What You Need to Know About Hiring a Ghostwriter

For some internet writers, the whole point of the endeavor is to see your own words on the page and appreciated by fans all over the world. If that’s you, then you should stop reading right now. This advice isn’t going to do you any good. 

For the rest of us, this is a job or a business. Anything that increases our revenue ethically is good. Since one of the best ways to increase revenue is to release more books on a faster timeline, then hiring a ghostwriter can be a great move. A ghostwriter can:

  • Write your books entirely while you focus on marketing and networking
  • Write your first drafts so you can edit and refine what they started
  • Do your blogging or social media content so you can write more
  • Write with knowledge about a profitable niche you’re unqualified to write for yourself
  • Create second, third, and fourth series while you write just your main stuff that’s closest to your heart

All of these things are possibilities that can increase how much you publish, and potentially how much you earn. Today we’ll talk about the details you must know to make it all work, starting with rule number one…

It’s Not Cheating

Ghostwriting feels like cheating to some writers, especially if you’re a writer who gets joy out of seeing their personal words behind their personal name. But it isn’t. It’s a common aspect of the publishing industry, and always has been. 

Plagiarism is cheating. That’s when you take another person’s words and pretend they’re yours without their permission, and without fair compensation. Ghostwriting is when another person sells you their words. It’s completely legitimate, and far more common than you think. Here’s a list of famous writers who have used ghosts during their careers:

  • Alexandre Dumas
  • Michael Crichton
  • James Patterson
  • Tom Clancy
  • R.L. Stine
  • Steven Covey
  • Ian Fleming
  • Robert Ludlum
  • V.C. Andrews

Rumor has it (with lots of supporting evidence) that The Bard himself, Mr. William Shakespeare, used ghostwriters for more than one of his plays. 

The fact is, it’s not cheating if you treat your ghostwriter fairly. 

Initial Considerations

Keep in mind from the beginning that you are hiring your ghostwriter to write words. It’s not their job to imagine the story, research the topic, or generate the strategic (or even the tactical) levels of the book. You will provide an outline with the ideas. Their job is to turn that outline into fully fleshed-out prose. Good ghostwriters set solid boundaries about this, and if a ghostwriter seems more flexible they’re probably too inexperienced to hire. 

With that in mind, you should enter negotiations with the following things already figured out, and hopefully in writing:

  • A detailed outline of the work. It should be sufficient for somebody otherwise unacquainted with the project to put out at least a basic draft. 
  • An approximate word count for the finished product. Base this on the outline and word counts for the most successful similar books in your field. 
  • An estimated budget range. Most professional ghostwriters will be looking for 10 cents to 25 cents per word. The big guns want $1 a word or more, but those are the writers who work for rock stars, CEOs, and former presidents. 
  • A contract spelling out the ghostwriter’s specific duties. The more detailed this is, the less stress you will have working together. 
  • A timeline including final deadline and intermediate benchmarks. Make it reasonable, with room for issues or unexpected challenges. The intermediate benchmarks should be tied to how your ghostwriter gets paid. 
  • An idea of how you want final turn-in to look. Include the level of editing, what kind of file format, and similar details. You might also create a template for them to work with that already has your font choices and similar design details laid out. 

Many, if not all of these options should be open to negotiation once you choose a ghostwriting candidate. Be flexible where you can, but walk away if the deal starts to feel untenable. There are other ghostwriters where that one came from. 

The Hiring Process

The trouble with hiring a ghostwriter is there’s very little barrier to entry for setting up shop as one. The first person you talk to might be a seasoned professional with a background in journalism and a weekend job teaching english composition at the community college…but the next might be a bored stay-at-home dad whose last writing gig was a high school composition he got a C+ on. It’s hard to tell.

But it’s not impossible. While selecting ghostwriters, apply as many of these techniques as you can:

  • Use easter egg instructions, like requiring them to put “Purple People Eater” in the email subject. Anybody who doesn’t find and follow those instructions self-identifies as somebody without the attention to detail you will want in somebody you hire for this. 
  • Do a zoom interview. You will need to have a real connection with your ghostwriter, and that’s hard to gauge over a series of emails. In the best of all possible worlds, you would meet in person over coffees or beers…but that limits your pool of potential candidates to just those within driving distance. A video meeting online is close enough.
  • Look for related experience. A retired sports journalist with over 10,000 credits would be a perfect ghostwriter for your novel featuring a track and field star, but might be a terrible choice for your urban fantasy project. Ask what kinds of books they’ve worked on in the past, and only consider those with some experience in your field. 
  • Ask what they love to read. It doesn’t have to match what you want them to write, but anybody who says they can write well, but doesn’t speak knowledgeably and with passion about books, is probably pulling your leg. 
  • Get references. And check them. Professional ghostwriters always have some kind of system for clients to communicate with potential leads. Anybody who tells you they can’t provide a client’s name is either fibbing to avoid a bad review, or too inexperienced to work with. 

One technique that works very well is to hire a potential ghostwriter to do a query package for you. The job would be to take your outline and create the kind of book proposal you might use to approach an agent or an editor. This includes a synopsis of the book overall, a letter of introduction, and one to three sample chapters. You pay them just to do that, then you review the results. If you’re happy with it, you move on to the next stage. If not, you part ways. It costs a little money, but it costs less than getting a whole book you’re not thrilled with…and you usually learn enough in the process that it's worth the investment. 

During the Process

Almost all ghostwriters need management. Some need daily check-ins, while others just need to talk on the week of your benchmarks. Most fall someplace in between. Wherever your ghostwriter falls on that spectrum, you’ll need to know some things. 

  • Set reasonable benchmarks. For any project longer than a blog post, ask for partial turn-in along an established timeline. For example, if you have a 50,000-word book that takes 5 months to write, don’t ask for one turn-in five months after your start date. Get 10,000 words each month, or 5,000 every two weeks, so you can monitor progress and adjust course as necessary.
  • Ask for simple progress reports. Between benchmarks, as often as once a week, ask for a quick progress report. A simple text of their percentage toward the next benchmark is plenty. Just keep them reporting so they remain accountable and on-target.
  • Create a system for when things go wrong. Because something will. Having a system in place accomplishes two things. First, it helps you accommodate the problem without derailing the project. Second, it gives your ghostwriter permission and encouragement to tell you something’s happened, rather than to try to manage the problem without telling you. 
  • Attach partial payments. Paying everything up front isn’t fair to you. Waiting until the end isn’t fair to the ghostwriter. Attach partial payments to each benchmark and split the difference. If you can, backload it a little. For example, with that 50,000 word book at a rate of $5,000, pay $750 per benchmark achieved and pay the remainder off when they complete your requested edits. 
  • Communicate early and often. Encourage your ghostwriter to reach out whenever they have any questions, and let them know you’ll be in touch with any problems, concerns, or inspiration you have. Keep it professional and positive, so you both know what’s going on at any given time. That said, also establish boundaries so neither of you feels smothered or overcrowded by the other. 
  • Don’t micromanage. You’re trusting the ghostwriter with a lot, but trust them. If you did your hiring right, you’re working with a professional who knows more about writing books than you do. As long as they turn in what you need, when you need it, let them handle the details of how they make it happen.

In most cases, you’ll need to start with more hands-on time and more frequent check-ins. As you get used to working together, you’ll become more comfortable with each other and the process as a whole. It’s also worth noting that it’s much easier to start with a lot of contact and management and ease off, than it is to start with a light touch and try to assert more control when things go off the rails.

Finding a Ghostwriter

It seems like everybody knows a writer these days, so the temptation to hire your friend or distant relative might be pretty strong. Do not make this rookie mistake. First of all, it’s very hard to work with somebody you know (and who you have to see at Christmas after you've fired them). Second, your hiring pool should be larger. 

Fortunately, there are several great sources of professional writers where you can search profiles and make contact online. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Bookwitchery, a small and high-quality service running at the 50 cents to $1 a word range.
  • Fiverr we’ve talked about a lot already. It’s the cheapest source for creative professionals, if you accept a broad definition of “professional.” Often the writers here are the lowest bidders, and may not even work with english as their native language. 
  • Reedsy, a clearinghouse site that connects writers with clients. You’ll get to choose from among various profiles, then work together to set a price and a contract. Expect to pay $10k-$80k depending on the size of your project. 
  • Scribe.com, an elite service that pairs you with a perfect match to write the book and set up your marketing, distribution, and audiobook. The investment is $100k, so this is for big guns only.
  • Upwork.com, essentially a database of classified ads to and for writers and other admin types. Rates tend to be lower, but so is the barrier for entry. Vet your candidates carefully before moving forward. 

Generally speaking, you get what you pay for with a ghostwriter. If you hire on the cheap end, expect to spend more time managing your writer and making edits yourself. The highest-priced ghostwriters will be almost fire-and-forget, and help you with the marketing and publishing aspects of the book as well. 

This isn’t a matter of one being better and the other worse. Rather, it’s a matter of hiring the level of ghostwriter you need. If what you want is a rough draft you can turn into polished prose, somebody from Fiverr or Upwork will be just fine. But if you want this to run more automatically, expect to pay more.

Final Dos and Don’ts

You’ve set your project, located some candidates, and found your perfect ghostwriter. While you proceed, observe some final best practices.

  • Don’t work with somebody who outsources. A handful of ghostwriters will hire somebody else to ghostwrite for them, at about 50% of what you pay. You end up getting quality levels half that of what you pay for, and if it’s good enough why not work directly with somebody who demands half the price?
  • Do make sure all the important details are in your contract: word count, payment details, non-disclosure agreement, timeline, and a process for handling disputes/ending the agreement early.
  • Don’t look for lots of extras. Stick to the writing, and maybe some promotional help. You want a specialist here, not a generalist who promises the moon.
  • Do check out the writer’s website. If they don’t have one that’s a sign they’re not serious about their career. If they do have one, you can learn a lot about their professionalism and writing style. 
  • Don’t work with a large company, unless they pair you with a single person who handles your project. The largest clearinghouses won’t give your project the importance and personal attention a freelancer will. 
  • Do create a standard for revisions and include it in your contract. It might detail a secondary timeline and payment process, or simply create a revision stage. Without this, you risk one or both of you getting hurt. 

You’ll find other little tricks that work for you along the road, but these should be plenty to start you out. 

Final Thought: The Ghostwriting Snowball

If you have a little startup money and are truly committed to making this writing gig a sustainable business, consider the following process:

  • Step One: Hire a ghostwriter to create one book
  • Step Two: Publish that book, and earn enough money to hire the ghostwriter again
  • Step Three: Rehire the ghostwriter, and keep all the other money book one earns as profit
  • Step Four: Repeat steps one through three
  • Step Five: When the profits from the first ghostwriter are enough each month to hire a second ghostwriter for a new series, start again with Step One
  • Step Six: Keep on expanding for as long as you want

This method isn’t for everyone, but with the right marketing and business skills it can create a highly profitable empire. Heck, it’s not that different from how the big publishing companies make their millions. 

P.S. Interested in becoming a ghostwriter yourself? Be sure to log in for next week's live training with Jessie Kwak, where she'll teach us what it takes to be a freelance writer!