How to Find a Ghostwriter You'll Love (in 10 Simple Steps)
Last updated: 3/29/2018
Learning how to hire a ghostwriter for your project can be daunting for some. Working on a book with another person is about sharing thoughts and opinions, solving problems and mind-melding. It can all add up to a somewhat intimate experience — and finding someone you can trust with that connection (who also has the experience to pull off your book) isn't easy.
If you approach the ghost-hunting process in the right way, you'll eventually land yourself with an amazing collaborator. And with this post, acclaimed ghost Toni Robino will show you how to do it right.
Step 1. Know what to expect
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.
Top Tip: In most cases, you’re hiring someone for their writing skills. It may make sense to hire a separate researcher for your project.
For fiction, the role of the ghost is less 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 writer take it from there. Other authors will break down each chapter with the ghost before the first draft.
What else does a ghostwriter bring to the table?
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
Be sure to tell the ghostwriter how hands-on or hands-off you want to be with the project. Are you giving them 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.
Top Tip: Meet a potential ghost in person where possible possible. However, you can still get a pretty good sense of someone in a Skype or Facetime meeting.
Step 3. Define your project goals
Before you put any of your hard-earned resources into this project, you should already be clear on what you want it to achieve.
What will your project do for readers or consumers?
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?
What will your project 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.
Top Tip: If your project is a book, have a sense of whether you want agency representation and shoot for a traditional book contract, whether you plan to self-publish.
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 (who deal with book ghosts) are excellent 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. Read their profiles, look at their listed projects, pick the two or three that seem like the best fit for 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.
Top Tip: You can also look at the Acknowledgments page 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 their skill level
The best professionals in this field 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 best in the business or just a strong writer will depend on your goals.
One of the quandaries of assessing skill levels is that in most cases, their 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. You can also make an assessment based on what you like and what sounds good (reads well) to your ear.
Top Tip: If you have a trusted editor or literary agent, ask him or her to weigh in on any potential ghost.
Ghostwriters with traditional publishing track records are among some of the most sought-after 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 at their previous works
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 is easy enough, but the first is trickier. Ghosts will negotiate with authors over 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.
Top tip: The amount of experience your ghost has should line up with your project, and how valuable it is to you. If you need someone to write website copy or a brochure, you might not need someone with ten years of experience.
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 ghosts who have only done 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. Determine whether they 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.
Top tip: Pay for a writing sample before you commit to the full project. Don’t expect them to nail the voice and style immediately — 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 non-fiction, an experienced writer can help you to find or capture your voice. For non-fiction, 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. Discuss 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. Others 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 ensure 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?
What is the standard process like?
For most books, we recommend a version of the following process:
- Writer produces the first draft
- Author makes comments in the margins using a tracking tool
- Writer and author discuss author’s comments
- Writer creates the second draft
- Author comments on any corrections of details or factual errors
- Writer produces the 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. Writers who specialize in short projects have much more availability to begin a project quickly.
Top tip: 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.
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 picking someone simply because they're ready 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 learn how to hire a ghostwriter for 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 ghosts. 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.
Will ghostwriters work for a reduced rate in exchange for royalties?
Some ghosts will give authors a reduced rate in exchange for a higher percentage of the author’s royalties. Others 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.
Bear in mind that this usually happens when there's a good chance that the book is going to be a bestseller. 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.
Top tip: Make the writing fees more affordable by stretching them out. Many writers accept monthly payments for big projects. Bear in mind that a lot of ghosts work on a 'half up-front, half on delivery' basis.
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.
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.
If you have any other questions or thoughts, just drop us a message in the comments below.