The anonymity of working as a ghostwriter creates roadblocks that bylined writers don’t have to deal with, and those roadblocks can turn into giant walls when you’re a beginner. How do you stand out when you’re just getting started with either a small project list of only one or two jobs or as a total newbie? In exchange for giving up your byline, you’re supposed to command a higher rate, but how do you prove you’re worth that rate?
I’m going to show you how. But understand, if you’re getting into the book ghostwriter business like me, it’s a long road to credibility. Books take a while to be published, and even at respectable beginner rates they are big bucks for your clients, making it harder for you to land your first jobs. You won’t command $1 per word rates for a while (I’m still not there myself), but you can still land quality projects that you enjoy at rates that pay your bills. I’m there, and I want to share five tips and strategies that helped me build my credibility. Most of these things you can do as a total beginner with no paid experience, but a few will be milestones you should start setting your sights on now, even if you can’t act on them immediately, so that you can reach them faster than I did.
P.S. Not in the book niche, but still a ghostwriter? Don’t fret; you can still employ most of these tips.
1. Choose Your Specialties
While book ghostwriting is your general niche, it’s always good to narrow that down some more. There are a multitude of book genres out there, and yes, if you list only a handful on your site, you may turn away a few people, but you will stand out more to the clients in your preferred genres. Listing a specialty suggests you’re a pro in that genre. You don’t have to settle at one, but do narrow your niche to some degree. For instance, my specialty genres are fantasy, mystery, YA history, DIY/how-to, and self-help. I have paid samples in all those genres. I do list other writing interests and genres on my site. They are genres that I haven’t written in professionally but in which I have personal knowledge/writing experience. That larger list still doesn’t even begin to cover how many topics and genres are out there, so I’m still narrowing, but when I pitch, I only list those five main specialties to make me stand out to the right people even more.
(Want to learn more about niches? Read Why Niches Matter.)
But how do you go about selecting your specialties if you have no paid ghostwriting work? Easy. Just pick the genres you enjoy writing in. You’re a writer. I’m sure you have personal pieces, probably even a novel or two, even if they are works in progress. What genre are they in? List them as your specialties. That’s what they are. Those are the areas you have experience in; doesn’t have to be paid. Paid is nice, but it’s not necessary for narrowing your niche. Just the word specialty gives you a boost in credibility on your site and when you pitch.
2. Don’t Forego a Portfolio
A common misconception about ghostwriting is that, by the very nature of the work, you can’t build a portfolio. This just isn’t true. True, your portfolio is going to look different from that of a credited writer, but you can still have one, and a strong one at that.
For an in-depth look at how to handle the creation of your portfolio, read my post How To Craft a Ghostwriter Portfolio. The gist of the matter is that you can describe the topic and genre of the book you ghostwrote and detail how involved you were in the process and your work methods, all without actually revealing the name of your client or the book. This method proves you have experience but also shows that you value client confidentiality, which is huge as a ghostwriter.
And you don’t have to forego samples, either. Some of my clients have agreed to let me display short samples from their books on my portfolio, redacting any information that would identify them. Others allow me to use a sample, but only if the new potential client directly requests it and signs an NDA. Work out the details with your clients, but don’t be afraid to ask to use samples in this way. If the client says no, that’s a-okay, but you’d better get paid a little extra.
But what if all your clients say no to your request, or what if you’re a total beginner with no paid projects?
Again, you’re a writer. I know you’ve written something in your specialty areas. Pull it out and slap it on your portfolio. Make it clear they are personal samples to avoid confusion and accidental perceived dishonesty. The fact that those samples are unpaid doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. What’s most important is that you prove you can write.
Bonus Tip: If you want to really stand out, make sure your samples showcase your ability to adopt different writing voices. That’s a hallmark of a good ghost. Don’t be afraid to highlight this for your portfolio viewers, either. In my portfolio listings, I make note of the project’s voice and genre: a subtle way of saying, “Hey, not all my writing sounds the same. Bet I can sound like you.” Don’t have samples in any voice but your own? Make some new ones. Mimic another writer you like.
3. Get Yourself in Front of Clients
Do a quick Google search right now for “ghostwriter” or “hire a ghostwriter.” The top search results are going to be articles on ghostwriting and ghostwriting agencies. That’s right, there are lots of companies that offer fast, affordable ghostwriting services. They have fancy websites and talk big talk about all the books they’ve helped publish. But really, many are like giant mills, churning out sub-par products thanks to a hive of underpaid and in some cases under-experienced (at least for what the company claims) writers on call. Now, not all these agencies are like that. Some are middle-men that use a network to help independent ghosts find opportunities, and they take a cut in return. Those are companies you might consider getting in touch with yourself. However, avoid the companies that take the majority profit and then give the ghosts the small percentage cut.
Either way, it’s hard, with all those companies popping up on the first three search pages, to get your name to pop up when a potential client does a simple Google search. So you have to get creative and get active. Some ways to get your name and face out there are:
- Join relevant Facebook groups: read more in Freelancer’s Guide to Facebook Groups.
- Put your job title on all your social media accounts and interact with authors and experts in your specialty fields.
- Attach a blog to your business site: read more in 5 Ways a Blog Can Increase Your Freelance Income.
4. Learn as Much as You Can About the Publishing Industry
The reason clients come to book ghostwriters is because they don’t have either the time or experience to write a book themselves. Another reason some clients need ghosts, though, is that they have little idea of how the publishing industry works. There are lots of less successful ghosts who forget this. If you want to stand out, devour all you can about the publishing industry. I’ve taken a college course, completed a full certification course, and read multiple books on the subject, and I’m still not done learning. If you want to work in the industry, you need to do your best to keep up with the industry.
If you really want to stand out to a potential client, when you do your initial consultation, chat with them about their different publishing options. Let them know you can help guide them even after the writing’s done. If you’re working in nonfiction, you’d better know about proposals. If you’re working in fiction, you’d better know about literary agents. If you can casually display this knowledge when chatting up a potential client, you’re going to stick out as a confident professional who can bring extra value to the project. That client will be far more likely to pick you over another ghost who can write just as well but who can’t give any guidance on getting published.
5. Publish a Book in Your Own Name
This is a HUGE credibility builder, especially if you handle things properly on the marketing end and get great feedback on your Amazon listing. Having your own book published shows you can write, that you can get readers engaged, and that you have firsthand knowledge of the publishing world.
However, getting your book picked up by a publisher or self-publishing the correct way takes a whole lot of time. If you’re a total beginner ghostwriter and already have a book published, I bow to you; you’re way ahead of the game. For most newbies, especially younger newbies, a book is probably going to go on your goal list, not directly into your portfolio. Now, you’re a book writer, so you probably already have some manuscripts underway. Tackle them hard! Shake off that silly self-conscious crap all we writers battle with and give that manuscript to peers, reach out to beta readers, finish the editing process, and make it happen.
My first ghostwritten book received lots of praise and a high rating on Amazon and Goodreads, and you bet your sweet fanny I mention that in my resume and portfolio. However, that book doesn’t bear my name. I knew I needed to get serious when I switched to full-time last year.
I got the opportunity to get my name on two published, tangible nonfiction books by working as a commissioned writer-for-hire for a small publishing company that creates history books for private schools. I was paid a flat fee for both those books, and I’ll tell you upfront that the rate was low, at around $700 each. However, I made the deliberate choice to take those two jobs for a very low rate in exchange for getting my name on two books. I found it well worth it, especially since, as a writer-for-hire, the design, production, distribution, and marketing responsibilities fell to the publisher, not me. It was like getting traditionally published, just with a much smaller advance and no royalties. Don’t be afraid to make tough executive decisions like these for your business, weighing the fee against the boost to your brand and deciding what’s best for your budding career.
For my fiction work, Arcamira, a novel I first wrote at the age of fourteen, I chose to initially publish on Channillo. I wanted a fiction piece with my name out there in the world, and it paid off. Channillo is great because it’s a platform like Wattpad, but you actually get paid. Again, not much. However, on Channillo, you publish in serial installments (I chose to do one chapter biweekly), and I was editing the old manuscript as I published. So, I have been paid $160 and counting just to edit my own manuscript. It’s now a complete series on Channillo, and it placed in their 2016 Channillo awards (another fact I boast on my resume). I’m currently working with my mentor to put the final touches on it before self-publishing.
I’ve been actively working on getting myself published for a over a year now. It’s definitely coming together, but I want you to realize it takes time and you need to get started right now. Publish a short ebook on CreateSpace if you want, just make sure you dedicate the proper time and care to it (treat it like a traditionally published book) so that it makes you look like a pro, not an amateur.
This niche you’ve chosen is an exceptionally tough one, and only the passionate survive. However, I hope I’ve given you the leg up I longed for when I started without a clue two years ago. If you just want to write, if books are your solace and passion, and if you are willing to work hard, you can do this. Follow these steps, stand out from the crowd, and your career will grow, probably a bit faster than mine. That’s what I hope for you anyways. Please feel free to share your triumphs, ask those questions you’re worried might be stupid (they aren’t), or just say hi in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.