Taking the “Spookiness” Out of Ghostwriting

by | Jul 13, 2011

By Michael J. Dowling

Today we’re lucky to have an article on a subject that’s often shrouded in secrecy: ghostwriting. Michael J. Dowling is an author, an editor and a ghostwriter. I’ve gotten to know him both from his comments on the blog and from his excellent newsletter The Write Stuff, which you should take a look at. Here’s his article.

Does the term ghostwriter spook you? Are you unclear about what ghostwriters do and how they differ from editors? Have you wondered how much ghostwriting services cost and how to find a ghostwriter when you need one? This article will shed some light on these and other important issues.

Beware! Ghostwriters are all around you.

Politicians use them to write their speeches; directors of nonprofit organizations use them for their fund-raising appeals; and many, many professionals hire them to write their non-fiction books.

A ghostwriter goes one step beyond an editor. Generally speaking, ghostwriters create writing for the author, while editors shape the writing of the author. Copy editors focus primarily on style (grammar, punctuation, word choice, syntax); ghostwriters also address content and structure.

The ghostwriter’s job is to present your ideas in your voice to accomplish your goals in a manner that enhances your image. When you utilize a ghostwriter’s writing expertise to leverage your subject-matter expertise, the quality of the finished product will far exceed anything you could accomplish alone. You’ll enjoy the writing process more, and you’ll have more time to focus on your primary responsibilities.

Working with a Ghostwriter

Many people are surprised at how easy it is to write a book with the aid of a ghostwriter. A weekly or biweekly phone call of one hour or so moves most writing projects along nicely. As you talk, your ghostwriter can record your thoughts, asking questions for amplification and clarification. Then he’ll take your ideas, along with any other background information you provide (talks you’ve given, papers you’ve written, etc.) and create drafts for your review.

Between calls, you’ll review your ghostwriter’s drafts and prepare new material for your next phone call. The ghostwriter will rewrite the manuscript as many times as necessary until you’re both satisfied. When writing a book, I like to start with the introduction (also called the preface) and the table of contents, because they encapsulate the overall purpose, structure, and content.

As the author and subject matter expert, your name appears on the front cover of your book. Although acknowledging your ghostwriter on the cover is optional, it can be helpful from a marketing standpoint, especially with a self-published book, because it tells people you’ve made the necessary investment to produce a professional product.

Ghostwriting Fees

Ghostwriting fees vary widely, depending on the nature of the assignment and the qualifications of the writer. They typically start around $15,000 and go up to $40,000 or more. Remember to consider hidden costs when comparing rates. If you have to closely supervise an inexperienced writer, or if you waste time repeating instructions and correcting mistakes, the true costs of the project can soar. And what if you miss your deadline? How much will that cost you? Focus on value, not price.

Key Traits of Ghostwriters

I believe outstanding ghostwriters possess six key traits: proficiency, efficiency, versatility, compatibility, creativity, and reliability. Here are some questions to consider when interviewing candidates:

  1. Proficiency
    Does the candidate write clearly, concisely, convincingly, and engagingly? Ask to see writing samples.
  2. Efficiency  
    Will the ghostwriter meet your deadlines and conserve your time? Ask about how the writing process will be conducted.
  3. Versatility  
    Does the candidate understand book publishing, marketing, and distribution, as well as writing? A versatile ghostwriter will be able to shepherd your overall project to increase your success.
  4. Compatibility
    Will the ghostwriter serve you in a cheerful, supportive, cooperative manner? Verify by checking references.
  5. Creativity
    Can the candidate creatively organize and present content for maximum impact? Ask about past projects.
  6. Reliability
    Does the ghostwriter consistently deliver on promises? Check references to be sure.

Finding a Ghostwriter

Ghostwriters aren’t invisible. Here are a few suggestions about how to find one:

  • Ask publishing colleagues and other trustworthy sources for recommendations.
  • Search writing websites, such as Publishers Marketplace, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, or the Editorial Freelancers Association.
  • Post your need with online groups (e.g., LinkedIn has groups for ghostwriters, writers and publishers).
  • Search online using Google, Elance.com, and other sources.

Writing a book is a significant undertaking that is difficult to maintain alone. A good ghostwriter will get you started on the right track, keep your project moving, conserve your valuable time, assist you in producing an outstanding product, and help you avoid costly mistakes. There’s nothing spooky about that!

Michael J Dowling (www.MichaelJDowling.com) is a ghostwriter, book developer, editor, and publisher who specializes in non-fiction books and articles for individuals and organizations. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School in New York City, where he was a Harriman Scholar. He is the author three books, including Flip Along Fun, an award-winning children’s book, and Boosting Your Pet’s Self-Esteem, a humorus satire of the self-help craze.

Photo by Bert Van den Roye via Stock.xchng

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  1. Melanie Jongsma

    Michael, thank you for this post! My favorite part? “Although acknowledging your ghostwriter on the cover is optional, it can be helpful from a marketing standpoint, especially with a self-published book, because it tells people you’ve made the necessary investment to produce a professional product.” I had never thought of that kind of acknowledgement as a benefit to the author, but you’re right—it absolutely is! Thank you!

    I have an upcoming blog post in which I want to either quote this article or link back to it. Or both!

    • Michael J. Dowling

      Melanie, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, feel free to use it and link to it.

      • Kassandra

        Suzanne, Thanks so Much! I certainly arppeciate your recommendation!Joylene, Sorry you had a problem getting here. And, thanks so much for subscribing to my newsletter!Emily, Thanks for stopping by and for FOLLOWING!

  2. Don

    As a newbie to the wonderful, wacky world of self publishing, I am a huge fan of people like Joel and you, Michael, for taking the time to help. The friend I sent to your site still has not been there. “He hasn’t had the time!” Are you kidding me? Then, leave me alone. Best to all of you that are helping. The reason I read Joel’s site and others every day is to see what others are doing. The winners are moving, the non-winners, not calling my friend a loser he has made hundreds of thousands in MLM, but it may not be by writing a book about it.

  3. Roger C. Parker

    Dear Michael:
    Thank you for sharing such an informative post. I read it with increasing enthusiasm; I especially liked your summary of “Why a ghostwriter” and your “key traits.”

    As I read this, it struck me, once again (as often happens with Joel’s blog posts) that it’s such a pleasure to read a well-written post.

    I wonder, Michael,–since time management came up–how much drafting and editing time you estimate you have invested in this post?

    Thanks for sharing specific pricing numbers, too.


    • Michael J. Dowling

      I appreciate your kind comments. I didn’t keep track of how much time it took me to write this post, but I would estimate about 3 to 4 hours. I was able to use some bits and pieces from other articles I have written for my website and newsletter, so that reduced the required time some.

  4. David Colin Carr

    Well done, Michael. This is the best written blog I’ve ever read. Clear, concise, and flowing. I’d hire you in a minute.

    One addition: Ghost-writing does not have to be limited to non-fiction. I’ve ghost-written a novel based on a detailed outline.

    One question: Where is the boundary between editing and ghost-writing? I’ve been given some “completed” memoirs to edit. The structure is limited, the writing is very weak, but the potential is great. Finding what will move and inspire a reader, I essentially throw away everything except the content – new structure and all new wording with a projection of new details which are then corroborated by the writer. Is this an “edit”?

    Also, I’m curious how you do an estimate for a ghost-writing project. Or do you establish an hourly rate and take as long as it takes?

    • Michael J. Dowling

      Thanks for your encouraging words. I concentrate on non-fiction because my writing style is more factual than lyrical. Maybe because of my engineering and MBA background, I enjoy aiming for clarity and conciseness, with a healthy dose of creativity. Other people–perhaps you’re one of them–are better than I at making words really sing.

      I don’t know that a clear line exists between editing and ghostwriting. Some clients have come to me with an “editing” project, and it turned out to be a ghostwriting job. It sounds as if that’s what happened to you. When you start throwing everything up in the air and restructuring the content, I consider that ghostwriting.

      I bill by the project, not by the hour. My clients seem to like that better. Since I stick to one genre, I usually am able to gauge the scope of projects fairly accurately. My fees for a 150-250 page book typically run between $20,000 and $35,000. Some ghostwriters charge $40,000 and up, I understand, but I think they’re mostly in New York and Beverly Hills. I live on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.

      • David Colin Carr

        Thanks for being so open in public, Michael. That raises your credibility even another notch by my standards. And your location makes me feel I could support myself on an island in Puget Sound, or some other QUIET, calm environment. Thanks for the encouragement. Mind if I link from my website to this blog?

        • Michael J. Dowling


          I’d be delighted if you linked your site to this blog.

        • Joel Friedlander

          I agree, David. Michael’s openness about this topic was one of the reasons I wanted to host his article here. And hey, link away!

  5. Don

    If a person would give you the information and let you write the book, ghost writing would be fun and easy. However, in trying to write a non fiction book for a friend who is an expert in MLM marketing, he was virtually looking over my shoulder to the point I explained he did not need a writer, he needed a typist. I pointed him to your web site. His thinking was he would like to have a book, but he did not have the time to write one. Duh! Time management is critical to us all. It would have to pay very well for me to stop and write someone else’s book.

  6. Christopher

    Interesting. I’m not sure I’d like to apply my literary talents (stop laughing) to being a ghost writer for a celebrity. I recall Naomi Campbell, a British supermodel, “wrote” a novel once; called Swan. She has a reputation for being unpleasant to us mere mortals so the weekly phone call might have been interesting – it might make a novel in itself.



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