The Truth about Modern Ghostwriting

About a week ago, a blog appeared on “Everything You Need to Know About Modern Ghostwriting” by Max Tucker that suggests that this is a broken system. However, it was written by someone who is not actually a ghostwriter, but uses interviews with authors and then has editors who edit the transcripts and turn them into a self-published book for about $20,000, or more for a memoir.

Different Approaches for Different Types of Writers

Well, this interview and transcript approach might work for authors who have $20,000 or more to spend, want a self-published book, and are articulate enough to express themselves through a series of interviews which the editors can use to create a published book. But a great many authors would like to be published by a traditional publisher and get a royalty, and rather than or in addition to interviews, they have notes, journals, and sources of research in books or articles. This interview approach usually doesn’t work for a novel, which most writers write themselves, sometimes with the help of a ghostwriter to better dramatize the book or create better dialogue.

And many writers of non-fiction books hoping to find a traditional publisher might do better to start with a proposal that includes a chapter by chapter outline, description of the market, author bio, PR and marketing plan, and one to three sample chapters at a cost of about $3000-5000. At this stage, there’s no need to pay a ghostwriter to write the whole book. That only comes into play if the author sells the book to a publisher and usually gets an advance along with a royalty. Then, the advance can help to pay for writing the complete book.

The only other time that writers need the complete book is if they decide to self-publish, but the cost can vary widely depending on the length of the book, if there are illustrations, and other factors. Generally, a self-published book can vary in length from about 50 to 300 pages, and a big cost factor depends on that. Typically, the cost might be about $3000 to $20,000, depending on the book’s length, amount of research required, number of rewrites, and other factors. Thus, no “one size fits all” approach works for all books.

Then, any marketing and PR for the book after publication should be considered separately by the author, and this will depend on what the publisher does and what is up to the author, though many ghostwriters help with the marketing, including myself. Many ghostwriters assist in finding a publisher or agent, too, such as I do through my own company, Publishers Agents and Films.

The Real Truth About Ghostwriting

While the article does make some valid points about ghostwriting, such as saving time, getting your book done professionally, getting a book without knowing your subject, and no guarantees you will be published by a traditional publisher, in other respects it is totally wrong. Accordingly, I am responding based on my own experience and that of three other ghostwriters who are members of the Association of Ghostwriters, of which I am also a member. All of us are full time writers of both our own books and ghostwritten books, so we know well whereof we speak.

Saving Time

While saving time is a clear benefit of ghostwriting, it is not necessarily the main benefit, and a claim that it “takes a normal author 1000-2000 hours to write a nonfiction book by themselves,” is ludicrous. That would mean spending about 25 to 50 weeks of 40 hours, just writing, and no one does that. Moreover, it does not take that long to write a book, even for a novice book writer. In fact, many writers have collected notes, papers, and research sources, so when they decide they want to write a book, it takes a few weeks to pull this all together and a few more weeks to write it. Then, a good ghostwriter can take the book from there to do an editorial polish and fill in the gaps. The ghostwriter can also organize this material if the writer wants, as well as supplement what the writer has written with their own ideas and research on the subject. And in many fields, writers want this additional input, such as books on self-help, popular business, and health.

The Cost of Ghostwriting

Any claim that “no good ghostwriter charges less than $15,000, is totally wrong, because the charges depend on numerous factors, including the length of the book, the ghostwriter’s experience, and if the writer wants to start with a proposal or a few chapters. I have written numerous proposals for clients for about $3000-5000, which subsequently sold to publishers, and in some cases the authors decided to credit me as a “with” author, though this was a totally voluntarily decision made after the book was published – most recently American Justice by Paul Brakke, sold to TouchPoint Press; At Death’s Door by Sebastian Sepulveda, sold to Rowman & Littlefield, and also becoming a TV series, Growing Up in Nazi Germany by Wolf Dettbarn, sold to Truman University Press, and Credit Card Fraud by Jen Grondahl Lee, sold to Rowman & Littlefield. Despite a misperception that all a ghostwriter does is write the book, I was involved in finding the publishers for the authors, too.

Another ghostwriter with the Association of Ghostwriters, Wendy Scheuring, similarly disputed a claim that no good ghostwriter charges less than $15,000. Here’s what she had to say in response:

“I myself have ghostwritten books for less than $15,000 for a number of reasons: I like the story, I think the client and I will make a great writing team, or I think the client has an excellent cause and want to help him or her share the message. The price for ghostwriting services also depends on the length of the book as well; I have ghostwritten books that are less than 100 pages, which don’t require much research. Projects, such as these, warrant a less expensive price.”

Moreover, as Scheuring points out, a high price in the $15,000-75,000 price range or even higher doesn’t equate with a ghostwriter's talent. Rather what’s important and what a prospective client should evaluate is the type of writing the ghostwriter does, which may be indicated on his or her website, as well as look at some writing samples, endorsements, and past publications. Then, the prospective client should have a consultation with a ghostwriter to see if the they will make a great team in working together. As Scheuring emphasizes: “Price is not an indication of quality. Team work and the ghostwriter's ‘aim to please’ is.”

Organizing and Managing Your Project

The article about ghostwriting also wrongly suggests that the client has to manage the project and has to be a good manager, resulting in concerns about missed deadlines, payment issues, conflicts, poor work projects, and other problems that may arise from managing a freelance contract or seeking their next project. But that isn’t the case.

In fact, typically, the ghostwriter handles such details, which can include creating a timeline for what happens when, subject to the client’s agreement on when he or she would like the project completed – or when a publisher wants certain materials from the writer. Along these lines, the ghostwriter will work out what he or she needs from the writer in order to meet the schedule. Should the writer later want to change anything – usually to delay the project, the ghostwriter will work out a changed schedule. Moreover, if writer has a book project which involves 20 or more hours a week, the ghostwriter won’t be actively looking for another project, since this one project may fill up the ghostwriter’s schedule. However, if this is a proposal that can be completed in a few days, naturally, the ghostwriter will already have other clients lined up or will be looking for other projects. At least that’s my experience. Since I’ve been recently handling the final editing of three complete books, which I previous wrote and sold to publishers, I’ve expanded the hours I normally work to complete the editing to the publishers timeline, and have been too busy to look for anything else for several weeks.

Wendy Scheuring had a similar response. As she wrote to me: “Ghostwriters are usually freelancers who schedule projects according to their editorial calendars. They need to know a client's desired deadline and they need to hear from clients during the process, such as to read and review chapters or segments of the book. Clients need to be available for interviews and be ready to send any documents, notes, photos, etc. to the ghostwriter that are integral to the project. There have been times when a project has come to a halt because the client does not respond or is unavailable.”

The Quality of Work You Can Expect

Ghostwriters typically work until the book is complete, including making edits and final revisions. They don’t work as fast as possible at a sacrifice of quality, as suggested by the article on ghostwriting. Depending on the contract, one or two rewrites might be included in a package price, which would factor in the ghostwriter’s per word rate, which is based on the amount of work and number of hours likely. Or the ghostwriter might work on an hourly basis, with the client advised regularly, often daily, about what the ghostwriter has done in how many hours. Often a package price will come in a little higher than an hourly quote, since the ghostwriter has to take into consideration the possibility of extra time for revisions and additional material the writer might submit as the project goes along. For example, I commonly give writers both a cap on cost based on the number of words, with an hourly rate charged if the cost is less. Plus I include additional costs for interviewing and for Internet research and transcripts, which usually I have assistants do for about $20 an hour or I use a transcription service. I leave it up to the writer whether to give me a credit on the book or not, though four of my last book clients wanted to include me as a co-writer or “with” writer on the cover, while one wanted only his name on the book.

Wendy Scheuring similarly has described how ghostwriters are dedicated to writing a good book for a client, whether they get credit or not. As she wrote to me: “Ghostwriters work until the project is done right, not only because that is the right business thing to do, but also because they love writing, and they want to make their clients happy. Lastly, ghostwriters are like actors in that they must write in the client’s voice and style, even if they don’t necessarily like it or agree.”

Another ghostwriter, Melanie Votaw, echoed these remarks when she wrote to me: “The majority of people who excel in one type of business haven’t developed the skill to put a book together. Without help, their books wouldn’t be viable, and as a result, we’d be deprived of their expertise on the page. There’s nothing wrong with ghostwriting, as long as the knowledge comes from the person whose name is on the cover. What the writer does is make sure that the information is clear and properly structured in book form. Paying for a ghostwriter or a developmental editor can be costly, but not as costly as putting a poor product into the marketplace or risking the loss of a traditional publishing contract, which might mean paying back the advance. Books aren’t money-makers for most people; they’re usually a “calling card” that helps people make more money from other endeavors.”

Likewise, a third ghostwriter, Dennis Briskin, who has worked as a ghostwriter for over 30 years, spoke of his commitment to seeing that a client got a successful book through the process. As he wrote to me: “Much of my work has been book doctoring rather than ghostwriting from scratch. Also, beyond doing the work, I teach my clients how and why I make the choices I do. Rather than just approve the text, they understand why my version of the text is more likely to elicit the response they want from their target audience….Also, I make their goals my own, because their success is my success. I am an idealist who wants to make the world a better place.”

The Many Ways that Ghostwriters Can Help

Many ghostwriters can also do much more than simply deliver a book, in which they turn what a client has said into a coherent, polished book that reflects the writer’s voice and tone, though the article on ghostwriting suggests that you only get a manuscript and nothing else. But this is totally not so. Certainly, a basic starting point may be a few hours of interviews with the author or with many authors, as well as reviewing their notes, journals, and transcripts from workshops, seminars. Also, there may be interviews with the writer’s associates and experts in the writer’s field to add more information and authority for the book.

Plus many ghostwriters can do much more, such as bring alive a flat manuscript with stories and dialogue, which can be based on asking probing questions of the author and doing additional research to add more detail and color to the narrative. For example, I have done this with some memoirs, which started off with brief descriptions of what happened, that were more like an outline for a book or script. Then, I asked the author to describe the setting, the individuals involved, and the interaction that occurred a little more, and I turned these incidents into stories that made exciting what would otherwise be a very dry, boring book. I have also done this with self-help and business books through creating create examples to illustrate the main points the author was making.

Additionally, many ghostwriters offer all kinds of marketing and promotional advice. For example, I have helped writers develop a proposal when they have a book that might have a broad appeal, so they can first seek out a traditional publisher and royalty deal, rather than immediately self-publishing a book. I have helped numerous authors who have received offers decide on the best agent or publisher to handle their work. I have also helped writers with creating websites, PR, and social media campaigns. And Wendy Scheuring has helped clients with these additional services too. As she wrote me: “I offer clients advice about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, marketing advice, web content advice, book covers, copyright registration, acquiring an ISBN, etc. I also help my clients market their books when they are first released. In addition, I have vetted relationships with graphic artists and publishers, and have even helped clients with their publisher decision.”

Then, too, ghostwriters can help with expanding the book through doing additional research or drawing on their own knowledge of a particular field. For example, I had one client who wanted to self-publish a memoir for her 88-year old father who had served in the military as one of the first African-American soldiers during World War II. Now he was fast losing his memory to Alzheimer’s. So my interviews with him about his background were very sketchy, and increasingly so, over the three months I worked on doing interviews and writing them up. There would never be enough information for a book, so I ended up supplementing his recollections from his teenage years through 30 years of military service by doing research about African-Americans during each historical period, which eventually turned into a 30,000 word book which will soon be published. In another case, a client writing about racial conflicts in cities sent me links to articles to use in doing research for about half of the book to supplement other chapters based on his personal experiences, reflections, and several interviews with city leaders. Often ghostwriters don’t get credit for writing these sections, but they have in essence co-written much of the book, subject to the guidelines provided by the client.

In addition, many ghostwriters can help the writer find a publisher or agent, such as I have done for some of my own clients, as well as for other writers and ghostwriters, through my company Publishers Agents and Films.

Why Don’t Ghostwriters Write Their Own Books

Given the ways in which ghostwriters can help beyond writing up what the client has said in an interview or provided in notes and transcripts to create a published book, why don’t ghostwriters write their own books? Well, many ghostwriters do. They have their own specialties and they write books on that subject under their own name. In fact, I have published over 50 books of my own with traditional publishers and another 40 or so through my publishing company Changemakers Publishing.

However, one reason that I and many other ghostwriters don’t look to our own books for most of our income is because of the way the book publishing world has changed. Today, publishers want very successful, famous people, who are either nationally known through the media or have gained an extensive following through national and international speaking engagements and the social media, meaning they have at least 50,000 or more followers on Twitter or Facebook. Under the circumstances, it is very difficult for a writer to achieve the kind of recognition that sells books and creates the “big book” that publishers and agents want today. Just being a good writer is not enough, with some exceptions for best-selling novelists and a few nationally known social and political writers, like Malcolm Gladwell, who began writing for New Yorker in 1996. Otherwise, most authors today can’t make a living by writing their own books. Or if you go the speaker celebrity route, you don’t have time to write your own books and might even consider hiring a ghostwriter yourself.

Choosing a Ghostwriter

Thus, whether a ghostwriter publishers his or her own books is not an indicator of whether someone is a good ghostwriter or whether a particular ghostwriter will be a good fit with a client. A better indicator is to see some samples of the ghostwriter’s work in the type of book you want to write, whether those samples are published under the ghostwriter’s name or written for a client. Then, have a phone conversation with the ghostwriter about your book and how the ghostwriter can help you. This will give you a sense of how the ghostwriter likes to work with clients, what kind of costs are involved, and whether you feel a good rapport with that person. At the same time, the ghostwriter will have a chance to evaluate you and see how serious you are about writing your book, proposal, script, or other material, since often prospective clients are just getting information, but they are not really ready to write their book. However, a good ghostwriter can help you assess where you are and what you have to do to get your materials together to start the process. In doing so, the ghostwriter might act as a consultant or coach to advise you or guide you through the process, which I and many ghostwriters do with some clients.

So is ghostwriting a good fit for you, and what should you expect in hiring a ghostwriter? This article can help you decide, as well as show you that a good ghostwriter can truly help you turn your ideas, thoughts, and preliminary writings into a finished book, and then help you market and promote it.

As to where to find such a writer, there are groups like the Association of Ghostwriters and the American Society of Journalists and Authors which includes many ghostwriters, that are a good starting point. Avoid some of the websites which offer lowball prices for writing, such as Upwork, Guru, and Fiverr, since you will be likely to get less experienced writers. As a ballpark, figure on paying about .25 to .50 cents a word for straight writing from transcripts, notes, or journal, and figure on an hourly rate of about $100-175 an hour for an established writer. If you get a per word rate or package rate, realize that this will be based on the writer turning their hourly rate into a per word or package price, and this price will likely be higher than an hourly rate, since the writer has to build in extra pricing to cover additional work that may come up during the project, such as extra revisions and changes.

So now good luck in finding a ghostwriter and in publishing and selling your book.

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Gini Graham Scott, PhD, writes frequently about social trends and everyday life. She is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published over 40 books through her company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients and has written and produced over 50 short videos through Changemakers Productions and is a partner in a service that connects writers to publishers, agents, and the film industry. Her latest books include: Turn Your Dreams Into Reality, The New Middle Ages, Scammed, and Lies and Liars: How and Why Sociopaths Lie and How to Detect and Deal With Them.

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