How to Hire a Ghostwriter (Without Making a Costly Mistake)
by Michael J. Dowling
What’s a publisher to do when a strong nonfiction book idea comes from someone who doesn’t have the time, or perhaps even the ability, to do the writing? Or when a submitted manuscript is so poorly structured and presented that it needs to be rewritten?
One solution is to connect the author with a professional ghostwriter.
But beware. Hiring a freelance ghostwriter entails an element of risk. The right ghostwriter will create a professional product, while saving author and publisher considerable time. But the wrong writer will almost certainly waste lots of money and create a host of hard-to-solve headaches.
Five Qualities to Question
How can you avoid a costly hiring mistake? What qualities should you look for in a ghostwriter? I believe outstanding ghostwriters possess five key qualities: proficiency, efficiency, humility, creativity, and reliability.
•Proficiency. Obviously, good writers are proficient at their craft. They are able to write clearly, concisely, engagingly, and convincingly. This quality is fairly easy to evaluate with a review of writing samples. If you need additional evidence, consider asking (and, if necessary, commissioning) candidates to write an introduction to the book, or a chunk of text for it.
•Efficiency. The best ghostwriters make it a priority to conserve each client’s time. They are good project managers as well as good writers. While welcoming guidance and accountability, they have the skills and experience to work independently.
Efficient ghostwriters are willing to conduct a reasonable amount of online or offline research, and they should be able to engage politely and professionally with content contributors.
Assess this quality when interviewing ghostwriter candidates by asking how they typically handle the writing process to increase efficiency. Ideally, they will tell you they supplement the information they gather through recorded telephone or in-person interviews with information they glean from documents that are already available (talks, interviews, articles, white papers, proposals, and the like.).
•Humility. The ghostwriter’s role is to present the author’s ideas and information in the author’s voice. This requires a willingness to stay in the background.
That’s not to say that ghostwriters need to be timid about offering opinions. Forthright input can add tremendous value to a project, particularly if the ghostwriter has extensive relevant knowledge and experience.
But once ghostwriters have expressed their ideas or concerns, they need to cooperatively support the author’s and publisher’s decisions.
Assess the disposition of ghostwriters during the interview process by asking about specific conflicts they’ve experienced in the past. Have them explain how they handled these conflicts; verify their answers by checking references.
•Creativity. Lots of ghostwriters do an adequate job of putting pen to paper, but far fewer bring a strong creative element to the writing process. That’s unfortunate, because creativity can be at least as important to a book’s success as syntax and grammar.
Creative writers can turn a good book concept into an outstanding one. When a concept is creatively presented in a book, people will be more likely to notice it, read it, remember it, and respond to it.
Creativity can take many forms. It can include the use of humor and the development of attention-grabbing titles and subtitles. It can involve the use of dialog, character development, and tension.
The way a book is structured can dramatically affect impact. For example, instead of simply enumerating a set of principles, a creative writer might exercise a bit of poetic license and present them in the context of a seminar, a training program, a meeting, a conversation, or even an argument.
It’s hard to judge a ghostwriter’s creativity from short writing samples. Look at complete books or longer articles to see how a candidate structured and presented ideas.
•Reliability. Writing projects are typically complex endeavors with tight time constraints. A missed deadline can be very costly—and embarrassing. You can’t risk hiring an unreliable ghostwriter.
Choose a writer who intends to meet your deadlines and surpass your expectations. Some highly creative writers are not good project managers. They simply can’t organize their time or a project’s components effectively.
Check references to verify that your ghostwriter candidates routinely finish assignments on time and on budget.
If you feel compelled to compromise on one or more of the above qualities, make sure you do so with a conscious appreciation of the risks.
Where to Look, What to Pay
You can search for a qualified ghostwriter in several ways.
Ask publishing colleagues and other trustworthy sources for recommendations.
Search on Web sites that serve writers, such as Publishers Marketplace (publishersmarketplace.com), the American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org), or the Editorial Freelancers Association (the-efa.org).
Search using Google, Elance.com, and other online sources.
Post your need with online groups (e.g., LinkedIn groups for ghostwriters, writers, and publishers).
Remuneration for an experienced, competent ghostwriter can vary widely, depending on the nature of the assignment and the qualifications of the writer. Typical fees for nonfiction books start around $15,000; they can run up to $40,000 or more, since writing a book requires considerable skill and time.
In your ROI calculations, when comparing ghostwriters, remember to factor in hidden costs, including the cost of your time. If you have to closely supervise an inexperienced writer—or repeat instructions and correct mistakes—the true costs of the project can soar. And what if you miss your deadline? How much will that cost you?
It’s important, of course, to consider the benefits you expect to receive along with the costs you expect to incur. Don’t simply try to minimize writing fees; aim to maximize your return on investment. Focus on value, not just price.
Michael J. Dowling (MichaelJDowling.com) is a ghostwriter, writer, and editor who specializes in nonfiction books and articles. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School in New York City, where he was a Harriman Scholar, and is the author of three books, including Flip Along Fun, an award-winning book for children.