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11 Must Answer Questions About Ghostwriting

ghostwriter sculptureHi Anne,

Today I received a call from someone who is interested in hiring me to write a book for them!

Since this would be my first foray into ghostwriting, I have no idea how the process works: what to charge, what to include in the contract, how long it usually takes, the questions to ask, etc.

I know you’ve done a lot of ghostwriting. Do you have any advice you can give me, or maybe some blog posts that you’ve done about the process of ghostwriting?

As always, any help you can give me is greatly appreciated!


Hi HJ,

Ghoswriting a book can be an exciting, lucrative gig for a freelance writer. It can also be frustrating and disappointing. Maybe it’s like life, come to think about it. These questions may help you begin to understand what’s involved:

  1. Do you like the person you’re ghosting for? Ghostwriting is an oddly intimate relationship. You don’t have to be best friends, but there must be mutual respect and trust.
  2. Do you like and maybe even know something about their topic? There are topics I won’t even try to tackle because of my own prejudices and belief systems. As a ghost you must be comfortable with the material. If it’s something you know nothing about, spend some time with both your author getting an idea what it’s really all about and doing a bit of research – all this before committing to the project. I sometimes will generate a sample chapter or portion of a chapter for free just to assure both of us I can handle what’s required.
  3. Have you written a book length manuscript before? Again, not a must, but books tend to run 40-50,000 words and more. That’s a lot of writing. And then there’s the rewriting and the editing.
  4. How long does it take you to draft 2,000 or 5,o0o words? Chapters of non-fiction books tend to run between 2,000 and 5,000 words and longer. If you have some idea how long it actually takes you to write that many words you’ve got a start on what you need to charge.
  5. How long to edit that 5,000 words to final? When you know how long it takes you to turn the draft into final copy you know more about what you need to charge.
  6. What’s your hourly rate? Your hourly rate times the number of hours you suspect it will take you equals a flat fee. Add at least 20 percent for contingencies, or bill by the hour. Either works. Flat fees are usually paid in thirds, quarters or even monthly. The post, Do I Charge Too Much For My Ghostwriting? will give you additional information.
  7. Will you take a percentage instead of money upfront? My advice is no – not unless there’s already a publishing contract in place and I get at least half, and maybe all the advance plus as much as 50 percent of the project. Most books don’t earn much and there’s no reason you should not get paid – you are being hired to write, not market.
  8. Do you have any experience translating someone else’s ideas into prose? I didn’t recognize it at the time, but my experience in editing other people’s work plus listening to programmers so I could write usable  software manuals helped me translate what my first author was saying into readable prose in her voice. That book was actually a best seller.
  9. How quickly do you work? How soon does your author want the book? The timing of ghostwriting a book ranges from 30 days (I can’t do that – and those are the so-called instant books tightly tied to current events, and, in my opinion, usually not well written) to years. I’ve found that any book that takes more than a year is probably not going to get finished because the author will lose interest even if they’ve already paid me a bunch. Six months is ideal for me if we can work out the interviewing and the back and forth editing. Just remember, you don’t have control over what your author will actually do.
  10. How will the process work? Every ghosting project I’ve done has been different from every other. The elements are the same; you have to get the information from the author’s mind to yours so you can write. It can be done with interviews, from recordings of seminars the author has done, from writings the author has done – even very rough writings. As you get the information you write and send that, perhaps chapter by chapter to your author for comments and edits. Once you really get going two or three passes plus a final pass at the whole book is often enough. But if your author doesn’t return material, or insists on change after change it can take way more time than that.  Sometimes I’ve had to tell the author to change the way they are doing things.
  11. What do you do when problems occur? Almost any project that is as a big as a book will encounter some problems along the way. You can go a long way toward mitigating these by simply telling the author up front that there may be times when she hates the book, or the book gets delayed, or… almost anything. I find that when the problems come up I can gently remind the author of my warning and we’re (usually soon back on track.)

Answer these questions and you’re on your way to understanding the ghostwriting process.

What questions have I left out?

Here are some additional links on ghostwriting:

My Start5 Ingredients I Bring To A ProjectElements Of My Contracts or Letters of AgreementThe Working Table Of Contents AKA OutlineIs Ghostwriting Fair? Ask Anne The Pro WriterInterviewing To The Working Table Of Contents




Image from http://helmicksculpture.com/ghost.html

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Karen Cioffi July 10, 2011, 7:42 pm

    Oh, one more question: Aside from ghostwriting content for individuals who are responsible for writing their own papers/reports, such as college students, what content would be inappropriate for a ghostwriter to write.

    I actually had a job applicant ask me to write a 4-6 page paper that was required for his job application/interview process. He actually got a service that did 24 hour service for $200.

    • annew July 12, 2011, 10:47 am

      I will help people like that with editing… but I won’t write it for them… haven’t faced a job applicant, but unless the job required a ton of writing I’d probably help. It’s a very personal decision.

  • Karen Cioffi July 10, 2011, 7:09 pm

    Hi, Anne, I found your site through a search: ghostwriting and idea safety.

    Great post.

    My question, as a ghostwriter for a potential client: What’s the best way to make a client feel secure in knowing her/his story idea or content won’t be stolen – aside from a confidentiality agreement?

    I’m guessing I’ll have to buy the ebook when you have it done for the answer. :)

    • annew July 12, 2011, 10:46 am

      Short answer is I suspect the initial sense of confidence comes from my offering a non-disclosure. Then something also happens in the phone calls as we move toward the contract. And I’ve lost potential clients because they didn’t feel secure enough – don’t think those times were me. Rather they were just to frightened in general. I also explain ideas can’t be copyrighted and their expression, which is what’s copyrightable, will be unique to them.

  • Laya Bajpai April 28, 2011, 2:54 am

    This wonderful article can serve as an introduction to a course in ghostwriting. I loved the way Anne has simplified the process and those who want to begin as ghostwriters, know what factors they have to keep in mind.

    Laya Bajpai recently posted..Clients and ClientsMy Profile

    • annew April 28, 2011, 10:41 am

      Thanks Laya, look for an ebook on ghostwriting in a month or two.

  • A'mee April 26, 2011, 1:21 pm

    I think you might want to address some of the thought processes and emotions that can go on in an author’s head too. I’ve been doing some ghostwriting to pay bills and sometimes, especially when I’ve done a piece I’m particularly happy with, it’s hard to let it go and let someone else take the credit for it.

  • Cathy Miller April 26, 2011, 8:45 am

    What a fabulous post. I have been considering moving into ghostwriting books in my niche, but really couldn’t find anything that answered these types of questions (except for the money part. It’s the intangibles that come up in the process that come as a surprise. I really appreciate the tips, Anne.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Write Like Your Hero’s WatchingMy Profile

    • annew April 26, 2011, 10:28 am

      Thanks Cathy… I’m actually writing an ebook on ghostwriting books for freelance writers – so what other questions do you and others have?

      • Cathy Miller April 26, 2011, 11:26 am

        Oh, I was so hoping you would. :-)

        Some questions I have –
        1) How do you handle (process-wise and pricing-wise) the author who has some of the book written vs. one who just has the notes & wants you to write the whole book?
        2)What do you do when you have someone who is all concept and no notes/outline, etc.?
        3)Do you have a sample contract you could share?
        4) More tips on protecting yourself from the author that you can’t pin down for follow-up.

        Greedy, greedy, greedy. :-) Thanks, Anne/ I’m sure there are mor, but that’s what I can come up with right now.
        Cathy Miller recently posted..Write Like Your Hero’s WatchingMy Profile

        • annew April 26, 2011, 11:47 am

          Cool, keep ’em coming. Not greedy… helping me with an ebook… you could add it to your credit list 😉

  • John Soares April 25, 2011, 3:55 pm

    Anne, I really like your cautionary advice here, and I can tell it comes from experience.

    I think it’s especially important to get paid in chunks, ideally with some of the money up front. There should also be a clause in the contract that the writer gets a certain amount of money of the client decides to end the relationship before the book is complete.
    John Soares recently posted..Time Management and Television- The Real Costs of Watching TVMy Profile

    • annew April 25, 2011, 4:42 pm

      John, what a great idea… what percentage or how do you figure that kill fee?

  • Spike April 25, 2011, 3:39 pm

    Anne, those are probably the most important 8 words ever said about ghostwriting – or any kind of writing job (especially those picked up from bidding sites and so on): “you are being hired to write, not market.”

    Revenue share always sounds great, ’til you realise the person you’re sharing with is sitting on their big, fat, hairy rear end and not doing any promo work…!
    Spike recently posted..Non-Native English Writers Part 2My Profile

    • annew April 25, 2011, 3:44 pm

      Hey Spike, good to see you here again. Trust everything is more or less okay? Glad you think my words are important 😉

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