Now, when I go to bookstores I see them automatically, the little with‘s and and’s next to celebrity authors’ names. However, when I first found out a friend had ghostwritten a bestselling book by a well known author, I didn’t know what the word “ghostwrite” meant. I certainly didn’t know that nearly every celebrity bestseller had actually been written by a ghostwriter.
What is a Ghostwriter?
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of a ghostwriter is:
a person who writes one or numerous speeches, books, articles, etc. for another person who is named or presumed to be the author.
Okay, but what does that really mean?
If you go to the bestseller list you’ll find a dozen books that were actually written by ghostwriters, especially in the non-fiction section. Tom Clancy? He works with ghostwriters. James Patterson? Yep. How else do you think he’s able to release six books a year? When Sheryl Sandburg, the COO of Facebook, published her bestselling book Lean In, she used a ghostwriter, too.
How about President Obama, Hilary Clinton, Mariano Rivera, and Snooki? Yes, they used ghostwriters to write their books, too. Those people don’t have time to write a book! (Especially, Snooki. That makeup doesn’t do itself!)
(Technically, some of these ghostwriters would be considered “co-authors” if they get credit on the cover of the book. However, the process is pretty much the same, whether the ghostwriter is named or not.)
Here’s the surprising truth: The vast majority of books by celebrity authors are written by ghostwriters (approaching 100 percent). The question is, is it ethical? (share that on Twitter?)
Is Ghostwriting Ethical
For the last three years, ghostwriting has been my primary job. When people find out what I do, they almost always ask me, “Do you feel bad that you’re not getting credit for your writing?”
My answer: no, I don’t feel bad about being a ghostwriter at all, for two reasons:
First, it’s not my idea. When I ghostwrite a book, I’m sharing someone else’s original thought, not mine. They came up with the content. Also, most of my clients are fantastic public speakers, people who have been talking about their ideas for ten years or more. My job is just to take their life message and put it into book form. Honestly, it’s a great job, because for each book I write, I feel like I get to sit at the feet of a world class expert and soak up their knowledge.
Second, ghostwriting allows me to get paid for my writing. Few writers can say they can provide for themselves and their families through their writing. Would I prefer to live off my own books? Sure, which is why I still do my own writing at the same time. However, ghostwriting has been a great way to apprentice myself to the craft, not to mention learn from some pretty amazing people.
When Ghostwriting Gets Sketchy
Of course, there are certain situations where I don’t think ghostwriting is ethical.
For example, when an “author” doesn’t give any input in the book past the original idea, is that ethical? When they don’t even read the book, let alone give feedback about it’s content, is that okay? In my opinion, that’s not an ethical way to approach ghostwriting.
Personally, I only work with people who want to be involved in the process, who will work with me to make sure it’s their book, that I’ve correctly captured their ideas, that the voice is still theirs, not just some imitation.
How to Become a Ghostwriter
How do you become a ghostwriter?
That’s a tricky question. All the ghostwriters I know got into it accidentally, and my story is no different. I was helping a mentor edit his book. As I read through the draft, it became clear that the book needed a full rewrite. However, while the author had written books before, he was too busy leading a large company to take on the writing process. And so I offered to do it for him.
How can you become a ghostwriter, though?
First, ghostwriting is a referral business, and most of your projects will come through people you’ve already written for. The real question is how do you get your first job. Here are a few ideas:
- Network. Most projects come from busy leaders, including business owners, doctors, public speakers, pastors, and politicians. If you tell enough of these sorts of people you’re a writer, a few of them may tell you they’re working on a book. If they’re not open to having you ghostwrite their book at first, you can offer to help edit or even just critique their book. Who knows? It might turn into your first project.
- Write in multiple different genres. If you just write fiction, write a few good non-fiction pieces. Reach out to your local newspaper and ask if there’s a chance you could work on some freelance project on spec (meaning you’d only get paid if they printed the piece).
- Start a blog. Showcase your best writing in public. Your blog is your resume.
- Don’t write for free, but don’t overcharge either. You can research how much ghostwriters charge online. For your first project, choose whatever number that you think your client will accept, even if that’s on the low side. Remember, you’ll be able to charge much more for your second book.
- Consider charging hourly. Most ghostwriters charge on a per project basis, but for your first book, if your client is open to it, consider charging hourly. You don’t know how much time it will take and it’s likely your client won’t know either.
- Ask agents. Agents are often approached by people looking for ghostwriters. If you know any agents, why not ask them if they have any advice about how to get into ghostwriting. Perhaps they’ll give you an assignment, or even a chance to write a proposal for a new book, which, if accepted, you could be hired to write.
How Do You Ghostwrite a Book?
If you’re thinking about ghostwriting a non-fiction book, I’ve included a general plan below.
Note that this plan is best when you’re working with an author who already has a message, especially with authors who do public speaking. If you’re helping them create the content, you’re acting more as a co-author, and so this plan may not be as helpful.
1. What is the Book About?
Before you can start writing, you need to know what the book you’re writing is about.
The first step, then, is to collaborate with the author to create an outline of his or her book. You should also ask the author to recommend several similar titles which you can read as research. (And if they say there are no books like the one they want to write, they probably aren’t reading enough. In this case, find similar titles on your own.)
2. Collect Written and Recorded Materials
Many authors will already have recordings of speeches, lectures, sermons, or other talks. Collect as many of these recordings as you can, especially recordings that apply to your topic.
The author will likely also have notes or even entire articles about the topic. Make sure to collect these as well.
3. Record Interviews
Interviewing your author is a ghostwriter’s most important task. An hourlong interview can make up an entire chapter in a non-fiction book. The better your questions and the more you can draw out of your client about the content of their book during the interview process, the easier the actual writing will be.
Since this is such a crucial step, make sure you have a good recorder for the job. And don’t forget to have a backup recorder as well. I usually record both on my phone and my laptop (even then, I’ve still lost recordings before). If you’re interviewing your client over phone, you can call them using skype and record it using Call Recorder.
4. Transcribe your Interviews
Next, transcribe the recorded interviews from audio to text. Transcribing is a time consuming process. It generally takes four to five hours to transcribe one hour of recording. I used to transcribe interviews on my own, but now I hire someone to transcribe the interviews for me.
5. Rewrite and Edit
The transcriptions of your interviews will become the backbone of your book, which is why it’s so important to get a good interview. You will likely have to do a lot of re-writing and editing to make it fit into a book format, but as you rewrite, make sure to maintain the author’s voice.
Your job isn’t to write a perfect book. Your job is to write your client’s book.
6. Author Review
Once the initial draft is written, give it to the author for feedback. Work with the author to make sure the book sounds like them. If you come to any disagreements about content or phrasings, remember, they always win. It’s their book, not yours.
7. Copyediting, Proofreading, and Beta Reading
As with any book, it will require a lot of editing to make it ready for publication. Here’s a good guide on how to edit until your book is finished.
Ghostwriting Can be Art
There’s something powerful about helping someone share their message with the world.
Ghostwriting is a bit like being a surrogate mother. You have to do the hard work of bearing the message and bringing the book into the world. Then, when it’s finally finished, you have to say goodbye. Still, even then, there’s this lingering feeling that it’s your baby.
Ghostwriting requires sacrifice. You may have to sacrifice your creative freedom and right to credit. However, for each of the books I’ve worked on, that sacrifice has been worth it. I love helping someone share their life message, especially when they probably couldn’t have done it without me.
Besides, when people ask me what I do for work at parties, I never get tired of explaining the strange, secret world of ghostwriting!
More Ghostwriting Resources:
- The Ghostwriting Business
- The Brutally Honest Truth About Ghostwriting
- Transcription service
- Call Recorder for Skype
- The New York Time Bestseller List (just for fun, look for the ands)
Ghostwriting is just writing someone else’s story and capturing their life message, someone who might not be able to write it for themselves. But you don’t need to be a ghostwriter to do that.
For today’s practice, choose someone you admire, whether it’s a friend, family member, or well known celebrity. Then, write a short story about their life from their perspective. Afterward, you may even want to share it with them!