How To Be A Successful Ghostwriter
An overview of how to find ghostwriting opportunities, advertise your freelance skills, and what to charge for your time and talent.
Everyone has a story dwelling inside of them. Suffice it to say, though, many of them lack the necessary writing and organizational skills to bring that tale to the surface. Ghostwriters to the rescue! If you possess the patience to listen, the judgment to weed out the superfluous, and the business savvy to make the investment worth your time and energy, there’s money to be made in penning another person’s adventures.
WHERE TO FIND CLIENTS
How many times have you heard someone say, “Write a book about myself? I wouldn’t even know where to begin!” Your ghostwriter antennae should immediately snap to attention. Here’s a life story that’s not only begging to be committed to paper and shared with others but is predicated on an indisputable fact of human nature: people love to talk about themselves. And talk and talk and talk. Even better, they thrill to the possibility that it could all be put in a book that other people might actually pay money for and read. By your taking the initiative of stepping up and offering to “ghost,” it could put into play a dream they may have been toying with for years but never knew who to approach.
Likewise, you can find a wealth of prospective clients in the pages of your city newspaper. Human-interest stories and local interviews abound with opportunities—orphaned siblings reunited after 50 years, a former ballerina from Kiev starting a dance studio, a zookeeper’s stint with the circus. Keep in mind with this route, of course, that you will be in competition with other writers combing the regional press for the same kind of material; the more intriguing the person, the more attention he or she will be attracting attention for future write-ups. Certainly a healthy list of publishing credits, plus a projected sincerity and interest in their lives, will go a long way in sealing the deal. The fact that you are willing to write it “anonymously” and give them all the credit for authorship can, further, be more persuasive than someone who simply wants the rights to a particular story and intends to keep all the profit from it.
You can also advertise your availability as a freelance writer and get the clients to come seeking YOU. Even better, you can do it for free on an endless variety of Internet venues. These ads can either be posted generically (“Ghostwriter for Hire”) or at career-specific sites (i.e. military expertise? Check out the chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc. where your subjects of preference are the most likely to hang out.)
Having a good working relationship with an editor or publishing house can yield results, too. Perhaps they have already been approached by authors who have written autobiographies and yet lack the technical structure, writing skills, and cohesion to make it a commercial success. By declaring your availability to re-work selected manuscripts into something salable, you’re not only saving the editor a substantial amount of work but rescuing an intriguing story from inevitable death on the slush pile.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Whether you find your clients through professional referrals or at your Aunt Ethel’s garden party, do not be lulled into vague promises of splitting future book sales and film riches. As a freelancer, you already have enough angst in your life about getting paid on time (or paid at all!) for your own projects; the substantive commitment involved in authoring a book that will bear someone else’s name demands that all contract terms be established up front—and in writing. Translated: this isn’t the time to write on spec. Nor is it the time for either you or the client to rely on assumptions (i.e., that you will be responsible for selling and marketing the book when, in fact, the only thing you had planned to do was just WRITE it). If in doubt, spell it out!
In determining whether your ghostwriting fee will be based on an hourly rate or a lump sum, don’t forget to factor in expenses—supplies, phone calls, travel, etc. What if the client decides that major rewrites are required? How these sticky are to be handled should be addressed before you ever type, “Chapter 1, Page 1.” During the initial negotiation process, it is a perfectly legitimate request to ask for half the money upon signing the contract and the second half upon delivery of the finished product. Further it should be clarified with the client that the first half of the total payment will be deemed a kill fee in the event that he or she decides not to continue with the project for whatever reason.
Nor should you rule out the unfortunate possibility of the client dying prior to the project’s conclusion. Are the client’s heirs aware of what you’re doing? Have contingency clauses been incorporated to address the issue of who will own the rights to the finished manuscript? Will your final payment and all agreed-upon expenses be covered? As unpleasant as it is to consider these issues, they are, nonetheless, a crucial component of the agreement.
WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?
There’s a fine line between transcribing someone else’s memories and interjecting your own opinion that the plot would benefit substantively from more sex and a couple of car crashes. While some clients may be open to creative license and helpful suggestions, you need to respect the wishes of those who believe their life was just fine the way it actually was. Certainly your incentive to go along with their viewpoint hinges on the reality that what they do with the completed tome is their problem, not yours. You’re the ghostwriter here, not the author whose name is going on the front cover. Unless the assignment to draft this book has specifically come from an editor or publishing house (along with concrete directives), your job is to relate the story through your client’s voice, eyes, and—most importantly—heart.