How Does Ghostwriting Work?

In November 2021 Will Smith published his much anticipated memoir Will, which Oprah said was “The best memoir I’ve ever read.” Wow, what a great writer Will Smith is! Sort of. Smith hired Mark Manson (author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck) to help him write the book. Still, the partnership of Smith and Manson is a superb example of a ghostwriterly match made in ghost heaven. Smith’s story was shared in a cohesive, honest and compelling book: Smith’s words and stories; Manson’s structuring, writing and finessing. 

Take almost any celebrity, politician or business guru out there and chances are they hired a ghostwriter to tell their tale. Tennis star Andre Agassi famously paid a pretty penny to J.R. Moehringer (Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of the acclaimed The Tender Bar) to write his best selling autobiography Open

For both Smith and Agassi, being up front about the ghostwritten nature of their books was a must, though the ghostwriters’ names do not appear on the cover. In fact, Moehringer insisted his name not appear on the front or back of the book. In a 2009 NY Times interview, Moehringer said: “The midwife doesn’t go home with the baby…It’s Andre’s memoir, not our memoir, not a memoir ‘as told to.’ It’s his accomplishment, and he made the final choices.” 

Being forthcoming about one’s ghostwriter is a very personal choice and one that should be made clear from the beginning. The important thing is to pair with a ghost who will hear your unique voice, who will champion your project, and who will help structure and write the book you want. There are plenty of ghostwriters out there and not all of them are going to connect with your project or personality. The trick is to find that special ghost who will. 

Before looking for a ghost, it’s important to understand a little more about the process of how ghostwriting works. Or for writers interested in ghostwriting, this post is part one of our “how to break into ghostwriting” series. 

So How Does Ghostwriting Work

Different ghostwriters have different writing capacities with their clients. It’s important to establish these roles up front so that both client and ghostwriter are clear on what is expected. I’ll share an example of a fairly typical book project. 

Before deciding to work together, I always schedule an initial interview with a client (preferably via video) to hear a little of their story, understand what their book will be about, and to hear how far along they are in their development. This interview is always free (see below for more on pricing). So, let’s say me and my client have decided to work together. Great! 

First, I have the client send over an outline of their book with a simple synopsis–a “what this book is about” in a sentence or three. If they do not yet have an outline, we’ll work on that together first. 

Next I’ll ask to see any other work or projects the client has written (whether by their own pen or a ghost’s), so I can better understand their voice and potentially pull from some of that material as I go. 

Then, we’ll schedule weekly or biweekly meetings where I interview the client about each point on their outline. The material grows and grows, I’ll send clarifying questions between interviews, and I’ll start writing the book, restructuring the outline as I go. 

Structure is a huge role of the ghostwriter. Two notes on structure:

One: A client may have all of their ideas and anecdotes ready to share, but are quite unclear on how everything will fit together. Ghost to the rescue!

Two: Oftentimes, I’m not certain of a book’s final structure until fairly deep into the creative process. Writing takes time! After I’ve had a few weeks to work through a portion of the book, I’ll send the first chapter or two to the client to make sure I’m on the right track, that the material is aligning with their vision, and that the voice is theirs. Once I get the green light, I forge ahead, consistently checking in along the way.

What Should I Ask of a Potential Ghostwriter? 

There’s plenty more I could share here but I’ll save that for part two of this piece. Some of the most important things to ask for are: 

  • Writing samples and testimonials. Do you like their style? Does this writer have other published works and good client relationships? 
  • A getting-to-know you chat. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together. For both sides of the table: don’t you want that time be enjoyable? If every time you hear your ghost (or client) speak you can’t wait until they shut up, probably not a great fit. 
  • What are their areas of expertise, if they have any? This may be important for some projects and less so for others. For example, memoir doesn’t require a subject matter expert, but most medical books might need someone with a medical background in some capacity. My undergrad is in nutrition, so my initial area of writing expertise was nutrition and general wellness. With experience, my expertise list grew. After years of working in mental health, then working with several clinicians on their books and online courses, I now include “mental health” on my list. For the right ghost, the subject matter is less important than their ability as an interviewer and writer.
  • Don’t be afraid to do a (paid) trial piece. This can be a great way to see if you’re a good fit for each other. For some clients, I’ll write an essay or article first. If they like the style and we both dig our relationship, we’ll move into the larger pieces. If it’s not a great fit–good thing we both realized that early on! 
  • What their calendar is like? It’s a good idea to make sure you’re both on the same page regarding timelines. Speaking of which…

Timelines 

How long does it take to write a typical book? Again, this largely depends on the nature of the project, as well as the clients’ availability to put in their side of the work. Some people think that they can just pass some notes over and the writer can take it from there–and in some cases, that can be true (say, with fiction pieces or when the client already has ample notes). But in the case of most nonfiction, industry-specific works, it’s particularly imperative for the client to impart all of their expertise and stories to their ghost so the work is informed and complete. 

Or say the project is a memoir–the ghost will need to spend plenty of time gathering those juicy family stories and asking verbal (and sometimes written) clarifying questions throughout the process. 

SO. How long might this take? 

  • A smaller, rapid-fire project could get knocked out in 3 to 4 months. 
  • If we’re talking full-length book, 9-12 months is a more realistic goal.
  • Sometimes pushing 18 months depending on the client’s availability and involvement, and of course, the nature of the material itself.

How Much Do Ghostwriters Charge? 

Ghostwriting fees vary greatly depending on the nature of the project, the expertise of the ghost, the involvement of the client, and of course, the length of the book. J.R. Moehringer is reportedly getting paid seven figures to write Prince Harry’s controversial memoir, but again, Moehringer is a Pulitzer-winning journalist and writer of other #1 best sellers (and…it’s Prince Harry). It’s difficult to give an estimate since projects vary so greatly, but general ranges are as follows: 

  • Full-length manuscript (80-100k words): $10,000 – $40,000  
  • Short pieces (1-5k words): $250-$1500 
  • Articles, blog posts, etc (500-1k words): anywhere from $100-800

Why such ranges? There are a lot of variables to take into account. Let’s assume here the ghost is an experienced, talented writer and we’ll make the client the variable. Some clients start with an idea, or perhaps a simple outline. These clients need a lot of help exploring how to expand on their ideas and in structuring their book; these clients might need their ghost to do quite a bit of research and conduct many more interviews with them than say, someone who shows up with a mostly-written draft that needs a heavy rewrite.

The moral here is: the client and the ghost should communicate clearly on this piece before getting started so everyone is clear on the process and how much of the ghost’s time this the project will require. If a project will take up the better part of a year, you have to take this into account. Ghosts gotta eat. 

Take a Meeting 

An initial meeting with a potential ghostwriter should be free of charge. They will typically ask about all of the aforementioned items, but good ones will also want to get to know your vibe. Do you enjoy talking to each other? You don’t have to be buddies, but think of the ghost-client relationship like a relationship with a therapist: it’s gotta be the right fit to do good work. The right ghost will feel comfortable asking questions that get their clients to open up and share their story. If you take a meeting and it doesn’t click right away–either try out a sample project with them first or look for someone else. 

Ghosts: be prepared to spend a lot of time thinking about your client’s book. And if it’s a topic you like, say dogs (or Prince Harry), that’s not a bad thing at all. 

Do you have specific questions or want tailored advice? Leave a comment or shoot me an email. Keep the writing love strong by sharing this post.

Michelle Kicherer is the founder of Ghost Writer’s Block. She is a ghost herself, writes her own fiction and nonfiction, and teaches online classes through Litquake and others. 

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