So you want to publish a book, but you don’t want to write it yourself… then it’s time to start looking for a ghost writer.
What is a ghost writer? A ghost writer is a professional writer who will write your book for you, while still allowing you to take credit as the official author of the book. (So your name is the one that goes on the cover.)
The main benefits are that your book will get done, it will be written to a high quality, and it will take far less time than if you were writing the book yourself.
But how do you find the right ghost writer – someone who will write a professional, high-quality book that accurately reflects your voice, knowledge and message while creating new opportunities for your business or career?
This can be challenging to get right – it’s hard to know what type of service a ghost writer will provide until you see them in action, but you won’t see them in action until they start working on your book… it’s a Catch-22 with anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000+ at stake.
When you’re ready to hire a ghost writer, the key is asking the right questions up front. These are:
- 1Do they have a specialty or niche?
- 2Do they work within a proven system?
- 3How long does the ghost writing process take?
- 4What does ghost writing cost?
- 5Can you see a sample of their work?
1. Do they have a specialty or niche?
Different book types are…different. I know, I know – way to state the obvious. But it’s true. Horror stories are different to young adult vampire romances, poetry is different to erotic romance, and even nonfiction book types vary with memoirs and interview books being very different to how-to books.
Each of these book types is written in a different structure, includes different content and often uses a different tone of voice. This means each of these book types requires a highly specialized skillset. To get the best result, you want to find a ghost writer who specializes in the type of book you want to write.
If you want to write a how-to book, you should start by looking for a ghost writer with proven experience writing how-to books. If you want to write your memoir, look for a ghost writer with experience writing memoirs.
By working on the same type of book over and over again, a ghost writer learns the common conventions I mentioned earlier – structure, content and language. They also learn the common mistakes that get made when writing certain types of books, and they learn to create systems that smooth the writing and research process and ensure you publish a high-quality book at the end of this journey.
By contrast, if you speak to a ghost writer who does a little bit of everything – fiction, screen plays, memoirs and how-to books – be wary. They might be a great writer, but they are unlikely to have developed the systems and structures described above, which can mean a longer, more expensive ghost writing process with much more back and forth between you and your writer, and a sub-par book as a result.
For this reason, our team includes ghost writers who specialize in how-to books, thought leadership books and professional/business stories (learn more about these book types), but we send enquiries for fiction and other book types elsewhere. Ultimately, when we get a ghost writing enquiry, I can match a client with the best ghost writer for their book, knowing that that writer can write exactly what the client is looking for.
2. Do they work within a proven system?
I’m a control freak.
In pretty much every area of my life and business I like to know exactly what’s happening and when, and I often can’t relax until I understand the exact steps someone will be taking to deliver what I need. (No, this isn’t always the healthiest way to be, but it is what it is.)
However, once I see that someone has a clearly thought-out process, I can relax. I can rest assured that, if they simply follow the steps, I will get the result I need in the time I expect. I can trust the system.
Like many creative processes, ghost writing is a bit of a mystery to those on the outside. Many ghost writers even present it as such – they say they’ll have a couple of phone calls or meetings with you and will then magically produce a draft for you to review.
While this approach might work for some people, in many cases vague and unreliable processes lead to vague and unreliable results. And if you’re looking for a ghost writer, you have no idea up front if you’re talking to someone at the ‘it works’ end of the spectrum, or the ‘here’s your mediocre first draft’ end of the spectrum.
Wishy washy approaches are also difficult to replicate, which means that if a company has a team of ghost writers at their disposal, the results could vary significantly depending on who you work with. In the end, it’s the luck of the draw – if you get a great writer you could end up with a great book. But if you don’t, who knows what you might get.
A clear system, on the other hand, leads to predictable, high-quality results across the team.
At Grammar Factory, we use the following system when ghost writing how-to books:
- 1A Book Blueprint workshop: The ghost writer and I will spend a day with the client mapping out the structure of their book (this includes chapter topics, the subtopics to be covered in each chapter and the key points within each of those subtopics). This workshop can be done in person or over a couple of Skype sessions, and follows my Book Blueprint method.
- 2Drafting the blueprint: Over the next two weeks, the ghost writer will then fill out that blueprint using the client’s existing content (blog posts, white papers, marketing material, podcasts, etc.), independent research from trusted sources and additional interviews with the author. Once the blueprint is complete, the client then reviews and signs off on it before we get stuck into the draft.
- 3Writing the first draft: The ghost writer then writes the first draft (usually 30,000 to 40,000 words) of the client’s book. This draft is written based on the approved blueprint and takes four weeks.
- 4Client review: The client takes two weeks to review the draft and provide feedback about changes. What I love about our process is that there are rarely any major changes at this stage – because the client signed off on the initial blueprint, they are happy with the overall structure and content of the book. Instead, feedback focuses on where to add more detail or cut things back.
- 5Refining the draft: The ghost writer takes another two weeks to incorporate the client’s feedback into the book.
- 6Client review: We allow time for another client review here, but often the client is happy for us to send the book straight to the proofreader.
- 7Final proofread: The draft is sent to a proofreader who will review the draft for spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency and typos – all of those niggly little issues that require a fresh set of eyes.
After this, the book is ready for the designer.
The moral of the story? Look for a ghost writer with a reliable process – one that they can explain when talking about their services – with predictable costs and time frames.
3. How long will the ghost writing process take?
As a business leader, you want your book done as soon as possible. That’s why you’re hiring someone to write it for you, isn’t it?
While hiring a ghost writer comes with the benefit of actually getting the book done (when the idea may have been rolling around your head for months, or even years), it’s important to be realistic with time frames.
There are some services out there offering to ghost write your book in a weekend, but I’d be wary of these – from what I’ve seen, most of these offerings are glorified transcription services. They will record an interview (or a couple of interviews) with you to get your knowledge out and will simply type up the transcript.
Yes, they will tidy the grammar and might clean up circular sentences and repetition (some common issues with direct transcriptions), but they probably won’t be providing a great deal of structure for your book and won’t be doing additional research to add more depth and credibility to your book.
At the other end of the spectrum are ghost writers who work with clients for a year or more. In these cases, the ghost writer isn’t working on the same project constantly, but will usually have a number of projects on the go to keep them busy (and maintain cash flow) during potentially lengthy breaks between interviews and revisions.
Our standard ghost writing process, from the initial workshop to the final proofread, usually takes about three months, though we’ve had cases where this has stretched out due to the book getting stuck with the client over the revision period.
On top of turnaround times, it’s important to consider waiting periods too. If you’re looking for a good ghost writer, you’ll probably find those who are also popular ghost writers, which means they may be booked out months in advance, thereby adding months to your overall publishing schedule. (At the time of writing, we’re booked out three months in advance.)
The key is understanding both the turnaround and lead times for the ghost writers you’re considering (and whether there’s any wiggle room). If you find a ghost writer you really want to work with, you may decide to adjust your print deadline for them. If your deadline’s non-negotiable, you can keep looking to find someone who can work within your constraints.
4. How much does ghost writing cost?
The cost of self-publishing a book can vary dramatically depending on the quality of the book you want to produce and the suppliers you work with. Ghost writing is no different.
The Writers' Union of Canada has established a minimum fee of $40,000 for a book in the 60,000 to 90,000 word range, and the Australia Society of Writers reports an average rate of $0.71 per word, which lands roughly in the same range. That said, there is a wide range of rates, both published and unpublished, ranging from much lower on freelance marketplaces to much higher for high-profile celebrity writers charging well into the multiple six-figures range.
How much a ghost writer costs will vary on a number of factors, including:
So how much should you pay?
Tucker Max, founder of Scribe, says, "If you cannot afford more than USD $15,000 for a ghost writer, you probably shouldn't hire one."
His reasoning is that anyone charging less than $15,000 is probably not very good. The best-case scenario is that they are new to the industry and are trying to build out their portfolio, while the worst-case scenario is that they are plagiarizing other work or outsourcing to offshore writers.
Put simply, ghost writing is a service that requires a high level of skill and experience, and that’s something that needs to be paid for.
Fortunately, all is not lost – if hiring a ghost writer is simply out of your budget, then consider finding a good structural editor instead. Even if you’re not a writer, a good structural editor can tear your book apart and put it back together beautifully – all you need to do is provide the initial content.
5. Can you see their past work?
A good ghost writer will be able to provide you with examples of other books they’ve written. And, if they have specialized in writing the type of book you want to write, this will give you a very good idea of what they will be able to produce for you.
If you are speaking to a new ghost writer who doesn’t have any examples to share yet, or an experienced ghost writer who is unable to reveal the identities of their clients (often signing a non-disclosure agreement can get around this), look for other samples of their writing. Do they have a blog? Have they written a book in their own name? All of this will help you figure out if they are a match for you and your book.
Another option is asking for the details of some of the other authors they’ve worked with so you can learn about their experiences – this includes the quality of the work, how seamless the process was, value for money and more.