Columns > Published on March 12th, 2020

20 Mind Destroying Secrets about Ghostwriting

Images via Jimmy Chan & fotografierende

You might not like this article if you still believe every successful author writes his or her own books. Most of you know better. Some of you may even know people who ghostwrite. You may know people who have used ghostwriters, but you may or may not be aware of who they are.

The estimates on how many books are ghostwritten range widely, but if you care enough to look it up, you’ll probably have trouble finding an exact number anywhere. In the past, I have seen percentages in the single digits or the teens for fiction. I was dubious of those numbers just based on my own experiences as a ghostwriter. In some recent articles and podcasts from NPR on celebrity books, there was a running estimate that 60% of nonfiction books of all types were ghostwritten. I find that number to be more likely for more than just nonfiction, although I have no way of proving its validity, other than what I have seen anecdotally as a ghostwriter. Those numbers don't even include articles and other non-book, non-literary ghostwritten content.

I became a full-time writer in 2013 and started ghostwriting a year or two after that. I’ve ghostwritten in a wide range of genres and sub genres, including many I never would have considered publishing in on my own. I’ve ghostwritten for names you have heard of, although you’ll just have to take my word for it or simply dismiss me as a liar because I won’t offer any proof. Ghostwriting helped pay my rent, my bills, and my own writing expenses for a number of years. Even though I’m ghostwriting less and more selectively these days, it still pays my medical expenses.

You may be considering ghostwriting as a supplement for your income or as a path for making a living as a writer. It could potentially work for you. You might just be reading this article out of morbid curiosity, and that’s fine, too. There are a number of realities about ghostwriting you may be interested in knowing before you consider it for yourself.

1. It’s the Wild West!

There is no regulation and no one is policing these streets. What you are paid, what type of work you can do, and how you are treated can fall anywhere along a wide spectrum of possibilities. Clients have to trust you to do the work and you have to trust them to actually pay you. There are people offering as little as five dollars for a written novel, and oddly, there are writers in the world willing to take them up on it.

There are websites where freelancers/ghostwriters can be matched with clients. I don’t use them anymore because their fees and cuts of my earnings kept going up and up and up. Freelancer is one. UpWork is another, and you can make a living off them, if you work at it. Elance was a wonderful site for ghostwriting, but it no longer exists. I could write a whole article on what I don’t like about these sites, but they may still be one of your best options for starting.

As a rule of thumb for setting your rate, get ALL the information before you quote a price. Is there research involved? Does the client know what they want? How many revisions? Does “half finished already” mean a working draft, a couple chapters, pages of gibberish, a nonsensical outline, or something worse? Are there any red flags that you might ignore at your peril? Then, if you decide it is worth the risk, find a number that is both worth all your troubles and that you think they’ll say no to, and ask for that amount. You’ll be surprised how often they say yes. Unless you are desperate for money, then do what you’ve got to do.

2. It’s All Reputation Based and You Start at the Bottom

This is where the sites could help. Each five star rating you get allows you to ask for more money from clients willing to pay for good work. Whether you bid on jobs through the sites or you begin with people or businesses you know, you start as an untested variable and you sometimes have to take poor paying jobs to build up to something better. Your own writing in your own name can sometimes help, but this is often a different arena.

I decided even if the concept or story they wanted was crazy, I’d still write the best werebear erotic romance novella they’ve ever seen. I wish this was a made-up example.

3. Nondisclosure Agreements

“Who have you worked for?” is the most common question I get asked and I never answer. Often, I’m legally bound not to, but it makes no sense for me to damage my income sources because some dude is curious. These agreements are binding. Even if the person I worked for tells people, that does not release me from the NDA. Sometimes, you are asked to sign an NDA before you learn about the job you might be considered for. That usually means you are going to potentially work for someone really famous or you are about to learn something really crazy about the world.

As a side note, read NDAs carefully before signing. Do not accept anything that involves a penalty for late work. Often, it is the clients’ fault something is late. Never sign a financial penalty in a contract. Never sign an NDA that includes a “noncompete clause.” This is sometimes common in corporate contracts, but it makes zero sense for a writer because technically, even if they don’t intend it that way, it means you are not allowed to ghostwrite for anyone else or possibly even write your own books in your own name. Make them take those out or don’t take the job.


4. Even When it is a Secret, Satisfied Clients Are Your Best Advertising

It’s a strange balance. You need people to know you do this work, but you need to conceal any identifying details about exactly what you have done. You sign NDAs, but your future clients still often come through your previous clients. I’ve been subcontracted through former clients. I’ve had former clients somehow refer people to me without giving away the fact that they had used me as a ghostwriter. Not sure how that works, but it does.

5. It’s Not Yours

This is probably the biggest obstacle for most people considering being a ghostwriter. Every book you ghostwrite, every character you create, and every scene you invent, none of it is yours. You can never use them in anything you write ever again. A lot of people can’t function under the weight of writing into oblivion like that. Seeing something you wrote on a bestseller list or being praised by others without being able to say anything might be too much for you. For me, it told me I was that good and it boosted my confidence. Also, those “authors” came back to me and I could ask for more money.

6. You Have to Write Fast, Well, and a Lot to Survive

I was writing 12,000 words a day at one point, when my livelihood was mostly ghostwriting, and the vast majority of those words were not mine, for my own work. Doing that, I paid my mortgage and my bills, but it was grueling. I can’t do that anymore for a wide variety of reasons. I don’t have to because I have the luxury of picking the jobs I want at prices that suit me. Still, money gets tight sometimes.

7. You Have Less Time for Your Own Writing

If that wasn’t clear from the previous point, I’ll state it clearly now. No matter how much time you have or fast you can write, you are stealing from yourself to a degree. You’ve used hours, you’ve used your mental and creative reserves, and you’ve expended your energy on someone else before you sat down to keep going for yourself. You may always be starting your own stories tired.

8. It Doesn’t Take Much to Look Good by Comparison

Most clients’ options are terrible. Sometimes that’s their own fault because of their budget. Many ghostwriters save their “best stuff” for themselves, giving their clients only B or sometimes C level work. My secret is that I give my best on everything I ghostwrite, so I look amazing by comparison. The truth is that your B+ work is probably well above the industry average. I decided even if the concept or story they wanted was crazy, I’d still write the best werebear erotic romance novella they’ve ever seen. I wish this was a made-up example.

9. People Who Pay the Least Demand the Most

This rule probably applies to all writing and maybe all of life. This extrapolates on down to people who want you to work for free and demand everything. Bidding high and not getting the job is sometimes worth it because people willing to pay high generally just want the work done well and fast. If you deliver, they have no time or energy to hassle you with endless revisions. There are exceptions on the high end, but very few exceptions on the low end.

A note on revisions: Some ghostwriters give a limited number of revisions to avoid being caught in an endless cycle of edits from clients. It’s a reasonable concern, but I don’t limit revisions. I just tell clients we’ll work on it until you are satisfied with it. My logic is that if I offer three revisions, they will use all three revisions. If I offer that I’ll fix it until it is right, they are more likely to decide it is right with no revisions. Generally, they want to be finished as much as I do. Satisfied clients build my reputation, so cutting them off unsatisfied at two or three edit passes doesn’t really serve me in the long run. If I think a client is going to be trouble, I need to weed that out on the front end before I take the job and not try to control crazy in the editing phase. By then, it’s too late anyway.

10. College Students Cheating on Their School Work and Companies Producing Porn Pay the Fastest

At the end of school semesters, jobs for “academic writing” and “academic research” pop up everywhere. You could end up doing enough work to have earned all sorts of degrees from universities all over the world before Christmas and Summer breaks. They pay fast because they are on tight deadlines. You just have to decide how you feel about the work morally. If you are in an educational field, there can be repercussions upon discovery, too. If you are just a dirty ghostwriter, it’s still the Wild West.

Porn scripts—yes, I said scripts—and online erotica stories put up by porn sites will pay quickly, too. They are seldom short on money and have deadlines of their own.

11. The More Famous a Person is the More Degrees of Separation Between You

I stopped submitting work to certain publishers because the gatekeepers there had hired me to ghostwrite, but didn’t want to publish my work in my own name.

Once you get up into midlist and higher, you’ll start working with an author's "people" instead of them directly. Don’t bother asking me who I’m talking about.

12. Corporate Clients are Either the Best or the Worst

There is not much in-between. They can switch from best to worst, but when that happens, it happens quickly. I’ve never had it go the other way. When it’s the best, they pay well, they treat you well, their instructions are clear, and they know exactly what they want to say. They just need you to translate it into written form.

13. Royalty Split Offers Usually Mean You are Not Going to Get Paid Anything

Get your money up front. The guy who has you write his novel and offers you half the royalties on the book and points on the movie has no confidence in his ability to make any money. The “pay the least; demand the most” rule applies here, too. People who know how to make money from books don’t want to split the royalties, and they’ll come back to use you again after paying well.

All that being said, I had one screenplay and one novel series pay off big for me on a royalty split. If they’d decided to lie to me, I’d have never known. Even with these exceptions, it’s still a bad idea and I don’t take royalty deals on ghostwriting anymore.

14. Everyone Wants Work Done at the End of the Year, But No One Wants to Pay Until the New Year

This one is brutal. Maybe it's a tax thing, maybe it's budgetary, maybe it's poor planning, or maybe nobody is paying anyone around Christmas, so it becomes "trickle down misery" for everyone. I plan and save up for this dry spell every year, but it is still rough.

15. Being Good at What You Do Buys You a Lot of Leverage

I had to stop all my ghostwriting work for over a year when I had a kidney transplant. My own writing picked up in sales, so I didn’t have to go back to it. After working with other people, clients started coming back to me and offered me more money. I picked the jobs I wanted and made more money doing less work. That’s how you always want it to work.

16. All the Work Can Dry Up All of a Sudden

You can be the very best at what you do and you can have more work than you can handle, paying all your bills on time like a real adult, and then all of a sudden, the work stops coming in. Then, it doesn’t come in again for a while. That can get scary, and then you start taking awful jobs again just to make a little money.

17. Capturing Someone Else’s Voice is an Important Talent if You Are Writing as Them

Sometimes you’re hired because they want the book you can write. Sometimes they want you to write the next book in a series and it has to match the others. With an autobiography, memoire, or consulting book, you have to become the subject. It takes real talent to capture someone else's cadence, their mode of delivery, their quirks, and then elevate it so that it sounds like them, but better. You can just about print money if you can do that well.

18. Prepare for Disillusionment

Sometimes, after signing the NDA and finding out who the author is, I feel sad to discover their work is ghostwritten. I stopped going to certain conventions for a while because I got tired of having to pretend certain big-name authors and I didn’t know each other. I bit my tongue while certain authors were praised when I knew that they had been seeking out ghostwriters. I stopped submitting work to certain publishers because the gatekeepers there had hired me to ghostwrite, but didn’t want to publish my work in my own name. The curtain gets drawn back a little and you won’t always like what you see. There are a lot of little emperors with no clothes.

19. You Have Unique Opportunities to Experiment and Expand Your Toolbox

There are genres I would have never written stories in, on my own. Romance is a big one in ghostwriting. While I’d never write a romance in my own name, I learned certain tricks with romance that work well in writing relationships in other genres. Writing in the voices of other real human beings over and over has helped me to better create three-dimensional characters for my own books. I gained confidence and skills that enhance my writing ability.

20. It is Still Being Paid to Write

If you can do this and do it well, you can make a living or supplement your lifestyle with writing, and that is no small thing in the current industry. You simply have to decide if the realities and the challenges are ones you want to face.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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