Can you make a living as a ghostwriter?
Ghostwriting is now becoming a career of choice for those from all walks of life. But can you make a living out of writing books for other people?
The short answer is, yes. Ghosting can be a very profitable profession for an industrious, creative, practical and energetic ghostwriter. However, a good dose of business savvy is one of the most important qualities for anyone wanting to earn a decent living as a co-writer.
Although there are only a handful of ghosts that boast a significant share of million pound, or dollar, advances, there is also a second tier of hugely successful, jobbing, ghosts who take home respectable five or even six figure salaries each year. To achieve anything like this level though, ghosts can’t think of themselves as mere writers for hire. They are entrepreneurs running a ghostwriting firm and that means investing time in building up a presence, networking with a steady supply of viable prospects and constantly presenting a corporate face. Working out a way to get a good, steady, stream of paying clients and being prepared to do some hard negotiation to get the deal they want with those clients are the business tools that are key to survival.
It might be helpful to start with the obligatory health warning: carving out a career as a ghost is not always easy. For reasons I’ve never quite been able to fathom, writing appears to be one of the few professions where others expect work for free. Established ghosts receive regular approaches from hopeful authors who are convinced they will make a bundle of money from their potential bestseller. However, they say, could you do it for nothing and we’ll split the profits when they arrive? I have to say, I do struggle with this one. What they are actually asking for is for me to spend up to six months of my life working for no money whatsoever, on the vague hope that this book will rise to the top of the pile and make millions. This is a complete non-starter for me. I have the utmost faith in my abilities, but I also have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. I don’t know many professional writers who don’t have these sorts of responsibilities.
At the risk of sounding like I am contradicting myself, there are some occasions when ghosts might have to consider taking on very low paid, or even no paid, ghosting jobs. These are among the few options open to those who are starting out, since ghostwriters need to build up a portfolio of work to establish themselves. In this case, I would advise new ghosts to ask people they know if they want to collaborate on writing a book, or to introduce them to others looking for writing assitance. Sometimes, if there are no obvious candidates, the only answer is to keep an ear to the ground and listen out for anyone with an extraordinary story to tell. Alternatively, new ghosts may even consider bidding for jobs on sites like guru.com. The money will be terrible, but it will help them build up some references for their work as a freelance.
Once a ghost has a track record and some decent books in their portfolio, they can then set their price and this is the point when they can begin to make a decent living out of writing professionally. But: how much can a ghost expect to earn per annum? The answer to this is quite broad, since it will depend upon how many books a ghost can write a year and how much they charge for each one. To help you work this out, let’s work through what you might charge per collaboration.
One of the simplest ways to calculate how much to charge per book is to set a day rate. Again, this will depend on experience, but a fairly new ghost will be able to charge a few hundred pounds a day, whereas a ghost with a number of books under their belt could charge up to £1000 a day, or even more. Those with a strong background of bestsellers could charge considerably more again. To calculate the fee, the ghost will need to take a number of variables into account, such as the proposed length of the book, the level of complexity around the subject matter and the amount of research required. Experience will show that they write, on average 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 words a day on similar books, therefore they will see that a book of 70,000 words will take x days. It is then a simple calculation to find the overall fee:
70,000 words ÷ average number of words per day = estimated days to write the manuscript x day rate = the fee
Ghosts will also need to take into account a number of days needed to interview the author and add that to the overall fee.
If the author in question has a publisher’s advance, this presents another option for calculating fees. The ghost can be paid with a percentage of the advance. This is, however, less common. There is also the option to split royalties on a book once it is published, as well as taking a fee. Authors may offer this option as a negotiating tactic to reduce the overall fee, or to provide a nice incentive for the ghost. The latter option is not necessary for professional ghosts, or at least shouldn’t be. There doesn’t need to be an inducement to do our best work: each book we write builds upon our reputation. On the former option, I would always advise against trading fees for royalties. I have barely seen a penny out of any royalty deals I have ever agreed and that includes on bestsellers. My inclination is to stick to the agreed fee.
It should go without saying that all fee discussions should be nailed down and set down in a contract before the writing process starts. This will include payment terms. Again, this is an element that can vary. Some ghosts will want a third up-front, a third on submission of the manuscript and a third on publication. Others will divide the cost over the time it takes to write the book. So, say a ghost agreed to complete the book in six months, they’d take the first sixth of the payment upfront, then a further sixth at the end of each month through the writing period.
There is always room to negotiate on any business transaction, but it doesn’t make any sense for a ghost to quote a rock bottom price to get the gig. That is the money the ghost will be living off for weeks to come. Ghosts have to be very clear on their terms and prepared to press their case, or walk away if necessary. It’s not always an easy thing to do. All freelancers will experience the dread feeling that a job offer might be their last ever, and, even if the offer is atrocious, feel obligated to take it. It won’t be like that. Another job which pays the going rate will come. Hold the faith.
As I said at the outset, any ghost needs to think like an entrepreneur as they establish their career and work does begin to come in. A steady flow of work is required to make a lucrative living and without forward planning there will be gaps between assignments. It plays havoc with personal cash flow to have huge gaps between the end of one project and the beginning of the next one. In an ideal world, a ghost will finish one book and move almost seamlessly onto the next one and that is what an entrepreneurial ghost needs to aim for. This means while they are penning a book, they should not only have an eye to the next project, they should be actively pursuing it.
Getting good quality leads from prospective authors is one of the hardest aspects of being a ghost. How do co-writers let people know they are ready, willing and supremely qualified to write their books to begin with? After all, the irony of ghosting is ghosts are supposed to be invisible, but if this is the case how is it possible for them to show off their wares? Ghosts have, over the years, found a variety of solutions to the problem. There is the option to impress a publisher and to get put on their list of recommended ghosts. That way, when there is a beauty parade of co-writers invited in to meet an author, the favoured few will usually get an invitation. It is then up to a ghost to impress the author to get in on the deal. Alternatively, ghosts might advertise online via services such as Google AdWords. In all cases, a website is essential and should include some examples of work and perhaps some samples and testimonials from satisfied clients. Ghosts might also give some thought to building up an online presence on social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, as well as via a blog. Word of mouth is a powerful tool too, so happy clients should always be asked to make a recommendation to any people they know.