What is a Ghostwriter — And What Can They Do for You?
A ghostwriter is a professional hired to write something credited to someone else. From celebrity memoirs and speeches to query letters and blog posts, a ghostwriter can either complete an entire project solo or work collaboratively with the text’s credited author. And, much like ghosts, these writers will avoid being discovered.
Ghostwriters are not to be confused with authors who choose to publish their work anonymously, authors who use pen names, or co-writer teams where both authors are credited. As the name implies, ghostwriters work away from the spotlight to bring other people’s ideas to life.
If you’ve been struggling to write a book, a blog post, or anything else involving words, your solution might be to hire a ghostwriter — someone who has the writing chops to turn your book ideas into reality but who prefers to work in the shadows.
Ghostwriter Ethics 101
Say someone bought your book and believed you wrote the whole thing, not knowing a ghost penned it. Have you misled that reader? The answer to this question depends on two things:
Let’s contextualize these aspects with a specific example. Say that a lifelong birdwatcher wants to publish a birdwatcher’s travel guide but struggles to organize their thoughts and stay on topic. To remedy this problem, they contract an experienced ghostwriter to help them communicate their knowledge.
In this case, the author intends to share their years of acquired wisdom with others — wisdom that the ghostwriter doesn’t possess but which they can help put into words. And if readers receive well-researched and valuable information, they get what they paid for, and all can walk away with an easy conscience.
On the other hand, consider someone who wants to start a new business that they know next to nothing about and uses a book written by someone else to establish themselves as an “authority” and attract clients under these false pretenses. The “author’s” intent here — to take advantage of readers by feigning expertise — is unethical.
Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Abagnale might have gotten away with it if he had a ghostwritten book to bolster his fake pilot credentials. (Image: DreamWorks Pictures)
Do ghostwriters mind not taking credit?
If your concern instead lies with the feelings of the ghostwriter, rest assured: contracted ghostwriters are perfectly content with their jobs. Ghostwriting collaborations are as rewarding for the ghostwriter as they are for the person hiring them, and they’ve helped countless people fulfill publishing goals they could previously only dream of.
Ghostwriters complete clients’ assignments and are compensated fairly for their work — just like any other freelance writer. The fact that they don’t receive public credit does not mean they are financially exploited.
In fact, they often make more money than other types of freelancers, and they get to work with all sorts of exciting clients, learning a lot of new things along the way. Many ghostwriters also publish under their own names, so ghostwriting doesn’t deprive them of a credited writing career.
Hiring a ghostwriter is a perfectly reasonable choice if you have insights to share with the world but not the skills to translate them into words. As long as you’re bringing the ingredients to the table, there’s no harm in having someone else assemble them into an appetizing experience.
What Is Ghostwriting?
Ghostwriting occurs when someone contributes to creating content without credit for doing so. They don’t get a byline or author credit; in fact, many times someone else’s name appears as the author of the content. In exchange for credit, the person doing the writing typically receives monetary compensation.
Reasons Marketers and Companies Use Ghostwriting
- Sharing your expertise when you don’t write well. If you’re an expert or professional in a niche with knowledge to share, ghostwriters can help you do that if you’re not great with the written word. You might create extensive notes and outlines for the writer to work from. The writer might also interview you to get your story or message before committing it to paper.
- You already have a name but don’t have enough time to write. Someone who already has a recognized name in the niche may need help keeping up with demands for content. Many online marketing pros, including Rand Fishkin and Neil Patel, for example, have used ghostwriters to help keep their content production at scale when they’re busy with other tasks.
- Creating lots of content for your brand. Not all ghostwritten work gets an author byline stamped on it. Many companies publish blogs, articles and other content from the brand as a whole and not a single person. Ghostwriters are ideal for online content marketing and branding, which may require that you publish dozens or even hundreds of pieces a week or month.
- You don’t have the exact expertise. In some cases, the ghostwriter is actually the one with the knowledge. For example, someone who is a chef may want to launch a coaching business for rising restauranteurs. They come up with an idea to provide a white paper on legal issues for restaurants as a lead generation tool, but they themselves aren’t a legal expert. They might hire a ghostwriter who has both restaurant and legal expertise to draft the white paper.
Reasons Writers Agree to Ghostwrite Content
So, using ghostwriters lets you expand your writing team, gain access to writing skills and potentially draw on other people’s knowledge and experience. But why would a ghostwriter agree to create content for you without having their name attached to it?
Mostly, the answer is that they get paid to write the content. Obviously, with money as the motivator, typically the better you pay, the more professional and skilled a ghostwriter you can hire. You do have to be careful when hiring someone for freelance writing, and we’ll cover how to find qualified pros that will do an excellent job in just a bit.
- They have another business or personal brand and they don’t want to interfere with that. For example, someone who is attempting to make a name as a science fiction author may still need to pay the bills. Ghostwriting lets them put their other expertise to work without impacting their author name.
- They don’t want any recognition. Some writers are exceptionally shy. Others have personal reasons they don’t want their name splashed across the internet. Whatever the reasons, the fact that a qualified writer doesn’t want the attention of a byline can work in your favor.
- They enjoy writing for hire on a number of topics. Some writers simply enjoy doing work for other people that lets them research and write about different things all the time. They don’t want to be tied down to a specific niche or responsible to their own platform, and they may have learned they can make a good living by providing A+ service and content to clients.
How to Hire a Business Ghostwriter
Most ghostwriters have standard contracts they use. That’s fine, you probably don’t need to involve lawyers, but there are several deal terms you need to make sure you negotiate properly:
1. Price and payment terms
There are a lot of ways to pay, but the vast majority of good ghostwriters will use a flat fee structure, meaning you are paying a set amount for a defined book of a defined size or scope. There are some that use flat fee + hourly for revisions beyond a certain point. That’s fine too.
As to payment terms, make sure that you are paying in installments and not paying all the money upfront. Those installments can be time-based or tied to specific deliverables. But also expect to pay something upfront.
2. Deliverables (total length, word count, and revisions)
Part of the payment discussion will be what the deliverables are. The very best and most expensive ghostwriters will be somewhat loose with this—they can afford to be when they are charging $100k+ for a manuscript. You are paying them to just handle everything, whatever it takes, and for that price, they will.
This is not true for most ghostwriters, who will often have specific word counts or page counts they want to tie you to, or other very objective ways to limit the scope of work. This all normal and fine, just make sure it’s clear to you, and that it fits with what you need.
Do not let a ghostwriter just go with a straight hourly fee, unless you are cool with them potentially running up their bill. Most of the good ones will have a set price for a specific set of deliverables, and then an hourly rate for time beyond that. This guide gives you a good baseline of what the conventional freelancer rates look like.
3. Rights and royalties
Make sure you retain 100% of all the rights to your book. Not only copyright, but the print license, all film, rights, TV, foreign, and adaptations rights. Do not let any ghostwriter try to keep any rights to your book, ever.
Some of the very best ghostwriters will be able to negotiate a percentage of the royalties, but that is rare and different than owning the rights. This basically means they are getting some of the profits from book sales. If this is on the table, it probably means you have a major book deal with a traditional publisher, and a book agent, who will help you negotiate this.
4. Plagiarism protection
This won’t be a concern with a good ghostwriter, but make sure you are indemnified against them stealing someone else’s content. No good ghostwriter would ever think of doing this, so they’ll have no issue putting in the contract.
5. No subcontracting
Some agencies and even individual ghostwriters will use their credentials to sign you, and even do the initial interviewing, but will pass off the writing to another writer of much lower quality. Do not allow this. You are paying for that writer, they should do all the work (unless of course, you are negotiating a much lower fee for something like this).
6. Termination rights
This does not have to be in the contract, but be clear if you want their work on the book to be anonymous and covered by NDA or not. Many ghostwriters will want to claim credit for working on books (and deservedly so), so if you want anonymity, they will tend to charge more for this. This is standard, but the price is negotiable.
Alternatives to Working with a Business Ghostwriter
1. Write it yourself
If the thought of paying more than $15k to save your time is not tenable for you, then quite frankly, your time is probably not that valuable, and doing it yourself is the best course of action.
2. Use a “Done With You” service (book coaches)
There are a lot of people who offer book coaching, or a “done with you” type of service. The basic idea is that they coach you through writing a book, but you are the one doing the actual work yourself.
This is somewhat similar to doing it yourself, except you’re not totally on your own. In fact, a lot of ghostwriters will also be “book coaches” for a much lower fee, which essentially amounts to being a consulting editor on your book. This can be a good deal for many people who can afford some help, but not full ghostwriting services.
3. Use a “Done For You” service
This is a much newer category, and they have a slightly different way to get ideas into books than conventional ghostwriting. There are two companies that I was able to get info on:
Scribe : We created a structured interview process to turn an author’s ideas into a book, and most importantly, it’s in their words and their voice . Whereas ghostwriting is the words of another writer, this service puts your book in your words. We also do all the publishing and marketing, in addition to assisting in the writing.
(Full disclosure: this is my company, and yes, it competes directly with ghostwriters. I’m obviously biased, but the reason we started this company is because at its core, ghostwriting is a broken system, and we figured out a better way to solve the same problem that ghostwriting is trying to solve—namely, getting the ideas of an author into a book, without having to spend so much time doing it. We’ve done over 1,000 books in four years, so clearly this is meeting a need.)
Round Table Companies : I have not used them, but know a few people who have and they say good things. From what I understand, they are kind of in-between a book coach and a done for you service and can vary their service based on your needs.