How Do You Hire a Ghostwriter?

Randy Kemp posed that question on LinkedIn, or rather, he asked what advice to give someone who wanted to hire a ghostwriter. He included my public answer in his April 26th blog post, but I thought I should post it here, as well, and add some of my further contributions from our follow-up discussion.

There are a number of factors to take into consideration when hiring a ghostwriter. Budget is an important one, because if this is a major project, it’s going to involve considerable time and effort on the writer’s part. To know how much you can afford to spend, you need to know what the book (or other project) is worth to you in terms of expanded business opportunities, increased pay scale, etc. (Sad to say, it probably won’t earn you that much in royalties.)

Expect a good ghostwriter to cost you a substantial chunk of money. The least I’ve ever charged anyone for a full-length non-fiction book is about $7,000, and she did a great deal of the writing herself. We are talking about as much as 200 hours of work, after all. (That project, by contrast, came to about 70 hours.)

To get a sense of the range of rates for ghostwriting, you can look at the Editorial Freelancers Association’s listing for Developmental Editing (which is not the same thing, but sometimes comes close) and the “What to Pay” guidelines at Writers.ca. They give a range from $10,000 to $50,000 (Canadian, one presumes) for a book, or your entire advance plus 50% of the royalties. Rainbow Writing, by contrast, offers “highly affordable” ghostwriting at a standard rate of $5,000 for a 200-page manuscript (where a “page” is defined in the old-fashioned double-spaced typed fashion, or about 250 words). Five thousand is pretty much rock bottom. You might find someone cheaper than that on Elance, but I don’t think you’d want to hire them.

Now that I’ve gotten the sticker shock out of the way, let’s get to the important part. Of course a ghostwriter needs to be able to write well. Some people insist on hiring writers who have published their own books, or writers who are journalists. You should certainly be able to see samples of the ghost’s writing. But that much is true of any writer you hire.

If you want a ghostwriter—someone who can take the knowledge in your brain and the passion in your heart and distill it into words in your voice—then you need someone who has more than just writing skills.

You need someone you can develop an intimate personal relationship with, because the ghost is going to be getting inside your head. Rapport is critical.

You need someone who listens to you. Don’t be surprised if your ghost spends more time asking questions, recording, and taking notes than actually writing.

You need someone with a gift for mimicry, someone who writes in multiple styles and genres. Established authors with too strong a “voice” of their own are not always good at this.

You need someone who understands enough about publishing to be able to keep the purpose and audience of your book in mind, and help you refine and develop your ideas to achieve that goal.

So far as I know, ghostwriters don’t have a union or a professional association. We are, by our nature, anonymous. You can find us lurking in the acknowledgements pages of books when we don’t have “as told to” bylines, which we often don’t. (I’ve never asked for one, but then, I mainly write business books, not celebrity biographies.)

The best way to find a good one is probably to ask for a referral from another author. You can, of course, search LinkedIn and read recommendations here. Check out the books they’ve worked on. Read their blogs. Meet them (or have a video interview) and see if you click. Find out how they work and whether your subject is interesting to them. (The more interested they are, the better their writing will be.)

Then go on and enjoy a wonderful collaborative experience building something neither of you could have created alone.

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