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11 Things Your Ghostwriter Doesn’t Want You to Know

ghostwriting secrets

If you’re thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, it’s best you get the skinny straight from the horse’s mouth. Unfortunately, if you are a ghostwriter, I’m about to air your dirty laundry for all to see.

The thing is, ghostwriting has become one of those “popular careers” that lacks a firm standard of ethics and often draws out people who just want an easy fix for their professional woes. I’ve run into many a ghostwriter whose ambition far outstrips her talent, so people searching for ghostwriters need to know how to protect themselves.

The following eleven statements are not true of every ghostwriter, but you need to be on the lookout. And if you are considering a career in ghostwriting, these are the things you’ll want to avoid.

1- “I have NO IDEA what editors and agents want.”

Most ghostwriters—even those with immense talent and potential—don’t take the time to increase their knowledge of the industry. This is dangerous for all ghostwriting clients, especially since most of you actually want to see your manuscript in print.

Just the other day, I stumbled across a ghostwriter’s web site that claimed the writer had “extensive contacts” with literary agents and New York publishers. The first red flag was the New York qualifier—it might sound impressive, but there are plenty of excellent publishing houses located in areas of the country besides Manhattan.

Furthermore, even if the ghostwriter does have friends in high places, this fact doesn’t help the client. No self-respecting agent or editor is going to trust a ghostwriter who pimps out every one of his or her clients. It isn’t practical.

A ghostwriter you can trust is one who is honest about his qualifications. He’ll admit that he reads up on industry news, follows publishing trends, tracks articles published by editors and agents. But he won’t try to sell his relationships because good writing, and not PR, is the name of the game.

2- “I’ve never been published.”

When I was working as a ghostwriter, it always bothered me when I came across competitors who claimed “dozens of sales” to publishers and “over 100 books in print”. My ghostwriting career lasted about five years, and during that time four of my clients sold manuscripts I’d written or edited. FOUR. Not dozens, not hundreds: FOUR.

And by the time the fourth went to print, I was ready to strike out on my own as an author.

Statistically, most ghostwritten manuscripts either never make it to print or are self-published. In fact, many of my clients hired me specifically because they wanted to self-publish, and although I’m not a big fan of POD publishing, who was I to judge?

The thing is, most ghostwriters choose this career because they can’t get published themselves. Get clear on that right away. If you manage to hire a ghostwriter whose prose is flawless, whose plot development shines, you’re very lucky indeed.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but you’re not paying a best-selling novelist to write your manuscript. Instead, you’re hiring a ghost whose writing abilities exceed your own. That’s the bottom line. So if your ghostwriter is claiming multiple sales to publishers, ask for proof.

3- “I don’t like your idea.”

At the beginning of my ghostwriting career, I took every project offered me, sometimes even when the client’s opinions drastically clashed with mine. As I increased my reputation, however, I began choosing my projects more carefully, and the change was dramatic.

Your ghostwriter should be honest when expressing feelings about your manuscript idea, especially if the topic is controversial. The problem is, you can’t always tell if the feelings expressed are genuine.

I’d tell you to avoid ghostwriters who gush unnecessarily over your idea, but I’ve been known to get overenthusiastic myself if a client proposes a project that really jazzes me. My advice? Ask for a telephone conversation so you can judge the ghostwriter’s opinions more easily.

4- “Our relationship isn’t really a secret.”

Ghostwriters, just like other professionals, need a way to prove that they are capable of handling projects offered by new clients. Consequently, they will disclose the nature of the work they’ve performed for you, and might even provide excerpts from your project to new clients.

The problem is that some ghostwriters won’t disclose this to you, which is a breach of your rights. By definition, a ghostwriter works in secret, and the fact that he or she wrote your manuscript should never be made public. Using excerpts in a portfolio is acceptable, but only under certain conditions.

First, your ghostwriter should obtain a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from anyone to whom your working relationship is revealed. This means that your ghostwriter’s prospective clients agree not to share privileged information with anyone else.

Second, you should be told whenever your manuscript is used in a portfolio. This is common professional courtesy. The only exception is if the client has agreed to place the ghostwriter’s name on the finished product, such as in a shared byline.

A ghostwriter who breaches confidentiality without your knowledge is not a professional.

5- “I might not write your manuscript—”

An increasing number of ghostwriters are contracting their services out to other professionals, sometimes writers who are not as skillful or as experienced. If you think the telephone company is the only one engaged in outsourcing, you’re kidding yourself.

This is most common in ghostwriting businesses that label themselves as “firms” or “companies”. A ghostwriter working alone is probably doing all of the writing, but if you go with a larger organization, there’s no telling who actually writes your manuscript.

This isn’t a problem if the final product meets your expectations, but what if it doesn’t? You were lured into the contract with samples of one writer’s work, then handed substandard material by another. Chances are, you won’t have any options at that point.

To protect yourself in this situation, make sure the actual writer’s name is in the contract, and look for language that specifies who will actually be working on the project. This isn’t a guarantee, but it’s better than nothing.

6- “—But someone in India will.”

Did you know that the ghostwriter who pens your manuscript might not even speak English as his or her first language? Outsourcing is popular, but a growing number of ghostwriting firms are working with people in India and other countries to save a buck and increase volume.

Some writers in foreign nations will work for as little as $0.50 an hour, which means the thousands of dollars you pay for ghostwriting is lining the pockets of an unscrupulous intermediary. Again, your contract should spell out who is ghosting your manuscript.

7- I’d rather you paid me more.”

There is no set industry standard for ghostwriting fees; therefore, price quotes widely vary between professionals. I never accepted less than $10,000 for a single full-length manuscript as a ghostwriter, but I knew other writers who routinely worked for less than half that figure.

The reality is that you get what you pay for. If you insist on paying a ghostwriter peanuts for his or her work, the final product will not meet your expectations. End of story.

This doesn’t mean that you have to overpay, but it does mean that you need to provide adequate compensation to your ghostwriter. The product will be better and your ghostwriter will be happy to take your calls in the future.

8- “I’ll work with you on price.”

The flipside to the previous point is the fact that ghostwriters are usually more than willing to work with their clients on price. For example, some ghostwriters will offer a hybrid service; they’ll help you write portions of your manuscript while overseeing your completion of the rest. This is a major money-saver.

It is true that you’ll spend big bucks to hire a ghostwriter to write a full-length novel, but you do have options. Strapped for cash? Ask your ghostwriter about services that will help you save money while still getting the project done.

9- “I might not give you the best advice.”

Like anyone else, ghostwriters have their own set of obligations, biases and alliances. This means that the recommendations your ghostwriter offers concerning your manuscript might be in their his best interests, but not in yours. Or they might be colored by his point of view.

A ghostwriter is not a publisher, editor, literary agent or book marketer, though some might have skills in this area. It is best to compartmentalize the production of your manuscript; solicit one professional for the writing, one for the selling, one for the marketing, and so on.

10- “My contract protects me more than you.”

When hiring a ghostwriter, look over that contract carefully. Many ghostwriters do not hire lawyers to draw up their agreements, and instead write them for themselves. This means that it might contain language that is potentially harmful to your project.

For example, does the contract specifically state that the copyright to the material is yours upon payment? Does it spell out the payment agreement in a definitive manner? What are your rights to final edits?

Make sure that the contract is one you can live with. Unfortunately, many ghostwriting clients just sign whatever document they are handed—and regret it later.

11- “I’m not perfect.”

This one should be common sense, but you’d be surprised how many of my ghostwriting clients have thought, at one time or another, that I was infallible. I’ve received countless angry e-mails from clients complaining about a misspelled word or a forgotten exclamation point, shocked that a writer could make such simple mistakes.

Your ghostwriter is only human. The manuscript you are handed at the end of the project won’t be perfect, and you might even need to hire an editor to clean it up before you start the submission process. It’s no different from any regular writer penning his or her own manuscript.

That said, your ghostwriter should be willing to admit his or her mistakes, and correct them where appropriate. Don’t expect perfection, but don’t settle for substandard material.

Are Ghostwriters the Devil?

Of course not. These eleven points are designed to help you search for an appropriate ghostwriter, not to scare you off from the arrangement entirely. The fact is, there are scrupulous, reputable ghostwriters in the market—and then there’s the other kind. My goal is to spare you from the latter.

When hiring a ghostwriter, engage in a thorough vetting process. Not only should he or she be competent and experienced, but also the right fit for your project. A great ghostwriter is not necessarily the best ghostwriter for you.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Marie permalink
    September 5, 2012 7:31 am

    Good info!

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  4. Brooke Monfort permalink
    July 31, 2013 11:47 am

    As someone who has a writing career spanning 30-years, editing experience for the past 20, and experience judging competitions, I found most of your advice to be sound, with the possible exception of advising people to seek a ghostwriter who has published their own work. As a qualifier of a ghostwriter’s ability, that’s just silly. Some of us are quite content to help others hone their words and ideas for a living, and telling the uniformed that a ghostwriter must publish their own work to be capable of helping them is a disservice. Yes, one must be cautious, but that applies to all business transactions. The mediocre is rampant in all industries. Most ghostwriters have a blog or website. If you need to judge their writing skills, read what they post, or ask for references from past clients. It’s not rocket science.

    • February 18, 2014 2:40 pm

      Thank you, Brooke. My apology for any misunderstanding my words of advice may have given you. I actually did not write that “a ghostwriter must publish their own work.” Rather, I wrote, “Look for ghostwriters who are published and have solid reviews on Amazon and other sites.” This is not, as you say, “a disservice” to people looking for a proven or capable writer, but merely one additional suggested method of ascertaining another possible level of accomplishment of a ghostwriter (not so much a requirement or an indicator of their expertise). You are absolutely right when you say “it’s not rocket science.” It’s really all about the writing: whether a ghostwriter is published or not, it’s all about the client liking the ghostwriter’s writing samples. Great observations, Brooke. Thank you. -M. Rutledge McCall

  5. February 5, 2014 12:41 pm

    This is why, when hiring a ghostwriter, you need to: 1. Meticulously vet your ghostwriter. 2. Get references from former clients (who have given the ghostwriter permission to reveal that the ghost wrote for them). 3. Look at the ghostwriter’s list of endorsements (all the better if the endorsers are recognizable names). 4. Look for ghostwriters who are published and have solid reviews on Amazon and other sites. 5. Have your ghostwriter candidate submit at least three writing samples in the genre in which you are hiring them to write. 5. Look for ghostwriters who have worked in the editorial department of a traditional book publisher. 6. Most importantly, when you interview your potential ghostwriter, listen to what they say, how they say it, and how they treat you. 7. Remember: the ghostwriter is there to serve you, and to perform such service with the expertise and care with which you are hiring them to deliver. 8. Finally, make sure that the contract protects you and ensures that you are in good hands and will not be taken advantage of.

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