So you’re ready to try your hand at ghostwriting. Additional income, creative freedom, a chance to grow your craft in a risk-free environment — all great reasons to take the leap. Before you bid on that online gig or sign a contract with a house that specializes in book packaging, let’s talk.
Likely, you probably don’t know any writing peers who have ghostwritten. Despite its deep historical roots and thriving modern practice in the publishing industry, ghostwriting still courts secrecy. Eleven years, twenty-eight books in the marketplace, and a global client list has afforded me an insider perspective. In this last of this three-part series, I invite you to spend some time with my advice, knock it up against what you know to be true about yourself as a writer, and you’ll have an amazing first gig.
Secret #1: Check yourself
Do you believe ghostwriting occupies a moral or ethical gray area? Some writers think that content creators should own their words and that the sacred bond between author and reader should not be soured with what they believe is deception. Some writers recognize that publishing is fundamentally a business. Writers work inside a pocket of their strengths, and all that should be expected of an author is to deliver a satisfying read, not to put themselves out for public consumption and reader entitlement of a pseudo-relationship. How do you feel when a ghostwriting “scandal” rolls through the industry’s social media circles every few years? Your opinion won’t change after you complete a gig, so check it now. If any part of you thinks the practice is wrong, don’t ghostwrite.
The next self-check requires honest introspection. Are you possessive about your writing? All writing, but especially fiction, is intimate. You’ve opened your vein and bled on the page, so why allow someone else to take credit? Do you get defensive when others offer feedback? Does the thought of another person’s opinion in your story world give you hives? At times, all writers occupy these places on the emotional spectrum. But possessiveness and defensiveness regarding craft can be red flags that the writer puts self ahead of story. Story should always come first.
Think critically about your natural author’s voice. Does it vary based on the project? If so, you might be a chameleon writer — someone perfectly suited to partial ghostwriting where styles and tones must be matched. Don’t be concerned, however, if your natural voice is strong. Distinctive writers can find success with ghostwriting by accepting gigs for entire projects.
Finances need to be checked, as well. If you haven’t yet freelanced or filed taxes as a self-employed or small business entity, investigate the tax implications. Decide how you’ll receive payments (sometimes internationally) and make banking arrangements before you sign on the dotted line.
Secret #2: The Creative Well
Ghostwriting drains your creative energy. Don’t expect to phone-in the effort; successful ghostwriters invest as much of themselves as they do inside their personal projects. Even if you’re not over-the-moon about the project’s premise, start from a mental place of excitement and wonder. Research so that you can inject story details that excite you. Find your seed of passion inside a story world you did not create, because you will need that personal investment to write through the inevitable tough days that all writers encounter. Set aside time between projects to fill the creative well. Go all-in and you will be rewarded with a compelling read, some great writing experience, a fat wallet, and a happy client.
Secret #3: Get Organized
Ghostwriting is a team effort. Teams require playbooks. If you’re a pantser (a writer who pounds out words by the “seat of your pants”) rather than a plotter (a writer who works best from an outline), you will struggle with ghostwriting. As a hired writer, you are expected to stick to an outline or have a compelling reason to return to your team for approval on a new plot direction. Not a big deal if your team consists of just you and a client, but if you’re working for a publisher, at least ten other professionals who will have their hands on the book after you will be impacted. Almost from your first typed word, marketing decisions based on the outline are set into motion behind the scenes. With ghostwriting, communication becomes the most essential tool in your writer’s toolbox.
Gather your calendar of choice, break bigger deadlines into manageable chunks (these may also become milestones for which you are paid…motivation!), and immerse yourself in your client’s software of choice to facilitate communication. For individual clients, go with their preference. For book packagers with experienced teams, they’ll likely have a new interface to learn. Don’t shy away from complex team software. In the long game, great communication saves you time.
Lastly, embrace contracts. Most non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are basic and easily digestible. Having a written agreement in place before work begins protects you as much as it does your client. If your client doesn’t offer one, find a basic ghostwriting contract online and alter the language to suit your situation. In eleven years, I haven’t had one legal tussle in which a contract came into play, but I have enjoyed having something concrete to refer to for agreed-upon details. For the more complicated projects you’ll land with experience, consult a lawyer.
Secret #4: How Do You Feel About Marriage?
A ghostwriting gig — especially a long project, like a novel — is akin to a short marriage. You really should like the person to whom you’ll be creatively wed for the next few weeks/months. In the honeymoon phase, you’re both in love with the book’s premise. Possibilities abound. Then you’ll hit the inevitable sagging middle of the story. Maybe your client isn’t as responsive as she was the first week and it’s akin to her leaving her smelly socks on the bedroom floor. You may both start to wonder if the grass might be greener had you chosen other work partners. Endure these trials and you’ll both come out stronger and more appreciative of the journey. Your final product is your book baby. A cute, pudgy (because it probably still needs edits) bundle to which, ultimately, you will award full custody to the client. She can name it Hortense Jean and swaddle it in an awful cover, but I guarantee you’ll still be a proud (secret) parent when you look through that marketplace window and see how your story impacts readers. By then, you’ll be off on a writing love affair with a new client.
A labored metaphor, to be sure, but not entirely inaccurate. Realistic expectations of the emotional side of ghostwriting at the outset help to ensure a path to ghostwriting success.
Secret #5: Forget 80% of the Advice You’ve Heard/Read About Ghostwriting
Many of the internet resources regarding ghostwriting are client-focused content meant to funnel high-dollar clients into companies that employ an arsenal of ghostwriters. Freelancers trying to diversify their income stream with a how-to book or paid course about ghostwriting abound, as well. Here is some straight truth, ghost to ghost:
· Ghostwriting isn’t isolating or solitary (unless you’re like me and prefer it that way).
· You don’t need to join a professional ghostwriter’s association. If you like the gig and want to make ghostwriting a consistent part of your income, these associations can offer perks worth investigating. Same goes for building a website, printing business cards, etc. Make sure ghostwriting is for you before you spend time and money on tools you may not need.
· You won’t lose your writing voice if you choose projects based on your strengths. Be open to new genres (one of the horizon-enhancing aspects to ghostwriting) but keep to your wheelhouse initially to reduce stress and ensure the end product is your best work to date.
· Align yourself with clients who understand the value of good writing. Don’t sell yourself short and write a Tolstoy-caliber novel for $400. Taking below industry paying jobs devalues ghostwriting for everyone in the micro-industry. We must all collectively educate clients about the process and time necessary to produce a quality read.
· Working with individual clients is harder than working with a publisher. Set yourself up for the best first experience by starting with a book packager with a stellar reputation.
· You won’t be ostracized. The supportive writers you surround yourself with will be intrigued and may even tap into your skillset when they need you or hear of a friend who needs you. And if they aren’t supportive and don’t align with your morals and ethics, you don’t need them in your creative head space.
The best way to know if ghostwriting is for you is to try it once. Ghostwriting doesn’t require a life-altering decision or a massive commitment beyond one project. Dabble. Give it your all, take a project from conception to deadline, then decide if it’s right for you. You might be surprised.
Wishing you an amazing first gig!
If you’re searching for your first (or 100th) ghostwriting project, head over to this page to see Relay’s current available projects.
Harry Wallett is the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing. Combining his entrepreneurial background with a love of great stories, Harry founded Relay in 2013 as a fresh way to create books and for writers to earn a living from their work. Since then, Relay has sold 3+ million copies and worked with 100s of writers on bestselling titles such as Defending Innocence, The Alveria Dragon Akademy Series and Rancher’s Family Christmas.
Harry oversees the creative direction of the company, and works to develop a supportive collaborative environment for the Relay team to thrive within in order to fulfill our mission to create unputdownable books.