Friday, March 22, 2013

Notes on Ghostwriting

By Karen Albright Lin

Ghost. A wispy creature some people converse with but others don’t see or even know about. That’s basically what an “author” has when hiring a ghostwriter. Many people don’t have the skills, discipline or research experience necessary to write a book. A doctor, celebrity or famous author might hire a ghostwriter because he/she doesn’t have the time. Popular authors are often expected to pop out three or four books a year. Some series are sold under one name, yet written by numerous writers, like the Nancy Drew Mystery Series. Is this cheating? That’s debatable. But the practice is more popular today than ever before. I’ve seen estimates that suggest almost 40% of books are ghostwritten. 

Along with being a professional editor and writing consultant, I’m a ghostwriter: memoir, YA fiction, “screenplays for hire” and children’s. I’ve been lucky. All of them have been produced, published, or will soon be published. One question to ask yourself before taking on a project is whether or not there is some assurance your work will see the light of day. That means it’s already agented, contracted, or, in the case of screenplays, funded or attached to an experienced producer/director. 

How many times has someone come up to you and said, “I’ve had cool things happen in my life. It would make a great book. Want to write it?” Some believe they're doing you a favor by slipping you their amazing stories. I love a great tale as much as the next writer, but telling that story in 300 pages is no small undertaking. Though it has its upsides, ghostwriting, in many ways, is harder than writing your own nonfiction, novel or memoir (elements of each).

Collaboration is not something to take on without great consideration. It’s like a marriage; imagine being joined at the hips for six months or more. Are you ready for the commitment? Do you feel driven to hop inside this person’s head?  As in marriage, it matters why he chose you. Hopefully there are many reasons.

  • Why this ghostwriter?
Understands the subject matter
Past experience
A convincing trial sample
Known to be trustworthy (especially if there is a nondisclosure clause in the contract)
Has an intuitive sense of what to put in and what to leave out
Available when you need him
What he brings to the table: proposal, an agent, and investigative skills
Integrity and speed
Ready to write objectively, without judging

How do you find a ghostwriting job? You can look on writing job sites or in magazines. In my case, it’s been word of mouth through editing clients and networking in the writing community. If someone decides you're the one to write the story, there are quite a few things to consider before taking on a ghostwriting gig.

  • What’s expected of each of the collaborators?
Will the client (author) dictate and the ghostwriter (writer) transcribe and brush up?
Will one do the interviews, research and writing while the other adds his name in order to gain credentials for his career or capitalize on his established name to get a book out quickly?
Will one take a rough version of the written story, shape and edit until it is a finished product?
Who will do the marketing research, the investigative work?
How much freedom will the ghostwriter or collaborator (writer) have?

Interview skills are important. It takes time to arrange for recording if allowed, agree on costs, and prepare questions (that’s another blog post). I needed to travel to interview my celebrity “author” recently, arrange for housing and food expenses. All absorbed by me, knowing it would come back to me in spades on the other end. It’s a big book, with a big percentage contract, represented by a big agent. 

Regardless of the strength of the story or the marketability of the named author, the writer should consider career enhancement and monetary potential. Few opportunities are big books. But you never know; depending on the uniqueness and power of the story it could hit big. Unknown authors must be prepared to pay before the book sells. If a ghostwriting gig comes your way, charge what you’re worth. If the story is likely to have a huge readership, consider putting in unpaid time up front in anticipation of a percentage of the advance and royalties. Some take a fixed fee. Hillary Clinton’s memoir supposedly got an 8 million dollar advance, the ghostwriter a $500,000 flat fee.   

  • How and when will the ghostwriter be paid?
Flat fee?
Hourly rate?
Per page or per word?
A percentage of the proceeds (only advance or advance plus royalties and derivative works)?

If contracting for a percentage, you can get anywhere from 10% to 50% depending on what you bring to the table, the sale potential, and the scope of the book. The pay iterations are only limited by the collaborator’s imaginations and the attorneys’ sharp sensibilities. An indirect form of pay would include having your name attached, being less ghostly, adding to your public bio, and often your prestige.

  • Will the ghostwriter receive credit for the book?
Name on front of book (with X , as told to X, or X, contributor)
Name on back cover, spine, or inside flap
Name in acknowledgements or forward
Not named at all (some want the glory or need the credit, some don’t)

There are other considerations. Besides pay and credit, it is wise to address: 

  • Who takes on other obligations and retains certain privileges?
Who will retain copyright?
Who is signatory to the publishing agreement?
Who will cover out-of-pocket costs like travel?
Is there a confidentiality clause?

Nothing is without downsides and risk. My own experiences have been rewarding, but painful at times. 

Problems I’ve experienced:
  • Broken promise of acknowledgement (blamed on publisher, “one extra page in the book”)
  • Contract with terms unfavorable to me (check with an attorney!)
  • Never ending requests to edit (contract for limited edit passes)
  • Encouraging and counseling a dreamer who was not a doer
  • Eking out payments
  • Broken contracts, time lost
  • A client backing off the guts of a story, leaving only a shell of a tale to tell
  • Difficult personalities to work with
  • An agent interfering with the collaborative agreement
  • A client backing out without an agreed-upon kill fee in place (attorney!)

Make your experience a great one by getting a good feel for the potential partner and scope of the project. Sign a clear contract with fair terms. Why would I do something so complicated? Ghostwriting adds to the number of stories I get to tell and helps me connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise. It makes me accountable, keeping me on task; I don’t have time to experience writer’s block. I’m about to embark on another ghostwriting gig with a woman who is not yet a household name. She has a great story with much to offer her readers. I’ll let you know how that goes. There are many wonderful things about ghostwriting. If the opportunity comes your way, try it; you may end up loving it. 

(First posted on the Chiseled in Rock Blog, Oct 10, 2012)

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. This was an interesting post. I learned a lot. I thought about ghostwriting once, but realized I'm too immersed in my own work to do a good job writing someone else's story. Still, a lot of good material here to consider. Thanks.

  2. Lots of helpful information in this piece. Thanks!


  3. This is what i am looking for Ghost writing
    really you made my day.


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