I’ve talked about pitching quite a bit on this blog—cold pitching and responding to project listings. However, I haven’t talked much about what happens if your pitch gets a response, so I want to cover exactly what that looks like for book ghostwriting projects.
(Not sure how to pitch? You may find these posts helpful: How to Make Yourself a Hot Commodity, Dos and Don’ts of Twitter Cold Pitching, What I Learned from a Nightmare Pitching Experience)
No matter whether your cold pitch is what put the idea of writing a book into the potential client’s head or whether you responded to an ad and are up against other freelancers for the position, one of the first questions the client is going to have is, “How much would you charge for this?” That means you have to know how to craft a bid, and there is a lot that goes into that process to make sure you deliver a price that fairly compensates you and is agreeable to the client. Hitting that sweet spot is hard to do, but it’s crucial, especially when you’re vying for the position against other bidders. So how do you do that?
Know the Standards
The best way to start is to have a ballpark figure in your head. You need to understand the standard rate ranges for various elements of book ghostwriting. While I still love Writer’s Digest’s rate guide, it doesn’t get quite as detailed as Kelly James-Enger’s book, Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: Make Money Ghostwriting Books, Articles, Blogs and More. Kelly breaks the figures down by project type as follows:
Book proposal: $3,500 to $10,000+
Consulting: $100 to $300 per hour
Rewriting (the client’s work, not your own): $35 to $100 per hour
Average Book (50,000 to 75,000 words) Fixed Rate: $7,500 to $50,000+ (most common range= $15,000 to $30,000)
Average Book Hourly Rate: $25 to $250
(Want to know more about Kelly’s book? Read 10 Things You May Not Know About Ghostwriting.)
If you’re a beginner, you’re going to want to stick to the lower end of the scale so that your lower price works to make up for your lack of experience, but knowing these figures will keep you from selling yourself short, as I have done far too many times.
Still, those ranges are pretty wide. How do you decide where on the scale to place your bid? First, you should ask the client if they have a budget in mind. They usually do, but that doesn’t mean you need to charge that exact figure; you need to charge an amount that adequately compensates you. Chances are, you need more information about the project to figure that out. If you cold pitched the client, you’re going to need to help him or her figure out exactly what he or she wants. If you responded to an ad, the client already has the scope of the project in mind (hopefully), but they probably didn’t share all the details in the job listing. You need to get on the phone and ask some questions. I’ll cover the basic ones here.
Do You Want to Self-Publish or Go the Traditional Route?
This needs to be your very first question if it isn’t listed in the job posting. The reason? If your client wants to traditionally publish a nonfiction book, the first thing they need written is a book proposal, not the full book. Some clients may already know this. Some may even have written the proposal, gotten a publisher interested, and just don’t have time to write the full thing themselves. More often, though, the client will need that proposal ghostwritten, and they need to be told why they need it. Really, the book writing shouldn’t even move forward past the few sample chapters needed for the proposal until a publisher has accepted it.
If the client wants to self-publish, no proposal is needed, and you can just jump into the book itself. Your first question in that case should be whether the client has an outline prepared or not. If not, guess whose responsibility that is? You need to know exactly how much writing you’re doing to bid properly. Which brings us to the next big question.
What Size Manuscript Did You Have in Mind?
If the client already has a ballpark word count, perfect! If not, you’ll need to ask some more probing questions about the book. If it’s nonfiction, is it going to be a narrative style or more like a guidebook? If it’s a how-to book, is it going to have quizzes or fill in the blank pages for the readers to work in? How many different categories are being covered? If it’s fiction, genre can sometimes play a part in the length. An epic fantasy is, by nature, going to be way longer than a cozy mystery. You’ll want to get a feel for the scope of the plot and how much time the story covers, too. If your client is still on the fence, you can always quote Kelly’s standard word range of 50,000 to 75,000 words as a starting point, but keep in mind that she works exclusively in nonfiction.
Kelly suggests asking the client to find or think of some books that are similar to what they want theirs to be and judge the length based on those.
Of course, the longer the book, the more you should be paid.
Do You Have a Timeline in Mind?
This is an area where you may need to set the client straight. If you’re going to be writing an Average Joe’s memoir, he probably doesn’t really have a concept of how long writing a book takes. It’s his life, right? He can just talk to you a couple of times, lay it all out, and then you can make it pretty in … oh … say, one or two months, right? Uhhhh, probably not. On average, ghostwriting a standard-sized book is going to take about six months. My latest ghostwriting project took about seven months for the initial draft, but it was a little over the standard length. However, then I had to do rewrites (always expect rewrites). That would have only taken about two weeks, but the client went radio silent and didn’t get back his rewrite suggestions to me for about a month. Then, after I did those, he wanted to add whole new sections. Fine by me; I’m getting paid for those. However, those additions aren’t going to be done until the end of this month, so the whole thing took about ten and a half months. The point is, it takes time, and you never know what’s going to come up. If your potential new client has some unrealistic expectations, you’re going to have to set him straight. Now, if the client just wants a short guidebook, maybe that two month time frame would be doable, but I’d still suggest you charge a rush rate because you’re going to have to put pretty much everything else aside unless we’re only talking fifty pages or less here (I’ve done two projects like that).
Do You Have Any Material Already Written?
This is possibly the most important of the important questions because it lets you know whether you will be taking the lead on this project, working alongside the client, or just reworking the client’s material. From my personal experience, the most common arrangement is that the client provides you with outlines, and after some phone conversations to flesh things out, you do the chapter-by-chapter writing from those outlines. Every client will provide a different level of detail in these outlines. I’ve had clients provide very generalized outlines that are basically just a list of chapter topics. I’ve had clients provide pretty thorough overview outlines that provide chapter titles and bullet points of everything that should be included in the chapter. For my most recent project, the client provided me with three to four pages of bullet points for every single chapter. That book would have been very research heavy on my part had the client not done this. His outlines became my main information source, cutting back my work significantly.
If you’re going to be working on a fiction book, I personally suggest that you make a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline a requirement. I’ve done it both ways, and trust me, you want the detail. Contributing too much creative input about character and plot leads to unpleasant feelings when the book comes out and starts getting praise in the Amazon review section.
(For more about that experience you can read The Heartache of Ghostwriting Done Wrong.)
The more you contribute, the more you should be paid. If, however, the client wants to write out everything in their own voice first, that denotes a whole different price range because much of the leg work is off of your shoulders. Kelly suggests charging hourly for this, and I think that’s definitely the best plan because it’s hard to gauge how long the rewriting will take chapter to chapter. I would definitely suggest that you ask the client to send you any material they’ve already written so that you can judge their writing level.
How Much Research is Involved?
This usually only applies to nonfiction; the exception would be something like historical fiction. To figure this out, you need to talk out the topic with the client. Is the client an expert in the field? Does he or she have the time to teach you the topic? Does the client want interviews included? If so, will you need to conduct those or will the client do that and provide you the transcripts. Does the client want this book to be research heavy, with input from lots of other sources, or is the client the main resource (aka, does the book revolve around their personal experience in the field or the field in general)?
Knowing this not only influences your price but also the timeline for the project.
Kelly has two pages worth of preliminary questions to ask in her book. I’ve just touched on the most basic and important questions that I’ve used myself. As you gain experience and figure out how you work, you’ll probably develop specific questions of your own that are important to you.
I wish I had known a lot of these things when I first discovered ghostwriting, but I stumbled upon it by chance. If you’re considering getting into this line of work, I hope that this post has made you feel a little more prepared. If you have any questions about bidding or any stories about ghostwriting projects you’ve had, please share in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.