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How To Hire A Ghostwriter

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Over the last several years, our agency has brokered more than 500 successful writing collaborations. The most important insight we have gained from this matchmaking work, as we often note to new authors, is that working with a ghostwriter is a lot like getting married for a moment. Our clients make their careers, their lives, even their families an open book to their collaborators—which often makes for an intense, emotionally trying experience that demands reliability, care, and commitment. 

In the last installment of our Ghostwriting Confidential, we encouraged authors beginning their search for a ghost to keep this guiding principle top of mind—and to think about picking a writing partner like choosing a life partner. To find the ideal match, first get clarity about your goals and priorities, and then look for the right person for your project. That not only means the requisite skills and experience, but choosing someone you can unequivocally trust to capture your vision and protect your story.

Today, we look at the second half of this partner-picking journey: how to get to “yes” once you have found your match. Just as with getting engaged to a future spouse, we advise a shift in focus at this point from “I” to “we.” It’s not like hiring a plumber or electrician. You are building a relationship with your writer, one that requires a foundation of trust. As such, you can’t just think about what you want out of the deal. You also have to consider your partner’s interests and priorities, and how they might feel about the arrangement once work begins.

So with this installment, we provide a primer on how to strike the right balance and reach the right bargain with the writing partner you’ve chosen to work with. In particular, we cover:

  • How to see things from the ghost’s perspective
  • How to negotiate a mutually acceptable fee
  • How to work out the rest of a balanced agreement

Putting Yourself in the Ghostwriter’s Shoes

Before you jump into a negotiation with a ghost, it’s a good idea to get a full understanding of the ghostwriting marketplace and how ghosts typically like to structure their arrangements. Doing so will not only give you some perspective on your ghost’s expectations, but also provide some baseline standards to work from once you start your negotiation.

Bookwriting Fees

As we noted in the last installment of this series, one of the central challenges of hiring a ghostwriter is the lack of transparency and standardization when it comes to pricing. Most ghosts prefer set project fees over hourly rates. But prices can vary greatly depending on such factors as the complexity and time demands of the project, the caliber and experience level of the writer you choose to engage with, and, to some degree, where the writer is based. Some of the writers we work with charge $30,000 to do a short memoir or self-help book, while our most elite writers charge upwards of $300,000 to do a “big-think” book or CEO memoir for a major publisher.

That said, most of the non-fiction projects we place writers on in the U.S. fall into three ranges:

  • Basic: To hire a competent, professional ghost to do a straightforward memoir, or business book, or how-to guide, the average price is $30,000 to $60,000.
  • Mid-market: To hire a more credentialed writer, who has written books for major publishers, to produce a more time-intensive, sophisticated work, you should expect to pay in the range of $75,000 to $150,000.
  • Elite: To hire a collaborator who has written multiple New York Times bestsellers to produce a Malcolm Gladwell- or Thomas Friedman-caliber book, you should expect a price tag of anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000.

Fiction writing tends to fall into similar ranges when it comes to the experience level of the writer, but with very little correlation between genre and price point.

Proposal Fees

If your goal is to sell your book to a trade publisher, and your name is not Oprah or Obama, then chances are you will have to first develop a proposal for an agent to shop to different publishing houses before you write the full book. For this service, the price range is definitely more standardized. The going rate for an accomplished ghost to write a full-length proposal is about $10,000. There are certain elite writers who charge anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000, especially for big-think books that require some original research and/or interviews. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of writers whose fees range from $5,000 to $7,500. 

For some genres, such as memoirs, you may need to develop both a full manuscript and a proposal before an agent will shop your book, and in those cases, it is sometimes possible to “bundle” proposal and book together for a discounted fee—if a writer is already developing a full manuscript, then some of the elements of the proposal (e.g., sample chapters, chapter outlines) will require less additional work than if they are creating a proposal from scratch.

Pay Structures

How and when ghosts get paid also tends to be more standardized. It’s fairly common for ghosts to split their payments into halves or thirds in order to balance their interests with those of their clients. They typically ask for a good chunk of money upfront to lock in their time—there is an opportunity cost to committing to work with an author, so ghosts are careful to guard against getting ghosted themselves. And then they will get another sizeable chunk upon completion to signal to the client they will see the project through to the end. Beware, though, of any ghost who asks for the entire fee upfront. Such a request would be unprofessional and a big red flag about that writer’s ethics and commitment.

At the same time, don’t be surprised if a ghost proposes an alternative payment schedule, such as a monthly retainer. For example, if the fee is $60,000 and the project is scheduled to take six months, they may ask for $10,000 a month, thereby waiving a bigger upfront payment in exchange for more regular income. Such a pay-as-you-go plan generally works in the author’s favor, especially if the relationship does not gel as expected and it becomes necessary to terminate the agreement in the early stages. Either way, it’s useful to ask the ghosts you are considering as finalists about how they like to structure their pay ahead of time, so you have a good idea what to expect once it’s time to talk turkey.

Percentage Deals

A question we often get from new clients is whether a ghostwriter might agree to “split the profits” instead of getting paid a set fee. For the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer is “no,” because most non-fiction books written by ghostwriters—even those that get sold to major publishers—don’t generate any royalties. An experienced ghost will not be inclined to sacrifice even some—let alone all—of their guaranteed compensation in exchange for the possibility your book strikes lightning. If you find someone who will, it’s probably a warning sign that they are not a reliable professional.

There are two primary exceptions to this rule. If you are a prominent public figure with a major platform and already have an agent—or are a sure thing to get one—then a ghost may well be open to a deal structure wherein they get a share of the advance (usually in the range of 30 to 50 percent) and the royalties (the profit an author makes after the publisher earns back the advance). The other exception is when an author has limited means but a dynamite story that has a realistic chance of not only getting sold to a publisher but being turned into a film or TV property as well. In those rare cases, a ghost who falls in love with the story may roll the dice, waive their up-front fee, and go in as a 50-50 partner.

Negotiating a Balanced Fee

Once you have done your homework and have a baseline understanding of how ghosts get paid, you will be ready to hash out the core terms of an agreement with your chosen writing partner from a position of both strength and empathy. But where do you start? And more importantly, how do you finish at a place you will both feel good about?

From our experience brokering hundreds of such deals, here are a few best practices to follow.

Set the right tone. The key to building trust with a writer and getting the negotiations off on the right foot is to show them you value their work and their time. As we noted in the last installment of the series, you can do that early in the search process by being transparent about your budget to see how it aligns with their normal fee range. If you are in the same ballpark at that stage, it’ll be much easier to reach a workable price once you’re at the negotiating table. On the other hand, the surest way to alienate a writer and doom a deal is to press them early and often for a hard quote before you have even chosen to collaborate with them. 

Ask for a proposal. Some clients feel more confident and in control of the negotiating process when they are the ones making the first move through an offer. But based on our experience, authors tend to get better results by having prospective ghostwriters submit a terms proposal. It’s a gesture of respect that can earn some good will. It’s also a test of the writer’s regard for your priorities. If they ask for substantially more than the budget range you’d previously discussed, then they may not be the right partner for you. 

Make a reasonable counter. Most ghosts are not going to start with their bottom-line request. So if your writer asks for more than you’d prefer to spend, come back with a counter offer you could both live with. To increase the chances the ghost will be receptive, don’t present it as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, but as something you’d just feel more comfortable with. Also, look for ways to offer a concession somewhere else. Maybe propose paying slightly more money up front. Or some kind of performance bonus. Or a “with” credit on the cover.

Don’t nickel and dime. Once you get close to a final number, keep the big picture in mind. You want to start your collaboration with a partner who feels appreciated and therefore will be fully invested in your success. Saving a few thousand dollars up front with multiple rounds of haggling is not worth all the cost down the line in terms of bad will and diminished commitment. Keep the negotiating rounds to the barest minimum. If you can’t get to “yes” in three passes or less, it’s not meant to be.

Cover the other money issues. Authors understandably tend to focus most of their initial attention on the size of the ghostwriter’s fee. But when you’re hammering out the core deal points, it’s a good idea to iron out any other compensation issues that matter to you both before you move to papering the deal. Have the writer include their requests in the terms proposal—from the payment schedule to royalty splits to cover credit (which is a commodity of value). This will provide you with a roadmap to the writer’s priorities beyond their fee to see what bargaining chips you have to play.

If you want a sample, be prepared to pay for it. Hiring a ghostwriter is a big commitment, so it’s understandable that some authors may feel more comfortable getting a sample of the sort of work they might expect from a potential partner before they sign a contract. But keep in mind that writing is how writers make their living, and as the saying goes, if you’re good at something, never do it for free. So if you choose to go down this road and ask for a trial chapter, be prepared to pay an appropriate fee for their time.

Completing a Balanced Agreement

After you have worked out the core deal points with your writer, the process of finalizing a contract—or a collaboration agreement, as we usually call it—should be relatively easy. You will, however, still need to get on the same page about some critical matters from the outset in order to avoid a potential rupture down the line. 

To make that process as frictionless as possible, it makes sense to start with an agreement template the writer typically uses. Again, just like asking them to submit a terms proposal to start the negotiating phase, deferring to them on the initial contract draft helps build good will. And as a practical matter, it saves you the time and expense of hiring a publishing attorney to draw up something that will be fairly close in the fundamentals anyway. You get more value from paying a knowledgeable lawyer to advise you on and mark up the writer’s starting draft.

In the meantime, here is a cheat sheet for the most important issues to raise and address in writing.

Timeline

If you have an external deadline you need to meet for whatever reason, it’s essential to communicate it up front and make sure the ghostwriter has the bandwidth to realistically meet it. Otherwise, we recommend outlining a target date for completion that you are both comfortable with and does not penalize the writer for failing to meet. The fact is, most missed deadlines are due to delays on the author’s part, so writers are rightly wary of being held liable for things that are outside their control. 

Scope of Work

Seems kind of obvious to say, but the agreement should specifically spell out the services the writer will provide. For example, will they be expected to start with a proposal? Or finish with a copy edit? This section should also detail the author’s obligations as well, so you know what is expected of you in order to realize your objectives for the book, as well as to meet your desired timeline. To get the best results, we recommend having the writer’s first task be to develop a work plan with a mutually-agreeable production schedule that outlines who is responsible for what.

Confidentiality

Most collaboration-agreement templates have standard confidentiality language baked into them. If you have any special concerns, though, it’s important to discuss them early and specifically to make sure the writer is comfortable abiding by them. In most cases, it won’t be a problem—confidentiality is built into the ghost’s DNA. But one no-no is barring the writer from ever disclosing their work on the project. Not only is doing so unnecessary, it significantly impedes a ghost’s ability to get future work, since prospective clients typically want to know about their past experience. If absolute confidentiality is a must-have for you, be aware that most writers will charge a high premium in exchange for not being able to use the project when they pursue future work.

Termination

This is the thorniest issue an author will ever have to consider because it forces them to confront the possibility that they made the wrong choice and should get a divorce. As such, this is the part of the contract that begs most for balance. The language has to be tough enough to protect the author from being ripped off, but not so heavy-handed that it cheats a writer for failing some arbitrary quality test. The simplest solution is to design a backloaded payment schedule to account for the risks of a rupture, which more often than not happens in the early stages. Beyond that, we advise having provisions that cover the most likely scenarios (you canceling the project, the relationship not producing the desired results, the writer flaking out) and spell out the legal and financial consequences for each.

Dispute Resolution

Most collaboration agreements include a section about how to adjudicate any disagreements over the contract. Some call for going to court, others for arbitration. There are pros and cons to each. Our agency’s standard agreement favors arbitration, both for financial and practical reasons. Either way, the important thing is to choose a lane you are both comfortable with and be specific about the process you will follow.

In sum, much like any marriage, there are no guarantees with any book collaboration that you will achieve editorial bliss. But we are confident that if you follow these tips in the hiring process, you will start your partnership with a strong foundation of trust and maximize your chances of producing a book you will both be proud of.

Dan Gerstein

Dan Gerstein is a nationally recognized political writer, communications strategist, and idea man who has been writing professionally for himself and others for 25 years.

A graduate of Harvard College, Gerstein got his start in collaborative writing and thought leadership development as a speechwriter and policy advisor on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman from his home state of Connecticut. He went on to serve as a senior advisor and communications strategist for Lieberman in his vice-presidential and presidential campaigns.

In 2004, Gerstein moved to New York to become a political communications consultant and a commentator. Known for his independent, thoughtful analysis, he’s served as a contributing columnist for Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and Politico, and appears regularly as a political analyst on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. In 2012, Gerstein joined the adjunct faculty of New York University’s Masters Program in Public Relations and Corporate Communications.

Since forming Gotham Ghostwriters, Gerstein has become one of the country’s top experts on the ghostwriting market and a sought-after source for industry conferences and news articles. He is also a nationally-recognized leader in the speechwriting field, co-founding the Professional Speechwriters Association.

Connect with Dan on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @dangerstein.