Writing is one of the few professions where you can actually pay someone to do the work for you. In fact, the position even has a name – ghostwriter. Sure, others have tried to use the same strategy, such as Mili Vanilli and numerous politicians, but it is not quite the same thing. Ghostwriting is actually a means by which an expert in a field or a well-known personality tells his or her story through the crafted words of a professional writer. The difference, however, from a collaboration, is that for marketing reasons, and/or egotistical reasons, the writer simply remains invisible.
To do such a job successfully, you need to be confident in your ability to interview someone on a regular basis to ascertain information and control the interview so that you get interesting material (many people like to ramble, especially when talking about themselves). You also need great confidence in your writing skills, since you are the expert from the writing perspective and have some knowledge of the subject at hand. In addition, you must be comfortable with the lack of credit before entering into such an agreement. If your work is turned into a movie, you need to accept that you will not be the one up on stage accepting the Oscar. You may, however, find yourself ghostwriting the acceptance speech.
The expert or celebrity, billed as the “author”, is responsible for the content. If he or she does not provide it or direct you to where you can find it, then you do not have source material. You need to clarify your responsibilities upfront. The expert cannot just send you off to write the books while not doing his or her part of the process. Believe it or not, some try to do so. I’ve had people expect that I would spend all of my free time reading and studying the industry to become an expert. A friend of mine had a similar situation. In both cases the author was wrong. While the job of a ghostwriter does entail doing research to enhance the material and, in some cases, even presenting possible topic ideas, it is not the job of a ghostwriter to become an expert in the field
The relationship between the author and ghostwriter is obviously the key to making this type of arrangement work. You need to have mutual respect and draw up a schedule early on in the process. When the “author” starts believing that he or she is actually a seasoned writer, you can run into trouble. A woman who hired me to help work on a proposal for her book on money management kept insisting on writing and/or rewriting every section of the proposal. By the time we got to the sample chapter, to accompany the proposal, she was now convinced that we were now equal writing collaborators as she saw it. In fact, she was disappointed that my work wasn’t up to par with hers. In fact, she became downright nasty. Unknown to her, I sent both her material and mine to my agent without our names appearing on either. My agent was very unimpressed with one of the two sections, hers. It was at that point that I knew this was not going work and my agent advised me to run fast and run far. After all, if you hire a chef and keep running into the kitchen every two minutes to add seasoning to his or her creation, the end result will usually not be very tasty.
Ghostwriting is an art form unto itself, a means of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and writing a book proposal and possibly a book for them. But, the shoes have to fit.
Three key questions to keep in mind when pursuing ghostwriting opportunities are:
1. Can I write in this person’s voice? Is he or she very business like? Colloquial? Humorous? (His or her personality must come to the surface in the project.)
2. Is this person comfortable with delegating responsibility? After an initial meeting or two, you can assess whether or not you will have freedom to write or be micro-managed or questioned every step of the way.
3. How accessible is the individual? Will he or she be able to put in the steady time commitment to provide you with material on a regular basis? If not, make sure you have a distant due date for the project.
Fees for ghostwriting will vary depending on the size of the project. Generally, you will estimate your time and hourly rate and than suggest a flat fee. When estimating, always tack on 15% more hours since problems can arise with projects and slow you down. Professionally written book proposals can run anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 and in some cases, even higher. Books run the gamut but are typically a flat rate with half of the money up front and half upon completion of the manuscript in acceptable form to the author, and, or his or her agent, depending on how the deal is structured.
Rich Mintzer is an author and journalist who also writes and critiques book proposals for others.