Ghostwriting is not for the faint of heart

It’s October so what better time is there to talk about ghostwriting?


As a freelance writer, I have done some ghostwriting. It was mostly a pretty boring kind – articles for home care trade journals. That was a regular little job for a while, then the company went sort of in a different direction (the direction where they don’t want to pay freelancers for good work) and we parted ways. It was never my bread and butter, but I was happy to have the work that did come in, despite not getting my name on it.

I have also either bid for ghostwriting gigs or was approached to do them. In this case, the situation is the same every. single. time.

I get an email that says, “I have a story. I can’t write. You write it for me.”

Maybe we talk on the phone. Maybe we just email a little bit.

I send the person a proposal, which is really only to show the potential client the price tag before we get too far down the path and I’ve put in way more time and effort than it’s worth. I’m not preparing any contracts at this point, I’m not making outlines of chapters, nothing like that. There’s more information on the proposal…a general description of the project and my deliverables, a general timeline, contact information, and an expiration date. But really, this is to say, “I don’t think you know how this works so let’s save some time and get right to the money talk.”

And every time, it’s the sticker shock that kills the project.

People who want ghostwritten stories typically think that a) they have an amazing story that EVERYBODY will want to read NOW (they might but that’s very hard to predict), and that because of this fact b) they will make a million dollars and it will be a best seller (it might but that’s very hard to predict) because Nancy Whatsherface just published a story like mine and she is in the New York Times, and c) then they can just pay you with the money they’ll rake in from the sales of their book. And based on those beliefs, these people think that it’s OUTRAGEOUS that ghostwriters want a) a bunch of money, and b) a bunch of money UP FRONT. (THE NERVE.) Now, people aren’t always rude about this conversation. They are genuinely shocked – SHOCKED – that I don’t want to take a couple hundred hours out of my life for the next 6-8 months (in addition to having a full-time regular job because people don’t want to pay writers anything ever) to write about a stranger who found Jesus after being hit by a car driven by a drunk rabbi. Or whatever.

Without giving away all my trade secrets, I’ll tell you that a really crappy ghostwriter (think, a non-native speaker based in a country that is not the U.S.A.) will run you maybe $5,000. The average in the U.S. for ghostwriters is about $22,000. High-end celebrity ghostwriters (or ‘as told to’) can get up into the millions. I’m somewhere in the ‘reasonable for a ghostwriter of my experience level.’

I ask to get paid what I am worth as a writer. That’s all. People continue to be surprised that freelance writers (or graphic designers, or any manner of freelance artist) charge money. It seems like unless I say, “Oh it’s totally free!” then I’m charging too much.

What is it about writing that makes people say, “I am a terrible writer, I could never do that” in one breath, and “You charge too much to write” in the next?

One of the crummy things is, many of the stories I’ve talked to people about are really interesting. They are compelling and complex and they are stories that should be out in the world, being shared. This is especially true of a potential client I just spoke with. She has a really interesting story, it’s something I’d love to work on. But I sent her the proposal and I haven’t heard from her. It’s a shame, because truth is stranger than fiction and she could have a really great product on her hands.


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