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Posts Tagged how to become a ghostwriter
A few months ago, a blogger challenged me with this question. Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter? (Why would anyone ask me this? I have a secret past.)
And just this week, John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors wrote about the ethics of ghostwriting, how he was initially doubtful but is now using a ghostwriter for books of his own.
So here’s the short answer. It’s complicated.
Who wrote that book? Maybe more people than you think.
Publishing has always been a team effort. This is often a surprise to readers, and also to inexperienced writers. There’s a belief that the published book is exactly what the author first sent to the publisher.
The reality is different. Your manuscript is only the start. It becomes a patient in a long and intricate operation. It will have editors, of several varieties – some for the big picture, some for the detail goofs you didn’t know were possible (how many Tuesdays did you put in one week?). There are also designers, marketers and publicity folk.
Your book may have germinated from just you, but by the time it greets the world, it’s had many midwives.
With ghostwriting, you add one more midwife. The writer splits into two people – the person with the life, ideas and experience, and the person who crafts that into text.
But… (I hear you say…) all those editors, designers etc are assistants. It’s the writer who’s at the helm, who ‘invents’ the book. The writer might have guidance, sometimes heavy guidance, but they do the most work.
Up to a point, yes. But sometimes a person has the raw materials but can’t turn them into a book. Maybe they could learn; maybe that would be impossible. Maybe they could write but don’t have enough time. But when publishers spot a commercial opportunity, they are chasing an immediate market. They need it done fast.
This is a crucial word: commercial. Ghostwriters are generally used in the high-volume sectors of publishing, The books are usually fronted by a person who is marketable because of fame or life or expertise, but doesn’t have writing-fu. Or perhaps they’re too busy running businesses, winning grand slams or saving the world. So a ghostwriter is brought in – who can write exactly what’s needed and in a timely way. If all goes well, everyone benefits.
But.. (I hear you say…) isn’t it a cheat? To imply that a person can write a book when they can’t?
I agree with your qualms. Morally it is questionable. It might undermine the skills of real writers. We have a myth that anyone can write a book, probably because everyone seems to. Mumble-minded sports stars can do it, so it cannot be very difficult. Indeed, they apparently dash off a memoir or tome of life advice without pausing their all-consuming day job.
Thus the use of ghostwriters might make the public (and your aunt) assume that anyone can toss off a book. In their spare time, indeed.
There’s also an issue of trust. The byline is sacred, isn’t it? It’s the promise on the tin. It should be the name of the person who sweated the book personally onto the page.
Well, the ghostwriter’s sweat doesn’t go unacknowledged. Money is a good acknowledgement. Ghostwriting is paid at a commercial rate and there might be royalties.
Ghostwriters aren’t always invisible. Sometimes we get a co-credit. That depends on the individual deal and whether it looks ‘bad’ for the ‘author’ to have had help. Getting murky again…
Oh yes, there is murk. Sometimes the ‘author’ isn’t co-operative, or isn’t as interesting as the publisher hoped, or some of their content can’t be used because of legal issues. The publishing team must salvage what they can to get a book on the shelves. Usually no harm is done. Usually.
I can see you’re itching to mention Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. Its ghostwriter has gone on record to say the book contained hardly any Trump, yet helped create his reputation (full story here ).
What other murk is lurking? Oh yes, the kinds of books you think should not be ghostwritten.
But surely not novels…
Do you assume ghostwriting is only for non-fiction? Memoirs, business books, self-help, autobiographies? You’d better sit down. A sizeable amount of fiction is ghostwritten too. (Writing fiction for others used to be my speciality. Shhh.)
Remember: in commercial publishing, books are sold by names and notoriety. Verily, even in fiction. Put another way, if a celeb needed help to write their memoir, they’ll sure need help with their novel. Some are entirely up front about this.
Even among the ‘genuine’ authors, there are books that have many midwives. James Patterson makes no secret of using other writers to help him meet demand. Others keep their ‘assistants’ a secret, or possibly don’t realise how much is done to make their book respectable. Many editorial staff in big publishing imprints have had to rewrite a manuscript because the author reached the limit of their craft or the clock was running down. Editing and ghostwriting are two ends of a long and blurred spectrum.
Does that worry me? Yes and no. As a writer who works hard at their craft, I’m not thrilled if a book that needed substantial rescuing gets a good reputation it doesn’t deserve. But that is commercial publishing.
If that irks you too, you’d better sit down, because I’m about to reveal something bad. No, lie down; it’s thoroughly grubby.
Are you lying comfortably?
There are authors who are offered novel deals with en-suite ghostwriters because they are distinguished in other areas of life. If those novels do well, those authors become literary pundits, judge literary prizes etc.
With most ghostwritten books, the deception is largely harmless, because the writing is not the chief draw. The content is. But where the writing is the thing… Any writer who is struggling to be recognised for their skill and quality will find that hard to stomach.
Before we write ghosting off as evil and underhand, we should consider one defining factor. For the writer (the actual wordsmith writer) a ghostwritten book isn’t the same as your own.
The ghostwriter creates a book that someone else would write…. If they could. They don’t write a book and have it torn from their hands. They create a book to a contract, for a purpose. They apply their craft and skill to raw material from another person – a life story, technical or business expertise, a special world. In that respect, the name on the cover and the face in the author pic are honest. They are the true soul of the book. (Though see the caveats above.)
Perhaps ‘ghost’ is the wrong term. Perhaps it should be ‘medium’.
Ghostwriting is also a business arrangement, like any professional service. It has to be, in order to pay both ‘author’ and ghost – and at a decent market rate. Ghostwriters are hired by publishers or by people who’ll get a good return on their investment, and many writers use it as a second line to help fund their ‘real’ books.
Which means that, amid the chicanery and shadows, there is an honest living to be made by the ghostwriter.
If you’re interested to know more about how to break in and how the industry works, I have a professional ghostwriting course.
And if you’re curious to know what I’ve been up to in my genuine writing life, here’s my latest newsletter
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Sometimes, the way to find yourself is to start by being someone else. That’s the subject of this podcast by the messaging app Slack. Each episode they interview people who find their identity in the work they do – and this time they’re looking at disguises. So they typed ‘ghostwriting’ into Google and found my grinning face … (Quick mention here of my ghostwriting course in case you’re professionally curious)
We talked about how I got started, the pressure from publishers to carry on writing sure-fire bestsellers, and the struggle to strike out as myself, writing my own fiction on my own terms. Along the way, presenter Lily Ames describes My Memories of a Future Life in a way I’ve never heard before … which proves yet again that someone else is always better at summing up your novel than you are.
The second half is a seasonal tale of a Vietnam veteran who became Santa Claus – and the surprising ways that this red, woolly-bearded disguise has made a genuine difference in people’s lives.
Find it here on iTunes or stream it directly here (they concentrate on the Santa story in the write-up, but I’m on as the warm-up – you are in the right place!).
And merry everything xxxx
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In this post at Jane Friedman’s blog, I outline the mindset and skills needed, some of the challenges you might encounter …. and most of all, why ghost-writing is an attractive option.
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For the next few days, this blog will have a ghost-writing flavour. The reason? I’m launching my online course.
It looks something like this:
Now, if ghost-writing is not your thing, rest assured that this focus is temporary. So if you’re new here, or you’re worrying that the blog has taken an unwanted diversion, sit back and the posts on writing, writing life and publishing will be restored in a few days. There’s an Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday as well. But I’m hoping that you’ll find a few interesting snippets in the launch posts for my course, even if you’ve got your hands totally full with your own writing.
And if the idea of ghost-writing DOES tickle your fancy, let me also mention that the course is supported and hosted by publishing industry legend Jane Friedman, co-founder of The Hot Sheet newsletter for authors and former publisher of Writer’s Digest.
UPDATE January 2022 – the course has moved and can now be found here! Thanks to Jane for being its host all these years. We will do more together soon!
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First there’s a swift guide to becoming a ghostwriter. Debbie Young, chief blogatrix at the Alliance of Independent Authors, asked me for a starter piece for writers who might be interested in ghostwriting as a career move. It’s something I’m forever asked about, and if you’ve hung around this blog for a while the advice won’t be new to you. But otherwise, step this way.
Secondly, I was contacted by Warren Adler, author of Wars of The Roses (yes, THAT Wars of the Roses), who’d seen me loitering on Twitter and wanted to include me in a showcase on his website, called Writers of the World. The brief was exacting – 150ish words on why I write. Of course, I could give him a complete dossier, and while I tried to super-condense my million-or-so favourite reasons, I ended up with a post about the power of why in storytelling. But I eventually completed my assignment and it’s here.
So I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, with posts and Undercover Soundtracks. In the meantime I’ve cued up a selection of useful tweets to keep your writing at a healthy bubble. See you soon.
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‘Can I ask you about ghostwriting….?’ As you may know, this is how I first got published, writing novels that were released under the names of other people. I was the secret hand that wrote these (and others…)
I get asked about ghostwriting all the time, from people curious about it as a career path, or thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, or the plain curious. So here’s the dirt. Or as much as I can safely reveal.
Which books are ghostwritten?
Celebrity biographies and novels If someone has an interesting life story or is popular, a ghostwriter might be engaged to help them write a memoir. If that sells they might be asked if they fancy doing novels.
Megabrand genre novels It’s well known that James Patterson uses ghosts, outsourcing early draft work to keep up with demand. And that publishers hire writers to keep popular authors feeding the market after they die – eg Robert Ludlum. There are also plenty of other big-name authors in commercial fiction who are still alive and use ghostwriters, unacknowledged. (Knowing wink. You would be scandalised.)
So there’s plenty of work.
It’s all about who you know.
Editors and agents If you have a literary agent, let them know you’re up for ghosting. Also it’s worth mentioning to book editors you’ve worked with.
Journalism Journalism is another way to break in, especially for non-fiction. You might meet someone who wants help writing their life story or a book on their patch of expertise (but see below).
Author services companies I get frequent approaches from author services companies, who want reliable ghostwriters they can recommend to clients. I don’t know what the terms are, but, in general, I worry about working for services companies. Judging by other areas of publishing, one party gets a bad deal – either the client pays over the odds, or the freelance gets a lot less than market rate.
Pros and cons Cons first. You’re caught between two masters – which you realise when the ‘author’ wants one thing and the editor wants another. You will be amazed at the issues that blow up into diplomatic incidents and you’re left trying to please both. (Knowing wink. You’ll earn every dime.) Commercial ghostwriting is satisfying because the book will be published, and because of the cost of hiring you, it will probably be well marketed. Depending on your deal, should be a worthwhile addition to your CV and earnings stream. If you ghostwrite for an author services company, you may find there’s no long tail because the book is far less likely to earn in money or reputation.
What will you be paid? Deals vary, obviously. But to generalise, you get much better terms if you have representation. My agent is horrified at the contracts I have from my ghosting days.
My personal beware list
Don’t do any ghosting work for individuals unless you’re very sure they’ll get a publishing deal. Even if they’re a celebrity you know personally.
Don’t do any work on spec for agents. In more naive days I spent four months rewriting a thriller for a phenomenally well-connected gentleman, persuaded by an agent to do it for a future profits share. The book never sold and I never saw any payment.
Be even more careful of the situation that might land you in court – or worse. I get a lot of approaches from people who want me to help them write a book about their murder trial. Such a book couldn’t be published without cast-iron legal backing, which only a major publisher has the chops for. And as for the chap who wanted me to write the book about how he was manipulated into assassinating … No I can’t tell you. (Knowing wink with a nervous twitch. You might be dead.)
Can I hire a ghostwriter myself?
Question. Can you afford to pay six to nine months’ salary for a writer to do a proper job of your book? This is why, in commercial publishing, ghostwriters are generally funded by the publisher, not the writer (although they don’t always get a fair fee – see above). But if you have a strong concept for a book and a writer who is a good match, you could seek a deal together.
What about royalty-split deals? See the caveats above, but these are frontier-busting times. Indies are leading the way with new ways to fund books, as we’re seeing with ACX for audiobooks and translation deals.
How can I break in?
Aside from personal contacts, there are opportunities for beginners if you know where to look. Book packagers are companies that dream up commercial ideas for novels, which they pitch to publishers. Some of these become phenomenally successful. They need writers.
They give you the plot in painstaking detail, so your job is to flesh out the story into scenes. Sounds a doddle? There are two downsides. One – the pay is rubbish. Two –they demand rewrite after rewrite because they design the story by committee and change their minds. But it is a way to get experience, and you might make useful friends. Find them in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or the US equivalent. Contact them and ask if they’re looking for writers. If you send them a sample and it’s good enough, they might ask you to try out for a live project.
Have you any questions about ghostwriting? Or wisdom to add? Your turn!
Interested in learning more? Professional course in ghostwriting
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