Ghostwriting: Some Common Misconceptions
Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to be posting some blog pieces covering a part of my career portfolio that I rarely write about: ghostwriting. I have been working as a ghostwriter for the last seven or so years, but due to the nature of the business I have rarely mentioned it here on my blog.
That’s mainly because by nature it’s a fairly secretive process: A ghostwriter is contracted to write a book for someone else, and that person’s name goes on the cover. That’s the deal, with all that it entails: As a ghostwriter, I don’t share credit, my name is never mentioned, and the “author” (my client) proceeds as if he or she wrote the book, from start to finish.
If you look at my ghostwriting page, there aren’t any titles mentioned or links to books. Part of what my clients purchase is my discretion. This can make it hard to market yourself as a ghostwriter, but what would make it really hard is a reputation of blabbing about writing clients’ books. So I keep my silence.
Common Misconceptions About Ghostwriting
In this installment, I am going to look at some misconceptions and points of confusion that I encounter frequently when I talk to people about ghostwriting. My hope is that this might be read by someone bouncing around the internet, trying to decide whether a ghostwriter is what they need for their project. Clearing up some of these misconceptions would make an excellent starting point regardless of the nature of your project.
“Is that legal?”
I’ve actually already covered the question I get the most when I say that I work as a ghostwriter. In fact, it’s barely a question at all—more just a sense of surprise that ghostwriting exists, or (for someone who’s heard of ghostwriting) that this is what it is.
If it is phrased as a question, it takes the form of “Isn’t that unfair?” or “Don’t you get mad that your name’s not on the cover?” or even “Is that legal?”
So, in a nutshell: Yes, this is how ghostwriting works. It’s agreed to by the ghostwriter and the client, often with both parties signing a contract—so yes, it is legal. And no, as a ghostwriter, I don’t get mad to think that my name won’t appear on the final copy of the book.
Yes, I’m serious. And no—I’ve been asked this question once or twice—I don’t feel like I’m “prostituting” my writing ability.
The more I get the kinds of questions mentioned above, the more I understand where people are coming from. There are two misconceptions about writing that I think inform these sorts of questions.
Writing means writing
The first misconception is that writing means writing. If you aren’t sitting down at the typewriter and pecking out every word, from beginning to end, you have no right to call yourself an author and you don’t “deserve” to have a book.
This is, of course, completely wrong. If we substitute author for writer, this becomes clearer. The underlying premise of ghostwriting is simply that one person, the Client, has an incredible life experience, or a set of life-changing ab exercises, or a dynamite idea for a novel, and needs help turning it into a book.
There are many reasons the Client might need help. I’ve worked with clients for whom English was a second language, as well as others who did all the necessary research for a project but were mystified by the writing process. Other clients have told me they just didn’t have the time to write their book.
None of these changes the fact that the finished book represents the Client’s experience (or idea). I’ll say more about this in future installments, but part of the ghostwriter’s value to the Client should always include writing in a style, format, and tone that fits the Client’s wishes. A ghostwriter who takes over a book and writes it in his or her own unique style will soon be looking for a new line of work.
Hiring a ghostwriter is cheating
The second misconception about writing is closely related to the first, and it’s that using a ghostwriter is somehow “cheating.” If you can’t figure out how to write your book, then you don’t deserve to have a book.
Besides being unnecessarily harsh, this kind of thinking is incredibly short-sighted. If you want to make a living as a novelist, churning out a book a year, then yes, you should probably be able to write your books yourself. But the reason most people are in the position of considering a ghostwriter is that they simply aren’t writers.
What’s more, most of them don’t want to be. In fact, that’s the point exactly: the people who come to me looking for help have experience in business, marketing, teaching, or they have incredible life experiences. Incredible life experiences happen to people in all walks of life. Imagine how much poorer we’d all be if we only got to hear about the life stories of those who could write? To say nothing of the many, many celebrity autobiographies and memoirs that have been ghostwritten.
(I just finished tennis great Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography, which was co-written by the author and journalist J.R. Moehringer (author of The Tender Bar, which I also loved), and would highly recommend this book as an example of how a ghostwriter can help flesh out a client’s story without muting the client’s unique voice. (In the acknowledgments to the book, Agassi gives Moehringer credit for all his hard work with the book, and mentions that he offered Moehringer co-author credit but Moehringer declined, saying that it was Agassi’s story. This particular case blurs the boundaries of ghostwriting, since the “ghost” is clearly identified, but I’d technically call it ghostwriting because Agassi is credited as the sole author.)
When you start to look at it this way, our expectation that every author needs to write his or her book solo comes to seem like a harsh and unnecessary constraint—which is just what it is.
Can we split the profits when the book is a bestseller?
Money is always haunting discussions with potential clients. They want to know how much it will cost to develop their book before they waste too much time talking to me, and I want to gauge their level of seriousness.
I talk about rates and payment schedules below, but let me address a question I’m asked fairly often by people who haven’t had exposure to ghostwriting. It goes something like this:
My book is definitely going to be a New York Times bestseller. Help me write it and I’ll give you a percentage of the money—10 percent, 20 percent, 40 percent—once it’s published and becomes a bestseller.
My answer to this, and the answer of any real, professional ghostwriter, is bound to be, “I’m sorry, no.”
This has nothing to do with the quality of the client’s idea. In fact, I have language on my website saying that I will not work this way, and I put it there for the express purpose of dissuading anyone, no matter how great the idea, from approaching me with such a proposal. In fact, what I’m hoping to avoid is someone coming to me with an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime idea only to then learn that this is how they’d like to pay me. I’d have to say no to that incredible idea.
A professional ghostwriter has no more interest in taking a chance on someday getting paid big for his or her work than a pharmaceutical scientist has in working on a new pill in hopes of a big payout when the drug starts raking in the money. That may seem like a far-fetched comparison, but by the time a book is written, edited, sent out to literary agents, then to publishers, accepted, edited some more, typeset, printed, distributed, and released, and the author begins seeing money, you could be looking at a wait time that rivals the approval process a new drug undergoes with the Food and Drug Administration. (This is an exaggeration, yes, but not by much.)
So at a minimum, a potential client who proposes working this way is asking me to wait a long time to be paid. But, in the interest of being honest here, such a client is also asking me to take a big chance. Book publishing is a fickle business. The people who make a living on their good literary taste—literary agents, acquiring editors at publishing houses—regularly make big mistakes. That means both that a title they think is a surefire hit fizzles, and that a book project that seems like a dud becomes the next big thing. In both cases, I don’t like the odds involved in speculating by putting a lot of time into a single project merely in the hopes it will one day pay off.
So how does payment typically work?
Naturally, rates vary from one ghostwriter to another. I got my first ghostwriting gigs by posting ads on Craig’s List, and I charged $10 per page. With time, I amended that rate, not just going up but factoring in things like revision (I include two rounds of revision in my price) and time spent conducting interviews with my clients. The way I charge now—and this is fairly standard—is to estimate how long the project will take, coming up with a total sum that is then divided into increments to be paid at various “mile posts” along the way: part of the sum to start, part when the book is halfway complete, and the remainder when the book is completely finished.
That is my own preference, for use in projects that come to me. I work with a couple agencies that have their own payment structures, both of which are roughly similar: a series of milestones that mean payment is due. For these agencies, interestingly, there is also a preliminary phase when an outline is drawn up and approved by both parties (and for which payment is due).
No one else can do my story justice
In a future blog post, I’m going to cover the many different ways a writer and client can work together, which I find to be something else that can puzzle people who don’t have much exposure to ghostwriting.
But when people ask about that aspect of ghostwriting, I find they’re really asking, “How can anyone else write my story?” That goes for people with a great idea for a science-fiction novel, a vision for a children’s book, or tons of notes and ideas for an autobiography packed with business advice for the twenty-first century.
This goes back to the misconceptions about writing that I mentioned earlier. Specifically, people view writing as a personal, even mysterious process. Only I, the possessor of the idea/experience/vision, can possibly translate it to the page.
But that word, translate, is key to seeing this misconception for what it is. When you’re going from the vision in your head to the printed (or digital) page, you’re likely to lose something even if it’s your own fingers doing the typing. Language is a tool, and as a ghostwriter I offer a considerable amount of experience wielding those tools with care, consideration, and precision.
More to the point, I find that most of my clients do an excellent job of talking about their idea, articulating its essence to me that way. But talking and writing are very different things, and it’s that difference that causes them difficulties. Many times, I find that the bulk of my job as a ghostwriter consists of listening carefully, asking the right questions, and getting to the heart of what a client is trying to tell me.
In other words, my job as a ghostwriter is to do the client’s story justice. The best compliment a client can give is that I took what they were telling me and turned it into exactly what they were trying to say.
Next time: How to work with a ghostwriter