How to Hire a Ghostwriter
(This article is based on having been a ghostwriter for years. Today I still write speeches for clients, but not books because I don't have time for them.)
When you're interested in hiring a ghostwriter to produce a book for you, you're looking at a big investment. It might not be on the scale of buying a home, but it usually is on the scale of buying a car. And while there are plenty of guides on buying cars, there aren't many on hiring ghosts.
No one expects you to know how to successfully hire a ghostwriter on your own the first time around, so the aim of this page is to help you choose your ghost wisely. To invest wisely. Taking this process slowly and perhaps with this guidance can help to save you big bucks ... and big headaches.
NOTE: While a ghostwriter can write just about anything for you, the purpose of this page is to focus on hiring a ghost to write a BOOK for you.
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What is a Ghostwriter?
A ghostwriter is someone who will help you put your ideas onto paper, usually without being acknowledged for his work. (Hence the term “ghost” — he is invisible.)
Technically, that is the whole definition. There is no inherent guarantee that this person will write well — even that this person will write better than you. (Though there is certainly that implication.)
A GOOD ghostwriter, however, will:
* help to pull from you all the important ideas and facts that need to go into your book
* help to organize these ideas and facts
* research additional information as necessary
* and put all of this together not only with sound writing, but with MARKETABLE writing as well. (This can include the writing style as well as the general structure of the book, for instance.)
Note that this means YOU are still the author of the book, for you are the one behind the idea, and you’re the one with the final say on everything in the book. The writer is simply the tool you use to make your ideas readable and marketable.
Why Hire a Ghostwriter?
The latest stat I’ve seen is that about 120,000 books are published in the U.S. every year. (Many of those are self-published.) Although it’s impossible to nail down how many of these are assisted by a ghostwriter, estimates suggest that ghosts are involved in around 50,000.
That means that people could be investing half a billion dollars a year or more in ghostwriting. Why would so many people think this service so valuable?
Two reasons: First, a GOOD ghostwriter will save you time, and a lot of it. Plenty of people put a premium on their time, and even if they can write well, they have other things that need to be done. The ghost can get the bulk of work done and brought to you simply for approval and revision requests.
Second, many people recognize that they’ve got good ideas and/or sound expertise for the basis of a book, but they haven’t got the skills to turn the book into something really marketable. Do you really want to put months into writing a book, only to have it soundly rejected when you go to getting it published?
Granted, a ghost cannot guarantee that his work will get published; but again, if you hire a good one, you will probably greatly improve your chances, and that’s what this investment is all about. (Or you're planning to self-publish the best book you can.)
Before Hiring: Marketability
Before investing a lot of money in a manuscript, it’s important to know how marketable the idea is. The only exception is that you may be putting the book together as a gift or family history, and money is not an object for you.
Now, it’s possible that you are capable of really standing back from your book and knowing its marketability on your own. A lot of people, though, are so close to the idea, having some outside input OR doing some thorough research can really help out.
One way to determine marketability is to see what’s out there and to observe developing trends. When “Harry Potter” sold like crazy, people started writing all sorts of books — both fiction and non-fiction — dealing with related themes or issues. If you can research what movies Hollywood’s working on, you might develop a title that would relate to any sure blockbuster.
Of course if you want to write on a single topic — for instance, something related to your business or expertise — then you can check out what’s already being sold. See if you can find out what kind of sales these books have had, and see how your book would be different. (Differentiation can be important when selling your book to a publisher, even while connecting to popular trends helps to mitigate risk; it's a balancing act!)
There are also resources online like WordTracker.com that can help you estimate popularity of a topic. And of course you can check out Amazon.com to find out their sales ranks for any title.
Getting Outside Input:
Getting an outsider's opinion is useful too, but don't head forward just because a friend or family members says, “You should write a book.” Ask plenty of people, especially those you can trust to give hard and honest feedback.
If you don't personally know people like this, make sure to talk with your ghostwriter about marketability (as described in an up-coming section of this page). If your ghostwriter hasn’t got a clue of what you’re talking about, RUN.
Before Hiring: Spec Writing
Another thing to know about before hiring a ghostwriter is the term “writing on spec.” This is short for “writing on speculation.” In short, if you’re asking a writer to work for you for a percentage of profits from the book, you’re asking him to write on spec. He is speculating — gambling — that the book will sell so well that he will make enough money to have invested his time.
Although you may be able to find a ghost who agrees to this scenario, let me put it in another perspective that will help you to understand the writer.
Would YOU agree to any start-up company who said this? "Please come to work for us for the next 4 months without any pay. If we make any profits, then we’ll share some with you."
Keep in mind that something like 9 out of 10 businesses fail, and of those that succeed, few make enormous profits. Are you prepared to work for 4 months for an unproven business without compensation? Do you have some other way to pay the bills along the way?
If you agreed to this and the company was Microsoft, you might do very well, but the ODDS are low. So, MOST writers will only do this in the case that they’re very confident in sales. (In other words, the author is a celebrity, which is totally different from a start-up business.) OR, they deem the experience (especially if they get published) SO worthwhile, it seems like a good idea.
But remember, many writers have ideas of their own, and COULD put the time in on their own book and keep ALL of the profits. So they really have to think that you give them some substantial advantage.
Finally, if you are scrimping — paying someone far less than their service is worth or asking them to write on spec — YOU may regret it, because this scenario can often generate resentment, poor service, and a bad overall relationship. Your relationship with your writer is important. So it’s important to think this through ahead of time before simply trying to hire on the cheap.
Before Hiring: Life Stories
A lot of people want to write their life stories — either memoirs (focusing on a specific area of one’s life) or autobiographies (telling the life story as a whole).
While a ghostwriter may be able to help you turn your life story into a solidly-written item, you should be aware that this is a VERY crowded market to break into. It’s my opinion that this and children’s books are probably the toughest markets to break into for the following reason:
1) Anyone can write a children’s book in 5 minutes, because there usually aren’t many words involved. Whipping one off, though, doesn’t mean having a good book.
2) Everyone is an expert on their own life and can find interesting things to say about their life experience … and as a result, there are COUNTLESS autobiographies written. Trust me, these almost certainly include events as wild as yours. You cannot believe the things I have heard from people about what happened in their lives.
This isn’t to minimize what happened to you or how your story can help other people. It’s just a caution that even a ghost can only do so much. Editors have to go through mountains of these manuscripts, looking for the gems. (That said, I have personally written a client’s memoir that was published by a smaller publisher; so again, this is just a caution.)
Want to improve your chances of getting an autobiography or memoir published?
Make sure that you’re not just telling YOUR story, but that you’re telling the human story. In other words, make sure that the story somehow relates to your audience or the human experience … and make sure that you’re ready to really open yourself up. I believe that if you want these stories to sell, you have got to be ready to bare all. This is what makes the reader feel for you and sympathize with you … and it’ll help to generate sales.
What Should You Look for in a Ghostwriter?
The right balance of qualities in a ghostwriter really is a matter of personal choice and finances. Still, certain elements are critical. So let’s take a look at the essentials and the options and see what you’ll be choosing from.
This is obviously #1. If a ghost can’t write well, what’s the point? I’ve seen plenty of sample writing from ghosts that I doubt would ever sell. If in doubt when judging a ghost’s writing, check with friends or even a professional if you can find one willing to help.
This is different from quality. Good writers can have very different approaches to writing, and you want someone whose approach matches the CONTENT of your book and has the feel of YOUR voice. Some ghosts can adapt style to the client, and others usually do best within one or a couple styles. You’ll want to just look for the writer you think will best represent YOU.
A book is a big undertaking, and a personal one. You should find someone you click with before investing your time and money into this kind of project. You’ll be with him for a long time, revealing what’s inside your head.
Based on what they know, some writers will be better suited to your book than others. If one is familiar with your topic, this is a bonus — so long as he meets all critical criteria first. Meanwhile, however, a good ghost should be able to quickly learn from you or research and learn plenty to assist with your book.
An experienced ghost will probably have a better gut feel for what the market wants, how to get information from you, project timing, and much more. These are good characteristics, of course, but you’ll need to keep in mind that experience usually commands higher rates.
Some ghostwriters may have agent or publishing contacts. The ones who have these contacts MAY offer you a big advantage. You’ll have to find out, though, if and how they’ll use this to your advantage. If they’re willing to, however, they may charge substantially more for this benefit ... and they cannot possibly promise that it will make a difference. You’ll have to decide just how worthwhile that is. Anyone CAN get you published. But a foot in the door never hurts.
And, um ... What Does It Cost?
Cost, of course, is a major factor for most people. On the one hand, you need to spend enough that you get good quality. On the other hand, you need to stay on budget … ESPECIALLY since making money with books is hard work and risky business. Your investment in a ghost is just meant to improve your chances of making money with a book.
That said, ghosts will charge in just about every range of fees. The RARE ghost will write on spec (see section above); some will write an entire book for under $10,000. (Especially true if you're putting together something like a short e-book. I'm focusing here on full-length manuscripts.)
I would say on average you’re looking at an investment of somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 (at least for an American writer; and if language matters, that's probably what you're looking for if publishing in the U.S.)
Superstar ghosts charge $100,000 or more. These are the ones famous for working with celebrities and/or helping clients land major book deals.
Keep in mind that, since ghostwriting is usually confidential, most ghosts cannot reveal the books they’ve worked on. So it’s hard to know from their resume just how experienced (and therefore valuable) they are.
This means that you’ll often have to judge value based on your experience with them and the quality of any sample writing they show you. If they talk with authority about marketing and publishing issues, about agent submissions and the like, then you probably have a more valuable ghost on hand. Still, a writer with little experience but fantastic writing is nothing to sneeze at … and just may be a bargain so early in his career.
In the end, the best value is finding the best writer suited to you. If you don’t have the budget for that writer, consider whether this is a project you really want to get into.
Bid Sites and a Word of Caution
If you’re on a tight budget when hiring a ghostwriter, you might consider using one of several bidding sites, where freelancers bid against one another to try landing jobs.
On some of these, they can see each other’s bids. On some, they cannot. In the first case, you’ll have non-professionals bidding extremely low rates in order to win the job — rates so low, no one of any quality could afford to work for it. (I’ve calculated some editors, for instance, bidding at rates that would end up earning them less than $1 per hour.)
The other sites are a little more realistic, since bidders can’t see the lowest bid that they feel they need to beat; but because of the competition, they’re still likely to bid fairly low. Last I knew, a good example of this was guru.com.
Here’s my caution about these sites. Few QUALITY ghostwriters are likely to waste their time bidding rates that can’t support them and their families. So you won’t generally find an experienced professional here.
You MAY, however, find a quality writer without much or any experience who's doing this to get his feet wet. In this case, you are likely to hire good writing, but potentially that writer won’t know much about getting books published. (You still face the challenge that he'll learn how much he underbid and, as he has to pay bills, he'll take on additional jobs and yours will get slowed down.)
In the end, the trick is to stick with the tips found on this webpage for determining a GOOD ghostwriter. If you can find a good one and you happen to land him for a good price through a bid site, this can be your answer to that tight budget.
How Should Payments Work?
Before you make payment of ANY kind, you will of course want to make sure (as far as possible) that you're working with the right person. So, along with agreeing to costs, finding a good personality match, etc., you'll want to get some sort of writing sample from the ghostwriter.
If this ghost is legally and ethically allowed to share samples from former clients (i.e., has their written permission, or his name is mentioned on the book), you may find that he has strong samples to show you right away. But you'll want to make sure that these samples are related to YOUR project, to know that he has the skills for your book.
If he has no samples to show (for instance, all of my past clients are confidential), I believe a ghost should be willing to put together a CUSTOM sample. This way you can actually see how your project starts to take form before you ever invest. This is a great way to feel confident in your investment. Not every ghost will offer this; I used to do so because I only wanted projects where my client and I already knew I was a good fit, and I was confident in my ability to win the right clients over.
Once the ghost has proven himself (you love the samples) and you're ready to invest, plan on paying a good chunk up front.
A lot of freelancers charge 50% before a project and 50% on completion for items smaller than books. With books, payments are often broken into smaller pieces than that. So for instance, you may pay 25% at a time.
After they learn the hard way, I believe many ghosts find that they need to charge BEFORE writing. Again, once the ghost is proven through a sample, I think you're safe paying up front so long as you are protected by your contract. The contract should clearly outline what happens if a ghost fails to supply the writing in a timely manner.
Importantly, if you read to the end of this page, you'll find plenty of information on what needs to be covered in a contract (and where to get a contract), which can be the most critical part of the hiring process.
When Will Your Book be Finished?
This question has two answers. A “finished book” can mean two things in people’s minds. It can mean the finished manuscript, which is the final draft produced by your ghostwriter; and it can mean the published book, sitting on bookstore shelves.
The Finished Manuscript
The timing for a final draft depends on a number of elements, including:
1) Is your ghostwriter a full-time or part-time writer?
2) Does he work on one project at a time, or many?
3) Are you highly compatible, so that revisions are minimal?
4) Are you available for interviews, questions by e-mail or phone, or reviewing the written materials?
5) Are you providing everything, or does the ghost have to research or come up with story ideas?
A full-time ghost working on an average book will probably take 3-6 months to write a book. I have personally finished a novella (about 30,000 words) in about two (hectic) weeks, as the client was more concerned with having it done than with requesting changes. Other books have dragged on and on.
If timing is critical to your project, make sure to get a timeline into the contract with penalties for a late product. But also keep in mind that — since timing involves YOU as well as the writer — you will be (or should be) contractually required in this instance to provide timely responses to drafts and questions from the writer.
The Published Book
Once you have a final draft that you’re happy with, the journey has still just begun. If you’re after a traditional publishing contract, you have to land an agent (if not a small publisher directly) who then tries to find an interested publisher.
Landing a contract can take anywhere from a month to several years … as many now-famous authors could tell you. And even after that, it could be another 18 months before the book is actually on store shelves.
Ever wonder why a lot of people self-publish? In some cases it’s because no publisher would publish their book. In other cases, it’s because they don’t want to wade through all of this. And in some cases, they just think they can sell more and make more on their own.
Can You Expect Revisions?
As with so many aspects of working with a ghostwriter, this technically comes down to what’s in the contract. In other words, assume nothing.
That said, it is certainly implied that a ghostwriter needs to provide you with a finished draft that you’re happy with, and since that’s not likely to happen in one draft, some revisions are implied as well. The key here is to nail down in the contract just how many revisions you can request.
Of course what’s in the contract isn’t necessarily all that your writer will provide for you. If you’re working with a quality businessperson, your happiness with the final product will be key, and so long as you are a reasonable person to work with, you will probably get whatever revisions are needed to satisfy you with the final draft.
What’s in the contract is really there to protect both you and the writer in case either of you chooses to be unreasonable. But then … that takes us right on into the final topic of this webpage.
The Ghostwriting Contract
Having a clear and comprehensive contract between you and your ghostwriter is the important, final step involved in hiring a ghost. Without this, you risk running into communication (and therefore relationship) problems down the road. And without this, you risk running into financial or other headaches if the ghost ever balks on what he’s supposed to provide.
To help you make sure you’ve covered the critical basics, here is a list of topics that I cover in my contract.
1) Relationship between you and the ghostwriter. (You’ve got an independent contractor, and not an employee.)
2) An overview of the financial and timing terms.
3) Description of services and a guarantee of either no conflicts of interest or a listing of any potential conflicts.
4) Description of any research required and details on revisions provided.
5) No implied guarantee of publication.
6) Specifics on cost and payments.
7) Legal and financial responsibilities of both parties.
8) Ownership of rights and authorship.
9) Confidentiality agreement and ownership of all materials.
10) Details regarding termination by death, disability, or written notice.
11) Details of legal written notice, severability, arbitration, and location for legal disputes.
Hopefully, keeping this list handy when you’re either writing up or reviewing a ghostwriting contract can help you to make sure the most important things are covered. Because yes, you can get away with a simple contract or even no contract at all, but if you run into any problems, you’ll wish you had something thorough.
Remember, you go through plenty of legal papers when buying a car or house. It’s a kind of “just in case” insurance that’ll help ensure peace of mind.
Need a Ghostwriting Contract?
If your ghostwriter already has a good document to use (you can check it over with the list above), or you want to use your own lawyer to develop a contract, that’s great.
I will mention, however, that I have read through many ghostwriting contracts (including those in ghostwriting books) and have yet to find one as thorough as mine. This is why I’ve made mine available — to keep ghosts and clients both safe, and to help save people from the high costs of lawyers.
Of course mine is offered as a template only, since it will have to be modified for your particular agreement. But it really spells everything out and should be easy for anyone to modify.
This is a THOROUGH template (6 single-spaced pages and 25 headings long), and I’ve used it with many clients … and of course have had my lawyer review it. And even if you opt to have a lawyer review the template once it’s modified (a wise choice), you’re still likely to save hundreds of dollars over having a lawyer develop the contract from scratch.
No matter what, use a contract to make sure that you and your ghostwriter are on the SAME PAGE, and that penalties are spelled out in case of any breach of contract. (Remember, even the nicest people in the world can get sick or become unavailable to write. What happens to your investment then???)
So if you’re interested in having a solid ghostwriting contract template to work from, click on the link below to visit my template site and purchase yours today for just $27. Again, it’s likely to save you hundreds of dollars over custom legal work. Might as well save those dollars to invest in your future ghost!
NOTE: You will be able to download the template immediately after payment.
Get Your Ghostwriting Contract Template Here
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