Ghostwriting 101



When I tell people I am a ghostwriter, I usually get funny looks. It’s not a job that is part of most people’s vocabulary, but it should be in every writer’s vocabulary, even if you decide it isn’t for you.

What is a Ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter is usually hired by someone who has an idea for a book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, but who lacks the writing ability to actually bring that book to fruition. Technically, I suppose you could call being hired to write content for a website, articles, or correspondence under a company or client’s name ghostwriting, but that’s usually just called content or copy writing, and it is not what I will be talking about here.

Ghostwriters are hired by people looking to get published the traditional way and by those looking to self-publish. People looking to get published through the traditional route are going to look for higher quality work and will be willing to pay a higher price. However, there are far more people in the self-publishing market looking for ghostwriters. At least, that has been my experience.

The “ghost” part means that your name will not appear on the book (at least not as the author), and you will receive no royalties from the sale of the book. This means that you are entitled to more money up front. Don’t make the same mistake I did starting out and accept pitiful pay because you don’t know any better. The “ghost” title also means you can’t go posting your involvement in the project all over the internet. That includes Facebook and your blog.

So, How Much Should I Charge?

Writer’s Digest has a very useful guide to how much to charge for all sorts of writing jobs. Ghostwriting rates can be found on page 140 of the document (page 6 of the PDF). This guide lists low, average, and high rates. Now, you may want to charge a little below the lowest listed rate on your very first job because you won’t have any professional experience yet. Offering a slightly lower price will make you an attractive option, even if you’re up for the position against someone with a bit more experience. But don’t do what I did and accept peanuts for highly creative, high content work.

After your first job, start charging that low rate listed on the guide. You can even send the client a link to the guide to prove that this is a low rate in the ghostwriting world if they are giving you some push back. As you gain experience, charge the average price, then the high price. I think you’ll find that after a few years of building a reputation, you can make a sizable income as a ghostwriter if you find just a few steady clients.

How Does It Work?

The client should always have a fully formed idea. Do not accept a job where the client simply says, “Write me a book,” and gives you no guidelines, or even unspecific guidelines. If you are contributing the entire idea, you should be getting royalties. No exceptions.

You will need to sign a legitimate contract that protects both you and the client. By putting your name on the dotted line, you’re giving up all rights to the story. In contract negotiates, always ask for an indemnification clause. That indemnification clause protects you from lawsuits if the idea for the book or any of the content provided by the client turns out to be plagiarized. To learn more about contracts, check out this post.

Make sure you ask upfront whether or not you are allowed to send a small sample of the work to other employers for proof of skill. Not all clients allow this, so read your contract carefully. However, the client should always allow you to use them as a reference for your ghostwriting skill. If they say no to this, walk. You can’t build a reputation and charge professional prices if you can’t prove you’ve done the work.

Ideally, the client will send you an outline of the book. In non-fiction, the outline may be just a few paragraphs and a list of chapter headings, meaning  you are asked to do the research for the book. If you are writing someone’s memoirs, you’re going to be interviewing them. If it’s a how-to or informational book, the client may provide you with some resources they want you to use. If not, make sure the client is willing to pay for resources like books that you may need to properly research the topic. Many self-publishing authors of how-tos are simply fine with you scouring free information on the internet. However, always charge extra for research. I suggest charging an hourly rate for the research, and a per page, per word, or fixed fee for the actual writing. Research is time consuming, so you should be paid for that time.

In fiction, I suggest you either walk away or charge through the nose if the client does not provide you with an outline that details the events taking place in each and every chapter, along with profiles and backgrounds for all main characters. Do not make the same mistake I did on my first ghostwriting job. Both the client and I were new to the ghostwriting world, and the outline she provided me was thin—only two pages, which I was to turn into two hundred. I ended up creating a whole new main character to enhance the plot and changing and contributing many creative ideas, all for a pitiful price that I didn’t find out was pitiful until after I’d accepted it. Don’t sell your creative ideas for nothing! I would suggest not contributing any serious plot or character idea at all, no matter what you are paid. If you find a problem in the client’s plot, alert them to it and ask them to come up with a solution that you can write it in.

You should charge higher for fiction than non-fiction, because no matter how detailed that outline is, you’re going to be contributing creatively. You are bringing the characters to life and developing the plot at the correct pace. You create the tone of the story. You paint the picture for the reader. In non-fiction, you’re dealing with information and fact that you simply put in a logical order while adding some flare to draw in the reader. You aren’t really contributing your personal creative property.

I would also suggest asking the client how they intend to publish, especially on a fiction project. In most cases, the royalty returns on a self-published book are lower (though there are exceptions). If you write a book for a client who plans to submit to agents and publish traditionally, that client has the chance of making a great deal of money off your creative work, and you won’t see a cent of the royalties or get a lick of credit. Of course, there is no guarantee a publisher will pick it up; it’s a very competitive market. Just take all of that information into account when negotiating your price.

Is It Worth It?

A lot of writers balk at the idea of ghosting, and I get that, especially when it comes to fiction. Personally, I really enjoy fiction ghostwriting. I’m getting paid to write a story. What could be better than that? (Besides getting my own books published, of course). However, I have had my dark moments with it, which I detailed in this post. If you’re considering this line of work, check it out so that you can avoid my mistakes. If done correctly, though, the plot, characters, and setting are the client’s. You wouldn’t have written that book if the client hadn’t provided you with that outline. You just get to play with the words and paint the pictures. That’s what I love.

Even if fiction ghostwriting makes you pull a sour face (I get it), don’t discount non-fiction. That is a much more straightforward field, and it pays extremely well. It’s like writing a giant college paper. The client assigns you a subject, you do some research, and you craft a compelling and informative structure, tone, and pace. I’ve been assigned some really interesting topics that I would never have delved into otherwise, and I’ve had fun doing it.

It’s not for everyone. If you simply can not handle another person’s name on a book you crafted the sentences for, you should probably avoid ghostwriting. However, if helping someone bring their dreams and ideas to life excites you, if you want to craft books that help others, or if you find joy in taking on new voices and challenges in your writing, it may just be the perfect fit.

9 thoughts on “Ghostwriting 101

    • IJustWanttoWrite says:

      When I came across it, I was surprised it was even an option. I plan to write more about the pros and cons of ghostwriting. I hope you’ll find them helpful. If you decide to look into it, feel free to leave a comment about your experience. And if you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them.

      • Mary Cathleen Clark says:

        I look forward to reading more of your posts about ghostwriting, though I doubt it’s for me. I don’t think I could take another person’s plot and make it into a book; I have so many ideas of my own.

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