, speech, or magazine column. A recent client hired me to write a single chapter of her book, simply because her publisher’s deadline was right around the corner and the material required more research than she originally anticipated.
If you’re considering hiring a ghostwriter for the first time, you’ll want to keep the following in mind.
Understand your editorial needs
It’s not just books that get ghostwritten. I’ve been hired by entrepreneurs, billionaires, and celebrities to ghostwrite everything from blog posts to magazine articles. In most of these cases, the CEOs and entrepreneurs sought a ghostwriter as a means of building their brands, rather than of lining their bookshelves with literary awards. That’s why knowing why you want to write can be just as important as what you want to write about. So relay that reason to any prospective ghosts you might hire.
Also consider the different tasks that might fall to the ghostwriter. If there’s a great deal of research involved, you’ll need someone who can do more than punch out pretty prose.
For those of you lucky enough to already have a contract with a big-name publishing house, you most likely already have a lot of resources available to you, including copy editors. So even if grammar and punctuation aren’t the ghost’s forte, those skills won’t be as important for you as they would for someone who’s self-publishing.
Consider the chemistry
When it comes to the client/ghostwriter relationship, it all boils down to chemistry. This doesn’t mean you have to be BFFs and share wardrobes. But it does mean there has to be a certain degree of comfort and trust, particularly if your project is of a personal nature, such as an autobiography, that requires you to be completely open with the ghost.
That trust goes well beyond discretion with sensitive material. You need to feel that the ghostwriter understands you and can reproduce your unique voice in the writing. This can be a difficult skill to master, so be sure to test-drive your ghost with some short-form assignments before committing to a long-term project.
Also keep in mind that, because of the confidential nature of the ghostwriting industry, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) might make it difficult, if not impossible, for a prospective ghostwriter to provide references or writing samples. I’ve been fortunate that the first half dozen books I ghostwrote were (I’m not kidding) for a ghostwriter, so I’ve been able to use him as a reference with potential clients. Although he is unable to say which specific books I’ve written, he can at least attest to my professionalism, work ethic, and the ability to write on topics as diverse as sports, politics, and Jewish mysticism. Most ghostwriters would be lucky to be able to disclose the genres they’ve worked on, so don’t assume they’re being cagey if they won’t provide references or samples. It’s probably not that they won’t, they legally can’t.
Understand your time commitment
Just because you hire a ghostwriter doesn’t mean you don’t have to commit any time to the project. A ghostwriter is merely taking your ideas and putting them to paper (or pixel, as the case may be). That means you still have to determine the best way to download that info to your ghost, which is most often done through interviews and the sharing of documents. You also need to make time to review the written material to ensure it’s accurate and aligns with your ideals and voice. The revision process alone can require a good deal of review time on your part.
Let me give you some examples. For some projects, I set up regular client calls, which are recorded while I interview them to make sure I understand their angle on the topic. Another client of mine, whose business is highly technical, loves to multi-task, so while he’s running errands or sitting in traffic, he records his latest idea for a blog post, sends the file to a transcriber, and then sends the transcription to me.
In each case, I then take the transcription and turn the stream-of-consciousness conversation into a piece that is coherent and accessible. The client then reviews the draft and provides feedback, which might necessitate another editorial pass. Usually two drafts are all that’s needed, unless it’s a particularly sticky topic, but even the simplest subjects require a time commitment from the client. The good news is that it’s far less time than if you were writing the piece yourself.
Rates for ghostwriters
Most ghosts, particularly those who have earned a name in the business, charge a flat fee, which generally includes the gathering of material, writing the manuscript, and a set number of revisions. Others, myself included, charge hourly rates. I do so because I’ve found that a flat rate can scare off potential clients, particularly since I pad the rate in case the project ends up being more time-consuming than expected. So I view an hourly rate as more beneficial — and honest — for both the client and me.
Ghostwriting rates vary just as much as rates for freelance writers but are often higher due to the fact the writer doesn’t get credit for the work. That means they can’t use it in their portfolio or even as a confidential sample of their work for future clients.
Most seasoned ghostwriters who bill flat rates will charge a minimum of $25,000 for a 200-page book. A colleague of mine, who has ghostwritten more than 70 books, now charges a minimum of six figures, and the most sought-after ghosts in the industry can command three times that. Hourly rates can range from $50 to $400+. It all depends on the ghost’s experience — and how in demand they are.
Ghostwriter or co-author?
If your budget doesn’t allow for a ghostwriter, consider hiring a co-author, which can cost considerably less. Even though the two essentially perform the same job (i.e., transforming your burgeoning ideas into literary glory), a co-author gets the benefit of having their name on the finished work, often in the form of a “with” credit on the cover. And that credit has value, which the writer might be willing to bargain for.
So weigh how much it means to have your name — and solely your name — on your work. But also consider whether or not your personal brand might be diminished if you had to share the limelight. If you’re open to sharing the credit, you might be able to save a chunk of change by upgrading your ghostwriter to a co-author.