Are you passionate about writing and interested in earning a living from it? Are you a freelance writer wanting to grow your business?
Ghostwriting can be a great avenue to becoming a professional writer. It certainly was for me.
But what is ghostwriting? How do you become a professional ghostwriter? Is it really ethical? And how do you ghostwrite a book?
In this article, I’ll share my experience as a Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Amazon bestselling ghostwriter of seven books. I’ll talk about what ghostwriting is, how to get ghostwriting gigs and go full-time, how the book writing process works, and what to charge.
What is a Ghostwriter?
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.
So first, what is a ghostwriter?
Okay, but what does that really mean?
If you go to the New York Times bestseller list you’ll find a dozen books that were actually written by ghostwriters, especially in the non-fiction section. Barack Obama? He works with ghostwriters. Donald Trump? Yep. When Sheryl Sandburg, the COO of Facebook, published her bestselling book Lean In, she used a ghostwriter, too.
How about 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!)
Co-Authors vs. Ghostwriters
There is a slight difference between the term ghostwriter and co-author.
If the writer does not have a byline, if they’re not named on the cover, they’re a ghostwriter.
If their name show up on the cover with a “and” or “with” or “as told by,” they’re a co-writer.
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 or co-writers (approaching 100 percent).
The question is, is it ethical?
Is Ghostwriting Ethical?
My first full-time, professional writing job was ghostwriting a book for my mentor. I’ve continued doing it, and right now I’m working on two ghostwriting projects: by a Navy SEAL and the owner of a large exercise franchise.
When people found out what I do, they almost always asked 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, ghosting 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 work? 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 potential clients will come through people you’ve already worked with to write their books.
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 an hourly rate to start. 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.
- Find subject matter experts on social media. Linkedin, Instagram, Twitter, and even Facebook can be great places to find ghostwriting clients. Look for people who are experts in their fields, have large followings, but who haven’t published a book. As you engage with them online in a natural way, look for the opportunity to ask them, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?”
One place I wouldn’t suggest finding clients are sites like Upwork or other freelance factories. These sites are filled with low-level writers who are willing to devalue their work and charge less than industry rates. Building a network through relationship takes longer, but it will lead to better results in the long term.
Before You Ghostwrite a Book, Start with a Book Proposal
If you’re not familiar with the non-fiction book writing process, the first step is to write a book proposal.
The best part about writing a book proposal with a prospective client is that it gives both parties a chance to feel each other out with much less risk.
Writing a book is a time consuming and (for the potential client) expensive process. It’s great to have a smaller, less costly project to start with, especially if that leads to a publishing contract that can cover your writing fee.
Everyone loves the idea of getting picked by a traditional publisher, and writing a book proposal is the first step to getting there.
But even if the client later decides to self-publish, now you have a map to write and publish the book, which will save everyone time and headaches throughout the process.
How to Charge for a Book Proposal
Charge for this upfront. I have a flat fee for writing book proposal of $5,000, and it’s non-negotiable. I also know some who have pricing at $3,000 and others who are in $7,500 or more range.
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. Write Your First Draft
The transcriptions of your interviews will become the backbone of your book’s first draft, 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 full-length book.
But as you rewrite, make sure to fit your writing style to the author’s voice. Remember: Your job isn’t to write a perfect book.
Your job is to write your client’s book.
6. Write a Second Draft
I never share first drafts with my ghostwriting clients. I’ve found that they’re just too rough. They make the client feel bad about the process. And so I do a heavy edit on the first draft, getting it as close to publishable quality before I send it to them for their review.
7. 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.
8. 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.
This is a short guide on how to ghostwrite a book, but if you’re looking for something longer and more detailed, check out the following guides:
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
- Zoom for Interviews
- 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!