Last week, I answered some of the most common questions I receive regarding fiction ghostwriting, so this week we’re going to take a look at nonfiction book ghostwriting. This niche is a little less obscure, has less of a stigma, and is a bit easier to break into and make money from. However, book ghostwriting of any type isn’t a widely discussed topic, and many freelancers still have lots of questions about it.
Let’s get the basic definition out of the way. Ghostwriting books means you write the manuscript for the client, and they put their name on it. You get no credit and usually no royalties (really it’s better to avoid royalties as a ghost because the success of a book will depend on your client’s marketing expertise, or lack thereof). Instead of a byline, you get paid a higher rate.
Okay, now let’s get into the questions.
Q: Who Needs These Services?
A: Entrepreneurs, Businesses (Big or Small), Publishers, and Packagers
You have a wider range of clientele in nonfiction ghostwriting than fiction, but on principle, you still want to avoid the Average Joe, aka the guy who wants to write a memoir mostly for his kids or that dude at the park who says, “I’ve definitely got a few books in me,” but who hasn’t actually written much of anything since college. Those people usually don’t have financing. They’re the ones who want to pay you $300, and then they’re a total pain in the ass through the whole process because they know nothing about writing a book, but they think they do.
You can still target individuals, however, just make sure they’re a professional with some sort of business and following. This is actually a great place to start when you lack a serious portfolio, rather than trying to shoehorn your way onto a packager’s list or work with a huge corporation with no paid experience under your belt. Entrepreneurs are constantly looking for new ways to market themselves and expand their brand. If you can present your services as an investment that will help them increase their expertise and provide them with additional sales and passive income, you’re much more likely to land a nice contract.
Corporations like adding books to their repertoire, too. Some ghostwriters specialize solely in writing company histories because they are in demand and they pay very well. If the business has to do with a product or some sort of program, they may hire a ghostwriter to produce a book to add to their promotional material. Corporations and even many smaller businesses have the budgets to pay you well.
Publishers will often make deals with famous faces or up-and-coming experts with impressive platforms based solely on a proposal. Ghosts usually write those proposals. Ghosts are also often called upon by the publisher to help that expert or celebrity create a professional and engaging final product. If the publisher doesn’t select the ghost themselves, they will pass the work off to a packager. Packagers have lists of ghosts they work with, and they’ll match the project to the best ghost for the job.
Packagers also sometimes work directly with the expert or minor celebrity, who pays them and their team to write, design, print, and market the book. It’s a sort of package-deal self-publishing. Ghosts are usually part of the process. If the packager is being paid well (they can’t stay in business if they aren’t), then the ghost is paid well.
Q: Can You Make a Full-Time Income Off of This?
Sure, there are plenty of low-paying gigs floating around out there, but that’s the case in all niches. The publishing world can be hard to break into, but once you’re in, you’re gold, Pony Boy. And breaking into nonfiction isn’t as difficult as fiction, because there are more avenues to target, a higher demand for ghosts, and larger budgets.
Some nonfiction ghosts can command rates of $1 to even $2 per word! Those are the ghosts who have bestsellers in their portfolio, but those rates aren’t out of reach. You can get there. A more common price range for pros is between $0.40 and $0.60 per word. I currently charge $0.30 as my base rate (it can go up based on research requirements, deadline, etc.). But that price is a new development for me. I was naive when I started, and I took many jobs at nowhere near that rate (luckily, the ones I was paid absolute dirt for were very small). Don’t do that. If you’re a good writer, don’t go below $0.20 even if you have absolutely nothing paid in your portfolio. Writing a book is time consuming, and you won’t be able to pay your bills if you start where I did, trust me.
You will need to “pay your dues” to get that first sample (remember, the publishing world is like an exclusive club in many ways), but don’t charge dirt. You’ll have a hard time pulling yourself out of that. Keep in mind that an average book (50,000 to 75,000 words) will earn a pro between $15,000 and $30,000. If you have no published nonfiction titles to your own name and no portfolio, you could take on a short 10,000 word ebook on a topic you’re already familiar with at around $0.20 per word. That’s not pro rates but it’s not absolute chump change. It also won’t take you 6 months to finish, and you can get a paid sample and move on up from there.
Q: How Do You Move Up If You Can’t Take Credit?
A: Create a New Type of 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: How Do You Deal with the Lack of Credit?
A: They Aren’t My Books.
It’s even easier for me to overlook lack of credit in nonfiction than fiction. In nonfiction, you’re almost always writing about a topic that directly relates to your client and what they do. Even if it’s on a topic that interests you, it really has nothing to do with you.
If you’re working with an entrepreneur, that book is most likely about their method for losing weight, overcoming addiction, achieving financial stability, etc. Your main resource for the book is the client: material he/she provides you, interviews with him/her, etc.
If you’re working for a corporation, you’re writing about their history or their product or their philosophies.
If you’re working with the client of a publisher or packager, you’re writing a memoir about another person’s life or writing on a topic that the client is an expert in. Again, they provide you with the majority of the material, though you may need to do fact-checking and some outside research.
I have written on topics ranging from healthy living to food canning, finance for college kids, and addiction recovery. There were interesting aspects to each topic, and I did reading and research on some level for all of them, but they never, at any point, felt like my books. I had no trouble handing any of them over. I wish I’d been paid better for a number of them, but the lack of credit never once bothered me.
One of my past projects (I was paid better for that one, averaging an hourly rate of around $40 on the material, but still not near my current rates) recently landed that client an agent! I felt no jealousy. No burning desire to take credit for that book. I was just ecstatic that what I had written helped that client land a really great agent. (His own awesome marketing skills can’t be overlooked either.) I was even happier when that client said, “She wants me to write another book, so I’ll definitely be talking to you about that later.” With a publisher’s advance, I can charge that older client my newest rates, and once again, I have no qualms. The books are his, written on a topic he specializes in. As long as I’m paid for my labor, I have no problem with his name being on the cover rather than mine.
Q: Isn’t It Unethical?
A: Not If Done Correctly.
The question of ethics isn’t as stark in nonfiction as it is in fiction, but it still arises. I think it’s actually pretty hard to steer into the land of the unethical in nonfiction. Why? As already discussed, in nonfiction you are almost always writing about a topic that relates to the client’s own experiences and/or expertise. There’s no reason their name shouldn’t go on the book, and you’re (hopefully) being paid a very nice rate to give up having your name below the client’s on the cover (that’s called coauthoring, and it’s a perfectly viable option, as well. You’ll usually take a lower upfront rate in exchange for credit and a cut of royalties, but you’re still paid for your writing efforts).
I see absolutely nothing unethical about somebody who has a great and even helpful idea, but who doesn’t have the time or skills to write an entire book by themselves, hiring a professional to help them out. That’s good business in my eyes.
The only time you wade into murky water is when you’re approached by someone who wants to hire a ghost to write on a topic they think is profitable, but which they know nothing about. And even then, it only broaches unethical territory if that client puts his or her own name on the final product and presents him or herself as an expert in the field. I’ve never personally come across a client like that, and I’d wager they are fairly rare. I’d wager it’s even rarer to find someone like that who is actually willing to pay pro rates. Why? It’s not really an investment for that person; it’s just a get-rich-quick scheme.
The Beauty of Ghostwriting
Ghostwriting nonfiction books is a fun and potentially lucrative career path for anyone who just wants to write for a living. You get to meet interesting people, learn about new and fascinating topics, and you get to make money off of writing. You don’t have to deal with the rest of the publishing mess. You don’t have to worry about finding a publisher or, if the product is self-published, paying for an editor and designer and marketing manager. You just research and write, turn it over, get paid, and move on to the next project.
Some days I can’t believe it’s actually my job, but each and every day, I’m grateful.