What is Ghostwriting?
Ghostwriting is not the act of writing about ghosts. You wouldn’t think that would need saying, but experience has taught me otherwise. Ghostwriting is, in broad strokes, handling the research, investigation, interviewing, and writing of a book that someone else puts their name on, and owns the rights to. I say broad strokes because this is a long jump from a comprehensive guide to ghostwriting. I’m not sure such a thing is even possible.
Why would you write a book, and then let someone else get all the credit? Money. You’d do it for money. Contrary to popular opinion writers are not all destitute or rich. There is some middle ground. Ghostwriting is one of the better places to find it. I have moved away from it in general because it tends to create feast or famine situations, where you make a lot of money for awhile then struggle to find the next job.
That said, ghostwriting is a blast, and a very rewarding experience in many ways. If you have the chance, I’d recommend it.
A Ghostwriting Guide
When I got my first serious writing job, I was mildly surprised to find there was not really a lot of helpful material other there. I struggled to find answers to questions like, “How much can a ghostwriter tell the people he’s interviewing?”
I’m going to give you the best answers to those questions I can, right now.
What Can I Tell People?
That’s not a trivial concern, is it? My first project involved a court case where the defendant was now deceased on behalf of someone they were close to who felt there had been a significant miscarriage of justice. If you’re trying to insinuate yourself into the personal lives of people and ask prying questions about something painful, you’d better believe they want to know who you are, who sent you, and why you’re asking.
As a ghostwriter, you may not be able to tell them. If I had been going of the strict terms of the NDA I signed at the start, I would not actually have been able to ask people questions, since asking questions inevitably tells people a lot about what you’re doing.
Here’s the rule I’ve come up with: Ask each client the limits they want you to work within, check back on iffy situations, and let them know if their constraints are too severe and hampering your ability to do your job.
How Much Should I Charge?
I recommend doing this by an hourly rate, rather than by the word, since you will likely be spending at least as much time putting together sources and material as actually writing, depending on the subject. This seems to be a highly variable area, but I’d recommend shooting for the industry average of $30/hour as a good starting point.
Don’t work for anyone who wants to pay you five dollars an hour. Ghostwriting isn’t really a part-time gig, and you need to be making enough to support yourself. On top of that, clients who want to pay you like a slave will probably also want to treat you that way.
What Can I Record?
This varies from state to state. Here in Arizona, it’s basically, whatever you want, whenever you want. Other places, you need permission from all parties to record anything.
This is important, and you should learn the rules for wherever you’ll be working. Keep in mind, also, that things get complicated when you call across state lines. The Repoters Committe for the Free Press has a nice PDF that will explain most of the intricacies and list specific laws by state. It wouldn’t hurt to read more about your specific state laws, however, as the PDF is from 2012 and, well, laws change.
Can I Do This?
At some point, you’re going to be asking yourself, “Can I do this?” That point should be right now, before you start.
First off, you will almost always be objectively unqualified to ghostwrite any book you’re hired to write at the outset. So, you need to be the sort of person who has a proven record of being able to learn and utilize new information at a high level, in a short amount of time. Second off, you’re probably going to be taking a major paycut, so do think hard about that.
In my first book, I needed to leverage my strong science background into understanding the science of the actual investigation. I needed to understand court jargon, legal motions, a bit about climbing, and a few other things. I had to learn how to conduct interviews, track people down, and so on. In other words, I had to learn a lot, and I had to learn it on the fly. Even if you do know absolutely everything you need to know to write the book (and I really can’t overemphasize the fact that you won’t), writing a book is still a tremendous amount of work!
Unless you get very, very, lucky, any book you write will require a level of knowledge on several subjects you don’t yet possess. A big part of the job (and the fun!) is pushing yourself to become an expert in these new and unexpected areas.
The trick is, you have to really, really, know that you can do this sort of thing. It works great for me. I learn quickly, and prefer to dive as deep as I can into something for a few months and then move on.
Be ethical. Be as ethical as you can in all things. Treat people, clients, interviewees, whoever, with respect. Respect the data and information. Source, double-check, think critically. This is all part of your responsibility as a ghostwriter.
A Good Place to Stop
This guide to ghostwriting definitely has lots of room for expansion, but I need to stop somewhere, and this seems like a good place. Anyone who has questions or ideas for the next installment, speak up in the comment section, please!