Is it Time to Disappear?
Why I Became a Ghost--and Why you Should, Too
I never intended to become a ghostwriter. After all, why would I spend months of my life toiling away on someone else’s book? No thanks. I only wanted to write my own books, and that’s what I did.
I soon found, however, that the life of a book author wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned. I was working long hours, yet making less money than I had before, when I wrote only articles. The reason was simple—the time I spent promoting my books left me less time to write articles and other books, which cut into my income.
Fortunately for me, I was approached by a nutrition expert about coauthoring her book. I found I enjoyed collaborating with her, but the real payoff came when we finished the manuscript. As the author, she now had to start promoting it—but I was all done!
That was enough for me. I decided to pursue coauthoring and ghostwriting, and “my” next book was ghostwritten for a client. (Typically a “coauthor” is identified on the cover while a “ghostwriter” is never named or identified.) Today, most of my books are published under my clients’ names—and I’m making as much money working part-time hours as I did as a fulltime freelancer.
You probably know that many celebrities and politicians use ghostwriters to pen their books. What you probably don’t know is that most authors who hire ghostwriters aren’t household names. Instead they’re professionals (think physicians, attorneys, financial advisors) who want to add “book author” to their CVs to attract clients and establish themselves as subject matter experts—but they lack the time and/or ability to write a book. They’re willing to pay, and often pay well, to get “their” books in print.
The key to success as a ghostwriter, first and foremost, is an understanding of your role in the process. Whether you get cover credit or not, you’re writing someone else’s book. That means being able to collaborate, and to set your own ideas about how to approach the book aside if your client disagrees with your approach. That’s why successful ghostwriters keep their egos in check. You may be writing the words, but the book itself is your client’s. And that means your client has the final say.
In addition to a collaborative spirit, you’ll need project management skills. Depending on the project, you may be responsible for conducting interviews and research and keeping your client on schedule in addition to writing the book itself. And when it comes to writing, you must be able to structure and organize material and capture your client’s voice.
As a writer, you likely already know something about the publishing industry. That experience—whether you’ve already published your own books or have worked with editors before—is invaluable to you as a ghostwriter. The more you know about publishing, the more you can assist your clients whether they’re submitting their work or deciding whether to opt for POD, or print-or-demand, publishing instead of pursuing a traditional publisher.
Getting the Word Out
You basically have two ways of getting ghosting work—spread the word that you’re a ghostwriter, and go after ghosting gigs you find. Make sure your website and blog, if you have one, says that you ghostwrite. Mention it in your email signature. Consider subscribing to PublishersMarketplace.com ($20/month) for a promotional listing and a way of staying up-to-date on the latest publishing deals.
Check sites like Craigslist.org, Journalismjobs.com, and FreelanceDaily.net for possible jobs. And consider your expertise when marketing yourself to potential clients. I specialize in health, fitness, and nutrition, and almost all of my ghosting work is for professionals in those areas. The idea is to start with what you know and let editors, story sources, and colleagues know you’ve added ghostwriting to your repertoire.
Besides celebs and subject matter experts, everyday people who want to get books in print but lack time or ability use ghostwriters. (These books may run the gamut from memoirs to novels to how-to tomes.) Book publishers, book packagers, agents, and corporations also all hire ghosts, though they look for experienced ones.
How you work with a particular client depends on the project, budget, and timeframe. For example, you may interview your client and write the book from scratch, relying on your notes; your client may write some of the book while you write the rest; or your client may provide you with background material that you use as a starting point. It depends on how much work your client has already done (and is willing to do) and how he prefers to work with you.
That’s why before you take on a project, you should know exactly what you’re responsible for. Some clients (like book publishers and agents) will have a set fee for a project; others will ask you to make a bid. Make sure you know what’s expected of you, how you’ll be working, and how long the book will be before you quote a fee.
When it comes to how you charge, there are three basic ways—by the hour; by the word or page (e.g., $10/page or $0.25/word); or by the project. Most ghostwriting clients prefer to pay a flat fee for the entire project, which is why you want to know what you’re committing to before you say yes.
Before you start work, have your client sign a written contract. At a minimum, it should include a description of the work you’ll be doing (the more specific, the better); how much and when you’ll be paid (i.e. in certain amounts throughout the duration of the project); your deadline; and who will own the copyright to the book (almost always the client).
Working with Clients
With signed contract in hand, you’re ready to get to work. If your client hasn’t created an outline already, that’s the first step. Once he approves it, you start researching and writing the book itself.
Once all of the chapters are completed (or the sections of the book proposal are complete) and approved, I like to create one “master” document that includes everything—the final draft—and send it my client for one last review. After he signs off on the completed manuscript and sends my last check, we’re done—unless we’re working with a traditional publisher. Then I stay onboard to handle any edits until the editor and client sign off on it.
And then, when the book is published, my client’s real work as an author begins. But as a ghostwriter, my work is complete—which frees me up to start on my next ghostwriting project.
About the author: Kelly James-Enger “escaped from the law” in 1997. Today, the former attorney has written more 700+ articles for more than 50 national magazines and 13 books, including eight under her own name. She’s the author of writing-related books including:
- Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money (Random House, 2005); and
- Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, second edition (Marion Street Press, 2008).
James-Enger is also a ghostwriter, speaker, and published novelist. Her contemporary women’s fiction titles include Did you Get the Vibe? and White Bikini Panties. She blogs at http://dollarsanddeadlines.blogspot.com about making more money as a nonfiction freelancer, and lives outside Chicago with her husband, son, daughter, and golden retriever.