Used to be the word “ghostwriter” conjured images of a wily hack with a battered Olivetti sitting at a Hollywood swimming pool coaxing confidences from a star.
Lately the word has gotten traction in the music world (evidently lots of rappers use them). Politicians have always used ghosts — a recent Christian Science Monitor story estimated 90% of politicians’ books are “heavily ghostwritten.”
Now businesspeople are convinced they need to be content producers to drive search engine results and keep their names top of mind with customers. This makes my job as a business ghostwriter easier to explain, but there are lots of misconceptions out there about what we do, how we work, and how we’re paid. In case you’re thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, this might help you think things through.
Q: What kind of work can you give to a ghostwriter?
A: There is no professional organization that certifies ghostwriters. Generally speaking we can write anything on your behalf. The devil lies in the details of how well a ghostwriter works with you, whether they know your field well enough to hit the ground running, and whether you can agree on a fee structure.
As a financial ghostwriter I craft presentations and management letters. I write blog posts, newsletters, white papers, articles and (soon) books. Each writer will produce each type of publication with differing levels of proficiency.
Do you want to rough out a topic then turn it over to a ghostwriter? Or does the sight of a blank page drain your mind completely? Working with a ghostwriter is a partnership, so begin your quest by identifying your needs, working preferences and limitations. These will determine the offsetting strengths to look for in your writing partner.
Q: What do I look for in a business ghostwriter?
A: You need to find someone who knows enough about your field that they can focus on production. You might also need to find a writer experienced with Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, etc. That said, if you find a great writer they can learn the styles. A good ghost won’t upcharge you for coming up the learning curve, provided there’s sufficient upside for the writer.
You might also need help devising an editorial calendar or other marketing/public relations capabilities, so be sure to ask your writer if they can provide that expertise. In today’s social media environment a ghostwriter should have a working understanding of how search engine optimization works, but beware the writer who tries to convince you that writing in a stilted style to feed the search bots will serve you well with human readers.
Q: Where do I look for a qualified ghostwriter?
A: Tap your professional circles first. With so many corporate communications departments being downsized, domain experts who write well are a LinkedIn search away. Whether they can effectively ghost for you is another matter. My advice is to start with domain experts and then refine the search by chemistry, mutually-acceptable work styles, pricing, etc.
Q: How much will a ghostwriter charge?
A: Your business ghostwriter will charge in the range of a self-employed accountant in private practice. Specialists in other subject areas will differ, but this will give you an idea of how to budget.
Start by asking yourself the qualifications someone would need to write intelligently about your field. (For example, could a nurse write about biotech?) Put a number on what that person would make working for an employer full time. That’s just a start. You can’t just divide that by 2080 annual working hours; you must add something for administration and overhead costs, and allow that of a 40 hour week, about 25 is actually billable (the other fifteen are spent in client acquisition, proposals, professional development and administrivia). The accountant study shows similar productivity.
Let’s crunch numbers. Say you want an MBA Who Writes Like An English Major with a background in finance. Let’s assume that person would earn $100k in their field. OK, add the employer-paid taxes, employer-subsidized health insurance and two weeks of vacation and the result is about a 20% bump over base salary. We’re at $120k. Divide that by 2080 “standard” work hours a year and you get $58/hour. For reasons explained above, the $58 would translate to more like $94/hour when they actually get on the clock.
Q: Will ghostwriters work at a fixed rate?
A: When you hire a writer with domain expertise, they’ll likely bid your project on a flat fee or bid a price per (accepted) page. This will take some pre-work on your part defining the scope of the project and giving the writer sufficient source material to get to work.
Q: How will a ghostwriter price my project?
A: The more organized and efficient you are, the less you’ll pay the writer. If you have all your research compiled and outline your expectations up front (number of pages/slides/word count) the writer can adequately estimate their work effort.
Your personal organization and efficiency plays a big role in keeping the project on budget, too. An experienced writer will devise a project timeline with deadlines and expectations for YOU. You’ll have to uphold your end to keep the contracted price and schedule. If the contract says you get one editorial pass and one line edit pass, you’ve got to make best use of each. If you get to the line edit round and start moving big chunks around or inserting more copy, chances are your writer will need to charge you for that editorial re-work. A line edit consists of tweaking for clarity and correctness, not re-drafting. I find that clients often want to make changes after copy they’ve approved has been handed over to the graphic designer/desktop publisher; such re-work is not in scope.
There are some professional pay guidelines out there for different types of writing/editing on a project and page basis.
Q: Do I have to work with a ghostwriter face-to-face?
A: Each project drives the tactical means for getting it done. If I’m writing a white paper, the client provides me with the source material, we discuss relative weighting of the topics and the general outline and I take it from there, circling back for commentary, elucidation, additional source material, etc. Many of my blog and newsletter clients will forward news updates from their professional organizations for me to base a commentary upon. While I’m pretty flexible, I can’t speak for other writers.
I have to learn the client’s “voice” to emulate it. A client should never sound like a stranger in real life to someone who’s been reading their work. I prefer that my clients use digital recorder as much as possible; the digital file is easily attached to email. Not only do I learn how they speak, I also glean from their inflection what matters to them most and any key words or phrases that they favor.
Most people say more when speaking than when writing. Clients may think they have two articles for their newsletter but they start talking, I might “hear” three articles for the current edition and another for a blog post or future newsletter. Occasionally a client will be in the middle of answering a question when something pops up that we can use later.
Q: How to proceed?
A: I suggest you audition one or two potential writing partners. Already writing a newsletter? Give the writer an earlier version and ask what they’d do differently. Never written one before? Give the writer three news topics and see what they want from you before they begin writing and how they would propose to learn your voice. I will sometimes offer to do an audition piece without charge and then if the client hires me I’ll bill them for the work.
More questions? Give me a call and we’ll discuss your particular project: 704-907-2811