hostwriting is one of the most promising careers of the coming decade. Opportunities abound while income potential is impressive for the right ghosts. Just as many people who experience career downsizing or layoffs wake up one morning and think I’ll just become a freelance writer, there’s an influx of newbies in ghostwriting. But not just anyone can jump in and succeed; it takes writing experience, publishing industry savvy, and an uncanny ability to literally lose yourself in your work.
There are three things a ghostwriter will seldom earn:
- Accolades based on writing credits
- Awards for publishing her writing
- Name recognition
There are three things well within a ghost’s grasp:
- Deep job satisfaction
- The knowledge that she helped launch careers for others
- Lots of money
Since before the dawn of movable type, ghostwriters have been paid to put other people’s words into manuscripts, and we’ll be around forever. Some ghosts garner personal notoriety, like Pete McDaniel who ghosts for Tiger Woods, but most are unknown to our reading public. We’ve had long, full careers packed with bylines and recognition, and we seek a different sort of satisfaction now. We write in order to convey other authors’ thoughts and to help such authors reach their writing goals.
We may mentor and teach burgeoning writers without actually writing their book or article. We may simply take a rough work and smooth it out, so it gets the respect it deserves as a submission to publishers. Or we may write articles, books, e-books, or scripts from scratch, doing all the research, conducting interviews, and composing the entire work.
“A marketable ghost needs extreme technical skill, not necessarily computer tech, but we’re talking about technical aspects of writing in English. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling expertise are essential.”
Essential Ghostwriting Skills
A marketable ghost needs extreme technical skill, not necessarily computer tech, but we’re talking about technical aspects of writing in English. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling expertise are essential.
As a ghostwriter, you’ll need to take very rough writing and rework it into slick, professional prose. You’ll need to be an expert interviewer. Most of us keep our guidance counselor techniques finely honed. What’s that got to do with writing? Authors perceive their work as extensions of themselves, and convincing an author to axe thousands of superfluous words is not a task for anyone without the nurturing skill of a mother coddling her injured child.
If you decide to work with novelists, you must understand how to construct good fiction using story arcs, polished dialogue, and believable characters. A nonfiction ghost can’t succeed unless she understands how agents and publishers predict what to buy now for sales in a year or more. She has to understand and study trends and must be able to write to a particular target audience.
All of that represents a pretty tall order even before you add the quintessential ghosting skill—the ability to alter your writing voice for each client. A ghostwriter has to adapt to multiple personalities and switch at will.
“All of that represents a pretty tall order even before you add the quintessential ghosting skill—the ability to alter your writing voice for each client.”
Last week, I finished a book in the voice of a 95-year-old Italian immigrant, entrepreneurial guru. This week, I’m working on the life story of a 40-year-old woman scientist who raised her children on an architectural dig in the rain forest. At the same time, I’m writing on real estate investing.
In between, my assignments included work for an online gaming juggernaut, staff blogging for a psychic web, and composing erotica for women. You won’t find my name on the work. No one knows I do it. My satisfaction rises from stretching my skills, learning the nuances of my industry, and hearing satisfied customers say my writing sounds exactly like their voices. Then, there’s my substantial fees.
Why Ghostwriters Choose Invisibility
Many successful ghosts have been writers for years. They’ve had the bylines. They’ve dealt with every editor personality—the good, the bad, and the impossible. They’ve sent hundreds, if not thousands, of queries into the ether, some never to be heard of again. They’ve struggled with the ebb and flow of writers’ markets.
It gets old—the constant struggle to market your work, then waiting eons for an editorial decision. A ghost markets her services to a smaller number of clients. She can sign on with one or more solid agencies or go it alone or both. She can find work by developing relationships with book publishers or agents.
You aren’t pitching a book to an agent or publisher who sees hundreds a day. You’re a businesswoman, providing an essential professional service. The agent needs you. My initial marketing letter says, “Relax, I don’t have a manuscript for you to read. I can help when you find an intriguing author who needs rough edges smoothed.”
“You aren’t pitching a book to an agent or publisher who sees hundreds a day. You’re a businesswoman, providing an essential professional service. The agent needs you.”
The letter gets a good response; everyone can use a little help, right? I spend fewer hours trolling for customers, so I spend more time doing what I love—writing and mentoring—and so can you.
Ghosting—What’s in it for You?
Professional, trained ghostwriters with high-level expertise can, and do, command pay rates of $1.00 per word and more. Not an impressive figure? Simple calculating shows that a short 200-page book, at 250 words per page, means a fee of $25K for simple ghosting. Then, there are add-on charges:
- A fee for the initial consultation and “Analysis and Recommendations” report
- Fees for research
- Upcharge profit on contracting out final proofreading
- Editing or scanning photos and images
- Travel and additional expenses
- Public speaking opportunities
- Writing book proposals
Suppose you agree to look at an author’s project, create a written A&R report, write the manuscript, scan and edit 50 photos, and provide a full book proposal for a 250-page nonfiction book. You can reasonably expect your fee to be upwards of $50,000. Ghosts charge $300 to $500 for the A&R, $1.00 per word for the manuscript, and $40 per hour for photo work. The industry standard for a full and complete book proposal? $10,000.
The work is out there, and clients who care about outcomes and about their overall experience are willing to invest in a skilled, professional ghost. A quick search of the Web and you’ll find clear evidence that real ghosts don’t work for pennies. Ghosting is a lucrative business for the expert writer who is also a good businesswoman.
“Ghosting is a lucrative business for the expert writer who is also a good businesswoman.”
Don’t overlook the fringe benefits. As a ghost, you can deduct business expenses from your income tax. You’ll set your own hours with your portable, new career. I’ve been known to work from a boat, in a car while traveling, and poolside at my Florida home. I usually work days, but can switch to nights on a whim.
How to be a Well-Paid Ghostwriter
Pay your dues. If you’re an aspiring or developing writer, build your portfolio, develop an impeccable reputation, and do your networking. Get out there and make some noise about your skills. If you’re established, a well-planned shift of focus can put you among the highly paid invisibles enjoying a fascinating way of making a living.
Put together a well-constructed marketing package to create a great first impression. At the least, you’ll include:
- A three-paragraph bio about your writing experience.
- A page of endorsements or comments from satisfied editors, customers, or publishers who know your work—head the page, What People Say About (your name here).
- A chronology of your work history. This isn’t a resume; it’s a casualization of what you have done and for whom.
- A paragraph about why your customers will benefit from hiring a ghost and why you are the right ghost for them.
- A list of ghosted projects, coaching experiences, or mentoring experiences.
Print your packet on the best stationery you can afford, and include a professional business photo of you, along with a logo or letterhead. Spend a little money, and you’ll be paid back many times with customer enthusiasm.
Read, read, read. All writers have to read to compete. For you, it’s even more important. How else can you expand your chameleon-like ability to shift your voice to match your clients?
“All writers have to read to compete. For you, it’s even more important. How else can you expand your chameleon-like ability to shift your voice to match your clients?”
Consider taking a training class for ghosts. I chose one by Claudia Suzanne, a highly paid, successful ghost since 1989. I spent fourteen grueling weeks learning the ins and outs of the publishing trade, how to find clients, and insider tips on ghosting. There are other classes, and there are successful ghosts who never received formal training.
You can ghost locally, nationally, or internationally. Celebrities like Sarah Palin hire ghosts. Well-known novelists like Danielle Steel use ghosts. Local business gurus and entrepreneurs recognize the value of authoring books, but most are intimidated by the mystique of writing to publish.
Is it time for you to refocus your writing career and set your sites on a different kind of success? As long as you’re comfortable with invisibility, you can expand your sphere of influence by putting other people’s great ideas into books. You may never see your name in lights; but ghostwriting is a satisfying way to enjoy freedom, express your creativity, and secure a solid revenue stream.
Maryan Pelland is a recognized ghostwriter, editor, publisher, coach, and mentor. She has had hundreds of bylines in major newspapers, magazines, and digital publications. Maryan is webmistress at Ontext.com, where she specializes in creating outstanding resources for writers and at DigitalGrandparent, technology for baby boomers.