How to Find the Right Ghostwriter in 10 Steps
Last updated: 11/28/2017
Hiring a ghostwriter is one of those things that is shrouded in mystery for people who aren't familiar with the process. With simple and actionable tips, acclaimed ghostwriter Toni Robino breaks down how you can find the best ghost for your project.
Choosing the right ghostwriter for your project doesn’t have to be daunting. It can actually be an enjoyable process. If you meet one you really like, though, that doesn’t mean he or she is the best fit for you or your project. On the flip side, if you meet ghostwriters you don’t like, cross them off your list. Working on a book with someone is about sharing thoughts and opinions, solving problems and mind-melding. It can all add up to a somewhat intimate experience. At the very least, you need to share a mutual respect with your chosen ghost, but that’s just one factor to consider.
Without further ado, here are your ten steps for finding the right ghostwriter:
Step 1. Know what you can expect from a ghostwriter
In general, for a nonfiction project, a ghostwriter will rely on the author to provide all the stories, case studies, research and other materials that will be used in the project. The ghost may also conduct interviews with the author and other experts to gather information and stories, and sometimes he or she also conducts research. But in most cases, you’re hiring a ghostwriter for their writing skills so it may make sense to hire a separate researcher for your project.
For fiction, the role of the ghostwriter is not so well-defined. Some novelists give their ghosts a premise, the main characters and an idea or two for how the book might end and let the ghostwriter take it from there. Other authors discuss each chapter with the ghost before it’s written.
With both nonfiction and fiction, experienced ghosts can also help you to flesh out your primary point or storyline, organize your material in a way that makes sense to readers and guide you in making decisions that are in your book’s best interest. It’s very important that you hire a ghostwriter you can trust not just because of your confidential material and relationship but also because you’re counting on their insider knowledge and need their advice. If your ghost has written more than a handful of published books, you’ll want to seriously consider the feedback or suggestions they have for creating a more compelling and more marketable book. And if the ghost has written more than a dozen published books, consider them an expert — their input can make the difference between getting a contract and not getting one.
Step 2. Be clear about what you want
It’s not uncommon for new authors to say they want an editor when what they really want is a ghostwriter. If you want someone to do most or all of the writing, you want a ghostwriter. If you’ll be doing most or all of the writing, you want an editor or a book doctor.
Be sure to tell the ghost how hands-on or hands-off you want to be with the project. Are you giving the ghost creative license or asking them to stick close to your detailed plan?
It’s important to establish clear boundaries. Are you open to feedback and ideas from your ghost? On the flip side, is the ghost willing to contribute some of their own ideas, or will they rely exclusively on the content you provide?
Also, give some thought to whether you want the ghost to be available to meet with you in person or whether virtual meetings will work for you. Most ghosts work with clients long distance, and this is very effective. However, in some cases the author wants the ghost to be nearby or available to travel to meetings, events or long interviews. Meeting a potential ghostwriter in person is great when it’s possible, but you can also get a pretty good sense of someone in a Skype or Facetime meeting.
Step 3. Define your project goals
Being clear about what you want your project to do for the reader or consumer and what you want it to do for you are important pieces of information to clarify. If your project is a book, you should have some sense of whether you want to find agency representation and shoot for a traditional book contract, whether you plan to self-publish or something in between.
Do you want your book to teach readers something valuable or life-changing? Do you want to entertain them? Do you want to awaken them to a different perspective or shock them with an alternate reality? Are you hoping they’ll be changed in some way or make different choices as a result of your book?
Also, consider what you want the book to do for you. Are you looking to expand your outreach, increase your credibility or brand yourself or your business? Do you want the book to open doors for speaking engagements? Is your ultimate goal to make the fiction list for the Sunday Times? Give some real thought to how you want this book to benefit you — that will be an important factor in determining the book’s value.
Step 4. Streamline your search
Ghostwriters aren’t the easiest professionals to find. We tend to keep low profiles and are limited in terms of sharing work that we’ve done. For that reason, matchmaking companies like Reedsy are very good places to begin your search. Review the ghostwriting marketplace and list three to five top choices. Then read the profiles and look at the projects listed and pick the two or three that seem like the best fit for you.
When you reach out to your top two choices, provide a succinct description of what you want and need for your project, and allow for some back and forth so the writer has a clear grasp of the project before quoting a fee.
You can also look at the Acknowledgments page of a handful of your favorite contemporary books and see if the author thanks a particular writer or wordsmith. Some authors refer to their ghosts as “editors,” although we’re not.
Step 5. Assess the ghostwriter's skill level
The best ghostwriters have strong writing and storytelling skills, keen problem-solving skills and the ability to process and organize large amounts of information. And the cream of the crop can capture the author’s true voice. Whether your project requires the cream of the crop or just a strong writer depends on your goals and what you need your ghostwriter to do for you.
One of the quandaries of assessing skill levels is that in most cases, the ghost’s knowledge of writing and writing skills exceeds the author’s. That doesn’t mean that you can’t tell great writing from writing that stinks, but you may not be tuned in to some of the finer nuances that make a big difference. If you have a trusted editor or literary agent, ask him or her to weigh in. You can also make an assessment based on what you like and what sounds good (reads well) to your ear.
For the record, it’s not true that ghosts write for others because they’re not good enough to get their own books published. Ghostwriters with traditional publishing track records are among the best writers in the world. There are, however, lots of new ghosts who won’t make it, and that leads to our next tip.
Step 6. Look into their past
I’m not talking about stalking them on Facebook, though you may find some interesting info there. I’m talking about ghosts’ track records, what they’ve written and how long they’ve worked as professional writers. The second question will be easy enough for them to answer, but the first is trickier. Ghostwriters negotiate with authors about whether we’re permitted to tell potential clients about the scope of the work we’ve done with them. So, chances are that the ghostwriter you’re considering to hire has work they can show you or tell you about as well as work that they can’t mention.
There are still ways that you can get a sense of the work that ghosts have done by checking out their websites. For example, our website lists books we’ve worked on but doesn’t state the role we played in each book. We wrote some, edited and doctored others and co-authored a few. Unless the ghost’s professional experience has been only as a deep ghost, they should have some published acknowledgments they can share with you.
Keep in mind that you don’t need a ghostwriter with ten years of experience if your project is to write website copy, curriculum or a brochure. You might be fine with someone who’s right out of college. The amount of experience they have should line up with the type of project you’re doing and how valuable it is to you. If you want a ghost to write a book to establish your expertise, expand your outreach and grow your business, you should be looking for someone who has written at least two books that have been traditionally published. I’m not saying that ghostwriters who have done only self-published books aren’t qualified — some of them are — but traditional publishing houses have standards that are typically much higher than those of self-publishing authors and companies that offer those services.
Finally, to find the cream of the crop, read the book reviews and rankings of books they’ve worked on and find out if they have books that received awards. If a writer tells you they’ve written “bestsellers,” find out what list the books were on. The term bestseller has practically lost meaning because so many authors make this claim. If your book is the bestselling book on your street, you can call it a bestseller. Now, if the ghostwriter has titles on a list as credible as the New York Times bestseller list, that carries some weight.
Step 7. Find out if the ghostwriter can capture your voice and style
Impersonators use their voices and facial expressions to mimic others. Ghosts use carefully chosen words, rhythm, and pacing. An experienced ghostwriter, one who’s written more than a handful of books or scripts, can typically match a variety of writing styles and voices. That’s why seeing what the ghost has already written may not be the best test of whether they can write in the voice and style you want for your project.
It’s a good idea to hire the ghostwriter to write a few pages or even a chapter to find out what they can do for you. Don’t expect them to nail the voice and style immediately. It usually takes a little back and forth. This is also an opportunity to find out how well you and the writer communicate and work together.
If you don’t have an established style or voice in fiction, or can’t seem to write like you talk for nonfiction, an experienced writer can help you to find or capture your voice. For nonfiction, you definitely don’t want the voice in your book to sound like it belongs to someone else. That triggers a disconnection for readers who have met you or heard you speak and know what you actually sound like. It’s also jarring for people who meet you first in your book and hear you speak later.
Step 8. Ask them about their process
Most ghostwriting involves communication and cooperation between the author and the writer, but the amount of both depends on the author’s needs and the ghost’s process. Some ghosts will spend a great deal of time with the author at the outset of a project, gathering information, asking questions, reading and processing research or conducting interviews, and then disappear for months as they draft the chapters, showing the author the chapters in batches or possibly the entire finished book. Other ghostwriters work with authors on a chapter-by-chapter basis, gathering information and delivering drafts as they proceed. And there are all sorts of variations that fall between these two examples.
What’s important is that you understand the process the ghostwriter uses and that it’s compatible with your work style. If you’re accustomed to micromanaging, the first example will make you crazy. If you’re extremely busy and want the ghost to work as independently as possible, you may prefer that they send you a few chapters at a time.
Determine what role you’ll play when you receive the written drafts. Will you make your suggestions within the text by using a tracking tool, or will you write your suggestions as comments and allow the writer to implement them? How many rounds of revisions, if any, are included in the ghost’s process? For most books, we recommend a version of the following process:
- Writer produces first draft
- Author makes comments in the margins using a tracking tool
- Writer and author discuss author’s comments
- Writer creates second draft
- Author comments on any corrections of details or factual errors
- Writer produces third draft
Once the writer has produced the third draft of the entire manuscript, the next step is editing, followed by proofreading — both of which should be done by someone other than the writer.
Step 9. Remember that availability isn’t everything
Many authors miss out on working with better writers because they’re in a rush and want a writer who’s available immediately. Sorry, but that’s a little like choosing the restaurant that has the fewest diners. If they’re not busy, there’s a reason. The chances that a skilled ghostwriter will be available immediately? Slim to none. Talented writers are busy and book their projects in advance. The longer the project, the longer the advance time typically is. To secure a particular ghost for a full-length book, you may need to wait as long as six months to a year for them to begin. Writers who specialize in short projects have much more availability to begin a project quickly.
Give this aspect of the selection process some serious thought. If you’ve been talking about writing a book for years and you suddenly decide you have to complete it this year, that’s not a great reason to take shortcuts by using the ghostwriter who’s available to start next week. A book is a long-term project with a timeless life and should be treated accordingly.
Step 10. Don’t cheat yourself
I have a colleague who has ghostwritten more than a dozen business books that have all sold very well. He recently shared a story of a successful business owner who wanted to hire a ghostwriter to write a thought leadership book. He wanted to share what he’d learned about financial success and create a platform for giving keynote speeches and growing his company. But despite the great value of the book and the track record of the writer, the business owner couldn’t bring himself to invest the six figures that the project was worth. He had no problem spending the money on a new Lexus and Hummer every year, but he thought a writer should be “cheaper.”
If your project is meaningful to you personally, professionally or both, please don’t cheat yourself by choosing a writer based solely on fees. Of course, fees have to be included in your decision-making, but the expression that you get what you pay for holds true with ghostwriters. Your book represents you. In a very real sense, it’s your calling card to the world. Why would you cut corners on something so important? Readers are tough critics, and they don’t cut authors much slack. If they’re spending money to buy the book and investing time to read it, they expect you to deliver your very best. And while books are no longer chipped into stone, they do last forever, working either for or against you.
That said, you also don’t want to pay for more than what you actually need. Try to be objective and creative when it comes to handling fees. For example, some ghosts will give authors a reduced rate in exchange for a higher percentage of the author’s royalties. Other ghostwriters will reduce their fees in exchange for a “with” credit on the cover or on the title page. This elevates the writer from “ghost” to “co-author” and can be worth thousands of dollars to some ghosts. In this scenario, the author retains the copyright unless otherwise stated in the contract.
In most cases, professional writers will not be willing to write for free or for a dramatically reduced rate in exchange for sharing any profits that the book might make. We do this for a living, and most of us need guaranteed income, not speculative income. But if a writer loves a book concept and believes it has an excellent chance of selling, they might be willing to do the work for a fraction of their regular fee. But remember that this is a rare exception.
Another way to make the writing fees more affordable is to stretch them out. Many writers will accept monthly payments for big projects, though some require half the total payment upfront and the balance when the manuscript is accepted. So don’t be afraid to explore what a particular writer might be willing to do to make it possible for you to work with them. Writers want to earn what they’re worth, but the total value isn’t always about the money, alone.
Infographic: How to Choose the Right Ghostwriter
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Toni Robino is one of North America’s most sought-after “ghosts” and collaborators for leading publishers, with titles on the New York Times best-seller list. In addition to writing, she teaches BookWalk: Journey from Dream to Publication, a virtual writing program where new authors learn how to write their best books — step-by-step.
Did Toni's tips address some of the doubts you may have had about hiring a ghostwriter? Or would you add any tips to the list? Leave your thoughts and questions below.