Chip MacGregor

February 1, 2012

Ghostwriting: Not as Spooky as it Seems (A Guest Blog)


     There’s no middle ground. If you are a person’s ghostwriter, that person will either hate you or love you. It’s all about ego.

     If the person whose name is going to appear on the cover actually wants people to think that he or she wrote the book, that person will want you to write a brilliant manuscript and then drop off the face of the earth so that he or she can go on radio and TV talk shows and take kudos for writing such a brilliant artistic masterpiece. (I actually had a client break into tears recalling how “emotionally gut-wrenching it was to write chapter nine.”  Oh…pul-leeese!)

     So, let’s put our cards on the table. Most ghostwriters, including me, do this for the money. Thus, rule one is to charge plenty.  I mean it.

     Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, ghosting causes a split personality: the publisher is expecting the ghost to deliver one kind of book, but very often the client wants a totally different kind of book. (When it doubt, favor the one paying you.) Second, ghosting is hard work, but usually you get no credit for your labors. (One woman, whose entire book was written by me, thanked me on the acknowledgements page for “proofreading assistance and help with typing.”) Third, no matter how the book fares, you, the ghost, will come off the loser. If the book hits #1 and sells five million copies, you won’t get a dime more than the work-made-for-hire flat rate you were originally paid. If the book tanks, everyone will blame you, personally, for producing an inferior manuscript.


     By now you may be wondering why a guy like me, who has written 34 books under his own name, would also have ghostwritten 18 books for other people. One reason is because writing is what I do, and a bad day writing is better than a good day mopping floors at a fast food restaurant.

     Another reason is that sometimes the clients are really very nice people. For example, when I ghosted a book for Dr. Chris Thurman, a prominent psychologist in Texas, he turned over all of his notes, rough drafts, and research to me, and he also allowed me to follow him for five days, constantly taping interviews with him.  The book I wrote, The Truths We Must Believe (Thomas Nelson, 1991) sold very well. It didn’t carry my name anywhere, but in the book’s preface, Dr. Thurman wrote, “I gave Dennis E. Hensley a lump of coal and he gave me back a diamond.”  That was gracious.


     Most ghosting is by flat fee.  A publisher will contact you and say that famous model Suzie Sweetsmile needs a book with her name on it. The advance will be $20,000 and it will all go to you (usually half in advance and half upon completion of the manuscript). If the book ever sells enough copies to work off that advance, all future earnings will go to Suzie.  Some small publishers will only pay $6,000 for a ghosted project, whereas Charles Leerhsen was paid an estimated $150,000 to ghostwrite Donald Trump’s book Trump: Surviving at the Top. But then, Mr. Leerhsen was a staff writer for Newsweek and (to quote Chevy Chase) “you’re not.”

     Here’s my suggestion: listen first to what the editor offers, and, if you like the terms, accept the deal.  If not, explain why you need more money, such as you’ve had better offers from other publishers or you could earn more money writing books under your own name.  Make a counter offer. If the editor agrees, close the deal. If she says it’s too much, then thank her for calling you and go back to whatever you were writing that was paying you better.


     Before you sign a ghosting contract, get three questions answered.

     #1 What is the deadline? If the book isn’t needed for a year, you can work at a leisurely pace and do other assignments along the way. Thus, a 50% advance up front and 50% upon completion isn’t a bad deal. However, if the book is needed in three months, it will consume all your time, so it’s reasonable to ask for 75% of the advance up front so that you’ll have money to live on.

     #2 Will there be an expense account? This is crucial. If your source person is in California and you live in Kentucky, who is going to pay for the air fare for the interview trip? What about motel bills, rental cars, meals, photocopying expenses, mailing costs, and typist fees? You need to nail down how much will be coming out of your pocket so that your entire payment won’t be eaten up in research and operating expenses.

     #3 What sort of recognition will the ghost receive? Get it in writing. Will you get no recognition?  Will you get an “as told to” identification on the cover? Will you be listed as the book’s coauthor? Will you be lauded on the acknowledgments page? Agree on this ahead of time.


     There are several ways you can become a working ghostwriter. If you know someone who is famous or is an expert in some area, try to convince that person to allow you to write his or her story and, thus, hitch your wagon to a star. Another option is to write directly for a client. Not all ghostwritten books need to be written for a publisher. There are individuals who are prosperous enough to hire you directly to write their autobiographies or their specialty books.  I placed an ad in a business magazine offering my services as a ghostwriter and wound up with three deals.

     Try to get someone to recommend you. Networking is important. Have other writers refer you to their agents or publishers.  Go to writers’ conferences and give your business card, resume, and samples of your published works to editors and inform them that you do ghosting.

     Become a topic expert. If you can become a writer who is an expert in a particular field (law, medicine, religion, the military), you can send your credentials to publishers who specialize in publishing books in those fields and line up ghosting assignments. In the late 1980s I started writing a lot of magazine articles about aspects of the insurance industry. I wound up ghosting books for leading agents, and later even wrote four insurance-related books under my own name.

     Obviously, ghosting is a avenue of revenue for writers. After one experience with it, you’ll know if you have a ghost of a chance of surviving another go-round.


Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. is director of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University and the author of more than 50 books, including How to Write What You Love and Make a Living at It (Random House).


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