I’m a bit of a collector of bad ghostwriter stories – and that’s not a hard thing to do, given that there are so many.
There’s the story of the six-figure ghostwriter who ghosted (pun! Sorry, I can’t help it) halfway through the project in favor of a bigger job, leaving her client close to losing her contract with her publisher.
There’s the ghostwriter who just didn’t seem to know how to write despite having wonderful examples of their work, and certainly didn’t know how to write in their client’s voice.
There’s the ghostwriter with tons of talent but no idea how to work with people, leaving their client feeling estranged and unheard.
The wrong writer can cost you thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars; months or years in lost writing time; missed publisher deadlines and lost contracts; not to mention the stress and strife inherent in all of this.
And it’s sad to say that the number of horror stories I’ve heard about ghostwriters far outweigh the number of good stories I hear.
The author/ghostwriter relationship is a unique creative partnership that requires a considered approach. Read on for some of the biggest mistakes – and how to avoid them – when looking for a ghostwriter or collaborative writer.
First, let’s get it straight what a ghostwriter is (and isn’t).
When someone goes to hire a new employee, they look for the best candidate they can find in the pool of available candidates. They try to match their preferred salary with that candidate’s preference. Personality might factor in, but it’s a far second to their qualifications and pedigree.
When hiring a ghostwriter, this isn’t the case. You are not hiring an employee. You are hiring a creative partner.
It’s vitally important that you understand this distinction, especially if you’re a business owner who is used to hiring talent that will fit into some kind of organizational hierarchy.
Yes, it’s important that they can write, and it’s important that they can deliver the promised final product – a book. It’s also vitally important that they can adopt someone else’s voice.
But once you’ve established that they have the ability, it’s not as much about who has done the best work in the past as it is about whether you can do your best creative work with that person, and whether that person can support you in your creativity.
You’re hiring a ghostwriter to take your thoughts, memories, experiences, knowledge, and hard-earned wisdom and get it down on paper in a way that moves your intended audience to your desired action.
This is not a mere writer – this is a creative partner who should have their own creative ideas and experiences to bring to the table.
Moreover, this is a partner that you will be working with for six months minimum, but more likely a year or two (or even longer, in the case of traditionally published books). While an employee is someone who can fit a predetermined role which can be filled by anyone with similar qualifications and experience, this is not a cookie cutter role. You need to consider both the qualifications and the way this person will support you through your creative journey.
And now let’s discuss the difference between a ghostwriter and a collaborative writer.
These are terms that are often confused – both of them generally get referred to as ghostwriter, even if the author had a healthy hand in writing their own book and just needed some assistance. This is how I define them, although there are probably other service providers who will define them differently.
So, for further clarity: a ghostwriter is typically someone who takes on full responsibility for the writing work. They’re responsible for creating the outline, parsing out the narrative arc, coming up with the titles, and 99% of the writing.
If you’re hiring a ghostwriter you’re going to pay more for the privilege of doing less of the work.
A collaborative writer is a little looser in definition. A collaborative writer is more like a writing partner to an author who would like to participate in the writing of their book. They might help with the outline and they might help with the actual writing of the book. How much they contribute is dependent on the arrangement between the collaborative writer and the author.
The pay for a collaborative writer will of course depend on the arrangement, but it might be a little more creative (splitting of royalties, shared credit, etc.) given the intention of the relationship.
In both relationships, the author is still expected to participate. Most of the time, they still need to contribute a fair amount of time to the information-gathering process, i.e. doing interviews with the writer, thinking through the thesis of the book, hashing out the ideal reader and how they will be marketed to, etc. They will also be expected to read through the book and approve their own words, of course, but how involved they are in the editing process is another point of negotiation.
In any case, it’s generally a mistake to expect that you will have very little work to do as the author when you hire a ghostwriter or collaborative writer, unless you’re prepared to pay well into six figures for that writer.
Who should hire a ghostwriter? Someone who doesn’t have the time nor the inclination to write a book, or learn how to write a book well.
Who should hire a collaborative writer? Someone who is a writer – even if you don’t call yourself one. I’ve met far too many authors who have books of their own but refuse to call themselves a writer. Then, because they are typically busy entrepreneurs, they hire a ghostwriter to help them write their next book. When they see the first rough draft, they can’t handle the cognitive dissonance of not having written it themselves, no matter how good it is, so they rewrite it “in their own words.” Avoid the wasted time and energy by just hiring someone to help you do the heavy lifting.
What credentials you need to look for…
There are a few markers of experience that you should look for when hiring someone.
If you’re hiring someone to write a book, they should have written a book before. Unless you’re willing to take a gamble (and you’ve got the time to give a newbie while they sort through the process for the first time) this is not the time to try out a young and untested writer. Someone who can ghostwrite articles is one thing – books are another matter. It’s a long haul from beginning to end, and no matter how smooth the process there are always low-points and setbacks to navigate. A new writer won’t even see these troughs coming – for you or for themselves – and will be unlikely to navigate them quickly and effectively.
If you’re self-publishing and on your own timeline and you want to work with someone less experienced, you will have more flexibility because you can move your publish date. If you’re working with a traditional publisher, however, they may not be nearly as flexible for a new writer. Also keep in mind that your payments from your publisher are based on you hitting certain deadlines, and if your writer can’t hit those, that extends the time in which you’ll get paid.
They should have the time and bandwidth to write your book. Writing a book is a long-term project, as I said before. There are times where there will be much writing work to do, like in the initial stages of the book, where the majority of the interviewing, outlining, conceptualizing, and writing will be done. At times there will be nothing for the ghostwriter to do – like when the manuscript is under review by the author or the editor. The writer you hire has to have the bandwidth up front to spend three to six months on the initial rough draft. This process can take even longer depending on the project and the availability of the author. Then they have to be able to juggle projects so that when it comes time to do the many editing rounds required, or to help with marketing endeavors (if they’re available for that), then they haven’t overbooked themselves and can get right to your project.
So, how do you judge that, you might be wondering? It’s tricky. The best way to judge this is to ask how long they’ve been in business. Three to five years or more and it’s very likely that they have their game on point – they know how to juggle multiple projects, at least well enough that they haven’t closed up shop (most freelancers quit their businesses within the first three years).
Second, ask them how they plan to juggle the workload. What projects do they have going on, and what might they have coming up that would take away from your project? And if you have any concerns, are they willing to move things around?
Understand that their schedule will rely on yours, too. So, if you agree that you’ll have revisions back to them in two weeks but in fact take six weeks or more, you’re going to have to accept that their schedule will have shifted, too.
They do not need to have an MFA. In the entrepreneurial world, credentials are less important than experience and whether or not you can do the job well (and have a reputation for doing so). There are other circles – for example, academia – where the industry reinforces the belief that only lettered people have the ability to do the job. I’m certainly not saying that an MFA is a bad thing for a writer to have, but I am saying that it shouldn’t be the first or the defining credential you look for in a writer. In fact, some of the most prolific ghostwriters today don’t have MFAs, and yet they are responsible for many of the best sellers on your bookshelf.
They should understand the book market into which you’re launching. This seems to go without saying, but if you’re writing a technical manual that’s specific to your industry and you’re working with someone who has never written a technical manual, then you’ll find yourself having to explain things about your Ideal Reader that an otherwise experienced writer in your field would know. If you’re writing a business book, you should work with someone who has written business books before and understands that particular market.
It’s for that reason that I typically don’t take on fiction work either as a writer or as an editor. While I adore fiction and grew up on a steady diet of stories, I work mostly in nonfiction, business, how-to, and memoir and I’ve had several best sellers in those categories. That’s where my experience lies. I would feel as if I’m shortcutting a client who could do better with someone experienced in fiction.
They should have experience writing in someone else’s voice. This one is pretty straightforward: You should be able to ask for a couple of samples of writing that come from the voice of different authors. This might come in the form of articles or previously written books, but it should be easy to see that they can adopt the style of the person for whom they’re writing.
… and the one crucial credential you can’t find on paper.
As I said, this is a long-term relationship. You will be working closely with this person for a year or maybe longer, and they will be digging into the depths of your story, your business, your way of thinking, even your emotions. It’s personal. If you only marginally like a potential ghostwriter, do you want to be in a long-term creative relationship with them? Do you want to get personal with them and share the good stuff that only comes from a comfortable relationship? My guess is no. And yet I’ve seen it happen plenty of times where the author hires a writer based on the number of bestsellers they have, despite getting along better with another ghostwriter. The relationship is cold, someone (or maybe even both people) lose interest because of the lack of warmth and connection. The writer isn’t invested, and inevitably, the author doesn’t feel as though their story has been accurately captured – the ghostwriter behind the words didn’t accurately “get” their author.
In simpler words: Would you have dinner with your writer and enjoy yourself, maybe even a lot? If the answer is no, then they shouldn’t be your writer.
To sum up, you need to look for credentials, but most importantly, you need to find a ghostwriter who will work with you and support you along your creative journey. Find someone who you feel will be on your side when it counts, pick you up when you feel fear about the success of your book, give you the reality check you need when you’re off-base, and celebrate with you when you finally cross that finish line.