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The Secret Lives of Ghostwriters

15:00 EST - Mar 09, 2022

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Sandra Cain and Toni Robino Avatar

Sandra Cain and Toni Robino

Having worked as a creative writing professor for 15 years, Sandra Cain is now a best-selling ghostwriter. Her specialisms are memoir as well as transformative and inspirational non/fiction. Toni Robino loves writing novels that plant inspirational seeds and nonfiction that can make a positive difference. A leading collaborator and concept developer, she has ghostwritten New York Times bestsellers.

Jodi: All right. Hello, everyone! I’m Jodi Fodor, and I can say we’re so, so glad you're here. First, let me introduce, from the Colorado mountains: Toni Robino. (And, when I say she’s from Colorado, I'm talking about bears walking up to her driveway!) Toni Robino is a leading collaborator and concept developer for non-fiction books and novels, her credits include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestsellers. Across all of that, Toni has always been inspired to work on books that have the power to create positive change.

She and her partner, Doug Wagner also offer a customized writing course that walks first-time authors through the process of creating marketable books from concept through publication. So, Toni, welcome! 

Toni: Thank you! I'm delighted to be here.

Jodi: So, how's Colorado? 

Toni: Colorado is cold. It's snowing right now and I keep opening and closing my curtains— I'll be appearing and disappearing, just as a real ghost would do! 

Jodi: Okay, well, just please promise that if a bear does walk up your driveway, you’ll turn the camera around. 

With that said, also joining us is Sandra Cain, who will bring on a lovely English accent to balance the American and English sounds. Sandra is a former academic who designed and taught several post-graduate degrees in creative writing at universities in the UK. She is now a best-selling ghostwriter, specializing in memoir and nonfiction titles, including business. Her passion is to seek out remarkable stories that inspire and transform individuals and communities.

Welcome Sandra Cain, nice to see you. And now Sandra, you have a UK life and a California life. Isn't that right? 

Sandra: Hey! I spend six months of the year in Hampshire in the UK, and then I spend six months of the year here in Los Angeles. So, what a wonderful life! 

Jodi: That sounds like my fantasy life. I guess now there’s nothing left but to jump right in, because this crowd wants to hear what on earth ghostwriting is all about. I think we'll start with a very simple question:

What does a ghostwriter do? 

Who would like to begin fielding that one? 

Sandra: Okay. Well, to start, ghostwriters spend a lot of time in the background writing books for other people. We have to listen to what the client (or what we like to call ‘the author’) needs or wants for their book, whether that's nonfiction or fiction. Then we have to write the book in the style and the voice of the author while, at the same time, staying in the background. We don't have our names written on the front of the books. We often have an acknowledgment on the inside flap of the books, but otherwise, we stay in the background and we're very happy to do that.

Jodi: What do you think Toni? Anything to add to that? 

Toni: Yeah, I love what Sandra said — absolutely. Capturing the voice and the style is so important, especially in nonfiction. And people often don't realize that the vast majority of nonfiction books that are published by traditional publishers have been written with a professional collaborator. So, if you're reading a book and thinking, “oh my gosh, how did this celebrity write such a great book?” they probably didn’t write it alone. They team up with experts like us who can really help their message and their story to sing.

Of course, in return, we get great gratitude and appreciation, and it's just a super inspiring way to work, to help other people get their messages out to the world. It makes my day every day.

Jodi: You said you sometimes get an acknowledgment in the book flap; are there varying levels of credit that you get? Are some people just happy to gush to the world that you pretty much wrote this thing, while others keep it really secret?

Sandra: That’s very interesting. Some authors like to keep it completely secret. In fact, I had one that didn't even tell his own wife that his book was ghostwritten, which was a little disingenuous, really. But many, and I insist on this as part of my contract, many actually give a very nice sort of ‘testimonial’ or a reference on the front cover to say thank you. They'll often call you an editor rather than a ghost, and it's very rare that they cough up and say that this is a ghostwritten book. However, as a ghost, you can sometimes arrange to have your name on the front cover.

It might sound something like “Joe Blogs with Sandra Cain” or “Joe Blogs and Sandra Cain”. But that’s always something you have to work out for yourself with your client. 

Jodi: So when there's an ‘and’ or a ‘with’ on the front cover, I always think ‘ooh, they really rewrote’ it as opposed to it just being a negotiation between the author and ghostwriter. Is that all it is, or does it ever reflect a different level of involvement from the ghost?

Sandra: It’s kind of both really. If you say ‘Joe Blogs with Sandra Cain’, it usually means that you’re hidden in the background, although your name is out there, you're not considered an equal partner in the writing process. But, if it's ‘Joe Blogs and Sandra Cain’ then you're considered an equal partner in the whole writing and designing process. Often, that's actually reflected in the fee or royalties.

Jodi: Toni, Sandra, and I were talking earlier about ‘deep ghosting’ and I was asking about when you're not allowed to even say that you know the author. What I've heard about that is that it can pay more, but you can't leverage it for future work, since you can't talk about the book. Do you know much about this side of things?

Toni: Yeah, I've done a few deep ghost jobs. The first few novels that I did were as a deep ghost, and there are a lot of pros and cons. For example, Sandra, I did a nonfiction book with somebody who also happened to not tell their wife that I was their writer, and they didn't tell me that they didn't tell their wife.

So, we were all standing in a room together, and he said “I’m happy for you to meet my researcher”, and I was just like, “oh, well, that's who I am!” because I wasn't told that ahead of time. In short, yeah — it's different degrees, but I will no longer do a deep ghost job. There are personal reasons for that too, but one of the biggest reasons is that the authors I work with now are super cool people, who tend to be very secure. They'll brag about me to their friends. They're not trying to pretend that they wrote their own nonfiction book, and they're saying “this is my fabulous writer” and “you need to hire her next” and all these things. So, they're very proud that they have the wisdom to work with a professional so that they can get a really strong, high-quality book. 

On the fiction side, deep ghostwriting was a great way for me to break in, and I was willing to do it at the time. After all, it was good money! But yeah, it did set me back a little bit as far as clout goes, because I wasn’t able to show anybody anything from those books.

The only thing that's sort of weird about ghostwriting fiction is that, if you have friends and family who read your emails, letters, or anything equivalent, they're not going to believe that you just sat down and wrote this amazing novel. It really is better to be honest and say “I'm a visionary and I work with a writer.” The people I work with have amazing stories to tell. They may have a story that’s been stalking them for years or decades, and so they have no interest in  spending 20 years learning how to do a great job writing it. They just want the story to get out there, and I'm happy to do that. I think that's super fun!

Sandra: It is fun, it’s huge fun being a ghostwriter, I have to say.

Jodi: Right. I wonder if people are more possessive about fiction and keeping that secret. It seems to me that if someone has done the ghostwriting of your fiction book, do you really feel like an author, as opposed to someone who had an idea based on their own business, and you want that made a book to go along with their industry, maybe as a thought leader or with a self-help book. Is there a difference in people’s willingness to be upfront about it? 

Toni: You know, I think there is, but I do a lot of educating people, to help them understand what's going to happen when the book comes out. If they want to get it published by a traditional publisher, it's going to be in their best interest to say that they worked with me, or whoever the ghost was, because it shows that they have an experienced writer on their side.

But, I also think that things are changing. Back in the day, even non-fiction authors were pretty secretive about working with ghosts, but I think we're in a more collaborative world now. And people in other industries hire experts when embarking on something unfamiliar, so why do people think they have to write their own books with no experience? You didn't build your own house. You didn't make your own car. You know, you hire experts for all those things. You're not going to do surgery on your friends. So, my best clients are the ones that have fabulous ideas, they want to make a positive difference in the world with fiction or nonfiction, and they're happy to give me acknowledgment and tell their friends. 

Do traditional publishers need to be told you have a ghostwriter, if you're selling them a memoir?

Sandra: I don't think they have to be told, but I think they would certainly appreciate being told. And as Toni said, I think it shows that the author has sort of done their groundwork and is more serious about the memoir that they want to write — because they've been looking at hiring a professional. So, I think it'd be very embarrassing if a traditional publisher picked up your memoir and you made out that you'd written the whole thing. That'd be very difficult and I wouldn't recommend it.

Jodi: Okay, so, we've talked about the different definitions of editing versus ghostwriting. Maybe we should now try to define some of that. Help me understand this: 

Does ghostwriting involve a blank page or does it start with notes or does it start with a manuscript, or is it all of the above? And how does it compare to developmental editing–how does it compare to book doctoring? 

Help us understand what's what, in this world of terminology! 

Sandra: Well, I think it can be all of those things that you said, Jodi. It can start with a blank piece of paper. It can start with an idea. It can start with a rough draft, and it can start with an outline of all of those things. And that is the job of the ghostwriter, to help that author through that. For example, it may be that you're given a manuscript, a first draft of a manuscript, and the author wants you to do a deep edit as well as a ghost.

There is definitely that sense of a debate. It could be a structural development, it could be a full ghost, or it could be all of those things together. 

Jodi: So, when you say it could be a full ghost, what are you talking about when it specifically starts with a manuscript? 

Sandra: Well, in my experience a full ghostwriting job is when a client will come to me with an idea. For example, let's say it's a memoir: they'll come to me and say, “look, I really want to write my story, but I don't know where to start”, and, as a ghostwriter, it's your job to guide them through that process. It’s your job to talk to them about that idea, to see if there is, in fact, a story to be told — because if there's no sense of jeopardy, if there's no obstacles in the way, then there's no real story. So, in that sense, you have to make sure that the client understands storytelling principles and that there has to be an element of drama and conflict within the memoir to make it readable. In short, there’s a lot of educating to be done before you even start writing or planning.

There’s really a whole process that goes on between getting from the blank sheet of paper to 200 or 300 pages of written material. It's a long process. Which is why it can take anything between six months to a year to do a full ghost from the beginning. Toni, what do you think? What are your ideas on that? 

Toni: Same as you! People come to me with projects at all different stages, but usually, I end up doing what I call ‘concept development’ with a client. I do this whether it's fiction or nonfiction, because even if the author has a great idea, they might not know how to create a hook or a story structure for it. 

With my nonfiction clients, they’re usually experts in a particular field. We already know what the topic is, it's just a matter of figuring out which hole in the bookshelf this author can fill — especially if they want to be traditionally published. Usually, the first two questions I ask people are: 

  1. What do you want the book to do for your readers? 
  2. And then what do you want the book to do for you personally and professionally?

Which basically translates to ‘what are your goals? Are you going to feel like this was a failure if you don't get a traditional publishing contract; is this a book that you want to sell in the back of the room if you're a professional speaker; or is this a book you want to have available in your office? How I approach the book is determined by the author’s goals. 

And, of course, we have a proven process for ghostwriting that we've been using for decades, but we customize the process for every client based on their communication style and how they like to work with us. Normally, though, it does start with a concept. 

In terms of fiction, I learned something interesting about myself this summer. I've been ghostwriting novels for a while now, and I've always had a lot of creative flexibility. This summer I had a referral that was a very detailed outline for a mystical fantasy novel. And I loved this outline, I thought, ‘wow, this is a book I would really love to read’, but I found, as I was reading this very detailed outline, that I stopped breathing. I felt really constricted by it, and I realized that this book was not going to allow me the type of creativity, the ability to use my imagination, which is just as important to me in fiction as the writing itself. 

So my partner, Doug Wagner, who's also on Reedsy is now writing that book instead. He loves working with fiction authors like that. But for me, the ideal fiction client is somebody who says, ‘hey, this is a message or something I want to get out to the world, help me figure out a story, characters, and everything else that's really going to make this story fly’ and get their points across. 

But every project is different! Like Sandra said — and, by the way, I worship at her literary altar because writing memoirs is the hardest thing, you just have facts to work with. Whereas, if I’m writing a novel and I need a conflict, I can just make one up! 

Sandra: This is quite interesting. Just to develop on what you said there, Toni, about how difficult it is to write a memoir; I’ve had experiences where the story sounds great, the client’s given me an outline of their memoir, I’ve worked it up, we’ve developed it and when I give them the first draft and they say, ‘oh yes, that did happen, but you can't put that in because it's going to upset my mom’ or ‘oh, you can't put that in because it's going to upset my husband’ etc., and all this stuff that they think will upset people they know. At that point, you're left with a memoir which is just a list of things they did with no sense of jeopardy. 

Jodi: That's a data dump! That's just putting a cover page on your journals, and that does not sell. 

Sandra: Certainly. If you want to develop your memoir, or to ghostwrite your memoir as the author, then you have to be prepared to be completely open about your life and what you are prepared to have in that book.

The whole relationship between a ghost and a memoir writer is quite sensitive because, as the ghost, you're hearing all of their personal details, their personal life, and it's a pretty asymmetrical relationship because they don't hear so much about your own life. It can be difficult at points in negotiation.

I think the ghost often has to say to the memoir author, ‘hey, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a counselor’, because sometimes you can be treated as the one that'll fix their problems and that's not what should happen.

Jodi: Well, if you've taken their life story and put it in a manuscript, can it not be assumed that they were the ones who gave you that information? I would assume that they want it in there. That's why they told you!

Sandra: But when they see it in there, that's a different matter. When they see it written on the page, they think, ‘oh my goodness, mom's going to read this, maybe I better take it out’ — and they're often taking out the best stuff! This doesn't always happen, but it has happened a couple of times. 

Jodi: So, what do you do about that? 

Sandra: You have to be really honest and say it’s important to keep that stuff in there. Otherwise, you've got no story. Without conflict, there's no drama, but there are ways of turning conflict down at the same time as keeping the excitement which makes the memoir a page-turner. 

Jodi: And you can change, and should, and will change names. Often people won't recognize themselves, even though they're pretty accurately described, because the name is different. That's one level of protection, but it’s such a sensitive genre, perhaps the most sensitive of all. 

Sandra: Exactly, it's part of the ghost’s job to explain to the client that they probably need to have it looked over by a libel lawyer as well. I think that's an important thing to communicate.

Who hires ghostwriters?

Jodi: So, who needs a ghostwriter, who's doing most of the hiring? Is it a lot of businesspeople? Is it more people who admit that they don't really have the time, or the interest, or the skills — who needs a ghostwriter? Maybe talk about some of your specific clients without naming them. Can you give us some scenarios, Toni?

Toni: Okay, I'm just looking at my bookshelf of all the books that I've ghostwritten! In short, a lot of people can benefit from a ghostwriter. Whether you're a doctor, a lawyer, or any profession where you're actively working every day, you don't have time to write a good book. So, that’s one element. But really it's just people who are super inspired to get a particular message, or a thought, across in a leadership book, or teach somebody something with a prescriptive book, who really want that book to have an impact. Because, unless they’ve been writing their entire lives themselves, they’ll probably want to hire a professional to guide the process and help along the way. That said, there are different degrees of hands-on guidance for different projects.

But the idea that a nonfiction writer has to go it alone, especially in today's world, is really just a myth. As I said earlier, for most of the books traditionally published in nonfiction, there is a professional collaborator involved, whether they're named or not. A lot of my credits are coauthor credits, and I don't ask for my name to be on the cover of people's books normally because my name isn't going to help their book sell. If I get a coauthor credit, I'll have it on the title page a lot of times. But yeah, I'll let Sandra chime in and see what she thinks about that.

Sandra: Okay so, ditto. I have found that recently I've had a lot of memoirs coming my way — which I really do enjoy writing because I'm very nosy about people. I'm curious, I'm very interested in people and I find other people fascinating. I think two of the best projects I've worked on recently have both been from activists. One was a well-known personality, a social media influencer, she was a sex activist, and the other is a book I'm currently working on from an undercover activist.

I can't say much more than that at this point, but they were very exciting. I was thrilled to hear these stories and I was thrilled to be able to write them and to be able to write in these different voices, one with a female, one with a male. So, that’s all thrilling! 

Another thing is that I get a lot of entrepreneurs wanting me to ghostwrite business books. Business people want to use books as a calling card for when they're doing their presentations, or their conferences, or their talks, and they want something to validate their business behind them. I've ghosted white papers, I've ghosted blogs, all sorts of different things — the only thing I don't do is fiction.

Jodi: I was going to chime a little bit to help people understand what some of the differences are and what kind of people that you might hire to help with your manuscript. Honestly, I've been doing this quite a while, so I talk to people like Toni and Sandra all the time about the terminology — and I'm not even sure we know how to divide it. I don't put myself out as a ghostwriter on Reedsy; I say that I do assessments, developmental editing, and copy editing, and those And they also sometimes lean into the realm of ghostwriting.

I tend to work on manuscripts that already exist. Sometimes the writer wants to know ‘what do I have here, can you assess it for me?’ or ‘can you read this manuscript and do a write up to let me know the strengths and the weaknesses and where you think it can go from here’. Sometimes we jump right into developmental editing, which I describe as a conversation between the editor and the writer — that tends to take place in the margins. 

Sometimes I have so many comments and questions that I'll actually put them right in the manuscript so that the person knows exactly which segment or sentence I'm talking about. I'll say things like, ‘Maybe we should have heard about this in an earlier chapter’ or, ‘Well, this is terrific dialogue, I'd love to see more of this. I want to hear this person talk. ’ That kind of conversation goes on throughout the whole manuscript in a developmental edit.

With copy editing or line editing, I'm not sure I'd make a distinction, although a lot of people do. For me, that's working at the sentence level, beautifying the sentences themselves. That usually happens when a manuscript has already gone through developmental editing, and maybe it's gone through more than one developmental editing pass. You’re working to beautify them at the sentence level.

But what I've been doing recently,  I call hybrid editing, and that’s a combination of developmental and copy editing in one pass. I used to just call that “editing.” Publishers or agents would come to me and say, “I've got this manuscript, I have an author, they have a book deal. So the publishers are interested, but the manuscript isn't ready. Do your thing.” So, they’re not saying they want a developmental edit or a copy edit, they're just saying that it needs to be elevated. So I would do what I call hybrid editing, and that you can do when a manuscript is at a certain level, when it's not really rudimentary, it doesn't need massive developmental changes, you can do what I call hybrid edits. 

So the conversation that I described as a developmental edit is going on, but at the same time, line edits are going on. The author gets this document back that has track changes — showing changed sentences — but also comments saying, ‘what if you had this, what if you do more of this?’ and then it continues that way. 

So, those are some of the distinctions. I'm still not sure what we're calling book doctoring, Toni — that's another term in our business–does it step into all of those? Toni, what do you think? 

Toni: “Book doctoring” is a little bit of an antiquated term, although I just did see it again a few weeks ago. I think that what this conversation is saying to me is that it's really good to have really clear contracts, or letters of agreement, so that everybody knows exactly what your job is.

You need to say exactly what you’re doing for the client, and what they’re agreeing to do as a partner in the process. Having all of that worked out ahead of time so that there's no gray area is super important. When I was hired as a book doctor, what would happen is that somebody would have a book contract with a traditional publisher, they’d attempt to write the manuscript themselves, or work with a writer that wasn't up to par, and then the publisher wouldn’t accept the manuscript. When that happens, the author either has to return their advance, if they got one or, fix the problem very quickly.

That’s when I’d be given a messy manuscript and would have roughly six weeks to two months to whip it into shape — and I used to love that! Because I felt like a hero; I could swoop in and do my magic, but now I don’t feel that as much, I’m over fixing other people's messes. These days. I’d rather start from the beginning and do it right. 

But, I do want to say that, as much as I advocate for people hiring experts to help them with their manuscripts, there's a really good argument for everybody to try to write at least one book in their life, because it's such a fascinating journey. Over the course of that process, we learn so much about the topic and so much about ourselves.

I always say that if you can talk, you can write. It might not be great writing, but you can get your thoughts down onto the page. After that, you have the option of a book doctor or somebody like Jodi — a high-end or hybrid editor that can help you to take it across the finish line. So, there are all kinds of reasons to hire, and to not hire, a ghostwriter.

That's why you always want to be talking to a potential writer about what your goals are, so they can help you reach them eventually.

Sandra: One thing that we haven't really mentioned as far as deep ghosting is concerned is the amount of research that you would be expected to do as a ghostwriter.

I'm very interested to hear what Toni has to say about this as well. So often when I get a blank sheet of paper, and an author will say to me: ‘okay, I want to write this blah, blah, blah, I haven't got time to give you information — I'll send you some information, but it's not much, but can you do some research on this, this and this’. And that's hard work, especially if you don't really understand the topic yourself. It takes time and energy and it's something that we go through. What, what do you think about that Toni?

Toni: That’s such a good point. Yeah, I coauthored the book Age Later: Health Span, Life Span, and the New Science of Longevity, by Nir Barzilai, and so I'm allowed to talk about it. I actually get hired to write science books quite often because I don't have a science background. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but they want what they’re saying to be understandable to the mass market — so they want somebody who knows what questions to ask and how to come up with analogies for all these things.

But, in writing Age Later, even though Nir was wonderful and super available to me all the time, I still didn't always understand his sentences. For example, I would have a sentence that had eight different words which I had to look up —  and then I'd have to look up more words for those words. There were paragraphs that would take an hour to write, I'm not kidding! It really is hard work. Not only the research itself, but being a sort of a step-down transformer where you have to take these really intelligent ideas and make them accessible to people who may not even have a college degree.

Sandra: And that word ‘accessibility’, that's a really important word. Because if you do have somebody, like a scientist or a doctor, and they come with their own knowledge which they want to impart — forgetting that there's going to be an ordinary reader, not another doctor, on the other end.

Essentially, yeah, you have to be able to write in a simple way with brevity that ultimately has accessibility to the intended readership. That's so important.

When ghostwriting a memoir, what's the percentage of background research versus in-person interviews with your client?

Sandra: Personally, I get to know the author very well first. I like to be able to see them in person if I can, but that's not always possible. Sometimes it would just all be done over Zoom. But, usually, you do get to know the author in person and, again usually, I'll interview the person for up to three or four hours a week. With memoirs, there's not so much research because you're writing somebody else's memories. 

However, saying that, I did write a book about somebody that ran marathons in three of the world's most dangerous countries: Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. So I had to do the research, to find out what those places look like. Because they would say, ‘oh, it was sandy and it was hot,’ but you have to develop that a little bit more. That meant reading the guide books, looking at photographs, pretending that I'm actually there, all the while trying to understand what it feels like being hot and sweaty … and running … and male …and having a backpack on my back.

You really have to do research to understand the environment that the author is living in. And, again, if they suffered from PTSD, for example, or depression, then you have to do some research to find out what that feels like. It’s really a combination of taking what the author tells you, while also researching further to really understand the world the author’s living in.

So when I wrote the book for the sex activist, well, that was huge fun — as you can imagine!

Jodi: Well, that leads me to a question that I think a lot of people want answered about voice:

How do you stay true to a voice that is not yours? 

Toni: I’ll answer: voice is really tricky and not all ghostwriters can do the chameleon voice thing. I have a really pretty good ear for listening to people's voices and being able to tell what words they use, certain intonations, and different things like that. But, even with that ability, I usually won't nail the voice in the first chapter. It usually takes a little bit of back and forth. So Jodi, if I were ghostwriting for you, I would be doing interviews. I would be trying to capture your voice. I would then be asking you to read what I write out loud and Jodi-ize it, which means if I wrote words or sentences that would not come out of your own mouth, you change them. After a couple of chapters of this, I'll really get it. 

But writing fiction has actually really helped me to capture non-fiction authors' voices. Because, when writing fiction, we're writing all the different characters and their personalities, and the readers have to get a sense of who's talking without saying, ‘Sam said, Joe said’ or whichever, every time. So, my fiction writing has ultimately helped strengthen my nonfiction as well — and I love both. 

Sandra: Hmm, I like to think of writing somebody else's voice as rather like being an actor who uses method acting as a means to live that life as much as they possibly can. 

I think this harks back to the former question about research: First, I will try to understand the person's voice by being with them, and spending time with them, and listening to those little ticks, or quirky things that they may say. And second, is by kind of pretending I am that person for a short while — in the privacy of my own home! And yes, I always share the first chapter before I go any further with the author, to check that I have their voice, because if I've got it totally wrong, then I need to be told.

Yeah, I’m quite good at that. I think it's because I really, really, enjoy people. I like people, as I said, I’m curious about people, and that all helps. Also, I think you have to be pretty much an empath if you're going to ghostwrite people's books, you have to have an understanding of people's psychology. And, of course, you absolutely cannot be judgmental. 

Jodi: I love the method actor idea! 

Sandra: Yeah, that's a really helpful one. 

Toni: I think of it too as like when you hear comedians that can do other people's voices, I just think that's amazing. And I know, Jodi, you can do some impressions and accents, I’m so impressed when people can do that. And then they’re also impressed when other people can do that on the page. 

The deep listening that Sandra talked about is so important. And the other thing that's important is understanding that lots of people don't really know how they sound. People don't know their own voices.

It's a little bit like when you hear the sound of your own voice on an audio recording and you think, ‘oh, I sound like that?’, and people, even if you capture their voice exactly, will often think it doesn’t sound like them. Usually, at that point, you’ll tell them to ask their spouse or best friend to read it — and they'll say, ‘oh yeah, that sounds exactly like you.’ 

Now, if the author still doesn't love the way that voice sounds, you can change their voice however they want it to be changed. But, if they're in the public eye, it makes the most sense for the voice in the book to match the voice that comes out of their mouth when they're on TV or wherever they are.

What are a ghostwriter’s expenses?

Jodi: I think people are also interested in hearing about expenses and how that ties into the process. We talked about this a little bit earlier, so I'll start by just saying a bit about how it works with me as an editor versus being a ghost. 

Early on, I found it was really helpful to do an assessment and then talk about where we might go from here. So when you come to me with a manuscript, though I'm not necessarily ghosting it, although, again, some of the work gets so deep that it’s almost like ghostwriting. I don't do this huge, or necessarily a large, project estimate — even though I know that's appealing to a writer, realistically, how much is this going to cost me?

Ultimately, I don't feel comfortable making estimates like that. There are too many variables relative to the author's ability, the time they can put in, how much needs to be done, and how the process is going to work between the two of us. What I like to do is say, ‘this is approximately how long I think it'll take me to developmentally edit this manuscript or hybrid edit, so why let's go with 10 hours of working together and see how we do’. I've had books that I've worked on from start to finish as almost complete rewrites, where we just did it 10 or 20 hours at a time. At any point, the person could jump off the bus–they haven’t– but I think we both like the idea that we're able to leave if we want to or keep going.

I try to give as much of a down-the-road estimate as I can. I know that that's a big part of ghostwriting projects, generally. So I'm really interested in hearing what both of you have to say about how you determine the scope of a project, how you help determine expenses, and whether or not that's shocking to people. If it varies, if it changes mid-project, et cetera.

Toni: All right, well, there are so many variables, and people say to me, ‘how much is it going to cost to write a book?’ and, well, how much is it going to cost to make a music video? It depends what the author wants the book to include. Do you want bells and whistles?  Am I doing all the research? Are you doing research? All these different things are factors to consider. 

But, in general, my fiction rates are about a dollar per word for a novel. So, if it's a young adult novel, you're looking at something in the neighborhood of $55-60,000.

If it's an adult novel, you're looking at something closer to $75,000 or $80,000. If it's a nonfiction book, because that's where all my best sellers are, then my rate is usually between about $1.50 and $2 a word. In that case, for a full-length book, you're looking at something usually over a hundred thousand.

But there can be creative financing deals that are made, it's never just about money for me. It's really more about questions like: do I love this author? Do I really want to help them get their message out to the world? Is this somebody I want to spend a whole lot of time with for the next nine months to a year, because it's a very intimate process, you know? All of those factors play in, not just the money itself.

Sandra: Yes, and I would agree with Toni, I think most of us are open to negotiation with the fees that we charge. However, I think it's really important that potential authors understand that you can be working on this project for six months to a year. — therefore you're going to be charging quite a lot of money.

It is hard work. And again, like Toni, I will reduce fees for a project that I'm really excited about and that I really, really, really want to do. But yeah, those are ballpark figures that Toni just said. 

Where can you hire ghostwriters?

First of all, lots of people have been asking us about where you can find and hire ghostwriters — and I’m here to tell you that the Reedsy Marketplace is a fantastic place. Reedsy is home to Toni and Sandra, along with over 140 other ghostwriters. A lot of them will hang their own shingle out through personal websites etc., but if you're looking for a convenient place, just go to Reedsy to see who's the best.

I’d like to highlight an important thing that they're saying that stands for whether you're looking for an editor or a cover designer: if you can excite the professional with your project, they might be willing to negotiate on their price.

Sandra: Also, if you excite the ghostwriter, you're going to excite any potential publisher! So yeah. Excite your ghostwriter. 

How rare are royalty split deals?

Some private clients might not want to put the money upfront and they may see whether you'd be interested in going 50/50 on the royalties. Is this a thing that happens a lot? 

Jodi: I don't know a lot of editors who will take that deal because, as we all know, it's very hard to make money on a book. I've definitely talked to writers who sounded very excited about the idea of working together — until we started to talk about money.

I remember one guy in particular who said, ‘What if we just do it together and split all the profits, including the movie deal?’ And I thought, wow, aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves there? In other words, there was no money. I was going to make zilch unless it sold. I'd love to hear what you two see in that, but I don't really know people who take that deal. It's our livelihood, and we’d like to know how much we’re going to make.

Sandra: It’s a massive risk to do that. However, saying that, I’m now working with a client that I absolutely adore working with, and we're working on a 50/50 royalty split, no upfront fee. And I'm prepared to take that risk because I absolutely know that this is a winner and we’re already in the process of selling the serialization rights to a major international newspaper. Actually, the client himself already has a deal in Hollywood. So, in that case, I'm happy to go for the 50/50 split on royalties.

Jodi: I can see the energy and the excitement, when you feel that much excitement, you can feel it in your gut, right? You can feel this one!

Sandra: Yeah, even when he first approached me, I just knew there was an incredible story and it had to be told, and I still believe that to this day. And now the manuscript’s out there and we're on the way to getting it published. It’s excellent! But that's the only time I’ve done it, I've never, never done it before. It's too much of a risk. 

Jodi: Toni, have you done it? Would you do it? 

Toni: Well, first, let me tell you that almost no books ever sell enough copies to earn royalties, even international bestsellers don't always make enough to pay royalties because, in those cases, often the author has been given such a giant advance that it takes forever for the book to earn that advance back.

Jodi: Stop for the tears now Toni, let people cry for a minute! 

Toni: Sorry, sorry!

But, the thing is that authors have to be authorpreneurs today, and I hear that word tossed around amongst nonfiction and fiction authors. Marketing is a huge part of this profession, you have to let people know that your book exists. So, I probably wouldn't do a 50/50 deal unless my writer's intuition was really keen about something, like what Sandra just said.

I know that, if I run into a situation like that, I would be open to it. But there would still be the question of ‘who's going to pay my mortgage for six months?’ and ‘who’s going to buy me food while I'm working on your book?’. It's a full-time job, and I've been doing this for 30 years. So I don't really have the luxury of just hoping that a book will make money. The people who hire me are very sincere about wanting the best book they can have, and they're willing to invest in that. They're also willing to invest in book marketing and everything else to ensure that their book makes its way to bookshelves and into the hands of readers.

Jodi: There’s a lot to that right? That's a process. That's an enormous percentage of the process that I think about a lot. When we have our writer fantasies, they don't involve the hustle and getting your own publicist and getting your own website together. And really, we just want to sip tea and hang out in New York at the round table, and talk, say brilliant things and let the publisher run around and give us book tours. That's not how it works. 

You really do have to be part of that, which is why so many people have trouble getting traditional book deals if they don't already have a big platform that’s going to help a publisher sell them — because they've already sold themselves well. That’s always a bit of a wake-up call.


How do you become a ghostwriter? 

Sandra: How does someone become a ghostwriter? Well, if you want to be represented by Reedsy, you have to have had at least five books published anyway. That's a bit of a tricky one. Hence why they’re this professional within Reedsy. I think, if you’ve never had any experience of ghostwriting before, then start local, go to the local big companies in your neck of the woods, and ask them perhaps would they consider having a history of their company ghosted, look for local stories, or your local paper, if you feel that there's a really good story there, contact those people. Just ask them if they would like something ghostwritten. 

Toni: Now I'll second that. Starting with your own local network is definitely the way to go. I teach this topic at workshops sometimes, and I actually have a chapter in Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents that details how to start a ghostwriting business. It says some of what Sandra said along with some other tips, but really it's best to always start with people — the professionals around you. For example: does your dentist want to write a book? Does your doctor want to write a book? And believe me: there are so many people who want to write a book — they just don't know that they can. 

And sometimes all you have to do is say to them, ‘look, I think you're fascinating and I would love to write your book’. Of course, that needs to be true, because when you say that truthfully, you'll be surprised by some of the responses you're going to get.

Which issues need to be agreed upon in the copyright agreement?

Martin (producer from Reedsy): Let's maybe broaden this out a bit to cover the things that you need to agree upon in terms of being worried about who has the copyright to all of this. Toni, whether you want to address this one first.

Toni: The copyright is with the publisher, unless you self-publish, in which case you keep your publishing copyrights. Most hybrid publishers also let the author keep the copyright. I don't do those types of contracts, but my ghostwriting contract is roughly nine to eleven pages and it addresses everything, every possible variable, including death. So, it's very specific so that there's no gray area, and that's what you want. You want to make sure there's no gray area.

Sandra: Yeah, I would ditto Toni on that one, copyright is always retained by the author, and I say that in my contract. 

How often do you see ghostwriters steal fiction ideas? 

There’s this notion that ideas are constantly being stolen by ghostwriters or editors. Is this something you're familiar with in any way? 

Sandra: No, I've never heard of this. I think it would be a really, really bad idea if that happened, and the ghostwriter would be extremely unprofessional and should never work in ghostwriting again. That's what I think. I've never heard of this, and I'm wondering if it's a myth. I don't know, but I do know it's a worry for some people.

Jodi: Right. I recently watched a Gotham Ghostwriters webinar with Brooke Warner, Dan Gerstein, and Jane Friedman, and they were saying the very same thing – that it seems like it's a big fear out there, but it just never happens.

They were talking about how few people even ever need to sign NDAs because nobody's going to steal your idea and run with it. No one seemed to have even heard of it ever happening. This person asking the question says they've heard of it, but I don't know if that's an urban myth or if they have specifics. What about you, Toni?

Toni: I'm sure there are probably some unscrupulous people on the planet who might do something like that. But the thing about fiction is it's important to have a really great idea, but it comes down to how well you execute the story. So, if you say somebody stole your story idea, I could probably find 12 novels that have your story idea, but they’re all really different. I've never heard of it happening personally. And, honestly, publishing is such a small industry that if a ghost does something sketchy, they'll just never work again. It gets around so fast. 

How many ghostwriting projects do you take on at one time? 

Toni: I do two, at the most. I like having a non-fiction book and a novel at the same time. I’ll never do two novels, or two non-fiction books, at the same time. 

So, one novel, one nonfiction book, and I'm very discerning about the authors that I choose to work with. Especially at this point in my career, because I only have so many years left on the planet and I want to make sure that what I'm writing is really making a positive difference. That's the most important thing to me. 

Sandra: I just do one project at a time. There is some overlap sometimes when one project is ending and another’s beginning, but I like to deep dive and I like to just really concentrate on one project at a time, especially if it's a memoir. The last thing you want to do is get your characters or, even worse, your clients muddled up.

So, for me, one at a time for the most part. 

Jodi: I actually have a whiteboard with a grid because I have a lot of authors that I work with at once — and the projects are in varying stages. So I might have sent off an assessment or a developmental edit, and while that client’s gone to work on that, next I'm doing copy edits with this person. Maybe it’s maybe just a few chapters, maybe it’s a full manuscript, or maybe it’s an assessment.

So, I do have a lot of projects coming in and out at the same time, and patient authors who are understanding about how some things overlap. It’s just compartmentalizing the brain, I guess, but I do like my dry erase board with the grid that helps me keep track of who's doing what and when it's due and what they expect from me next, and what's happening, et cetera.

I like the variety. I like to work on a memoir today and a young adult novel later the next day. Maybe mix in some nonfiction. I really do like working across all genres. But you do have to, you do have to stop and remind yourself which project is today, where you left it, what that voice is, and what the goals are.

If you like that sort of thing, the editing side that's less ghostwriting immersion-based, it might be more for you. 

Are you paid upfront when you complete the book, or do you split it? 

Sandra: I split it. Usually, it's 50% upfront, and then the rest is monthly after that. I usually ask for 50% upfront because that's where all the work is; all the planning, all the structuring, all the research is upfront. But, then the next tranche might be when I deliver the first bit of the manuscript or the first draft. Then the final portion will be paid when we do the final polish, so there are lots of different milestones and, again, it's negotiable. You can be paid monthly if that's what the client prefers, there are all sorts of ways to do it. 

Toni: It depends. If the book is with a traditional publisher, then my payments are sometimes aligned with the author's payments.

But, usually, if it's traditional, I'll get a third upfront, about a third after the first draft is finished, and then a third when the publisher accepts the manuscript. That said, something not-so-nice that publishers are doing now is they're trying to make ghostwriters wait until the book is actually published to get the last portion — and that can be a year later. That's not cool and I won't sign that contract. I go back and forth on that issue with publishers. 

When somebody's planning to hybrid publish or they're self-publishing, we usually do maybe 20% or 30% upfront. Then the other payments are attached to milestones like completing chapters.

But I’m super flexible about how those things can be worked out. 

How do you manage expectations in the beginning stages? 

For example, you work on a book and they have the aspirations of landing a book deal. If it doesn't land an agent, what's the best way to avoid disappointing your clients?

Jodi: Well, I do like to ask people if they’re hoping to traditionally publish, considering all avenues, or whether they’re starting with the traditional dream. I probably don't do as much of this as the ghostwriters, because it seems that a lot of people I work with don't really know–they know they want to publish, but they don't really have their hearts set on traditional or hybrid or self-publishing.

And I don't work on proposals anymore. I will work on a book proposal that's been drafted and I will help revise that. But, for people who want to traditionally publish, you probably know that you need a very well-polished book proposal. Though those are things that I think Sandra and Toni both work on — so they might want to weigh in on that, but I generally worry less about the publishing side of things, and I work in the developmental, and the creative, and the polishing of the manuscript, to make it as good as it can be. And then I let them know that I'm not really going to be much of an advisor–I mean, I know more than the average guy on the street about the way the publishing business works, but I'm not selling myself as a consultant in getting through the publishing process in a way that the other two might be doing. 

Sandra: Yeah, I always make sure the client knows upfront that there are never guarantees towards publication and they have to accept that.

That’s the risk that they have to take. It’s a financial risk as well as a risk for confidence. They have to have confidence that this is something they really want to pursue and that there are no guarantees.

Toni: Actually, I've been told that, when I'm talking to a new client, I sound like I'm trying to talk them out of working with me!

I cannot sleep at night if I think that somebody has unrealistic expectations, I just can't. They have to understand how challenging it is to get published. With nonfiction, I won't agree to write the proposal unless I know that this person has a really good chance of getting a contract. I won't accept the money to write a proposal, otherwise.

With fiction, very few novels get published compared with how many are written. So, my clients know that upfront. Some novels I've ghosted have been traditionally published; but a lot of my clients go the hybrid route because they’re using the book to raise funds, or do fundraising, or they're philanthropists and they want to give away a bunch of the books because it's meant to inspire people. It comes down to clarity again, being absolutely honest with them that you can't promise them anything. Even if you're the best ghostwriter in the world, you can't promise them anything with regard to publication.

Is it possible to be both a writer and a ghostwriter at the same time? 

Does the work you do right now scratch that creative itch, or do you ever feel like getting a book out there with your own name on it and being the author of that?

Toni: I'm actually working on my own book. I'm like the Shoemaker whose kids don't have shoes because! I get paid really well to write other people's books. So, a lot of times I'm not putting as much time into my own, but I am working on a young adult historical fantasy that I'm very excited about and should have finished by the end of the year.

But it's honestly as much fun for me to work on other people's books as it is to work on my own. Because it isn't about me owning the idea, it's about working out how we can explain and write this story. Or, what can we do to bring the most excitement to whatever it is we're writing.

And so, those of us who are ghostwriters, we love to write. I also love to imagine and create, but I'm just delighted that I get to get up every day and make a living writing. 

Sandra: Well, I was a writer under my own name. I still am a writer under my own name. Being a previous academic, we would have to publish under our own names. Certainly, if we were going to teach other people, we would have to write books! So, I had about 10 books published under my own name, including textbooks on how to write. And yeah, I have other books that I'm working on myself right now, but at the moment, I am preferring to ghost for other people.

But to answer the question, yes, you can be a writer and a ghostwriter at the same time.

Jodi: I hope it's comforting to all our fellow writers out there that even if you’re a professional at this, you still have the resistance, you have the delays, all those blocks, and imposter syndrome. . . “Oh, that’s brilliant!” “Oh my God, that’s terrible!” It gets in my way as much as it does anyone else. But yes, I have worked so much in memoir that it has occurred to me over the last few years that it probably wouldn't kill me to write one.

I also have an idea for a fiction that I have been toying with and very much wondering about, writing my thoughts, narrating them into notes, outlining, and developing little blips of dialogue. So, the fiction piece is very much in the beginning stages. 

But yes, I also have a book on the market that’s academic. I used to do a lot of tutoring, I was a college English teacher for a while, and I've tutored and taught in workshops for many years. So, I came out with something called SAT Word Slam that teaches vocabulary using rhyme, humor, and snarky mnemonics — so my name went on that one.

But as far as the more traditional prose, I really do get a huge kick out of writing, full stop. And so, as an editor of any kind, you're writing every day — and I get a kick out of writing in different genres. I'm a business person today, I'm a memoirist tomorrow, I'm writing teenage dialogue on another day. It’s a great exercise for flexing terrific creative muscles that I suppose will only help my own piece later.