This article, written by Lindsay Randall, is from the March 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Being a good listener. Keen curiosity. Flexibility. And checking your ego at the door. These are among the qualities that have best served the ghostwriters interviewed for this article.
Ghostwriters create content for others, receiving no credit. Good ghosts are skilled writers who create memoirs, speeches, articles, corporate or family histories, blog posts, or fiction in the voice and vision of their clients. They are at times collaborators, researchers, editors, and organizers. While ghostwriters remain unseen and uncredited, the work they do is very real.
If helping others to bring their ideas to life sounds intriguing, you might want to consider ghostwriting.
For children’s ghostwriter Karen Cioffi, her busy ghostwriting career began with editing.
“After a short while it turned into rewriting, then morphed into ghostwriting,” Cioffi said. “At first the clients were by word of mouth. Then I started promoting my services and clients found me online.”
She has worked with more than 300 clients worldwide throughout the past 15 years.
“A lot of the clients who come to me have the desire to tell a children’s story. It might be a parent, grandparent, teacher, or principal,” she said. “Then there are the medical professionals who want to help children by creating a broader marketing reach with a book. I also get businesspeople who feel a children’s book will help their marketing and further their goals.”
Veteran business ghostwriter Mike Wicks got into ghostwriting by accident. One of his clients asked if he might be interested in writing “a book about her ex-husband’s quasi-medical device.” That led to a five-day visit to Budapest where he interviewed a man who was a professor of quantum physics by day and “Desiree,” a cabaret singer and erotic moviemaker, by night.
“It was a weird introduction to the life of ghostwriting,” he said.
Fast forward a few years and Wicks’s clientele expanded to include a multi-billionaire, with whom he wrote two business books, one of which reached bestseller status on such lists as the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Barnes and Noble.
“That stroke of luck brought me to the attention of a far larger audience,” he said. Today he works on three to five books simultaneously.
Fiction author DS (who prefers to remain anonymous) has been ghostwriting in the romance genre for six years and has ghostwritten more than 70 published works and hit multiple bestseller lists—all while writing romance under their own name.
“Indie ghostwriting is mostly word of mouth,” DS said. “There are a few Facebook groups that are hidden, and you have to know someone who knew someone, and jobs get posted there. But once you get a few jobs and people know you do good work, they will continue to reach out. It can be hard to get started with reputable clients. In the trad world it’s a little ‘easier’ as agents can bring you work to audition from the publishers.”
Author Jo Ann Brown was approached by an agent to be a ghostwriter. A packaging editor needed an author to complete the middle book of a trilogy the main author couldn’t finish.
At the time, Brown was interested in the “experience of working with a packager on a big-name project.” She submitted the requested scenes and was chosen for the project.
“I think it helped that it wasn’t a genre I would have written. I didn’t bring any preconceived stylistic habits to the project,” Brown said. “I did ask the editor why she selected my work, and she said it was the use of deep POV, which she wanted to have in the trilogy.”
For Wicks, the question of how much for a ghostwritten book is a bit like asking “How long is a piece of string?” So much depends on the type of book or the length of the book, Wicks said. As a bestselling ghostwriter, he knows how to approach a project and bring it to life on the page, all of which equals a higher cost than an inexperienced ghostwriter might charge.
Wicks offers an initial free consultation with clients to discuss their needs as well as the possibilities of the writing project.
“Ghostwriting fees vary greatly and are directly proportionate to one’s experience and success. I work on a per-word rate, but other writers I know charge a per-project rate or an hourly rate,” he said, adding that “ghostwriting a book takes a ton of work, several hundred hours. Undercharging means you are undervaluing your work, and, in the end, this does the author-client a disservice.”
Cioffi has created a list of prices for different genres.
“Since story notes, outlines, and drafts are different, I’ll tweak the fee depending on the condition of the content I’m given,” she said. “Some clients think they have usable notes, an outline, or a draft, but it can be in terrible condition.”
DS first began charging only what was needed for living expenses.
“As you gain more clients and positive feedback on your work, people will consider you and your writing more valuable,” DS said. “In ghostwriting, like most things, you get what you pay for. Though it’s not a creative exercise, it’s natural to put more work and care into a project when you’re getting paid a living wage for it. It’s a very individual decision, based on experience, reputation, and various accolades.”
Brown, for her work on the second book of the trilogy, received “a flat rate in the low five figures, which I was told was the same the main author received for each book.” She also continued to work with the packaging editor on two movie novelization projects and on another project with the trilogy author, “which led to contracts with publishers without the packager.”
Choosing your ghostwriting projects
For DS, ghostwriting isn’t about creativity. It’s about creating content the client wants.
“I personally only write romance. It’s what I’m good at and what my experience is in,” DS said. “The other thing I look for in a client is someone willing to tell me exactly what they want—the more detail the better. Again, this isn’t a creative outlet, it’s work-for-hire. I want to give the client what they want. I’m not looking for someone to give me a 1,000-word synopsis and set me free. I also look for clients who pay on time.”
Wicks said choosing projects is mostly a gut feeling. “The subject matter has to be interesting, and I must feel I can work with the person,” he said. “I have made the mistake in the past of accepting a project against my better instinct because the co-authors wanted to work with me, and I liked them. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully understand the subject, and they were against dumbing it down, even though their target audience would have had difficulty comprehending the concepts.”
Cioffi’s most important consideration when taking on a client is whether that person is “serious about the project and respects my services.”
A good ghostwriter also makes use of a contract, detailing the specifics of each project. Hiring a lawyer for guidance is advisable.
Keeping the momentum going
“To be successful as a ghostwriter, you have to write in such a way that the book achieves two things: a) the author needs to think it sounds like them, or at least what they would like to sound like if they could write well, and b) their friends and family need to tell them that ‘It sounds just like you,’” Wicks said. “I achieve this by researching anything they have written, interviews they have done that are available online, or any YouTube videos they might have made. I also interview them myself, record the sessions, get them transcribed, and listen, listen, listen until I can become them, or a better version of them, on the page.”
Satisfied clients share the names of good ghostwriters (without admitting they have used the services).
Cioffi keeps her website active, posting content once per week, plus regularly promotes her blog posts and uses visual blurbs to promote her services on various social media platforms.
Another way to get your name out there is through speaking engagements and handing out business cards with the word Ghostwriter being prominent.
Learn more about the industry and its craft by joining the Association of Ghostwriters, which offers a member directory. The Authors Guild Writers Marketplace is another possible directory to consider.
“Ghostwriting can be an incredible career,” DS said. “It’s a good opportunity to both learn story structure and how to take feedback in an environment of low financial risk. However, if you’re planning on it as an intermediate step between now and your own independent writing career, it’s hard. Once you’re making a living wage, it’s difficult to step back and find the time to write your own work where there’s no upfront money to support it. But if you know going in, it can be a great opportunity.”
Known for her “lyrical prose” and adventurous stories, Lindsay Randall is the author of both historical and contemporary romances.