You’ve got a great idea for a book. It’s timely, insightful, and you’re sure it will do well in the marketplace. But, there’s a problem.
Writing really isn’t your strength. Or, you don’t even have time to write a blog post, let alone a whole book.
That’s where a ghostwriter comes in. These scribes-for-hire work with you to turn your ideas into manuscript form, either for a publishing house or as a work you can self-publish.
"Ghostwriting as a field has been growing dramatically because people are hearing about this person, a ghostwriter, who can work magic and create a book out of nothing. I think sometimes people have the wrong impression of what a ghostwriter does," says Marcia Layton Turner, ghostwriter and founder of the Association of Ghostwriters, a membership organization for ghostwriters and other book collaborators. So, before you shell out big bucks to have someone pen the Great American Business Book, take some advice from the ghostwriters themselves to make sure the venture is a success.
Ghostwriter Jenna Glatzer, whose credits include Celine Dion: For Keeps and Unthinkable, which she wrote with Ironman competitor Scott Rigsby, asks many questions when she interviews prospective clients. She usually looks for a business or important personal reason for the project. A book can be a great credibility-building and marketing tool to help the author sell products or services, book speaking engagements, or accomplish some other goal. Authors who simply want their name on a bestseller list without understanding all of the factors—including sales, marketing and distribution—that go into landing on those lists, are often disappointed.
"When you're working with a ghostwriter, if your goal is strictly ‘I want to make a lot of money off this book,’ that's not necessarily an easy thing to do. You're usually going to pay the ghostwriter the bulk of the advance to write the book," she says.
How do you find ghostwriters? Groups like the Association of Ghostwriters and the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ Freelance Writers Search are two places to find experienced ghosts. Glatzer suggests looking for writers who have written books in the genre you’re targeting and calling previous collaborators to find out about their experiences working with the writer.
Ghostwriter Alisa Bowman, whose credits include Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days with Jonathan Alpert and Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time Every Time with Bill McGowan, recommends interviewing at least three ghostwriters to compare styles and chemistry. Embarking on such a big project is "a little like forming a long-term romantic relationship," she says. Not that anything inappropriate will go on, but you’ll be working closely with this person over a period of months, she says. That’s tough to do when you can’t stand each other.
An experienced ghostwriter will help you define the scope of the project, including the length of the manuscript and the components that will be included in the final manuscript. However, writing a book with a ghostwriter is a collaborative process, Turner says. You can’t just hire the writer and expect them to produce a book—guidance and input need to come from you, she says. So, be prepared to devote the time necessary for your part of the collaboration, which may take several months or more, she says.
It’s a good idea to work on an outline first so you both understand the overall direction of the book and how you’ll organize the material. Your ghostwriter will likely want to have regular phone calls with you to get direction and input on the book’s contents. It’s important to define whether the ghost will also conduct additional research or need to provide other services, such as helping with graphics or photography sourcing or creating an index, which are not typically part of a ghostwriter’s responsibilities.
While some companies claim they can deliver a finished book for a few thousand dollars or within a month or two, that’s not likely to be anything you’d want representing you or your brand, Bowman says. Good ghosts aren’t cheap: Bowman says the bottom-line number for a thorough book proposal, which is necessary for most writers to sell their books to publishing houses, from an experienced ghostwriter is somewhere around $5,000 to $8,000.
When it comes to manuscripts, Glatzer estimates that less experienced ghostwriters fall into the $20,000 to $30,000 range, while intermediate-level ghosts can go as high as $50,000 or more. A-list writers with serious credentials can command upward of $75,000. "A small list of ghostwriters are consistently in the six-figure range," she says. Be sure to define details such as the length of the book, how many rounds of revisions are included, and the charges that apply if the scope of work changes. The Editorial Freelancers Association, a membership organization for writers and editors, also publishes a list of rough editorial rate guidelines.
Once you’ve reached an agreement on the project scope and budget, it’s critical to have an agreement that spells out the relationship. In addition to the specifics of the working relationship, it’s a good idea to work out who will hold the copyright to the material, Bowman says. Unless you have a written agreement that states otherwise, if you write the book together you typically both hold the copyright.
Once you’ve hired your writer, set milestone deadlines to keep the project moving along and work together to refine information and voice. The ghostwriter and author relationship works best when it’s collaborative and open, Bowman says. Expect to have some back-and-forth, especially in the beginning—it’s unrealistic to expect the writer to get the tone and content perfect on the first draft. Then, let the writer write.
"I specialize in books and what happens is people think they can write, but they don't understand what it takes to make a book commercial, so they get in their own way and they really obstruct the process," says Bowman. When the collaboration is a good fit, the writer uses the expert’s words to create a work that people want to read.