The Quick Guide to Ghostwriting
In an ego-driven and cut-throat field, authoring work means getting your name out in the public space as much as possible. This can make or break your writing career, especially when getting more work means establishing a name for yourself. With ghost-writing, however, your ability to establish that name is curtailed, as you’re writing a work that will eventually be credited to someone else.
Image: Luke MacGregor | Credit: Reuters
What is a ghostwriter?
A ghostwriter is a writer hired to write a text for someone else. In the majority of cases, the work is non-fiction (and what you’ll read is, for example, an autobiography); however, in other instances, this can also be a fiction manuscript.
It’s an approach most frequently taken by politicians, celebrities, or high-flying executives, who either don’t have the time or don’t have the skill, to write books on their own. The text will then be credited to that high-profile name rather than to the ghostwriter themselves, who may end up with just a footnote citation for their work at best.
The most obvious instances of ghostwriting take place in the form of autobiographies or “how-to” books. This is where the credited authors don’t have the time, the discipline, or the skills to write, research, and organize a full manuscript.
As the name suggests, it’s the ghostwriters who do the actual writing—but don’t receive the byline. It is the credited authors (the celebrities, the politicians, or other high-profile people whose names appear on the jacket cover) who receive the byline (and the credit for the work) instead.
How does it work?
There are several ways in which ghostwriters can work:
- Letters from the CEO—In this instance, you’re writing a text on behalf of a named person, for example, a CEO’s introduction letter to a report. When the text is anonymous, such as a company’s sales pitch, it isn’t ghostwriting.
- Cleaning up a rough draft—Ghostwriters ‘tidy up’ notes or a rough draft provided to them by the credited author, rather than write. The tidied up version is then turned into an article or book.
- Writing a complete text—A complete manuscript is written from an outline, or transcript provided. The research is done by the ghostwriter, with final approval or changes given by the credited author.
- Complete control—The ghostwriter takes complete artistic control, creating the outline, and writing the book. The credited author’s sole input is to give approval to the text. This includes ghostwriters writing social media posts.
It’s difficult to establish just how many books have been written by ghostwriters, as oftentimes credited authors might not want to admit they didn’t write their own books. Ghostwriters themselves are also contractually barred from admitting which books they have worked on. However, it is safe to assume that most celebrity/high-profile personality’s autobiography are written by ghostwriters—although they may not be credited for their work on the front.
Is it a good idea?
On the surface of it, ghostwriting may seem like just another way of taking other people’s work but not giving them due recognition. But it does have several benefits, notably:
- If an expert has the knowledge but lacks the writing skills, this is a great way for them to get their expertise read. There’s also enough demand for this kind of work for ghostwriting to be lucrative if a writer makes a name for themselves.
- If someone is looking to start out in writing but worrying about a steady income, ghostwriting can be a good starting point. With demand high, they’ve got plenty of options with which to start.
- There are also plenty of learning opportunities. So if a writer were shifting to writing about new media marketing, they’d learn the ropes very fast if they have to write about it.
- Because a ghostwriter gets to hide behind someone else’s name, they don’t need to worry about facing public criticism. They can just get on with the writing.
What’s in it for the ghostwriter?
Based on a preliminary agreement with the credited authors, ghostwriters are involved in the finished work to varying degrees. This depends on how much work is demanded of the ghostwriters, and how much time, effort, or even skills the credited authors have to invest in the project.
In some cases, and as mentioned above, ghostwriters may be hired simply to edit work, cleaning up rough drafts, or finishing partially completed manuscripts. Where this happens, the overall outline of the book and the language used to belong to those of the credited name—it’s just up to the ghostwriter to “tidy the text” and tie up any loose ends. This may end up with the ghostwriter not receiving any credit for their work in the final publication.
In other cases, their work may in fact be writing most or all of the book, according to an outline provided by the credited author. This is the style most frequently used in autobiographies by high-profile names, including sports stars, celebrities, and businessmen, such as Donald Trump‘s 1987 autobiography “Trump: The Art of the Deal“, ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz. It also means:
- The ghostwriter makes use of stories provided by the credited author;
- There is room for the ghostwriter to interview the credited author and their family, friends, and acquaintances;
- Ghostwriters can access documents and already published articles on the subject;
- They can also access other items, including video footage, that will help complete the work.
It does not necessarily mean the ghostwriter gets full creative license over the “voice” of the work. This is simply because the end manuscript has to reflect the character and style of the credited author, to make it more credible and identifiable with the big name.
It as well, in these instances, to be clear on copyright issues—it is the norm to place copyright with the person requesting the ghostwriting, rather than the ghostwriter themselves.
Whatever the ghostwriter’s scope of work, they can spend anywhere from a few months to a year working on the manuscripts. Depending on the initial agreement, ghostwriters will be paid either per word, per page, or according to total word count. They may also receive a percentage of royalties from the sales once the book is published.
For major works, ghostwriters can receive anywhere between $40,000 and $70,000 as an advance. This can go up to as much as $500,000, which the New York Times reported was the fee Hillary Clinton‘s ghostwriter received for the work completed on her autobiography.
With digital publishing accounting for approximately 15%-20% of the international book market in 2015, newer and more varied opportunities have opened up for ghostwriters. This is particularly seen with short books and novellas, as seen in the Amazon Kindle Singles publications (which are up to 30,000 words in length). As it’s shorter in length and more affordable for the client and publisher, this form of ghostwriting has quickly gained popularity. It has also given ghostwriters greater work opportunities.
In some lucky cases, the author or publisher may also acknowledge the ghostwriter for their services by naming them in the final publication. In these cases, they may simply be referred to as a “researcher” or “research assistant”. More often than not, however, the ghostwriter isn’t credited at all.
In the long-term, this can be negative for a ghostwriter trying to establish a name for themselves and win new clients. This is especially the case if the other side is poor about recommending you to others in the future.
What’s in it for the publishers?
Publishers use ghostwriters where there’s a potential for increased sales, particularly where a famous and marketable name is involved. It’s a tactic that can also be used where a book ties in with a major news event, such as in the lead-up to an election. In this instance, candidates will give the go-ahead for the production of an autobiography, to increase visibility and exposure.
Publishers can also establish and increase a book’s marketability by placing a celebrity name on the front cover, even if it’s been written by a ghostwriter. This is particularly used on “how-to” books, diet guides, or cookbooks.
Where a publisher has a series of books written under a pseudonym, such as the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, using a ghostwriter is necessary. The latter is given a template of basic information on the book’s characters, the style, and the fictional universe on which they can base their writing. It allows the publishers to establish a longer life for the books and longer-running revenues.
Although this may be a great way for ghostwriters just starting out, it does have its drawbacks. Aside from the lack of byline, there is also, of course, no recognition or attention given to the true author’s work.
If you’re just starting out on ghostwriting as a career path, it is very easy to undersell your work, talent, and underestimate the amount of time and effort needed for this work. You need the courage to negotiate a reasonable fee for the work you do—and to stick to your guns. It is also tempting to take on too much work, which can mean you end up working harder for less pay.
As ghostwriters are often freelance, your work depends on client referrals. The more referrals you get (and some are generous in name-dropping), the more likely you are to gain work. The more the client is absorbed in their own affairs, the more likely they will be to forget to recommend you, even if you did a good job.
You may also end up getting “stuck in a rut” because you only focused on making money now. The solution to this is to find other work aside from that of ghostwriting that will establish your authorship. In an ego-driven age where the professional name can often mean the difference between getting the gig and not getting it, this is particularly important.
But if that’s what you need to be doing at this point in your life, then by all means proceed and we wish you all the best of luck. Here are some great resources to help you get started (or get going) as a ghostwriter:
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