Two days ago, I was searching for “ghostwriter wanted” job listings and came across the blog/business website of a fellow ghostwriter. Curious, I read through the post. It was a narration of a phone call she’d had with a potential client. A woman had called to ask the cost of services. The ghost responded that she charged a dollar per word and then asked the woman’s budget. The woman said she could only afford $1,000. The ghost told her there was no way she could accept that price. She then told the woman she might be able to connect her with some colleagues who would be willing to go as low as $5,000 for a 100 page book, but she made it clear she’d never stoop that low. She warned the client that anyone willing to accept anything lower than that price would do a crappy job, and the client would inevitably need her book rewritten. I suppose the whole post—connected to her business site—was meant to act as a warning to potential clients that she wouldn’t work for a pittance.
It set off alarm bells in my brain, screaming at me, “But, Hannah, you would have totally taken that client!” My heart plopped into my gut and sloshed around down there. My breathing became short and rapid. “You’re a fraud!” my brain screamed. “You think you’re so cool because you got off Upwork and made your own site and started charging more, but you’re still making dirt, and you suck, suck, suck!” (My brain is a bitch with the insult ability of a second grader, apparently.)
This is called imposter syndrome, and it strikes freelance writers in all fields. It creeps up on you when you’re vulnerable: when you land a project bigger than anything else you’ve ever done and feel overwhelmed, after a phone call with a potential client who you could supply you with a lot of great work, or, like me, when you’re feeling a little lost because your current ghostwriting project is ending and you’re having trouble finding relevant job listings to supplement the lost income.
I have felt imposter syndrome before, so this time, I was a little more prepared. I clicked away from the post so it wouldn’t stare me in the face, and then I forced myself to calm the hell down. Deep breaths, Hannah, deep breaths. That’s step one of going toe to toe with imposter syndrome and coming out on top.
Step One: Calm the Hell Down
There are two possible scenarios when dealing with imposter syndrome. One, the panic and self-doubt are coming from somewhere concrete. You’re in over your head, you’re not charging the average rates, you’re unprepared, or you’re confused about next steps. Are you really a fraud in this scenario? Probably not; fraud is selling your services under false pretenses—not underselling yourself or feeling overwhelmed by a project. Recognizing that something’s wrong with your methods isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s only bad if you do nothing. Second case scenario, you’re completely overreacting. Your panic is coming purely from a place of insecurity.
However, it’s going to be tough to judge which category you fit under if you’re having a minor anxiety attack. Get away from whatever it is that sparked the syndrome and do what you gotta do to get your heart rate back to normal and shut up that immature finger-pointer in your brain. Eat a cookie, hug a puppy, watch The Emporer’s New Groove, I don’t care. Just do something you like, and forget about it all for a second.
Step Two: Argue with Yourself
Chances are, when imposter syndrome first set in, your brain accused you of a lot of things. Well, now that you’re calm, it’s time to answer those questions, and don’t just roll over and let the accusatory part of your brain yell whatever it wants at you. Fight back. Stick up for yourself.
My brain had convinced me that I was a loser because I would have taken the client that this other ghost had refused. But would I have? In the post, this caller never specified what kind of book she needed or how long it was going to be. Every time the ghost asked her for a little more detail, she just pressed on about money, saying she couldn’t go over $1,000 because she didn’t have anything else. That’s not how I work. I get details about the project before money is ever discussed. If someone is all about sticking with a rigid budget and doesn’t even seem interested in talking about their book’s subject, they probably aren’t passionate about the project and aren’t going to be fun to work with. That sort of thing makes me question if the client really cares about the book at all or has just gotten it in their head that a book can make them some money because their cousin did it last year and made some cash. I don’t want to work with people like that. The caller never even specified if the book was fiction or nonfiction. My fiction rates are much higher than my nonfiction because fiction involves serious creative contribution, which I refuse to sell for pennies ever again. However, for my most recent nonfiction project, the total came to about $1,000 per 100 pages. The client supplied all of the research and even wrote blog post-style pieces which served as the foundation for each chapter. I simply cleaned them up, organized them, and expanded them after conducting a weekly phone interview with the client. Based on this other ghostwriter’s post, I had no clue whether the caller wanted 100 pages for $1,000 (which matched my current rate) or if she wanted 500 pages for $1,000 (which I would have rejected). I didn’t know if this caller wanted a ghost to do all the research and write the entire book from scratch, or if she would provide all the necessary material and contribute to the writing process.
I couldn’t definitively say if I would have worked for this client, and there were a few signs pointing strongly toward no.
This brought me to my next issue with my brain’s former accusations. I had no clue how this ghostwriter operated. To better play devil’s advocate with myself, I went back onto her site and looked at her “about me” page, her rates page, and her resume page. The first thing that caught my eye was a line on her rate page. It said that she typically charged $1 per word, or roughly $20,000 per 100 pages (yowza!), but her minimum fee was $2,000. Uh, wait a sec. That’s a huge leap: 2,000 minimum but typical is $20,000. She didn’t go into any detail about what would entail a minimum fee vs. the typical fee; she just had a place where clients could request quotes. But that’s okay. I don’t need to know her exact pricing methods. What I do know is that she does different levels of work. Usually, the work she does is worth $1 per word, but she has done projects for which $2,000 was adequate compensation. Now, of course, I’m guessing here, but I would wager that the projects she charges $1 per word for entail a whole lot more work than the project I recently did for $10 per page.
Her resume showed me that she does both fiction and nonfiction work, like me. She could charge more for fiction like I do. Her “about” page told me that she loves to do research and that her nonfiction books are extremely research heavy. I have an hourly rate for research that is separate from my writing rate. I don’t know how this other ghost operates. She could lump it all into one. What I do know is that for the project that I was frantically comparing to hers, the client provided all the research he wanted to include by writing out all the major info for each chapter in his own words. My job was to expand his 3-5 pages into 10-15 and make the language clear, structured, and engaging. I didn’t have to read a pile of books on addiction recovery or spend time seeking out expert interviews for first-hand stories. The client was the expert. The book was about his personal experiences. I chatted with him on the phone for a few minutes when I had a question. There was no intensive research that needed to be compensated, and he did a third of the writing. From what I gathered on this woman’s site, she helms her projects with her own research. Lastly, from her resume, I saw that she’s been ghostwriting since 2003. I’ve been doing it for a little less than two years, and I started out with absolutely no clue what ghostwriting was. So I’ve only been doing it seriously for about a year. I had to ask myself, did this woman charge $1 per word and land 5-figure gigs right out of the gate with no paid samples to her name? I’m going to say probably not.
Can I really compare myself to a ghostwriter with almost 15 years’ experience whose projects are far more research intensive and ghost-driven compared to my latest project? Sure, if I want to drive myself crazy. But if I want an accurate comparison, no.
Lastly, I had to face the ugliest accusation my brain had made. This ghostwriter had said that anyone charging less than $5,000 per 100 pages was going to deliver a subpar product that would need a complete rewrite. I charged less than $5,000 per 100 words on my last ghostwriting project. Did my work suck? Am I a shit writer posing as the real deal and disappointing my clients? No. No. And, also, no. Am I the next National Book Award winner? Probably not anytime in the near future. Can I write? Yes. Can I write well? Yes. Are my clients happy with my work? My testimonials page assures me that they are. Does the client whose book I’ve been comparing to this woman’s projects agree? I can hear the enthusiasm in his voice whenever he talks about the book over the phone. He’s told me he loves my work on numerous occasions. Most telling of all, he wants to hire me for his next book project. I think I’m doing pretty damn good.
Step Three: Learn Something
I had already known I was charging lower than average for my nonfiction ghostwriting. I did my research. I knew what the lowest professional-grade rate was, and I went lower. Why? While I had some impressive fiction samples, before that client I’ve been rambling on about, my only nonfiction ghostwriting projects were partial pieces. I had freelanced for a company that outsourced some of their writing to me. As part of that arrangement, I’d ghostwritten a single chapter in a finance book for college students, completed a super short (like 12 pages) how-to ebook on the Green Smoothie Cleanse, and cleaned up/rewrote an already completed short ebook on fermenting your own food (riveting, I know). Sure, these projects were better than no experience at all, but they weren’t exactly phenomenal. I knew I would be a hard sell to anyone who was serious about their book, and I wanted a client who was passionate. I had to make myself attractive somehow. So, when I set my initial nonfiction ghostwriting rate for PurpleInkPen, I didn’t charge absolute dirt, but I kept it low. I planned to raise my rate as soon as I got a full book project in my portfolio.
But you know what stumbling across this other ghost’s post made me realize? I hadn’t changed my rates yet. I was actually in the process of looking for new ghostwriting clients when I came across that post, and yet my price page for nonfiction ghostwriting was still boasting the old rate. Hmm.
Once I was calm and I’d realized how silly it was to try and compare myself to this veteran ghostwriter (not to mention how silly it was to doubt my own writing ability based on one person’s generalization), my brain started asking me rational questions like, “Were you about to sell yourself short again, Hannah?” Why, yes, yes I was. What is it with us writers and our insecurities about asking for more money? Is it because numbers make us hiss like a cornered cat? I don’t really know why, but I do know from my time spent in multiple online writer groups that it’s an extremely common issue.
Well, I’m not going to contribute to the issue anymore. I’m going to stick to my original plan. I’m going to ignore the voice in my head screaming “Watch out! If you go too high, no one will hire you, and those income reports you were planning to do will be sad, and everyone will unfollow you because you’re a loser and nobody wants to read a loser’s blog!” I’m going to raise my rates even higher than I’d planned, and I’m going to use my fellow ghostwriter’s blog post as my calculator. $5,000 per 100 pages, here I come.
Am I scared? Very. Am I excited? Yeah, but it’s a queasy sort of excitement, like the kind you get when you ride a rollercoaster that does too many loop-de-loops. Am I still going to do it? Hell yeah! I’m also in the midst of devising a new Twitter cold-pitching strategy that will now include finding experts in fields I’m interested in and approaching them about writing a book. Because you can’t raise your rates and just keep doing the same old things. That will only bring you across the same old clients. If my strategy works, I’ll be sure to share it here.
If imposter syndrome has you in its grip, punch it right in its smug, evil face, but then ask yourself why it pounced on you in the first place. Odds are there’s something that’s making you feel insecure about your services or your abilities that opened you up for attack. Figure out what it is and fix it.