Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ghostwriting: A Disappearing Act

Recently, I had a wonderful opportunity to work as a ghostwriter for a group interested in reaching an international audience. What an enriching experience! Since I hadn't done it before I tried looking online for information and there was surprisingly little. But having successfully completed the first project I feel like I can now contribute some of what's missing. And while I can't share any more details about the specifics of my experience, I can definitely express some of the nuances and challenges of ghostwriting.

Essentially, a ghostwriter is someone who writes a work on behalf of someone else and generally takes no credit for it. Hence, the term 'ghost.' To the readers you're an invisible participant. As compensation you are paid a monetary amount that is previously agreed upon, and sometimes royalties, but the latter is rare.

The most challenging thing about ghostwriting is to remember that you're not the author. You may be the writer, but the voice, the plot, the style, should be somebody else's: the person who's paying you. For that reason it is common practice for the ghostwriter and the author to sit down and have several interviews (depending on the length of the story), in which the ghostwriter asks as many questions as possible that will help him or her write in the mindset of the author. The author lacks the literary talent and discipline, but he or she carries the voice, attitude, idea, and plot of the story. Of course, each project is different, and depending on who you're working for you may have more or less say when it comes to the end product. But the key is to make the author, the person hiring you, happy. Often, ghostwriters keep audio recordings of their interviews with the author to go back to and review exactly what it is the author is looking for.

If you're a beginning ghostwriter like me, you're probably wondering, How much should I charge? The answer is not as simple as you'd probably like. Ultimately, you have to be content with what you and the author agree on. If you're not happy, then your heart won't be committed to the work, and that's not fair for either you or the person hiring you. Nonetheless, beginning ghostwriters need to know to start small. The cost is going to depend on the length of the written work. For example, short-stories for beginning ghostwriters can go for about 4 to 5 cents per word. You may want to include a rewriting fee if the author wants you to go back and change things. But this has to be done with integrity. If the author wants you to change something both of you previously agreed on, it may cost him, but if it's something that you did wrong, your mistake shouldn't cost your author. There are other things which incur a cost, such as travel time and interview time that might be included in the process of writing the work. You may want to offer the first page as a free sample so the author can determine whether or not he or she wants to hire you. Novels written by amateur ghostwriters can go anywhere between eight to ten thousand dollars. Professionals can make thirty thousand plus. You can also negotiate down the fee for a part of the royalties. Consider all of the work and time that you're going to put into this project (brainstorming, writing, editing, etc.), and determine a cost that will be worthwhile for yourself and the author.

One of the most important things about ghostwriting is to have a good contract. The contract stipulates a bunch of things such as the ghostwriter's surrendering of his rights to the work, the estimated cost of the project (itemized), who you can and cannot talk to about the work, when to surrender any notes accumulated with regard to the work, the estimated word length, the working title, the estimated completion dates, the dates of the interviews with the author, and any other agreements you make with the author. Some ghostwriters include a clause that reminds the author that you cannot guarantee publishing. This is true no matter what. In fact, be wary of ghostwriters that claim they can. In today's cut-throat literary market, even wonderful writers have a very difficult time getting picked up. Other things that can be found in the contract is when you will receive payment. Often, payment is divided into three installments that you receive at the beginning, middle, and completion of the protect. Remember, the contract should be carefully thought out and written. If you'd like a sample contract feel free to e-mail me. You can also find more information here: http://www.authorsguild.org

Finally, like in any good relationship, communication is the key to a happy bond between the ghostwriter and the author. Whatever concerns or comments you may have or want to make must be shared and discussed. You must also allow the author to feel comfortable to do the same. This way there are no surprises. This may take a while and a lot of back forth, but if you're both serious about the work then it will pay off.

At this point you're probably wondering how to get a job as a ghostwriter. You may want to start getting familiar with your local writers' associations. You may find opportunities through them. Participate in developing your craft by entering contests so that your name gets out there. Look for freelance jobs writing for magazines or as a technical writer. There are many ways to get started, but it is not easy. Connecting with someone that is looking for a ghostwriter and has the capital to enter into a contract with one is hard to do, and much of it is out of your hands. Focus on continuing to hone your craft and pursuing your dream of becoming an author. If the opportunity comes up, you'll be ready.