The Art and Economics of Ghostwriting

Originally appeared on AOL Daily Finance and AOL homepage Nov 2010.

Among this week's nonfiction bestsellers, you'll see a former U.S. president, a Rolling Stone, an actress with food issues, two political pundits and someone known as "Baba Booey." What you won't see is at least six ghostwriters who make their living actually writing the books "authored" by celebrities and politicos. If you're wondering, George W. Bush's Decision Points was coauthored by his loyal aide and speechwriter Christopher Michel. Life, the Keith Richards memoir, was written by James Fox, a British journalist who devoted five years to the project.

Writing someone else's book is actually a good way for a writer to earn a living these days. You may have heard the saying "everyone has a book in them." I say everyone has a spleen in them, too. In both cases, it takes a particular skill set to get it out.

Obviously, baseline writing talent and solid knowledge of the craft are required for this job, but a good ghostwriter is also a good listener, meticulous researcher and all-purpose book nanny, with the ability to keep the client's secrets, build a bridge between the client and publisher, and completely set ego aside. Ghostwriting is a personality type as much as it is a skill set. Natural nurturers are in like Flynn; control freaks need not apply.

With the rise in self-publishing and the popularity of celebrity books, demand for ghostwriters has increased dramatically. And with the downturn in the publishing industry, many talented, experienced writers are turning to ghostwriting to make ends meet. Truth is, there's risk and reward on both sides of a collaboration. Here's a primer on the ghostwriting gig:

What does a ghostwriter do?

Ewan McGregor summed it up quite succinctly in the movie Ghostwriter: "I interview you and turn your answers into prose." Every gig is different, but they all begin with a long conversation about what the client wants to say.

When I worked with Rue McClanahan on her memoir, My First Five Husbands, she was very hands-on. She presented me with 600 pages of material she'd written, and I helped her figure out what to keep, how to structure it and what was missing. I wrote some additional material, wove that in and we worked through revisions together.

At the other end of the spectrum, I had a client who had a great story but no writing ability or interest. I spent time getting to know her so I could capture her voice on paper, then went home to write. Three months later, I came back and read the entire book to her while she floated on a chaise in her swimming pool. I'm comfortable being co-pilot or chauffeur. Most gigs fall somewhere between.

How do the client and ghostwriter find each other?

My first ghostwriting gig came out of the blue. My memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair, tells the story of how I wrote my first two novels and got them published while going through chemotherapy for lymphoma. A celebrity with a connection to the cancer community read it and asked my agent if I'd help her do a book about her life. I initially said no. I didn't know how to go about it, and candidly, a lot of people in the writing world look down on ghostwriting as a whorish way to use one's talents.

But I had lunch with the client, and we clicked. She had a great story to tell, and I'm a storyteller. I discovered I loved the collaborative process. And as for what others think -- well, that's up to them. Artistic integrity isn't something a project gives you -- you bring artistic integrity to the project.

If you're looking to hire a ghostwriter, survey books similar to the one you want to do. If a co-author isn't credited on the cover, check the acknowledgments to see if anyone is thanked "for helping me bring this story to life," or something like that. If you're looking to be a ghostwriter, do the same. Find the name of the writer's agent with the "Who Represents" feature on www.PublishersMarketplace.com.

How much does a ghostwriter get paid?

This is always the big question, and there's no simple answer. It varies widely and depends on a variety of factors: How much experience does the ghostwriter have? What's the length of the manuscript? Is there a publisher in place or will a proposal be needed? How much research is involved? Will the ghostwriter have cover credit, be listed in the acknowledgments or remain completely invisible?

I'm frequently asked to do proposals "on spec" -- which really means "free" -- with the expectation of getting paid when (or if) the book is picked up by a publisher. The answer is NO. I strongly discourage any aspiring ghostwriter from doing proposals, sample chapters or anything else without being paid.

Every deal is different, but there are basically two models: a flat fee "work for hire" agreement or a contingency arrangement splitting the proceeds from the book.

Early in my career, I did a book for a noncelebrity client with a compelling story. My agent asked $10K for the proposal and a flat fee of $60K for writing the book. The client's husband was a corporate type who played hardball: He offered a modest proposal fee and 40% of the book's proceeds. I was just getting started, so I took the deal.

The exec should have had more faith in his wife. The proposal resulted in a solid six-figure advance, and the movie rights sold for even more, which made my cut about five times the flat fee we'd asked for. (Gotta watch those hardballs. Sometimes they bounce.)

Reaping benefits beyond the paycheck

I'm fairly certain I took home more than my client did on the recent New York Times bestseller Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer by Nancy G. Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Nancy gave the lion's share of her book proceeds (as she's given most of her life) to the foundation that carries the name of her sister Suzy, who died of breast cancer in 1980.

I was blown away by the integrity, humor and style of this fabulous woman. Nancy's personal story is beyond compelling, and woven between the chapters about her life is the strange and fascinating history of breast cancer going all the way back to ancient Egypt.

The paycheck is the least valuable thing I gained from working with Nancy Brinker. I came away from the project educated and inspired with a dear friend for life.

The need to build in "bus stops"

Occasionally, a publisher hires me to do a book, but usually, it's the client who hires and pays the ghostwriter. Ideally, it's a love match, and the collaborators are able to see the journey through to publication together. But it's not unheard of for a client to work with two or three ghostwriters over the course of a project. The collaboration agreement should protect both the ghostwriter and the client by building in bus stops where the two can amicably part company if things aren't working out.

Once (only once!) I accepted a gig where I was the fifth writer on board. Predictably, I was the fifth writer fired, and the client's book was subsequently canceled by the publisher. Fortunately, my agent had structured a deal where I was paid a nonrefundable amount on signing and another payment when I delivered the first three chapters. I was able to keep that money, but not entitled to any further compensation for additional chapters I'd written.

Bottom line: I love my job with all its frustrations and joys. I work incredibly hard and go many extra miles to accommodate my clients, but I also get to hang out with extraordinary people and immerse myself in fascinating research. And I make a better-than-good living. Best of all, I don't have to participate in my least favorite part of the process. When it's time for the book tour, I'm happy to do what ghosts do best: disappear.

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