Ghostwriting in many ways has been a love/hate relationship for me. When I took on my first job, almost twenty years ago, I was excited to just be writing. More important, I was excited to be paid for writing. I was young back then, 22-years-old and “chasing money.” As years came and went I found a steady flow of work through referrals. It all seemed so easy. Of course, that was before going full time when finding clients really mattered.
I just read a nice blog post by Jenn Beres, about picking your niche… or not. After a couple years writing, I found myself developing a niche of sorts, but then I realized how limited developing a niche was. Especially considering advancements in the internet and social media which had never existed before. I’ve always been a big fan of keeping up with current trends in business. I knew I would need to step outside the comfort of a niche and respond to the changing times. In all reality, the web content, blogs and marketing material which is sometimes lumped into technical writing is now copy writing. The books I was working on with clients were mostly considered ghostwriting.
Then the “feeling” finally hit me. This is the irritation, anxiety, and fear that if I continue down the path of ghostwriting I will never be an accomplished writer in my own eyes. I knew I could make a living at writing, but I would never be that New York Times Best Seller or a household name. I had been recognized in endorsements and acknowledgments but had a long stream of clients who wanted to keep me tucked behind the baseboards of my basement, denying any knowledge of their existence. That can be difficult. This was also the time when I first began thinking of making a career out of writing, instead of a part-time job. This led to the anxiety as well. I needed to direct my focus to clients who were willing to acknowledge me for my work. I didn’t even care if I had a byline on the cover, or inside the book. Without acknowledgment, I was going to have a difficult time finding new clients. This led me to a career in copywriting as a supplement to ghostwriting. Because with ghostwriting, I needed to find my passion and decide what I really wanted.
Before I get into the pros and cons I would like to talk a bit on ghostwriting and some of its differences from my perspective.
Pure ghostwriting is when you write a non-fiction book, novel, short story or any kind of writing and someone else claims the credit, as in they claim they wrote the piece. There are varying thoughts on this and the validity, but in all, I would say very few people who hire someone to write a book for them under a pure ghostwriting agreement end up successful. I can’t name one person. This is because for your book to be successful you will eventually meet with a literary agent or publisher. Regardless of the amount of work you put into understanding the work that the ghostwriter wrote, you will never have the full grasp and it will become evident to the agent or publisher. You just can’t fake your way through these things. That being said, thousands of self-published titles are ghostwritten every year.
Collaborative projects, and I include in that as-told-to memoirs generally split the amount of work put into a project. While some will consider these ghostwritten, they have broken into a category of their own. That is because while the text may be written by a writer, as well as transcription, research, and shared interview, the employer plays a critical and very involved role toward the finished product. While not always, these projects will give credit where due to the writer and often on the cover of the book.
When reading the pros and cons below take into consideration the two differences above. For the most part, I am talking pure ghostwriting which can be rewarding, especially financially. However, you will need to learn how to maneuver the cons in order to reap the pros. How did I do this? Well, I’m not certain I have fully navigated all the pros which is why I have transitioned more from the pure ghostwriting to collaborative. But, to navigate where I could, I made a list.
The pros and cons of ghostwriting. I wrote this list in 2004 and fumbled upon it while cleaning out a desk drawer. Truth is, nothing’s really changed on the list. Although, my perspective has changed and I have many more samples to provide to justify my emotions. Ghostwriting, to me, will always have the same pros and cons. What changes is how you address them. Something about a lemon and lemonade.
Lack of appreciation
Like many freelance jobs, the client who is the most difficult to work with also has the highest demand on your time and insists on paying the least amount of money. And throughout the process will continue to try and lower the overall cost. Since books can take many months to complete, finding clients like this makes you want to quit and reevaluate your choice. The fact that a client is trying to downplay your role in the book and pay the least amount they have to is insulting and shows they could care less about your talents.
To be fair, there are very few of these clients. Though, they exist. To manage this, I focus on vetting my clients before working together. Sometimes this can be figured out in an initial consult, and other times while working out an agreement. I will tell you that whether the person has a large or small budget, or any at all, this doesn’t seem to play a role in their appreciation. I have seen poor and wealthy people show incredible respect, as well as “room for improvement,” as your supervisor at work might say.
A good example is a client who I was working with, and I’ve mentioned him before. He was paying me instead of his utility bill when his electricity was shut off. I released him from the agreement to take care of his personal expenses. Two years later he called me and told me that had been an important moment in his life. He got his stuff together had started working three jobs, got out of debt, and now was a production leader at a manufacturing company. In addition, he wanted to hire me back at a price more realistic to what he though I provided, which was three times higher than our original agreement. The book had changed too. It was now a book on how to turn your life around. This story should be in the pros, because it means so much to me.
The lack of acknowledgement can be emotionally difficult at times. In fact, my defining moment to pursue clients who would give me credit came after working with one of my most difficult clients. He wanted to write a true account of his life before going to prison. The book was published and sold pretty well. I don’t make it a practice to see what clients write about me in their book if anything at all. In fact, in this case, I wished he’d have written nothing at all. He thanked everyone under the sun for being there for him,“while I worked feverishly every night, sometimes to the point of tears to make this book perfect and make all of those in my life proud.” What hurt the most is that the client after the first couple days told me he was busy and just to write a book in 1st person. I assumed he was going to simply advertise it as a novel. Instead, he told everyone this was the story of what happened. I felt dirty and disgusting.
Secrecy makes it hard to acquire new clients
Signing non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s) and confidentiality agreements can hinder your ability to find future clients. When you see a book you wrote selling well, you have to walk away and remember mums-the-word. If this happens enough, the fact that someone else is reaping awards for your hard work will lead you to reconsidering your career. This occurs only with pure ghostwriting, which is what I had chosen to do for a couple years, and it took me down. I recommend mixing pure ghostwriting up with collaborative so that you have something to show for your work.
One thing I will say is that I have seen a trend of new and potential clients saying, “I want to give credit where credit is due,” in recent years. This could be that I’m better at vetting, or could be a trend in society. One person did mention to me that they felt there was more notoriety in admitting to working with a professional writer than trying to convince people they had written something no one believed they could do on their own.
Improve on your perspective
Working with different people. While many writers have a difficult time writing in someone else’s voice or stepping back after your advice is rebuked, I enjoy this collaborative and challenging work. Working with people who share different viewpoints and life experiences has helped me open my mind and understand perspectives. This is one reason I think all writers should spend a couple years ghostwriting. Instead of researching and guessing how a character would respond in your novel, you have first-hand accounts of real personalities to use in your books.
Money tends to be a bit better ghostwriting than writing your own books. This is not true for everyone, think Wilbur Smith, James Rollins, James Patterson, Stephen King, and the list goes on. However, for the average writer it is nice to be paid for your efforts and just move along. You don’t need to worry about finding an agent or publisher, marketing, and getting out there to sell your book. By the time you finish the book, you’re paid and often making more than many published writers.
Bylines go a long way
When you receive a byline on a book it goes a long way. My personal, albeit bias opinion, is that if you are writing non-fiction and have never written a book before, you want to have a ghostwriter on the cover. It shows that you were serious about your book and wanted to make sure it was done right. Several past clients learned a lot from our time together and have gone on to complete books in their own right. The thing is that if people don’t think you have the ability to write a book, they probably won’t buy it. If they think you worked with a professional they may be more inclined. Bylines sit prominently on shelves, can be used to promote a writer’s business, and generally make writers feel good – as in the client appreciated the work.
I really don’t like to toss out the names of people I know or have met. When you’re writing you meet a lot of well-known and famous people. I wouldn’t say they are your friends, but when you are recognized by one of these people in a public place it gives you a feeling of pride. A good example for me. I interviewed a well-known politician and business leader in Minnesota for a client’s book. We only spent about an hour together. Two years later a client had given me tickets to a Timberwolves game in their suite. I invited a few friends, and we were hanging out when the politician I’d met a couple years before came up behind me, threw his arm around my shoulders and said,“Jody, wow, I thought that was you. I haven’t seen you in forever!”We chatted for a few minutes, and he went off to his suite. It was a great feeling.
There is a lot of work available. Once you figure out where to find clients and step outside the shell of referrals, you will find there are a ton of people who want to glamorize themselves in books. I don’t see this going away anytime soon. In fact, as social media prominence has come along I see more people interested in writing books, whether they are published digitally or in print.
You control your fate
You choose who you work with. After you have been writing for awhile you will realize that it is okay to not take every book that comes your way. This is your business and you choose who you work with. This helps if you want to take full control, or if you want to have a more collaborative project. It is also helpful if there is a certain personality you enjoy working with or don’t enjoy working with.
Gifts are fun extras. Many clients are very pleased with the work you put into their book. They realize that in the end, you will likely know more about them than even their closest friends and relatives. The reason is because you are a trusted person who they can throw everything out there for. I’ve had clients tell me about affairs, debaucherous weekends in Vegas, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a several other hot-topics nobody else knows about. For some reason, and I’m not complaining, clients frequently give gifts throughout the writing process and occasionally they surprise you after. Sports and theater tickets are the number one gift, and usually some of the best seats in the stadium. I’ve even done partial trades for services. Business owners like to share their services with the person writing about their services. For example, an Italian restaurant owner once gave me a year’s worth of food. It was a card that provided a free meal 4 times a week. Since I was awfully poor back then it was much more valuable than the money.
In the end, the pros well outweigh the cons. The goal is to figure out how to manage the cons by evaluating potential clients as someone you can work with, enjoy being around, and want to help put their thoughts into a book. Secondly, don’t be afraid to pursue a cover byline, or in the least acknowledgment within the book. One thing I do is offer a 10% discount on the overall cost of my services if I receive a cover byline upon publishing. I also tend to negotiate a signed copy of the book by my client (most will write something witty), and a few additional copies to pass out.
Ghostwriting accounts for about 30% to 40% of my writing income. This is mostly due to copy writing needs of clients growing and my push toward more collaborative projects. However, I love ghostwriting, and with all the positives I can’t foresee a time when I completely rule it out.