For authors who decide to work with a ghostwriter, the whole point is to make the process easier—less time, fewer headaches, more support, and ultimately a better experience and product. But the first step of that journey—finding a suitable partner—can seem every bit as daunting and challenging as writing the book itself.
That’s in no small part because ghostwriters are meant to be invisible, after all. Most pro ghosts typically don’t market themselves and certainly don’t showcase their clients. Moreover, outside of our agency and our friends at United Ghostwriters, almost all ghosts work on their own. So searching for a writer is extremely different from trying to hire a PR or digital marketing or pretty much any other less anonymous, atomized communications or creative related service.
What makes the selection process especially tricky is the unique, intimate nature of the work we do. In most cases, our clients make their careers, their lives, even their families an open book to their collaborators. It can be an intense, emotionally trying experience that demands reliability, care, and commitment. It’s a little bit like getting married for a moment.
That’s why we advise our clients to think about picking a writing partner like choosing a life partner. Skills and experience are important, of course, but ultimately, chemistry and trust matter just as much, if not more so.
With this installment of our Ghostwriting Confidential series, we share the most important insights and best practices we have learned from over a decade of matchmaking to provide a “ghost dating manual” that helps authors just starting their journey find the right person for their project. Specifically, we cover:
- What to look for
- Where to search
- How to choose
What to Look For
Much like searching for that someone special, it’s critically important for authors to be clear at the outset about their priorities and criteria for finding the right match in a writing collaborator. Otherwise, they are destined to go on countless bad first dates and wonder why they keep striking out.
These criteria vary greatly from project to project and author to author, depending on a host of factors. Here a few of the essential ones you should be thinking about as an author.
A natural place to start honing a search is with the topic of your piece. Are you writing a deep dive about AI, or a fun romp about Magnum P.I.? If it’s the former, you will probably want to look for a writer who knows the difference between a waiter and server. If it’s the latter, you will be looking for someone who could pick Tom Selleck out of a lineup. Basically, you want a ghostwriter who has some experience in the genre and is at least comfortable with and conversant in the subject matter.
Even within distinct genres, the range of writing styles is vast. Some business books, for example, read like The Economist. Others aspire to be like a snappier Wired article. And there is the whole subcategory of Who Moved My Cheese-style parables. The best ghosts can competently capture different voices. But if you know you want your book to present a particular tone and texture, then it will pay off to seek out a writer who has a particular fluency and flare in that style.
A successful collaboration does not require the author and ghost to agree on every issue they are writing about or be members of the same political tribe. But if you’re not on the same page when it comes to core principles or don’t respect each other’s viewpoints, it can be exceedingly difficult to establish the foundation of trust that is essential to a successful partnership—be it editorial or marital. While it’s impossible to immediately glean from a resume or website how compatible you would be, you can certainly rule out people who would obviously be wrong for you. So if you are, say, a diehard progressive, you’d probably want to avoid a writer wearing a MAGA in their profile picture. Or if you are a hedge fund whiz, you’ll want to steer clear of someone who tried to occupy Wall Street.
One of the trickiest parts of hiring a ghostwriter is the lack of transparency and standardization on pricing (a topic we will cover in more depth in the next post in this series). Different writers can charge vastly different rates, even for the same kind of book. But generally speaking, there are established ranges—and at the end of the day, it’s a field where you get what you pay for. As such, before you begin your search, it’s critical you have a ballpark idea of what you are comfortable spending so you avoid wasting time barking up the wrong trees. In other words, if you have a Subaru budget, let go of your notion of working with a writer with a Rolls Royce resume.
Perhaps the least appreciated but most important consideration for an author is what role they expect the ghostwriter to play. For example, many first-time authors are uncertain about the writing process and therefore need more hand-holding from start to finish. If that describes you, you’ll want to look for a ghostwriter with a strong track record of shepherding newbies through the process. Conversely, you probably should avoid ghosts who are at a more advanced level or have zero experience at all with collaborations. The key is to focus on potential collaborators who are really good at doing specifically what you need help with.
The last consideration is your aspiration for the book—specifically, how you want to publish. In particular, if you are aiming to sell your story to a major trade publisher, you will first have to develop a compelling proposal that maximizes the property’s marketability. As such, you will benefit greatly from seeking out a ghost who has both a real knack for helping their clients find the right “hook” for their book and a track record of collaborating on successful proposals in your genre.
Where to Search
Once you have clarity on your criteria, you will be ready to go ghost hunting. But assuming you don’t work in publishing or are in a book club with a bunch of literary agents, where do you start? How do you find something that by its nature is usually hidden? Usually, it’s one of two ways.
Phone a friend
Most new authors’ first instinct understandably is to ask people they know with connections to book or magazine publishing for recommendations of writers to consult with. There are definitely advantages to this approach, as getting a referral from a trusted source can save a lot of time and hassle. But on the flip side, your friends may not think critically about what kind of writer would best serve you. And they very well may end up suggesting you talk to their college-roommate-turned-novelist for help with your book on cryptocurrency. A good way to avoid getting victimized by bad setups is to clearly and specifically spell out the profile you’re looking for.
Google a stranger
Since most people don’t have a friendly ghost on speed dial, the next logical place authors turn to is their trusty search engine. This too has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, before the Internet became ubiquitous, it was almost impossible to find a ghostwriter if you didn’t work in publishing. Googling has made our field light years more accessible to authors seeking a collaborator. But on the other hand, our industry is not nearly as efficiently organized and sortable online as others; unlike shopping for a house or, for that matter, a spouse, there are no big popular sites such as Zillow or Match.com for ghostwriters. As a result, most searches start with an undifferentiated mass of writers, which can be extremely time-consuming and frustrating for the average new author to sort through on their own.
While there is no magic bullet for solving this problem, we can offer a few tips and search hacks to make the identification process less painful and more efficient. (Kindlepreneur also offers a great overview of the options and the pros and cons of each.)
Hunt in safe spaces
The simplest way to start narrowing your search, especially if you’re developing a business or thought-leadership book, is to leverage LinkedIn. It’s geared toward professionals and designed for efficient searching—plus you can quickly judge writers by the company they keep. Not least of all, if you find a promising ghostwriter there, you can also see similar writers other people like you have searched for to expand your circle of possibilities. Conversely, we encourage you to stay away from such websites as Craigslist (which are rife with scammers) and Upwork (which are primarily populated by less credentialed/reliable writers who will offer to write your book for a bargain).
Go where the ghosts are
While most ghosts work independently, there are a growing number of small collectives that are worth exploring in order to connect with established pros. In the UK, the best in class is our partners on this project, United Ghostwriters, whose 13 elite ghosts provide a wide range of specializations. In the US, there are several groups of former top major publishing editors that also do collaborations, such as the Independent Editors Group and Book Editors Alliance. If you want to peruse a wider selection of ghosts, the only serious aggregation option is the UK-based platform Reedsy, which has become a trusted solution for authors searching for writers, editors, designers, and other freelance publishing pros.
Go where the other pros are
If you’re not finding the right match among these ghostwriting sites, and especially if you need a writer with a more specialized background, there are several gathering places for accomplished writers that can also be terrific resources. Some are broad communities that include ghosts and collaborators with job boards you can post to, such as the Association of Journalists and Authors. Then there are sector-specific groups such as Financial Writers Society, the Education Writers Association, and the Association of Health Care Journalists that can be a great entry point for connecting with credentialed nonfiction writers in your particular area of focus.
Work through an agency
As we previously mentioned, searching for a ghostwriter is not only time-intensive, but it can be full of risk. Gotham Ghostwriters was founded to solve these exact problems and provide expert guidance and recruiting for authors who prefer to not go it alone. We like to think our unrivaled network of writers combined with our unique matchmaking process makes us the best solution for selective authors. But if you want another option, we encourage you to check out Kevin Anderson and Associates, which we consider the only other high-quality agency out there. They also serve a wide range of authors, from big-think traditionally published books to self-published memoirs—but with a different, more centralized model.
How to Choose
Over the last several years, our agency has made hundreds of successful author-ghost matches. From that experience, we have learned a great deal about the editorial version of conscious coupling—and how authors should approach that screening process. Here is a checklist of the most important dos and don’ts.
Keep your eyes on your prize
If you have ever been on an online dating site, you know how the quantity of choices can be overwhelming—and how the pictures can be deceiving. The same is true for picking writers to mingle with. To make the most of your time, and to maximize your chances of finding the right match, it’s critical that you be disciplined. As we advised above, stay focused on your priorities and stay away from candidates who clearly don’t meet them. Which is to say, don’t be seduced by an impressive resume alone.
Fall in like first
Just as with first dates, go into your first call with each eligible ghost with realistic expectations. It’s an opportunity to look beyond their resume and learn more specifics about their experience (have they worked with authors like you?), work style (do they have a set process or do they adapt to each author’s M.O.?), and how their personality might click with yours. Your goal should be to see who fits with your priorities and needs well enough to warrant a longer second date, and to weed out those who are obvious non-starters. Also, you’ll want to make sure they have the bandwidth to complete your project on your terms.
Play the field
One of the biggest mistakes authors make in the screening process is to propose to the first writer they talk with. That writer could end up being the right match for you, but it’s hard to tell without assessing other writers to get some basis of comparison. We tell our clients to interview at least three writers. If the first ghost turns out to be the right one, then you will feel that much more confident in the selection after having explored other options in order to confirm your instincts.
Ease into fees
Another mistake authors often make is to immediately press the ghostwriter about how much they charge. It’s obviously a top-of-mind concern, but asking for a quote up-front sends a bad signal—much like asking a first date how many kids they want to have before the appetizers arrive. You are much better off raising the general topic of costs at the end of the conversation and asking the writer how they have typically charged in the past for comparable projects. That way, you avoid scaring them off, while getting the information you need to determine whether they are in the right zone for your budget.
Put the work in
After you have narrowed the field to a few finalists, it really pays off to do your due diligence. First, read a robust cross-section of their writing samples to evaluate how they work with different authors in different contexts. Second, devote some serious quality time to second interviews; as you will be working very closely with this person, you need to see if you like their company and trust their judgment. Third, just as with a marriage prospect, don’t hesitate to have a writer talk with a loved one who can serve as a gut check. Lastly, consult with two or three references to find out what their experience with the writer was like.
Trust your gut
One of the most common questions we get from our clients as they get ready to make a decision is, “How do you know who the right one is?” At this point, you should already have confidence the writer is capable of doing your book your way. So it really comes down to what we call the “click factor.” Is the writer excited about the story? Do they feel committed to helping you succeed? Are you comfortable entrusting them with your life’s work and/or story? Those are the best tests for choosing the right partner.