There’s one thing that pervades every aspect of the delicate romance between author and ghostwriter: money.
Moderator Kevin Anderson, CEO and editor-in-chief of Kevin Anderson and Associates, and panelists Marsha Layton Turner, Executive Director and Founder of the Association of Ghostwriters; New York Times best-selling ghostwriter and author Michael Levin; and author, ghostwriter, and Gotham Ghostwriters Advisory Board member Catherine Whitney tackled the fundamental aspects of the business of ghostwriting including building your brand, contract essentials, and – of special interest to everyone in the room – how much to charge.
On that final point, panelist Michael Levin proposed a simple formula. “Whatever you are charging now, the next deal that you propose, I need you to take your current fee, double it, and add 20 percent,” he advised. Levin’s advice was met with gasps, laughter, and a few cheers. But he was undeterred. “I’m not joking. Only then will you start to approach what you’re really worth.”
But in order to make that ask, ghosts have to pay attention to marketing, advised Whitney. “Marketing is difficult,” she acknowledged. “As a writer, I don’t like marketing really, but you have to do it so you build your name.”
Though all panelists said their primary means of business was through referrals, they agreed having engaging online presences was essential. “My website confirms and lists out the publishers that I’ve worked with, the types of books I’ve done, the degrees I have, honors and awards I’ve won,” said Turner. “It just confirms how much I’ve already done.”
One problem, of course, is that many authors don’t want their ghosts visible or acknowledged in any way. But don’t be deterred, advised Levin, who noted that he’s gone back to clients with whom he had nondisclosure agreements and asked to put their collaboration on his website, to which they’ve said “‘Sure!’” The bottom line, all agreed, is don’t be afraid to ask – and never underestimate how important it is to be able to claim credit for the good work you’ve done.
“That’s an important thing when you’re trying to build your career as a writer or get to the next level – think about that credit very early on in the relationship,” said Anderson. “Try to build the relationship and clarify to the client that you can put your name in the preface, in the acknowledgments, anything. Even if it’s just a line in the acknowledgments saying thank you for helping me with this book. It’s super vague, but you can still include it on your list.”
When a client is secured, it’s time to negotiate the contract — a moment every ghost should pay exquisite attention to detail to, according to the panelists. “Boundary setting is just so important in contracts,” said Turner, who advised ghosts to make sure their contracts specify a word range, deadlines for completions, number of rounds of edits, and schedule of payments – which she personally recommends breaking into ten equal payments, in part to lessen the sting of the overall size of contract.
“I usually put in page count because clients can understand that easier,” added Levin. “But whether you’re doing word count or page count, be sure to include the words ‘up to.’ So ‘up to 50,000 words’ or ‘up to 125 pages.’ That way, they can’t turn around and sue you because the book is 75 pages and they want 50 percent of your fee back.”
In the realm of potential legal issues when it comes to contracts, Levin had one special piece of advice: “Choice of venue is critical. You say in your agreement that they can only sue you in your state. I didn’t have that for a while, and I was sued in Texas – that was not a party, OK? I like Texas, I just don’t want to be sued there. So look it up online – choice of venue.” He also suggested putting a final end date on contracts so clients can’t reappear years down the line and demand continuing work. And a final kicker: “I have a little wrinkle in my agreement which says, ‘copyright transfers only upon final payment.’ Is it enforceable? I don’t know. It’s scary. It means they cannot publish until they make the final payment. People hate making final payments on anything – including your book.”
The panel’s overriding takeaway? In money, in contracting, in building your brand, it all comes down to respecting what you do and making sure others respect you as well. As Michael Levin put it, “You think of how easy it is, and it can’t be that hard — anybody can do this. Wrong. What we do is hard.”