When I tell non-writers what I do for a living, I often get the, “Everyone says I should write a book,” comment right off the bat, or some variation thereof. When I tell fellow writers, though, they often latch onto the fiction ghostwriting side of things, wondering what exactly it is, if you can actually get paid to do that, etc. This is mostly because you don’t hear much about book ghostwriting in general, especially not fiction. So, I want to address some of the main questions surrounding this line of work and get rid of some of the mystery … and the negative stigma.
Yes, I find that sometimes when I start explaining, I get a dirty look, or at least a flabbergasted one. Isn’t that unethical? When I first stumbled upon fiction ghostwriting, I read a number of negative articles on it. Isn’t that cheating? What type of writer would just hand over their work and let someone else take credit for it? How can you stand it?
Well, I hope to dispel those dirty looks and the accusations that fiction ghostwriting somehow lessens the art of fiction, and also answer a number of the burning questions beginners who would love to make a living writing fiction probably have.
Q: Is Fiction Ghostwriting Super Rare?
A: Not at all.
You like James Patterson? Most of his books are ghostwritten. How the hell do you think he releases like 15 books a year? Not even Stephen King can do more than two, and that was back in the period where he was hopped up on cocaine.
You can google it if you don’t believe me. Patterson isn’t embarrassed about it; he’s talked about it pretty openly. He works closely with the ghosts. He comes up with the basic story lines. He is very involved in the editing process, but he doesn’t actually write all the books. It’s impossible to know which ones he wrote every word in and which he did not.
Like the Nancy Drew series as a kid? Carolyn Keene isn’t a real woman. She’s not even one woman. The original ghostwriter in the 30s and 40s was Mildred Wirt, hired by a book packager who conceptualized the series. After Mildred, many more ghostwriters took on the Keene pseudonym.
Ever read Pretty Little Liars? Well, Sara Shepard was actually the “ghostwriter.” She didn’t conceive those books herself; she was commissioned to write them by a packager (Alloy, which was then 17th Street Productions). She actually worked as a true ghost on multiple books for that packager before that series. Ghostwriting is a very common practice in the YA genre.
You’ve probably read at least one ghostwritten novel in your life if you’re a regular reader, and especially if you’re into YA.
Q: Can You Actually Make Good Money Doing This?
A: Yes, but with a Caveat.
Like any niche, there are low-paying and high-paying gigs out there. In fiction ghostwriting, you’re going to have to dig a little deeper and work even harder than usual to find the high-paying. Why? Fiction is a gamble. Hell, publishing a book of any type is a gamble, but fiction is double the gamble of non-fiction.
Why? Usually, if an individual hires you to write non-fiction, that book has something to do with their business. That book is an investment because it furthers their brand and gives them a potential passive income. If they are a public speaker, it gives them back-of-room sales. It also gives them extra credibility as an expert in their field. You see where I’m going with this? Even if it’s not a bestseller, it profits that individual from a business standpoint on multiple levels.
With fiction, if an individual hires you, it’s because they have a hunch the idea is marketable, but it has nothing to do with a personal business. It’s more of a high-stakes bet than an investment. If an individual pays pro rates for a ghost, it’s highly likely they will pay far more for the ghost than their book ever makes, especially if they self-publish. That’s why in fiction ghostwriting you’ll find so many people and even small companies that churn out short books monthly, paying their ghostwriters about $300-$700 per book.
The genre of choice is usually romance or something like cozy mystery—easily digestible, highly sought after, throw-away weekend-at-the-beach books. They make a profit because they pay their ghostwriters dirt. Honestly, until you have some sort of “in” with a good-paying company, I’d suggest supplementing with something like editing, not sticking solely to fiction, as good gigs are tougher to dig up.
But it is possible. I guarantee you Patterson’s ghosts are very well paid. So was Sara Shepard and the Nancy Drew writers (at least the later ones). You don’t have to work with huge companies or for big names to make a living, either. For instance, I just landed a fiction ghostwriting gig writing a 3,000 word book outline for $900 for a small publishing house. I made an hourly rate of $180. Cue the wolf whistle. They are considering outsourcing outline work to me on a block-project basis that could earn me my monthly income goal of $2,000 a month just off that one gig. Fingers crossed they decide to move forward rather than keeping things in-house.
You’ll definitely have to pay your dues a little bit if you don’t have any fiction titles to your own name, but keep in mind that a pro can make in the ballpark of $15,000 or more for a standard-sized book gig. Don’t sell your talent for $300 for your first job, like I did in my naivety.
Q: Who Are Your Clients?
A: Your Best Option is to Target Companies.
I’ve explained why individuals with a “cool idea” don’t often pay the bills. In order to pay you well, books have to be your client’s business. In the fiction world, that means packagers and publishers. Packagers are the most likely to outsource ghostwriting work, but some publishers do as well. Often, though, the publishing companies, especially the larger ones, are all interconnected and they take recommendations from each other, rather than just opening up the position to the wide world of freelancers.
No harm in approaching them and taking the initiative, though. You have to get your foot in the door somehow. A good way to get your foot in the publishers’ doors is to go through packagers. Packagers are often passed on work from publishers, having their network of ghosts and designers (some in-house, some outsourced) create books with clients the publisher has made a deal with or projects they just don’t have the time to fully take care of themselves.
For more about packagers, you can read 5 Things You Need to Know about Pitching Book Packagers.
However, it’s going to be a little tough to get a deal with a packer or publisher if you have absolutely no experience. They usually want a nice resume, writing samples, references, and all that good stuff because they pay well, so they want high quality work. Again, it doesn’t mean you can’t try right off the bat; maybe your personal writing samples completely blow them away and you land the gig.
However, don’t be discouraged if the answer isn’t yes right away. Take some smaller jobs, like writing a 10,000 word book, rather than a full 50,000-75,000 word project, for a much lower rate (again, not dirt, but something within the budget of an individual client). Do some outline work. Get a few references and ramp up your resume a tad and try again. It’s always a good idea to get your personal fiction out into the world, too.
Q: Doesn’t It Bother You?
A: They Aren’t My Books. So Why Would It?
I have worked on 8 fiction book projects thus far in my career, and the only time I felt a twinge of, “Hey, this isn’t fair,” was on the very first one. Why? Two reasons that go hand-in-hand: I contributed heavily to that book creatively, and I was paid only $300 for it. When you’re first starting out and taking lower-paying gigs to get your foot in the door, DO NOT SPEARHEAD THE CREATIVE PROCESS. Your creativity is worth something. If you’re adding in characters, shaping the whole plot from a three page bare-bones outline to a 13 page, chapter-by-chapter outline, and then writing the entire book with no further help or input from the client, and you slave over it for close to 6 months, but your milestone paychecks won’t even cover your bills, you’re going to feel sort of shitty when that book starts getting really great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Had I been paid pro rates for that job, I would have felt my creative contributions were well compensated, and I could have just taken delight in the nice reviews praising the fantasy world building and the character development. Had I only been paid that small amount, but not contributed so heavily to the book’s characters and plot, I also wouldn’t have been bothered.
How do I know this? Well, I took another job with that same low-paying client (she did give me a raise, albeit only a $200 one), and I told her that for this one she would need to craft the full-length, chapter-by-chapter outline, like the one I’d made for the first book. I also told her I’d let her know if I found any plot holes or inconsistencies in the outline, but it would be up to her to patch up those holes. I didn’t feel any twinges when that book came out. Why? It was entirely her book; I’d just brought it to life. That’s also how I got past the ugly feelings on the first one. I never would have written either of those books without that client. They were hers. Especially that second one. I was still very proud of that second book, but I had no trouble letting it go.
I took another series gig with another individual (cozy mysteries this time), and she provided me with very detailed outlines. I was paid a bit better, but still not pro rates by any means (I was able to pay bills with those, at least). Those books have 4-5 star ratings on Amazon, too. Never once felt a twinge. I smiled when I looked at the Amazon pages. They were her books. I had fun writing them, and I’m glad they did pretty well, and that’s the end of that.
Now, on this latest gig, I once again turned a very short synopsis (like two paragraphs) into a full-length outline. I came up with all the characters. I only had two basic plot points I was required to hit, and I came up with all the rest. Yet, I had zero qualms about handing it over. Why? I was paid very well for my creative contribution. $180 an hour is nothing to snub your nose at. It’s not my book. Even if I had actually written the full thing rather than just the outline; it wouldn’t be my book. It was something I never would have written myself in a million years, but I had fun doing it. I was compensated adequately, I turned it over, and now I move on to the next project.
I don’t have to deal with the publishing process or marketing when I ghostwrite. I just have a ball writing the manuscript or the outline, hand it over, get paid, and then I get to do it all over again.
Q: How Do You Land New Gigs If You Can’t Take Credit?
A: Relearn How to Create a Portfolio
Just because you can’t divulge the name of the book you worked on, and in some cases, the name of the client, doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice portfolio and resume. Yours will just look a little different. You’ll use a synopsis of genre, book length, and level of contribution to showcase your past work rather than a link to the Amazon page. You’ll use testimonials (sometimes anonymous, other times not) to wow new clients. You’ll stick up for yourself and work it into your contract that you can use samples under certain circumstances, or at least get permission to hand out the client’s email for a reference. To learn more about how to finesse a ghostwriter portfolio, read How to Craft a Ghostwriter Portfolio.
Q: Isn’t It Unethical?
A: In my opinion, not if done correctly.
When faced with this question, my initial reaction is always, “Why?” The readers get the same story no matter whose name is on it.
Then the question becomes, “Wouldn’t you be upset if your favorite author didn’t actually write your favorite book?” Honestly, yeah, I’d be disappointed—as a writer, not a reader. Because if it’s my favorite book, I idolize that author’s style, and as a writer, I’d be sorry to know I was idolizing the wrong person. Would it make me love the book any less? No. Would it tarnish my view of the author? I’d need more information. Did he or she have absolutely nothing to do with the conception or execution of that book? If so, yeah, I wouldn’t like that author anymore. Would it tarnish my view of the book itself? Not at all. I’d want to figure out who the ghost was, though.
Still, I think having a false face on the novel, someone who goes on TV and to conferences and talks about the craft and answers questions about the book and how it was written, even though he or she had nothing to do with the writing, is unethical. But that rarely happens. When it does happen, it’s usually a celebrity like Hillary Duff or that YouTuber Zoella saying they wrote the book, and people are already going, “Uh… are you sure about that?”
I think James Patterson has the right approach if you’re going to hire a ghost as a big name. He is open about his use of ghostwriters, and he is still heavily contributing to each book, if not writing each word. He also still writes many of his own books start to finish. I like James Patterson books, and knowing that he uses ghosts to help him out doesn’t upset me one iota.
In other cases, as with Nancy Drew, the books are written under a pen name. That’s how it worked with those cozy mysteries I wrote. I worked on two different series, and each one came out under a different name, and not the name of the woman who ran that little company. She wasn’t taking credit; the author was as fictitious as the book. The books made her and me money, they made readers happy, and nobody was acting as a false face for those books. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you come across a book that uses an illustration as the author portrait or doesn’t have one at all, you may have a ghostwritten story in your hands.
In other cases, as with Pretty Little Liars, the book or books are created by a packaging company who comes up with the idea in-house, but the “ghost” gets the credit. I recently sent in applications to packagers who work this way. Should I land a gig with one of them, they will assign me a book concept they think is marketable, then with the guidance of their editor(s), I will write that book to their specifications (contributing creatively myself along the way), and my name will go on the book. It’s not a true ghost setup because you get credit, but it’s still labeled as that by many because the author gets a lump sum upfront, not royalties. Again, I see nothing wrong with that. I actually think that’s an awesome way to do it.
The Beauty of Ghostwriting
Those last two methods are actually highly beneficial to young, promising, but unknown writers. Traditional publishing houses are so wrapped up in “platform” and being able to “sell the author” as well as the book these days, it’s harder than ever to land a traditional publishing deal. Ghostwriting for a packager or small publishing company is the perfect way to get your foot in the door. You have professional guidance from start to finish in writing the book, you learn how to work alongside editors, and you get a whole lot of street cred, especially if you land one of those deals where your name goes on the book. Even working under a packager’s pen name gives you serious credibility. The publishing world is an exclusive club, and a good reference from a packager or one of the smaller fish acts like a secret passcode or entry ticket to the big leagues.
Talented authors who might never have been discovered the traditional way get to make money off their passion (more money than if they’d self-published their first works or even landed a first-time author deal with a small-time publisher) and simultaneously build their careers. Sarah Shepard has other successful books, many of them adult fiction, outside of the Pretty Little Liars series. And she landed that PLL gig thanks to other ghost work. She climbed the ladder, made a full-time career doing what she loved, and worked her way up to totally independent, successful author. What’s not to love about that?