Can you make a living as a ghostwriter?
Ghostwriting is now becoming a career of choice for people from all walks of life who quite rightly see it as a legitimate, and rewarding, career. But can you make money out of writing books for other people?
The short answer is, yes. However, it’s not always easy. For reasons I’ve never quite been able to fathom, writing appears to be one of the few professions around where others expect work for free. Established ghosts get 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 people who don’t have these sorts of responsibilities.
At the risk of sounding like I am contradicting myself, there are some occasions when ghosts do 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. There are many variables here, but the elements to take into account are the amount you want to charge per day, the length of the book in question and its complexity. If, for example, the book will require a great deal of additional, independent research by the ghostwriter, that needs to be factored into the cost. There will also need for days allocated to spending time with the author for interviews. Ghosts will have different ways of calculating costs, but essentially the idea is to work out the number of days it will take to write a book of a specified word count and charge as per the day rate. As the ghost becomes more established, their day rate will rise accordingly.
There is the option to split royalties on a book once it is published. The thinking goes that this provides a nice incentive for the ghost. Personally, it is not something I ask for. I don’t need an inducement to do my best work: each book I write builds upon my reputation. I am not about to cut corners. Also, I have barely seen a penny out of any royalty deals I have ever agreed and that includes bestsellers. I’m not sure how royalties are calculated, but they never seem to be all that forthcoming. My inclination is to stick to the agreed fee.
Ghosts should prioritise asking for the price they feel appropriate for the job in hand and agreeing payment terms. Again, this 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. The latter is the terms I favour.
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. I know very well the freelance mentality of it might be my last ever job, a bird in the hand and all that. It won’t be like that. Another job which pays the going rate will come. Hold the faith.
Ghosts need to think like an entrepreneur as they establish their career and work does begin to come in. To make a lucrative living, they need a steady flow of work. 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 need to not just 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 the ghost is 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 them to impress the author to get in on the deal. As a ghost you will get very little say over the fee in this case, which can often be surprisingly low. Alternatively, you might advertise online via services such as Google AdWords. It’s also important to be proactive in your self-promotion. A website is essential and it 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.
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. However, to achieve anything like this level, 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.