Part 1: How to Begin Your Search for a Great Ghost Match
When someone’s interested in hiring me to write a book, I ask them what they want the book to do for readers, and what they want the book to do for them. Their answers to these questions help me to understand their goals and give me a good idea of whether I’ll be a good fit for the job.
If their goals are aligned with my experience level and interests and we have a good rapport, we explore how we might work together. If I don’t think I’m the best writer for their project, I encourage them to work with a company like Gotham Ghostwriters that can guide them through the process of finding the right writer for their book.
Getting guidance from industry insiders will save you time, money and potential heartache because writers have a wide variety of skills and talents. To demystify the process of vetting and choosing a writer, I called on Nate Roberson, editorial director at Gotham Ghostwriters. Nate oversees a wide array of fiction and nonfiction book projects and guides people through the process of finding the right match for their book.
Toni: If someone wants to hire a professional writer to write their book, what should they do first?
Nate: Start with the goals of the project. What does success look like? Do you want a big book deal with a big trade publisher? Do you want to hit a best-seller list? Or is it a book you’re personally proud of that feels true to your vision? Something you can give to your kids or your friends or family that they’re going to enjoy?
People hire writers for all sorts of reasons, and those reasons heavily inform what kind of writer is a good fit. If you’re dead set on getting a trade publishing deal, for example, for a lot of nonfiction projects you’ll need a book proposal. So you’re not just looking for someone with book writing experience but also with proposal writing experience. If your book is a family legacy or memoir that’s not meant for wider distribution, hiring someone who mainly has a trade publishing background may mean overpaying for what your needs are.
“People hire writers for all sorts of reasons, and those reasons heavily inform what kind of writer is a good fit.”
Toni: What should clients know about writers’ fees?
Nate: Typically, fees correlate with experience level, which can mean how many books someone has written, but also how successful those books have been. If someone’s written a bunch of best sellers for big trade publishers, they’re typically going to command higher rates than a writer who’s written one book for a very small press.
Every writer has different rates, depending on their experience and the project details. I often tell people it’s not necessarily that a higher budget means you’re getting a ‘better,’ writer because writing is very subjective. Writing that one person loves—even award-winning, acclaimed writing—another person may not respond to as well. So thinking about what you’re looking to spend and what your goals are can often help narrow the search.
For example, if you can only spend $30,000 to have your book written, there are absolutely good writers who will work in that range. In most categories, that’s not going to attract writers who’ve had number one best sellers, but depending on your goals, that may not be super-important to you.
It’s also a good idea to break the fee into installments so you’re not paying the full amount up front. If you pay the full fee up front and things don’t go well, it can be tricky to navigate, especially if that was your full budget.
Toni: What advice do you have for someone who has their heart set on a trade publishing contract but can’t afford to hire an experienced writer to write the book?
Nate: Nonfiction projects, aside from memoir, are usually sold based on a book proposal, so they should consider investing every dollar they have in the best writer they can get to write a proposal, and then leverage that to get the best advance possible. Say your total budget is in the 20K-30K range—that’s not a ton of money for book writing, but it could make for a really good proposal rate. So the most strategic thing to do to reach your goal of getting a publishing deal is to use that money to hire a really good writer to write a hell of a proposal. That will increase your chances of getting the book deal, and then you would have an advance to work with. Plus that gives you more levers to pull when hiring the writer. You can say, I got the book deal and a solid advance, so if I can’t pay your usual fee to write the book, how about if I pay you the full advance and we split the royalties? Once a publisher buys the book, there are a lot of ways to make the project appealing to writers. People can get nervous about spending that much on a proposal, but if you’re going to spend top dollar at any point in the process, it makes sense for it to be during the proposal-writing stage, because the proposal sells the book and determines how much of an advance you get.
“The most strategic thing to do to reach your goal of getting a publishing deal is to use that money to hire a really good writer to write a hell of a proposal.”
If, on the other hand, you say, I’m going to take a small piece of my budget to pay for a proposal writer and hope I get an advance, then combine that advance with whatever I have left over to pay for the rest of the book, you’re probably not going to attract an experienced collaborator. And you run the risk that you won’t get a book deal at all. So, you’re out the amount you’ve spent on a proposal, and you’re back to square one.
Almost everyone has read books, but unless you work in publishing or you’re an agent or professional writer, you’ve never read a book proposal in your life. And if your writer hasn’t written successful book proposals, it’s kind of the blind leading the blind. So if you need to start with the proposal, you want to find a writer who’s written proposals that have sold books, because they’re really the only people who can tell you what you need to do and help you deliver on that.
Toni: How important is it for the writer to have experience with books that are similar to the book the client envisions?
Nate: Genre is important, of course, and so are the concept and topic of the book. Has the writer written broadly similar books? I always say, any good book is not going be a carbon copy of another book, but if they’ve written books that you can envision appealing to the sort of reader that you’re trying to appeal to, that’s a good sign.
But there may be other factors as well. Say your book has characters of a certain background or identity. It may be important to you to work with a writer who themselves is of that background or identity. So the genre, the topic, the content—all that can help inform what kind of writer is a good fit.
Toni: What should people know about “voice” and “style”?
Nate: Some writers are chameleons. There are ghosts who have written projects with very different clients, sometimes in very different genres, over the years, and if you read three books by them, you feel like they were written by three different people. That’s a skill set that some people have, but certainly not everyone does, not even very good writers sometimes.
In most cases, writers’ projects feel somewhat different from book to book, but they have a recognizable voice across them and certain stylistic preferences. And if those sound close to how you want your book to sound, you’re in good shape.
If nothing a person has written previously sounds anything like how you want your book to sound, even if those books were very successful and well reviewed, you are probably setting yourself up for a hard time. If you’re dead set on working with that person, then at the very least I strongly encourage you to start by hiring them to do some sample chapters before you do the full book.
“Start your search early and don’t cheat yourself by settling for a writer who’s not the best bet for your goals.”
Toni: What else can clients do to make sure the writer they choose is a good fit?
Nate: You may want to start by hiring a writer to write a sample chapter or two. There are some writers who are willing to do this for less than their normal rates, but it’s rarely going to be free because writers do this for a living. But spending a few thousand dollars for a couple of sample chapters and to get a sense of how this writer might approach your project and work with you—that can often be money well spent.
Keep in mind that writers have our own set of criteria when we’re deciding whether we want to write a particular book. We’re asking questions, too: Is this a subject I want to learn much more about? Can this book make a positive difference? Am I inspired to devote nine to twelve months (or more) to help the author bring this book to life? Does the author respect my professional expertise? Will this project be enjoyable?
It’s worth mentioning that the writer who’s the best fit for your book is probably not going to be available to begin work immediately. Experienced, successful writers are busy and typically have projects lined up well in advance. So plan ahead, start your search early and don’t cheat yourself by settling for a writer who’s not the best bet for your goals.