I’ve been writing professionally – as in, getting paid for my writing – since signing my first contract in 1999. In that time, I’ve written both indie and for traditional publishing houses.
Something I don’t often share: I have also ghostwritten a few books and projects. I don’t publicize it because that’s the nature of the beast. The idea behind ghostwriting is being a ghost, vanishing into the work.
When I talk to writers about ghostwriting, I tend to get two reactions.
The first is a veiled contempt at the concept of not writing one’s own book. They’re not contemptuous of me, necessarily. They just don’t like the whole concept of someone handing off an idea and then taking credit for someone else’s labor. (Of course, not all ghostwriting is like this — there are co-writers, etc. — but this is the thought that often comes up.)
The second reaction is a not-so-veiled eagerness. These are often writers who are eager to quit their soul-sucking day jobs, and who see ghostwriting as a foot in the door, a chance to do what they love (writing) while getting paid. They often ask me how to get ghostwriting jobs.
There are a lot of pros and cons to ghostwriting. It’s like working in food service, in my opinion: it’s a good thing for everyone to try, because you’ll never look at the process the same way again. (You’ll also tip better because you know just how hard the work is. <g>)
If you’re on the fence about pursuing ghostwriting, here are some of my experiences to help you decide.
- You get paid. (Note: if you aren’t going to get paid, don’t take the gig. You’ve probably already heard people say: “I have this great idea! Why don’t you write the book based on it, and we’ll split the profits?” To which I say: ideas, even brilliant ones, are a dime a dozen. If you’re doing the writing, especially for fiction, you’re doing the heavy lifting. Get paid or walk.) That said, getting paid — especially for indie writers who have lost money on titles they’ve self-published – is a rewarding thing.
- Your risk is limited. You are only responsible for the writing. You’re not the publisher. Often, your name is not on the book, so it’s not affecting your overall sales record (which traditional publishers still take into consideration before making an offer.)
- You get used to deadlines. If you’ve only written for yourself before, or self-published without pursuing a stringent publishing schedule, working with someone else accustoms you to being creative under pressure, a very handy skill to have. It can improve your productivity and often shuts off your inner editor, who now focuses on the deadline more than the amorphous existential dread of writing.
- You get to practice collaborative writing. While you may not make a habit of working with another writer, it’s a good skill to learn. You become open to feedback. You learn empathetic listening, to truly understand what the other person is trying to get across.
- You learn to expand your style repertoire. The idea of being a ghostwriter is to disappear inside the work. While writing your own work is about showcasing your style and story, this is about immersing yourself in someone else’s vision, carving the diamond out of their coal. Think of it as mental yoga: you stretch in ways you wouldn’t think possible, and it winds up limbering up your own style as well.
- You might not get royalties. Most contracts are work-for-hire, meaning you get a flat fee. If you ghostwrite for a popular celebrity, for example, they could sell millions but you’ll never get more than the initial flat fee. That’s the nature of the business.
- The work may never get published. There are some people who either try shopping the work after you’ve completed it, and it doesn’t get picked up, or they decide not to indie publish it afterward, despite investing in your services. (Yes, I have had this happen.) Of course, in some cases, you may be grateful for this. Because…
- The “author” who hires you may not listen to you. Situations will crop up where you see, with crystal clarity, that the author’s vision for the story simply does not work. You try to explain this to no avail. They are the client: you are the penmonkey. Guess who wins? (Hint: it’s not you.)
- The story is not yours. Even if the story works perfectly, there is a pang when you realize that it’s not your story. It’s all the difference between working for yourself, and working at a day job. In fact, for some, the difference between ghostwriting and working a day job is negligible… that creative writing to someone else’s blueprint is just as “soul-sucking” as being kept down by The Man in some cubicle farm, retail shop, or factory floor.
Ghostwriting is not for everyone.
Nor should it be. It takes a certain personality, a thick skin, the ability to bury your ego and slide into another person’s skin. The practice can be rewarding, especially when you’re working with someone who does not have the writer’s gene but still has a story begging to be told. If you’re interested, look at places like Freelancer.com, or services like Book in a Box. I’ve gotten most of my gigs from either temp assignments or word of mouth.
How do you feel about ghostwriting? How do you feel about authors who hire ghostwriters to produce more novels a year? Is ghostwriting something you’d pursue, even if only temporarily?