Ghostwriting sounds mysterious, doesn’t it?
If it doesn’t make you think of clandestine meetings with famous authors, maybe the word makes you remember one of the best PBS shows in the history of television.
Sadly, most ghostwriters don’t have much time to solve mysteries with a band of neighborhood children.
And clandestine meetings? They’re totally overrated.
Instead, ghostwriters usually only keep one secret: The identity of the person they work for.
But this lucrative freelance-writing field comes with plenty of challenges.
If you want to make money telling other people’s stories on the sly, you’ll have to be a good listener, a good researcher and a good writer. If you can do all that, though, you could make a living from this type of freelance work.
What Is a Ghostwriter Anyway?
Ghostwriters help others produce everything from books to memos to social media posts. Usually, the ghostwriter’s name is not disclosed, although some books are “co-authored” to give the ghostwriter public credit.
People hire ghostwriters for a variety of reasons.
Some professionals have compelling stories, but want help telling them. Some don’t see themselves as natural writers and want to work with someone who has experience. Some are adept at writing, but just don’t have time to do it.
And because the reasons for hiring a ghostwriter vary widely, so can the specifics of each job.
Many ghostwriters specialize in full-length books, frequently nonfiction titles like memoirs and how-to guides.
My ghostwriting specialty is content marketing — like blog posts, white papers and research analysis. I’ve written and edited blog posts by business owners and high-level employees on many different topics, many of which I had little to no experience in.
The challenge to constantly deliver engaging content that matches not only an industry, but also the voice of the author? Sometimes it’s a little bit thrilling.
Ghostwriting short content may involve a 10-minute conversation as your client dashes between meetings. Then it’s up to you to do some research and deliver a draft.
For blog posts of about 500-1,000 words, one conversation and one round of edits from the author may be all you need to get the job done. You may also turn this content around on a regular schedule for a client who has a retainer agreement.
If you’re working on a longer project — such as a book — expect to spend many hours with your client. Rather than approaching your sessions like question-and-answer interviews, think of it more like a conversation between friends.
Recording your conversations is highly advised, not only for accuracy but for reviewing your subject’s speech patterns and expressions that will help bring their energy to your writing.
How to Become a Ghostwriter
Networking is essential for success as a ghostwriter.
Marcia Layton Turner has ghostwritten more than 20 nonfiction books, and is the founder and operator of the Association of Ghostwriters. Her first ghostwriting gig came through her agent for her own writing. That agent knew a well-known person who had gotten a book deal, but was too busy to write.
Turner took the person’s outline, interviewed them, and drafted chapters. After her first project, she networked with publishing acquisitions editors to build her ghostwriting portfolio.
Jodi Lipper recalls a similar experience. She first considered ghostwriting after working at a publishing house and also writing her own book series.
“At a networking event I met an editor who knew an agent that was looking for writers and made the introduction. I met with the agent and a few days later she called me with a crazy opportunity to rewrite an entire manuscript for a publisher in three weeks,” she says.
The deadline was far from ideal, especially because Lipper had a newborn and a toddler at home.
“But I saw it as a way of proving myself, so I took the job,” she says.
Lipper has worked with the same editor again, and that agent still represents her, years later.
But you don’t need to socialize with publishing industry big wigs to start finding ghostwriting gigs. Emailing editors or agents who are familiar with your work can help, Turner notes.
So can making sure it’s easy to find you.
“That could be as simple as updating your bio on sites where potential clients might go in search of a ghostwriter,” Turner says. “Or updating your professional website to be sure that your ghostwriting experience is highlighted.
“Since it’s difficult to identify potential clients who may be considering authoring a book, it’s best to be sure your name comes up in searches when someone goes on the hunt for a professional ghost.”
My first ghostwriting jobs came through people I already knew. A freelancer friend asked for help ghostwriting posts for a business’s blog while she was on maternity leave, and that one short assignment was enough to be able to list “ghostwriting” as a skill on my website.
Another long-running client came through an organization I’d freelanced for, managing its social media accounts for several years. The client knew I didn’t want to work in social media anymore, but had an immediate need for drafting blog posts and other documents in the communications department.
Since I was comfortable discussing the job specifics with both contacts, it was easier to talk through pricing my initial projects.
How Much Do Ghostwriters Make?
So, what can you earn as a ghostwriter? Unfortunately, this is where it gets fuzzy.
The Editorial Freelancer’s Association estimates rates for ghostwriters to be between $50 and $60 per hour, or about 25-50 cents per word.
For the most part, though, ghostwriters set their own rates based on their experience, the client’s budget and the type of work.
“Ghosts who routinely work on [New York Times] bestsellers or with celebrities often can charge more for their work and clients are happy to pay it,” Turner notes. “Other ghosts may have the same number of years of experience but charge half that because that is the sweet spot for them — the rate at which they can earn a profit and that most clients are willing to pay.”
Some authors continue lasting relationships with ghostwriters. It’s beneficial for both: The author has a rapport and trusts the ghostwriter, and the ghostwriter is familiar with the author’s voice, making it possible to quickly complete work.
“Surprisingly, some of the best opportunities to raise my rates have been with repeat clients,” Lipper says. “Once I have proven my worth, they are often willing to pay more for the second or third book we do together.”
If you work on projects shorter than books, you can still set project-based rates. I determine a project’s rate based on my ideal hourly rate, multiplied by how many hours I think the project will take.
If you’re making this calculation in your head right now, don’t forget to include time spent in meetings or answering emails toward your total time estimate.
Since every project is different, the hourly equivalent of my ghostwriting earnings can be anywhere between $56 and $125 per hour.
Meanwhile, ghostwriters working on full-length books may charge $20,000 to $50,000.
Your earning potential sometimes depends on how well you can multitask.
“I think every ghost has a maximum number of book projects they know they can take on and still provide a quality product,” Turner says. “For some, that’s one. They’ll take one project and work on it until it’s done before taking on another. Others, like me, often juggle multiple projects as long as they are in different stages of production.”
Other Important Stuff No One Really Tells You
Ghostwriting is far from a solitary practice. And when you’re working with other personalities (some of them larger than life), managing your ghostwriting career can be frustrating.
“The mistakes I see ghostwriters make have to do with how they manage their businesses, rather than anything to do with writing,” Turner says. “For example, not using a contract to spell out everyone’s responsibilities, not billing up front before starting, and not walking away when a project becomes unmanageable or very different from the original description — which costs time and money and often doesn’t end well.”
And then there’s actually getting the material to work with — it doesn’t appear magically. The research and interview portion of the job can be tiring.
“[Some ghosts think] their job is just to do the writing,” Lipper says. “That’s only half the job. The other half, which is arguably more important, is getting the material out of the author. This is where the listening skills come into play. Some ghosts ask, ‘What’s your story?’ and expect the author to narrate a book. It doesn’t work that way. A good ghostwriter is part therapist, part journalist, and part friend that can get the full story and then turn it into a book.”
Hustle always helps.
“I wish I’d known that sometimes it’s up to the ghostwriter to get the book done, even if that means stepping up and taking on additional work that isn’t necessarily in the job description,” Lipper admits.
But if you’re a team player, ghostwriting may be your freelance-writing sweet spot.
You may not get the limelight, but if you plan well, the money can help you find time to work on your own writing projects, too.
Your Turn: Would you ever work as a ghostwriter? Who would you love to write for?
Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.