The Art of Being Invisible
The journey to getting your own work published is often long and confusing, and it requires perseverance and patience.
It can be overwhelming to get your own work out there. Where to go for editing? How much is typical for a publishing fee? Should you even pay to be published, or negotiate a royalty? And then you have to market the book….
For many writers, that first work is more like a practice run. Something we use to hone our skills and figure out how it all works.
And while you’re doing this, you might consider becoming a ghostwriter. Someone who hides behind a name, often a famous name, and gets rewarded for the effort they put in, rather than the number of books sold.
A good ghostwriter isn’t someone who can’t get published; it’s someone who enjoys the writing, and enjoys the interaction with clients.
They just prefer to remain invisible.
But am I selling out?
Political memoir and celebrity autobiography are usually the kind of books that come to mind when you think of ghostwriting: people who are short of time, or lack the skills to write, but have an interesting story to tell — and the name to sell it.
It makes sense from a publisher’s perspective because it gets the book out, and everyone makes money in the process.
Ghostwriting definitely isn’t ‘selling out’.
The truth is that some ghostwriters get paid handsomely, tens of thousands, and up to as much as $500,000 for writers with an established reputation.
If you choose to go this route, then work with people you respect, and whose projects you want to help bring to life.
It’s your career, after all, and you have the right to choose your clients.
Am I living in the shadows?
But, you might ask,
If I ghostwrite, am I setting myself up for a life in the shadows?
Yes and no.
Don’t expect a credit — it’s very unusual to get your name on the cover, and, more often than not, you’ll be expected to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Typically the celebrity author won’t reveal that the book was written by someone else, even though it’s often leaked out later, or an acknowledgement is given for something else. Hillary Clinton credits a team of advisers in her books; chances are there was at least one writer amongst them but it’s tough to know how much was done, and by whom.
Others are more open, notably Sheryl Sandberg who gives her co-writer a ‘with…’ credit inside the book.
Will I ever publish my own work?
The uninformed might think,
Once a ghostwriter, always a ghostwriter.
But this is mistaken.
While some may feel it’s a profession of living in the shadows, the truth is that it all depends on the credited author’s choices.
Some will pay more for you to remain anonymous, and some will give you a co-writing credit, but might pay a lower fee.
Whether you publish your own work is entirely up to you, and is entirely separate from your decision to become a ghostwriter.
Is it for me?
If you’re exploring how to become a ghostwriter, then first consider the following pros and cons.
- There is a very high chance you won’t receive credit for the writing, although you may receive an acknowledgement as an ‘adviser’ if you negotiate this when you take on the contract.
- You might not be able to show the work as a sample when applying for a new gig. Sometimes this can be negotiated but, as a rule of thumb, you usually have to keep everything, drafts, interviews and all, totally confidential.
- You’re not going to win any prizes, or get a credit, even if the book wins a major prize like a Pulitzer.
- You don’t get ongoing royalties if the book sells millions. Sometimes this is negotiable, but the concept of ghostwriting is that you are doing it for a one-off fee.
- You don’t have to find a publisher and negotiate commissions. You’re a writer; you write.
- Your work is not contingent on sales, but rather the credited author’s perception of the quality of your work.
- You can work with people all over the world, get to explore their lives, and experience different cultures and locations.
- It allows you to write on a regular basis and stay current on your skills.
- If you are just beginning a new writing career, it’s a great way to get your foot in the door and practice with some major works.
- You have the opportunity to write about topics you might never encounter: the lives of politicians, celebrities or ‘inside looks’ at historical events or famous people.
- You gain valuable experience of working with editors and publishers that you can learn from when (or if) you publish your own work.
- You can expand your network, and make some contacts who may be willing to promote for you when you do publish your own book.
- You have the freedom to write in someone else’s voice, expressing opinions you may be cautious about putting your name behind, even if you agree with them.
What skills do I need?
Ghostwriting is different from writing for yourself and part of your role is managing the client, and getting them to share stories and experiences they may not have told anyone else. Building trust is key to your success. You’ll need:
- Interviewing, or coaching skills. A lot of ghostwriters, especially in non-fiction, start by interviewing the client. You need to be able to ask questions that elicit detailed and deeply personal answers. This is not something that everyone can do!
- Listening skills. And you need to listen very carefully. To what is being said but to what is not being said. Maybe your client wants to gloss over an event, or can’t bear to share something painful. You need to hear this, and then pull out the details from them.
- The ability to discern where vulnerability becomes voyeurism. Whether you write up those personal experiences is a choice you will discuss with your client, and the publisher. You need to be professional, this is not tabloid journalism. Put in as much as makes the author human, but there may be things that you leave out, or at least leave to the imagination.
- Relationship skills. You will be working with your client for weeks, probably months. You need to get their attention so that you can do your work, but you need to build trust so that they have confidence in you, and respect your judgement.
- Writing in another voice. Just as an actor mimics an accent or a personality, you need to be able to hear the author’s voice, and write so that it sounds as if they had written it themselves. It helps if you interview them and spend time with them, so that you pick up phrases and nuances, but it’s also a skill that comes to some people more easily than others. You have to be good, extremely good, to do this without it sounding forced or fake.
What can I expect to earn?
That’s a tough one, because you’ll be paid partly by reputation. The better contacts you build, and the better the books you write sell, the more in demand you become. And that, of course, leads to higher fees.
When you’re calculating your fees, don’t think about your time costs, but think about what you are saving the client. Someone who can command thousands of dollars a day for a TV appearance, faces a big opportunity cost if he or she decides to write their own book.
Rates will vary enormously, but think in the region of $15,000-$50,000 for a 50,000 word book. More, of course, as you get established.
How do I get started?
Start where you are
You should be writing, and publishing regularly on a blog, for example. You need to write, and people need to see your writing.
Let everyone and anyone know that you do this — have a services page on your website, a line in your email signature, talk about it at networking meetings, and on social media.
Contacts are key, as most ghostwriters start out informally, and even credit a bit of luck in getting them started. Who do you know in publishing who you can ask for referrals? Do they know agents? Can you email them? Call them? Ask for advice and more contacts.
Start writing smaller pieces. There are hundreds of gigs writing articles for blogs just like ours. Some are paid, some not. Post your resumé on outsourcing sites for writers, browse around for freelance writing jobs.
And above all, sell yourself!
If you come across a professional contact who wants to write a book, take the conversation further. Would they be interested in commissioning you? Maybe you could do some sample articles to see if you are a good fit.
You have to hustle, even just a little.
Is it for you?
Ghostwriting is a field full of all types of people and endless topics.
Put simply, if you are an active writer who is simply missing an outlet, or looking for some extra cash, ghostwriting could be a perfect option for you.
Remember, not only should you not judge a book by its cover, but you shouldn’t judge an author by the name on the front of the book.
You just never know how many ghosts may be behind your favourite book.
Do you know anyone who might find these ideas useful? Why not forward to them, or share on social media?