The Entrepreneur's Complete Guide to Ghostwriting
You have a book in your head that you need to write. You know it will help you and your business, but you haven't done it, and you probably aren't ever going to do it yourself. So, what now?
One common solution that a lot of entrepreneurs use is to hire a ghostwriter. A ghostwriter is someone hired to author a book that someone else will be credited for. Quite simply, you're paying someone to write your book for you.
Shockingly, there is no comprehensive resource that answers all the common questions about ghostwriting and explains the different options to give authors a framework for making a decision. So, I will attempt to give you that here -- a complete examination of all aspects of ghostwriting: the positives, the negatives, the alternatives, where to find writers and how to hire them, so you can decide if you want to use a ghostwriter -- and if you do, how to do it right.
Positives of ghostwriting
1. You save time. This is a clear benefit of ghostwriting; quite possibly the main benefit. If you can afford a ghostwriter, that means your time is very valuable. It takes a normal author 1,000 to 2,000 hours to write a nonfiction book by himself or herself. Ghostwriters can reduce that time drastically, taking your time commitment down to 10 hours (or even less).
2. You don't have to learn how to write a book. One of the reasons it takes so long for many people to write a book is that the book-writing process itself is very complicated and difficult to learn. Book-writing has a very different structure and set of rules from almost any other type of writing or communication, which makes it harder than writing anything else.
Most people who write books learn these things as they go, which is why it can take years to write a book. Hiring a ghostwriter solves that problem.
3. Your book will get done. This might seem obvious, but bears repeating: Most people who start their books don't finish them. A ghostwriter, by writing the book for you, ensures that the manuscript does, in fact, get finished.
4. You can get a book without knowing your subject. A good ghostwriter can rely heavily on the author's knowledge, but doesn't need to if the author doesn't know their subject very well. A good ghostwriter can fill in the gaps and ensure that the author's knowledge deficits don't hurt the book. Not everyone sees this as a positive, so we'll revisit this issue under the negatives of ghostwriting.
Negatives of ghostwriting
1. Ghostwriting is expensive. All of the positives above assume that you get at least a good ghostwriter, if not a great one. Any ghostwriter is going to be expensive, and a good ghostwriter is very expensive. If you don't get a good one, then you will probably get a book that makes you look bad.
Below is a general guideline to the current market prices for ghostwriters. These prices can vary somewhat, because ghostwriting is an opaque market with no centralized marketplace for price discovery, but for a 100-to-300 page nonfiction book, price usually breaks down like this:
- $1,000 to $14,000: This is the bottom of the barrel for ghostwriters. Writers charging less than $15,000 is, quite frankly, not good. At best, they are very new and taking cheap work to build their portfolio. Usually they’re just bad writers or are subcontracting the work out to offshore content mills. At worst, they're flat-out plagiarizing other people's work. Good writers move the prices above $15,000 as soon as they can. If you cannot afford more than $15,000 for a ghostwriter, you should probably not hire one.
- $15,000 to $75,000: Professional ghostwriters with credits and reputation will usually charge between $15,000 and $75,000. This price varies greatly depending on the writer’s level of expertise, the amount of work required for the project and how much work he or she is currently juggling. Understand that there are substantial quality differences in this price range, and even within that range, a higher price does not guarantee quality. There are many who charge in this range who are not good at all, and many in this range who are cheap compared to the quality they deliver. Generally speaking, a proven and reliable ghostwriter with many good references will charge at least $40,000 for a book, usually more.
- $100,000 to $250,000-plus: Once you get into the six-figure realm, you are talking about a very small number of well-established authors, with extensive experience ghostwriting best-sellers. They often have books out under their own names that are well-respected. There are probably no more than 100 ghostwriters in the world who can command these prices, and they're usually hired by people who get large advances from traditional publishers and need to make sure their books are good. Actors, politicians, musicians and other famous personalities come to mind. And the very best ghostwriters can actually command a share of the advance and royalties. One of my good friends and writing partners, Nils Parker, falls into this category. For many of his projects, he charges a large percentage of the advance (up to 50 percent with some authors), plus some percentage of the backend. And because he is so good, he has a two-year backlog of clients waiting to work with him. Ghostwriters at this level are actually easier to find, since they are known by most of the book agents and book editors in the business, and they tend to work on a referral basis only.
2. You have to find and hire them. If you want to buy a book, you can go to Amazon and know that it's going to be there. They'll probably have the best price for it, too. It's a transparent, reliable marketplace for books.
There is no transparent, reliable marketplace for ghostwriters. In order to find a ghostwriter, you will have to look in many, many different places, and each one will have different people listed at different prices. Unless you are skilled at hiring and testing writers, you will likely have problems evaluating them. The very nature of their profession -- writing things for other people -- means that they often don't get credit for their work and cannot show it to you to prove their skill as a writer.
Even if you find one you want, you then have to negotiate a deal, and set all the proper expectations. Do you know exactly what such writers should be delivering, on what schedule and how to check their work? If not, then this whole process can get hard.
3. You have to manage them. Finding and hiring a ghostwriter are just the first steps. Are you a good manager, especially of someone you don't know, working in a field you don't know well? Because that's next.
After you hire them, the relationship changes. Their selfish goal is to get the work done as fast as possible and get you out the door, so they can sign their next client. Remember, they are a freelancer. The only way they make money is by signing authors to contracts.
If you did a good job picking a ghostwriter, this won't be an issue. They'll do a good job, even if they do it quickly. By definition, a good ghostwriter wants to deliver good work. But if you didn't pick the right ghostwriter, then you now have to worry about missed deadlines, payment issues, conflicts, poor work product, and any number of other issues that come from managing a freelance contractor who is looking for their next project.
4. You get a manuscript, nothing else. Even if everything goes right, you’re alone after your book is finished. A ghostwriter only delivers you a manuscript, nothing else. You still need to actually publish and market your book. Ghostwriters don’t usually have great expertise in platform building, brand building and marketing, so if you want those things, you’re going to need to hire and manage an entirely different team for that.
5. There are no guarantees in ghostwriting. The only thing you can be sure of in ghostwriting is that it is expensive. You don't get guarantees of quality or reliability -- or really of anything. Even if you spend a lot of money, you are doing it on the hope that it works, not on a guarantee that it'll work.
The reason you can't get a guarantee is because you are not paying for a manuscript. You are paying for the ghostwriter's time. If ghostwriters allowed "money back guarantee" clauses or "quality guarantee" clauses, they would be setting themselves up for endless revisions with authors. It could mean thousands of hours of work. Since these writers literally make their money by selling their time, they can't do that.
In fact, if you ever see a complete money back guarantee from a ghostwriter, it's probably a sign they are cheating you. No good ghostwriter would ever do that. I don't want to make it sound like all ghostwriters are out to cheat you. That's not true. In fact, most of them are good people who like working on books and want to go a good job.
The problem is that some authors are totally unreasonable, so the ghostwriters have to structure their deals this way to protect themselves from the few really bad author clients out there.
This really gets at the heart of the issue. Ghostwriting has no defined process to it. Each ghostwriter has their own personal system, so you can't know at any given stage what is going on, how well it's going, etc. You are totally in the hands of the ghostwriter who you are working with.
6. You're not the author of your own book. This is possibly the biggest negative, at least for most people. It might seem shocking to an honest person, but many authors who use ghostwriters don't actually know much about the subject of their book. They have some ideas and some things they know, but they actually hired the ghostwriter so they did not have to do the hard work of coming up with the ideas and the expression of those ideas.
This is why there's a low opinion of ghostwriting in most circles. Paul Magee of Subvert Magazine has been quoted as saying "As a reader, I lose respect for someone who used a ghostwriter. To not give credit is to pretend you did it, which shows a lack of character in my eyes." A lot of people think this way, fair or unfair.
Where to find ghostwriters.
I've said this multiple times, but this is the honest truth -- there is no single place to go to find vetted, accomplished ghostwriters. It sounds crazy, but it's true. To make sure I was right about this, I asked Byrd Leavell, a New York book agent who represents a ton of sports figures -- which means he's always in the market for ghostwriters -- where he would go to find a ghostwriter if he wasn't a publishing insider.
"There is no set place that I know of," Leavell said. "It seems like every time it’s a relationship that is created from connections. Someone has reached the point in their life where they want to do a vanity memoir and then they reach out to friends who for various reasons have come in contact with writers. Which then leads to an old client coming to me saying they are being offering money to write this person’s book. I can’t really think of other scenarios where this plays out."
I was shocked at this, so I did more research with book agents and actual ghostwriters. I talked to numerous other agents and writers and collected the places they source writers or authors. I think it is the most comprehensive list on the internet, and as far as I can tell, the only one based on actual research with book agents and ghost writers:
Most good ghostwriters have a website, even if it's not very good, to source clients. Our writers said they get a lot of inbound leads from their sites, which they said people find two ways, Google and LinkedIn.
LinkedIn: This is a great place to start a general search, but be prepared to do a lot of research into their work, check their sites, etc. And also remember, you'll only be seeing the people who explicitly offer ghostwriting on their profile. Many writers do that work, but don't list it.
Google: When searching here, your best bet might be to search "ghostwriter + [your city]" because then you can meet them locally.
If you aren't finding many in your city, that's fine, but I would recommend going very deep into the Google search results for "ghostwriter" because the first few pages will be ads and scammers. The good ghostwriters will be listed a few pages back. Or better yet, be careful using a general Google search at all, and start other places on the list.
Freelance writer marketplaces.
These are places where freelance writers have profiles to connect with people looking for their services. Very few of these marketplaces are designed around ghostwriting specifically, and very few truly vet their ghostwriters, though many do have different ways of displaying social proof (reviews, etc).
Reedsy: This is the best freelancer marketplace that I know of for books. Their selection of ghostwriters is high quality and is getting larger. Helpfully, they also have a systematic process for finding ghostwriters, getting bids, and working with them, so their platform itself helps to solve quite a few of the ghostwriting issues outlined above. If I were looking for a ghostwriter, I would probably start here.
MediaBistro: A well known freelance platform that attracts a lot of high quality writers. You'll have to put in work, but you can find good people here.
American Association of Ghostwriters: I have no experience dealing with them, but I know one writer who gets leads from them and has nice things to say. I looked at their stable of ghostwriters, and they seem pretty solid.
Freelance Writer Search: This is a lot like the AAG, in that it sends queries to ghostwriters. I have not used it, but it was also recommended by a writer.
Upwork: Odesk and Elance combined to create this company. There actually are some good ghostwriters in this marketplace, but the problem is, there are way more bad ones. Be very diligent in your vetting of them.
Scripted: This is a pure marketplace with a ton of different writers. You probably aren't going to find the highest level of ghostwriter on here, but there are some good freelancers available.
Guru: This is about the same level as Scripted.
Fiverr: This is the bottom of the barrel for ghost writing, and I am only putting this here to tell you not to go here looking for writers.
A ghostwriter agency is a company that connects authors with ghostwriters, and then takes a cut of the fee. If you Google "ghostwriting agency," you will find a lot of them, but quite frankly, most are frauds.
Agencies make their money on the difference between what they charge and what they pay to freelancers. The less they pay to their freelancers, the more they make from you, so they are incentivized to hire writers who don't charge as much, which typically means they are not as skillful or as experienced. Unsavory ones lure you into a contract with samples of one writer’s work, then hand you substandard material by someone else.
They can get away with this because most of them are not getting clients from personal recommendations or worried about building a reputation of excellence. They are content mills that make money by being good at buying Google ads, and in essence, scamming people. Once they accumulate too many bad reviews, they change names and start again. You have to be very careful in picking the agency you use.
Not all agencies are like this. I know of three ghostwriting agencies that stand apart from the scammers -- ones who have built a reputation of sourcing high quality ghostwriters, vetting and pairing them carefully and standing behind them. These three were first recommended to me by the book agent Scott Hoffman, who founded Folio, one of the most successful book agencies in the world. They use dozens of ghostwriters every year for their authors.
Hoffman recommends 2M Communications, Gotham Ghostwriters and Business Ghost. I have not personally worked with any of them, but I deeply trust Hoffman's judgment on this. Several other sources mentioned these agencies as being reliable as well.
Regardless of where you find your ghostwriters, I would recommend doing a deep evaluation of a minimum of three to five. Be prepared to interview up to 10 to find the right one.
How to evaluate a ghostwriter.
Now that you have several places to find ghostwriters, it's time to evaluate them. Here is the basic process by which you can assess them and figure out if one is a good match.
1. Price first. I said this above, and I am repeating for emphasis. If you are price shopping, you should not hire a ghostwriter. About $15k is the bare minimum, and you really should be spending around $40k or more to be sure you're getting someone good.
I know it seems weird to price shop in reverse -- to look for expensive rather than cheap -- but I just cannot emphasize enough that quality ghostwriters do not work for cheap. They are highly talented and skilled artisans, and they command high dollar fees because they do good work. You get what you pay for.
But, that being said, once you are above $15k, then price is a much less reliable signal of quality. I personally know ghostwriters who charge $30k who are simply better than ones charging $60k. You have to look at more things. Read on.
2. Read their past work. Any ghostwriter you are talking to should provide a complete list of books they've ghostwritten. A bad ghostwriter will resist, because either the books they worked on were bad, or they haven't done any.
Some ghostwriters who've worked on high level books are not allowed to tell you because they signed an NDA with the author. If you sign an NDA with that ghostwriter, a lot of them will be happy to tell you the book, because it's going to be something good, and they're going to be very proud of their work.
You have to go beyond just looking at what book they worked on. Real due diligence means reading at least some of the books they have worked on. Evaluate the writing, the storytelling and the structure. Is the book compelling? Is it well structured? The content might be boring, but did they do a good job with it? A great ghostwriter will make almost any book at least readable, regardless of the quality of the content. But the very best will consistently churn out great books, regardless of the author.
Also, look at stuff they’ve written under their own name. The best ghostwriters like writing and almost all of them are ghostwriting because it supports them to do their own writing. I would be very concerned if they haven’t written anything under their own name; that tells me they're almost certainly a hack. That means they only take these jobs because they they make money at it, but they don't like it at all. And if someone doesn't like it, it's very hard for them to do a good job. I would be very suspicious of someone who has no substantive writing in their own name.
3. Talk to references. References to past authors are good and should be standard with any good ghostwriter. You can usually assume that they will be good -- though not always, so make sure to check them. At my book publishing company, we always check the referrals of the ghostwriters we work with, and not all have good things to say.
Also, in addition to past clients, talk to references such as book agents and editors at publishing houses. The best ghostwriters don't have to go looking for clients, because their calendars are filled by book agents, book editors and past author clients, so they should be able to refer you to them.
4. Interview them. A great ghostwriter expresses your idea in even better terms than you would. What you're looking for is someone who not only understands what you are trying to say, but who can bring something else to the table. That's what you want to see in the interview. Not only are they getting your idea, they are adding to it in conversation.
A big part of this is getting along with them. Do you like talking to them? Are they good active listeners? Are they adding to the conversation? Do they seem really engaged in your topic and want to work with you? Are you connecting with them?
Red flags are someone who wants to hurry to get off the phone, someone who just agrees with everything you say, and someone who doesn't show a lot of interest in your topic. If you're doing a diet and fitness book, you don't want someone who's never written about diet and fitness, or doesn't care about what they eat.
5. Ask about their process. This is during the interview of course, but it is so important that I broke it out into its own sub-point -- you need to really be sure of their process.
This is one of the major drawbacks of ghostwriting. There is no defined process, and every ghostwriter does it their own way. You need to know how they do it. You want to hear they are highly responsive and highly collaborative, yes. But believe it or not, you actually want someone who sets good boundaries. This means they are clear about the number of revisions, number of notes, how they want to get information from you, how they want to interact, etc.
Having a clear process and reasonable limits means that they have done this before many times, they get paid a lot, they value their time, and they're not just going to take a gig from anyone. They are vetting you as well.
A ghostwriter who agrees to anything or is very vague about details is a ghostwriter who doesn't have a process, who isn't very valued and who is desperate to get your money. They probably won't deliver a good manuscript either. A good ghostwriter is the opposite. They're polite, but they're very firm, and they're very clear because they know what they're doing.
How to hire a ghostwriter.
Now that you have evaluated several and picked one that you want to work with, it's time to negotiate the deal. Most ghostwriters have standard contracts they use. That's fine -- you probably don't need to involve lawyers -- but there are several deal terms you need to make sure you negotiate properly.
1. Price and payment terms. Make sure you are very clear on how much you are paying and when those payments are due. There are a lot of ways to pay, but the vast majority of good ghost writers will use a flat fee structure, meaning you are paying a set amount for a defined book of a defined size or scope. There are some that use flat fee plus hourly for revisions beyond a certain point. That's fine too.
As to payment terms, make sure that you are paying in installments and not paying all the money up front. Those installments can be time-based or tied to specific deliverables. But also expect to pay something upfront.
2. Deliverables -- total length, word count, revisions. Part of the payment discussion will be what the deliverables are. The very, very best and most expensive ghostwriters will be somewhat loose with this -- they can afford to be when they are charging $100k+ for a manuscript. You are paying them to just handle everything, whatever it takes, and for that price, they will.
This is not true for most ghostwriters, who will often have specific word counts or page counts they want to tie you to, or other very objective ways to limit the scope of work. This all normal and fine, just make sure it's clear to you, and that it fits with what you need.
Do not let a ghostwriter just go with a straight hourly fee, unless you are cool with them potentially running up their bill a lot. Most of the good ones will have a set price for a specific set of deliverables, and then an hourly rate for time beyond that. This guide gives you a good baseline of what the conventional freelancer rates look like.
An example of a set of deliverables is something like this:
- A set of initial interviews, 3-5 hours
- 20-40 hours of original research, fact checking, outlining and reading
- Follow-up interviews, up to 5 hours
- Approximately 50k word rough draft manuscript based on interviews and original research
- Two rounds of revisions
- Final manuscript based on revisions
3. Rights and royalties. Make sure you retain 100 percent of all the rights to your book. Not only copyright, but the print license, all film rights, TV, foreign and adaptations rights. Don't let any ghostwriter try to keep any rights to your book, ever.
Some of the very best ghostwriters will be able to negotiate a percentage of the royalties, but that is rare, and different than owning the rights. This basically means they are getting some of the profits from book sales. If this is on the table, it probably means you have a major book deal with a traditional publisher and a book agent who will help you negotiate this.
4. Plagiarism protection. This won't be a concern with a good ghostwriter, but make sure you are indemnified against them stealing someone else's content. No good ghostwriter would ever think of doing this, so they'll have no issue putting in the contract.
5. No subcontracting. Some agencies, and even individual ghostwriters, will use their credentials to sign you, and even do the initial interviewing, but will pass off the writing to another writer of much lower quality. Do not allow this. You are paying for that writer, they should do all the work -- unless of course you are negotiating a much lower fee for something like this.
6. Termination rights. If you should terminate the contract for any reason, except not paying, you should still maintain the rights to your book.
7. Anonymity. This does not have to be in the contract, but be clear if you want their work on the book to be anonymous and covered by NDA or not. Many ghostwriters will want to claim credit for working on books -- deservedly so, so if you want anonymity, they will tend to charge more for this. This is standard, but the price is negotiable.
Alternatives to ghostwriting.
I know this piece is about ghostwriting, but that's not the only way to get your book done. There are alternatives to ghostwriting.
1. Write it yourself. If you can't justify paying more than $15k for someone to write your book, doing it yourself is the best course of action. The key to writing your own book is to follow a good process. You can use a book like this one to guide you through each step and make it much easier.
2. Use a "Done With You" service (i.e. Book Coaches). There are a lot of people who offer book coaching, or a "done with you" type of service. The basic idea is that they coach you through writing a book, but you are the one doing the actual work.
This is similar to doing it yourself, except you're not totally on your own. In fact, a lot of ghostwriters will also be "book coaches" for a much lower fee, which essentially amounts to being a consulting editor on your book. This can be a good deal for people who can afford some help, but not full ghostwriting services.
The problem is that book coaching runs into many of the same issues of ghostwriting:
- There is no reliable, transparent marketplace to find good book coaches
- You have to do the negotiating, hiring and managing yourself
- There is no defined process for book coaching, so the quality varies widely
The good news is that it's usually cheaper, you save some time and frustration, and the book will mostly be yours, and not written by a ghostwriter.
3. Use a "Done For You" service. This is a much newer category of companies that offer a slightly different way to get ideas into books. Here's info on three companies:
Book In A Box: This is my company. Basically, we created a structured interview process to turn an author's ideas into a book, in their words and their voice. We do all the publishing in addition to the assisting in the writing. This video explains the process, and this is an author testimonial that covers their experience.
(Full disclosure -- this is my company, and yes, it competes directly with ghostwriters. I'm obviously biased, but the reason we started this company is because at its core, ghostwriting is a broken system, and we figured out a better way to solve the same problem that ghostwriting is trying to solve -- namely, getting the ideas of an author into a book, without having to spend so much time doing it.)
Round Table Companies: I have not used them, but know a few people who have, and they say good things. From what I understand, they are kind of in-between a book coach and a "done for you" service, and they can vary their service based on your needs.
Advantage Media: I have not used them either, but many of our clients at Book In A Box did their first book with them, before coming to us for the second. Their process is a series of interviews as well, which they just transcribe. They also do publishing.