Of the various monikers I’ve carried over the years as a copywriter, consultant, freelancer, and content marketer, none have led to more questions from clients than the title of ghostwriter.
Ghostwriters are writers working with clients behind the scenes over a wide range of media, from blog posts and print articles to e-books, novels, and short stories. The difference between a ghostwriter and a typical author is that once a ghost completes a manuscript, he or she will turn it over to the person who will be credited as the author.
Ghostwriting can seem like a shadowy profession to many, simply because there aren’t a lot of resources available to help consumers determine what’s fair practice and what isn’t. Discussing such a trade almost always results in a whirlwind of questions: How much do ghostwriters charge? How long does it take to ghostwrite a book? Who retains the rights once I’m holding a manuscript I paid good money for?
It’s easy enough to narrow down market rates for ubiquitous service industries like lawn care and accounting, but ghostwriters are few and far between, which may leave those interested in hiring a ghost for the first time sailing into uncharted waters.
That’s why I decided to help shed a little light on some of the mysteries behind ghostwriting. I’ve cited the three most frequently asked questions I encounter when speaking with potential clients, as well as things you should look for when hiring a ghostwriter. If you are seriously considering paying a writer to tell your life story–but you’re unsure how the process works or what to expect–then this post is for you.
How much are we talking here?
By far the most common question I hear when offering ghostwriting services to a potential client is “How much does a ghostwriter cost?” The answer almost always varies from one customer to the next, and is contingent on a variety of factors; however, we can ballpark this one by evaluating what common rates are across the entire industry.
Every year, Writers Market puts together a list of pay rates covering a wide variety of freelance writing jobs. The list is compiled by surveying more than a dozen professional writers organizations. The American Society of Journalists and Authors, Writer’s Guild of America, Society of Professional Journalists and the National Writers Union (to name a few) all contribute to the pay rate chart, which covers everything from articles and blog posts to movie scripts, children’s books and–you guessed it–ghostwriting.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus primarily on one line item: ghostwriting, no credit. This common method of ghostwriting gives us a good view of the practice: a writer produces a manuscript, while the client gets the byline, ownership, copyright, etc. The 2015 Writers Market results are listed below.
Ghostwriting - no credit
Low: 50 cents/word or $50/page
Average: $1.79/word or $206/page
High: $3/word or $500/page
Other notable fees include ghostwritten magazine articles ranging from 65 cents/word to $10/word, blogging rates from $6/post to $500/post, and ghostwriting for business execs anywhere from 50 cents a word to $2.50/word.
As you can quickly see, the data stretches both far and wide. Why do some writers charge as low as 50 cents per word while the highest end of the spectrum is at $3 per word for ghostwriting (no credit), and a whopping $10 per word for magazine articles? There is no simple answer, but there are several considerations to make here:
Determining what’s fair and what isn’t can seem trivial, but there are ways to reduce your risk when hiring a ghostwriter. For starters, paying someone less than the industry minimum of 50 cents per word is asking for an unpleasant experience, unless several concessions such as attribution and/or rate reduction in exchange for royalties have been given to the writer. It may sound trite, but when it comes to making purchases, we really do get what we pay for. Ghostwriting is no different.
On the other end of the spectrum, should a ghost quote you $3 per word and he or she doesn’t have the resume and portfolio to back it up, then perhaps it’s time to move on to greener pastures. Premium rates are reserved for time-tested, proven ghostwriters with years of experience and the track record (like ghosting a New York Times bestseller or two) to back up every penny they’re charging.
When I submit a quote for my ghostwriting services, I get pretty technical with it, breaking down the total cost into digestible, bite-sized chunks that are easy to justify and give potential clients a clear picture of exactly what they are paying for each step of the way. Anything less than a detailed pitch combined with a thorough explanation of the entire ghostwriting process isn’t worth your time.
What does the ghostwriting process involve?
Speaking of your time, it’s time to tackle the second most-common question I get asked: How long is this going to take? Well, if you think hiring a ghostwriter means writing a check and then forgetting about the rest until a completed manuscript shows up on your doorstep, then it’s time to think again.
The job of every ghostwriter is to help people tell their stories, but that can prove difficult when clients go AWOL and deadlines are looming. Fortunately, most seasoned ghostwriters have a well thought-out blueprint established to reduce setbacks and streamline the process, which can move as quickly as a day or two for ghostwritten articles and blog posts, to the better part of a year for a full-length 300-page manuscript.
How does a ghostwriter get paid?
I’m sure you’re getting tired of hearing this by now, but once again, it varies. Some ghostwriters prefer to get paid upfront before ever putting pen to paper, but these select professionals are few and far between, and have usually been in the business for decades. A more common payment system for ghostwriters is the milestone system, similar to how many contractors are paid for large projects.
Personally, I prefer the milestone payment system because it protects both the client as well as the freelance ghostwriter. This is how my payment system breaks down for a standard-length non-fiction book (60,000 to 80,000 words):
Of course, ghostwriting a 1,000-word article on email marketing trends wouldn’t require this many milestones, if any. I don’t worry about the money on such articles and blog posts too often, because I know the clients I have established relationships are good for it. But when I’m vetting new clients for short-form ghostwriting, I typically ask for half now, half on delivery. If I met a new client through a platform like Upwork or Guru, I would just make sure escrow was funded before getting started on a new project, while making it very clear in my proposal that work doesn't commence until the project is funded.
Ghostwriters have pretty cool handles, but we’re really not that mysterious at all. Odds are you’ve seen our work filling the pages of your favorite websites, magazine articles, books and blog posts. If you are thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, hopefully I’ve provided a decent starting point for you to base your project needs off of so you are not walking to the negotiating table empty handed.
Having a clear understanding of what you can afford, what your turnaround requirements/expectations are, and how you plan on paying for ghostwriting services will help you land a truly professional ghostwriter who is constantly seeking those wonderful clients with well-defined plans and the desire to see their projects through.
Being able to talk about your specific ghostwriting needs will also inform your ghostwriter that you know your stuff, which could lead to better project terms and/or a more favorable rate for your next big venture. Just don't expect to land a qualified ghostwriter for pennies a word - unless you want my 3-year-old to work on your next project for you. Then I'm all ears.
John Cagle is a freelance copywriter and Internet consultant living on the Florida coast. He specializes in copywriting and content marketing for businesses seeking brand recognition through print and digital channels. John is the owner of Firewave Media DBA Cagle Copywriting, a Florida company.