We ghostwriters have an image problem, and not just because “ghost” is in the name. The problem is legitimacy. We’re a little like the hired guns in the old westerns—a necessary evil, but not welcome in polite company, and chased out of town as soon as the bandits have been defeated.
I exaggerate, but not much. In fact, if you google “ghostwriter” or “ghostwriting,” the “People Also Ask” section includes the questions “Is ghostwriting legal?” and “Is ghostwriting ethical?”
The first time I saw these questions, I was taken aback. Why would anyone have to ask? After I thought about it, though, I came to see it as an opportunity to educate the writing public.
Ghostwriting is Both Legal and Ethical
I assure you that ghostwriting is both legal and ethical. If it weren’t, we’d have a lot fewer tell-alls by politicians, celebrities, and CEOs. There is one caveat, however: the relationship must be transparent and with no intent to mislead. If I hire Dr. Anthony Fauci to write a book in my name on infectious diseases, that would be misleading and unethical. I am not an expert on infectious diseases. If he hires me to help him write a book on infectious diseases, however, that would be perfectly ethical because he is an expert. I’m simply helping him put his ideas on the page.
That doesn’t mean the ghostwriter doesn’t add anything to the book. But everything the ghostwriter contributes is done in the name and voice of the author—and with the author’s review and approval. The author is the authority, the ghostwriter the hired gun.
What Does a Ghostwriter Actually Do?
A ghostwriter is someone who is hired to write just about anything in someone else’s name and voice: speeches, blogs, articles, books, and so on. Most people think of a book when they hear the word ghostwriter, so that’s what I’ll focus on.
Ghostwriting a book covers a range of services:
- Writing a book from scratch by interviewing the author and conducting research.
- Writing a book from the author’s research, outlines, and notes.
- Rewriting an existing draft.
- Deeply editing an existing draft.
- Punching up a manuscript for voice and readability.
- All of the above.
The best ghostwriters capture the author’s voice and ideas. Ghostwriters are like good actors—able to slip into roles and accents on command. I always tell my clients “I can’t write this book. I don’t have your knowledge and experience. But we can write this book because you know what you know, and I know how to get your thoughts, feelings, and voice on the page.”
Who Needs a Ghostwriter?
A ghostwriter is invaluable to anyone who wants to write a book and doesn’t have the time, skills, or inclination to write it themselves. Busy, important people. Keynote speakers. Business people. Politicians. Entrepreneurs. Influencers. Sports, movie, and TV celebrities. Thought leaders. People who hope to become thought leaders.
For many, publishing a book is a way of gaining authority, of staying in the public eye, of enhancing their personal brand. Despite the proliferation of social media, publishing a book is still a tried and true way to gain recognition, to establish themselves as an expert, to earn gravitas. The public thirsts for the kind of intimacy offered by a book.
Then there’s the rest of us, the ordinary people, who also have stories to tell or ideas to express. These are folks who have led quietly interesting lives, who have overcome great challenges or traumas, who have ideas for how to be a good parent, gardener, dog owner, coach, salesperson, and so on. If someone has told you, after listening raptly to one of your stories, You should write a book—and meant it—you might want to give it a try. If you have no idea where to start, that’s when a good ghostwriter comes in handy.
What Does the Author Do?
Some authors seem to think that once they hire a ghostwriter, they’ve done the heavy lifting. The more the author puts into the book, however, the better it will be. The best ghostwriting relationships are truly collaborative, but it’s up to the parties to define what that means.
I’ve had clients who have come right out and said, I don’t want to write a word. That’s what I hired you for. I can work with that. I can talk them through it. But there comes a time when the author—or a trusted proxy—must read and review the manuscript in detail, both for accuracy and voice. The author has to feel as if it’s him or her speaking, not the ghostwriter.
How Long Does It Take?
Writing a book is a huge undertaking, akin to building a house. It involves many different, complex phases, some of which are the iceberg under the water. Here’s how I break it down:
- Planning the book’s scope and process
- Compiling research, interviews, and author notes or drafts
- Writing the first draft for author review
- Writing the final draft for the publisher
- Publishing the book (the ghostwriter is sometimes involved at this stage)
- Marketing the book (the ghostwriter is usually not involved at this stage)
How long it takes depends on the book’s length and complexity, the author’s involvement, and the work and revisions required at any given step, which may generate another round of sub-steps. In general, writing a 50,000 word manuscript (about 200 pages), takes anywhere from six months to a year or more—and then the publishing phase begins.
How Much Do Ghostwriters Cost?
Ghostwriting is like any other service. You generally get what you pay for. Ghostwriters with the most experience and most credits charge more than ghostwriters just starting out or those more interested in a quick buck.
The going rate for an experienced ghostwriter is about $1.20 to $1.30 per word. For a very experienced ghostwriter, it’s about $1.50+ per word, depending on the ghostwriter’s skill and experience, and the value of the client’s story. So for a 50,000 word book, the range would be from $60,000 to $75,000, but that could get into six figures if the book is longer than 50,000 words, or if the client is a well-known person whose story is of high value to the public.
To many, those amounts for ghostwriting are astonishing figures. This is the time they decide that publishing a book is not so important after all.
Is the Cost Worth It?
Can ghostwriting really be worth that much? Only the authors can make that call for themselves.
If the book is a personal project meant for the author’s circle, then they can combine some of the steps to keep the costs down. If the ghostwriter is working from notes, a series of blogs, or a fairly complete draft, the fees can be negotiated accordingly. If the book is for professional purposes, however—to establish the author as an authority in their field or to submit to a traditional publisher—professional-grade ghostwriting is well worth the cost.
Think of hiring a ghostwriter as a division of labor and an investment in your time. Is writing the book yourself the best use of your time? Sometimes you get started on a book and never finish it. Sometimes you spend a couple of years on a book, then find it has to be rewritten anyway. How long does it take you to paint your house, and how long does it take a professional? The same concept applies to writing a book. A ghostwriter can write your book faster and with higher quality. What else could you do with that time? How much money could you make?
Investing in a ghostwriter ultimately pays off in time and a high-quality, finished book. So do what you do well—run your organization, do your job, deliver speeches, take care of your family—and let a ghostwriter write the book you know you have in you.