May 30, 2016

Ghostwriting: What it is and What it isn't

For the last few months, I have been plugging away, working as a ghostwriter. I wish I could be more specific. I'd have to look at those Terms of Agreement more closely to be certain, but I'm pretty sure the contracts made me promise my soul and first born child if I give away too many details. And while there aren't blood rituals in a dank basement with broody men in hooded robes (yet), there are legal contracts which makes the whole thing pretty darn official.

What it is: 

Ghostwriting is when someone (like myself) is hired to help another writer (like my clients) put words on the page. They provide the outline, I provide the prose and (drastically) increase the word count.

What it isn't: 

A bunch of people (by which I basically mean my family) has asked me the same few questions at least a dozen times.They're usually all a variation or combination of the following.

"Is that legal?"

Yes, it is. There's a contract and everything. It's not "shady" or "illegal", going into the job, the ghostwriter is fully aware that they will not publicly receive credit for the end product. Their work hasn't been stolen from them, (for a fee) it has been signed over to the author. Really, there's no hard feelings. I promise. 

"So you do the all of the work and the client gets all of the credit." 

That really depends on the arrangement made with the client. Some clients give an honorable mention in the Author's Note page. You've probably seen dozens of these without even realizing it. It might look something like this: Thanks to everyone who made this book possible. My husband who read countless drafts, my family and friends who have supported me along the way. Special thanks to my editor and [GHOSTWRITER] Jane Doe. I couldn't have done it without you!  
Some clients offer co-authorship (meaning the ghostwriter's name ends up on the cover) and sometimes a portion of the royalties. This is probably one of the best options for those clients who have an awesome idea burning in their brain but lack the time and energy (or maybe the technical skills) to bring it to the page. It's also a great option for a client with little startup cash to invest in the project. The catch here is that the ghostwriter's pay is largely dependent on the success of the book (and a client with little or no startup funds probably won't be investing a whole lot in advertising). That also means the ghostwriter better produce the best book they possibly can if they want to be paid something more substantial than exposure and the cost of a single meal. 

"Is this new?"

Probably not.With the self-publishing and electronic market, it might be more common now but it's probably been around forever. Ever heard of something written by a "Pseudo" author (for example, Pseudo-Dionysius) ... that means it was written by somebody other than Dionysius. People used to publish under whatever name they thought would lend them credibility and (until historians examine the texts more closely and declare otherwise) for thousands of years it's worked. It's a little different in that Dionysius probably didn't commission the work and slap his name on it, the actual authors usually just stole the guys' names. But the same basic idea of someone else getting public "credit" upholds.   

In the modern era, most authors don't go around bragging to their readers that they hired a ghostwriter. (Published authors don't really go around talking about their editors either but that doesn't mean they don't have one or two or five.)

"Isn't that 'cheating'?" 

It's not a contest and the answer is no. Most books are not made by one person alone. While the author absolutely deserves our respect, it often takes a team to make the final product that ends up on your coffee table or in your bookshelves. Chances are, you've read more than one book that's been either written or supplemented by a ghostwriter. It's probably a lot more common than you'd think.

The question still remains, is it "cheating" for the client to hire a bit of extra help. I guess it depends on the way you look at it. When a client hires a ghostwriter, they usually send them an outline which at very least covers the plot. The client may even oversee the entire process, providing extensive background information on each character and theme or some other kind of notes and research for the ghostwriter to use. In that case, it mostly comes down to plug and chug. The ghostwriter sits and puts words on the page, creating a first draft according to the desires of the client.

Others might give more leeway for the ghostwriter, offering a chapter by chapter outline and specific details concerning a few plot arcs but leaving it up to the judgement of the ghostwriter to make some changes, flesh out some subplots, add some secondary characters etc. This takes more time for the ghostwriter but it also allows them the freedom to feel like it is a genuine collaboration instead of a more mechanical process.

Then there's a whole other group of frazzled clients with deadlines they won't be able meet. They might hire a ghostwriter to complete a whole first draft or the last half of their book but plan on rewriting it in their own style when you finish. It really all depends on the arrangements made between the client and ghostwriter.

"I read somewhere that 50 cents per word is the 'going rate'. Is that true?" 

I recently spoke with another writer on this subject. While she is now a full time author, she started out as a ghostwriter (like many writers). While I'm relatively new to ghostwriting, I have been freelancing since 2014 and I've been keeping an eye on the rates being offered by clients. We were both baffled that people are still being told that 50 cents/word is in any way "standard", and even more so, that it is allegedly the "low" number. 

I can't speak for the wages being paid to professional full time ghostwriters, with unions, in the big publishing companies, but the rest of us (freelance ghostwriters working in the indie fiction market) are lucky to get 1 cent/word. That would be $500 for a 50k word book (before taxes). Many clients offer lower rates but most hover around 0.5 - 1 cent. Really, you would be lucky to find someone willing to pay 2 cents/word. I can almost guarantee you that you will not make over 10 cents/word. It would be too costly for the client and they'll still need to hire an editor / proofreader, commission cover art, ebook formatting, advertisement ... it doesn't stop with the ghostwriter so you can't expect the client to figure out the cost of living in your area and work around that. It's just not going to happen.  

The reality is that ghostwriting (fiction) is not a profitable market. Unless you are lucky enough to land a very high profile client (for instance, writing an autobiography for a presidential candidate), it really isn't a great source of income. Like everything in writing, it is subject to how much you are capable of producing. If you're one of those rare gems that can pump out 90k a week, you could land a handful of clients at all times and get by. If you top off at 2k a week, you might want to reconsider.

For many of us, it's a learning experience as we work towards getting our own writing out on the market and published under our name. So while I don't anticipate making a killing, I get paid to write fiction. How cool is that? 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please keep it clean, mature, and respectful.