Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ghost writing novels


Over the past few years, I've ghostwritten/edited nearly a dozen romance novels with a friend who then self-publishes them. The way this has worked for us is she acts as a James Patterson type: she has great high-concept ideas that she then hires out to writers to fill in. I have no qualms about saying I'm very good at what I do (confidence--what a new notion for me!), especially as I've recently expanded my clientele to do the same work for another romance writer. I'm paid fairly well as a work-for-hire when there are projects to be had, and I love this work as it's fun, comes naturally to me, and is far from what I write/want to write as far as my own books, so there's no competition.

Recently, I was on Upwork looking for editing jobs and noticed there are quite a few requests for ghostwriters who are given the concept and then asked to run with writing the story. I'm led to believe that the majority of self-published authors in certain genres are using ghostwriters. I'm wondering how this works in traditional publishing and if it's similar. More than that, I'm wondering if it's possible to break into traditional publishing as a ghostwriter and if it's lucrative to do so.

So I suppose that's the question, which I'm hoping with your knowledge might provide some much-needed guidance. Can writers break into the industry as ghostwriters and is it financially lucrative for them? Or should I stay the course and continue as-is? 


There are certainly a number of people writing novels that are published under someone else's name, or with the writer listed as a co-author. James Patterson is the classic example. I think John Sanford does some of his novels like this. And certainly there are now entire franchises written by a new author (Dick Francis, Robert Ludlum, Robert Parker)

Thus it is financially lucrative to be a successful ghost.

How to break in? The only people I know who have those gigs had writing careers before they had ghost careers. Their agents got them the ghost jobs, or their personal connections with estates did.

As a relative new-comer with self-pubbed titles in your resume, it's going to be a LOT harder.

The first thing you need to verify is that you are contractually allowed to tell people you wrote "someone else's book."

This is sticky point in all ghost negotiations. Some ghosts are contractually prohibited from telling anyone they wrote something. Others are allowed to mention it only within the industry as a reference for a gig. And some are allowed to have their name on the cover.

If you don't have this established in writing, you'll need to. The last thing you want to do is damage your income stream by having your "James Patterson" say "whoa Nelly, why are you telling people you wrote my book??"

The second thing you'll need to do is cough up sales figures. Self-pubbed books often don't do well. Trad-pubbed books often don't either, but there's a stereotype about the quality of self-pubbed books that has not entirely dissipated. You'll need to be prepared to address that.

How you'd query for this I do not know. Generally I'm not looking for ghost writers for my novelists. The ghost writers I have hired were for non-fiction, and I knew of them from their agent.

As you work on your own novels, you might just keep this mind as something to discuss with your agent when you hook up with her. It's another way to make money and I'm all in favor of my clients making wheelbarrows of dough.

46 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I'm not sure why but I have a hard time wrapping my head around a writer who goes through all that work only to end up unable to take the credit (and the monetary rewards).
If you can easily do that for someone else, why not you?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I'm with 2Ns- all that work for someone else's thing. Although, by this time of the week I feel like a ghost writing. But that's a different thing. I wonder how publishing deals with the undead?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I have no information about ghost writers, but I can add that James Patterson's sheer volume of books (many of which which one-word titles) have reached such quantity that when we search his name in our library system, there are too many results to sort them afterwards. I've taken to searching by his co-author's name.

Lennon Faris said...

I also don't 'get' the whole ghostwriting thing. I will read a book because of the way it's told, not because of the ideas behind the story (even if they're great ideas). I feel like the ghostwriter should get most of the money and most of the credit.

The idea of someone hiring someone to write the book for them reminds me of the "gunpowder smile" post. Maybe there is something I'm not quite understanding.

Colin Smith said...

Very interesting. I wonder how close this would be to writing for an existing franchise? For example, Beth Revis has written at least one Star Wars novel, I believe. This is probably a party you need to be invited to, and hence you would land the gig based on your reputation as a published writer--so probably not something Opie would consider at this juncture. But I wonder how much Opie's experience as a ghost writer would help with developing stories for existing characters and worlds...?

2Ns/EN: I could imagine a writer doing it for the money and the experience. Especially if they've hit a dry spot, but want to remain productive. Not being able to take credit would be frustrating. If it was me, I would want to negotiate the contract such that I could advertise the fact within the industry. At least that way I could mention it in queries.

AJ Blythe said...

Ghostwriting in non-fiction I get. Ghostwriting fiction I don't (unless your name is on the cover a la James Patterson).

OP, if you are finding success ghostwriting fiction for your friend, why don't you do it for yourself? I guess as someone who'd love to have any success with my writing, I struggle to understand why you wouldn't want to be able to claim the work as your own.

Colin Smith said...

Sorry, I just saw Lennon's comment, and, yes--what she said. If I had the idea, I would want to see it through. I couldn't imagine handing off the concept to someone else to write. Especially if I was already an established novelist. I have to admit, these novels written by Famous Author and Whothe Heckareyou... if I was a fan of Famous Author, I probably wouldn't buy them. As Lennon says, it's not just the idea behind the story, but it's the execution of the idea. And if I'm paying for Famous Author's novel, it's because I like the way Famous Author wrote it, not just for Famous Author's idea.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Yes to AJ, the non-fiction aspect I get as worthy to the platform. But fiction...?

Colin Smith said...

... though I also wonder how much a co-writer credit helps the co-writer? I'm sure Famous Author gives Whothe Heckareyou jacket credit to help boost Heckareyou's career. Does that actually work? Do we know of any successful authors who started out co-authoring with a more established writer?

I should have a ghost writer for my comments. Maybe then I'd gather my thoughts better and express them succinctly in one comment.

LynnRodz said...

OP, it seems your question to Janet is how to make more money as a ghostwriter. You say it's easy writing Romance and it's fun and comes naturally to you, so why not write a few stories yourself and try to find an agent with them? Then all the royalties go to you which is more lucrative financially than being paid by someone. You can write under a pseudonym and continue writing the genre you want to write under your own name. That seems more of a win-win to me.

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

Seems obvious to me why the writer would prefer to ghost write. She is doing it for somebody who self pubs. She gets to write and get paid but does not have to do the things necessary to self pub and to get the books sold, on her own, one by one.

Susan said...

Thank you, Janet! I appreciate the insight here, as directionless is not a good look on me. Now at least I have a better idea of which paths to pursue, which I'm eternally grateful for.

I'm the OP, and I completely understand why everyone is so confused. When my friend first approached me with a skeleton of her story, asking me to do some rewrites and editing, I was hesitant at first because I had the same question--why would I write something if my name wasn't attached? I was doing some freelance writing as a side job and hating it, and I wanted to get back into fiction after feeling burned out by my first book. So I decided to give this a shot.

It was, in a sense, freeing for me. It offered me some extra income, renewed my passion for fiction, and let me hone my skills in a different genre. I'm more of a literary writer who wants to focus on coming-of-age/nostalgic fiction. When I ghostwrite, it's mostly commercial romance (though I get to pepper in my own style). I've found this is great for me in a couple of ways:

1) It's fast. I can knock a book out in a few weeks and get paid without having to worry about production, sales, or marketing.

2) It's fun. Writing my own books is pure torture (and I love every second of it, but still. Torture). But with someone else's ideas in someone else's genre, I have no attachment to it. So I can really enjoy the writing without the added pressure that I love to put on myself.

3) It helps me with my own work. Not only did the experience of that first book really cement for me what I want to write on my own, but it got me back into the swing of writing. And the subsequent books have taught me a lot about craft (pacing, tension, etc) from the commercial side.

Right now, the question I asked Janet stems from financial interest. I'm still pursuing writing my own books, but ghostwriting clients in self-publishing is hit or miss. I was wondering if I could make the jump to traditional publishing.
Ah, but nothing is ever that easy. ;)

AJ Blythe said...

Colin, to answer your question about ghost writing with an established author... yes. At least, it has certainly helped an Aussie author who co/ghost-wrote a James Patterson book.

Candice Fox made national headlines in Oz (and a heap of speaking gigs) thanks to her James Patterson book (I went to her workshop at conference last year - a fascinating insight into the process).

Joseph Snoe said...

A publisher once asked me to “ghost update” a minor law book (I’d never heard of it and haven’t anything of it since). It was time for a new edition and the original authors didn’t want to or couldn’t update it. The publisher offered a $1000 for a quick update. I turned it down because (a) in my mind there is no such thing as a quick update (I overthink everything) and (b) my name would not be on the cover.

Joseph Snoe said...

I can see why the ghostwriting system works. The famous author is the “rainmaker.” His name is the face to the world, and his or her name is what generates sales.

It works like that in most places. As a young lawyer I did the research, analysis and drafting. A partner met with the client and took the credit (and the big bucks). When I clerked for a judge, same thing (except he made the decisions – all I had to do was to prepare 'briefs' before hand and write it up under his name). When I was support staff for a large corporation, it was the sales reps and upper management who were paid the best. Etcetera, etcetera.

But I did get paid and because of the rainmaker I had work. My work took creativity and skill, but I understood and accepted the system fully. I can see the same in publishing. I’m more a struggling sole proprietor in my writing now. I am fully on board with that too (hoping someday to delete the “struggling” adjective).

RosannaM said...

So I was all set to jump on the 2NN, AJ bandwagon, when I got down to Susan's explanation. And now my thoughts are all muddled.

First--Holy Cow! You can write one in a few weeks?

And second. I hear that the book you want to write is one that is much deeper than the fluffier stuff you write for hire. My question to you would be, would those romances be good enough to go the traditional route? And if yes, what would be the harm in writing one for yourself, see how it goes? You could always use a pseudonym for it.

And third--Holy Cow! You can write one in a few weeks!?

RosannaM said...

Okay I am taking my life in my hands, and risking a one-way ticket to Carkoon, but I can't stand it any longer and since none of the rest of you are as brave(foolish) as I am......

What was the gift the client brought Janet?

kathy joyce said...

Thx Rosanna, now I don't have to ask. I'll send fresh water and chocolate. What's the address for Carkoon?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Rosanna So good of you to take the hit for rest of us. I am told Carkoon is lovely this time of year. If you don't mind puss-filled mosquitoes the size of pterodactyls.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

Thank you Susan for sharing your motivation! It's really interesting to hear about people's motivations, especially for non-tie-in novels.

Colin Smith said...

EM: I know I risk the horrors of a Carkoon deep summer commenting on a fellow commenter's typo, but I think I would prefer puss-filled mosquitos over pus-filled mosquitos. ;D

Colin Smith said...

Susan: I echo the thanks of others for sharing this part of your publishing adventure with us. Very interesting and illuminating, both your question, and the discussion it has generated.

Rosanna: I was going to ask if there was a winner to the contest, which isn't exactly the same as asking what was the client gift... :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Oh no, Colin that was not a typo. The giant parasites of Carkoon are full of cats. So puss is the correct term. And no, it would be better if the insects were diseased or at least declawed. *shivers*

BJ Muntain said...

Donald Maass used to ghostwrite for a series. It gave him an eye for storytelling and experience in the industry.

Why would anyone ghostwrite? I think OP details their reasons well: getting paid for something they love doing.

Two suggestions for OP:

1) Negotiate contracts so you can put in your query you've ghostwritten for this author or series. As with any work for hire, it's experience. You've written full novels, and you've been paid for it.

2) Make sure all those people out there looking for ghostwriters are willing and able to pay - NOT 'share the profits'. (I've seen ghostwriting gigs on sites saying that.)

BJ Muntain said...

Oh. One more suggestion for OP: see if you can get a gig for a commercially published author or series. Something traditionally published. And if the folks paying you are pros, you'll have something better to show agents.

Amy Johnson said...

Some thoughts about ghostwriting:

Different authors have different levels of involvement in projects involving ghostwriters. Some authors may have done much work on a project that also had a ghostwriter.

For some people, having their name on the cover is important; others may prefer to work behind the scenes.

Even traditionally published books that weren't ghostwritten are group projects to an extent--critique partners, beta readers, perhaps an author-hired professional editor, an agent--perhaps a very editorial agent. Then even more people add their time and talents to create the book the reader will purchase.

Amy Johnson said...

Another thought about ghostwriting. (Behaving myself by keeping the last comment to <100 words.) :)

I was thinking along the same lines as something Joseph said. Other industries have their versions of one person getting credit when others have done much work. I've heard labor and delivery nurses joke about how they'll be with a patient for hours and hours, then the doctor comes in at the end and gets the credit. And some restaurant owners don't cook, serve, bus tables, wash dishes, handle accounts--rarely even step foot in the restaurant, but it's their restaurant.

BJ Muntain said...

Susan: Are there places where traditional publishers advertise for ghostwriters? Or is it all 'who you know'? Maybe publishers' trade magazines?

Maybe look at ghostwriting agencies. There seem to be a few, and many of them claim traditional publishing contracts. I can't vouch for any, though.
Perhaps a membership in RWA, and letting people there know that you're willing and able to ghostwrite romance? Maybe they have a database for members looking for writing work?

I've also heard of people writing romance under a pseudonym for extra cash, while pursuing publication in other genres. Of course, this is hearsay, so I can't guarantee anything.

BJ Muntain said...

Okay. Comment number four. But I'm keeping them short, right?

One thing about not having your name on the cover is, if the book doesn't do well (due to the original author's publishing/marketing choices, not your fault at all, of course), it won't affect your ability to get traditionally published. You'll still be a 'debut author', despite having several books already published.

Okay. Shutting up now.

RosannaM said...

Colin, EMEither way, I do not want to encounter the otherworldly creatures that are to be found on Carkoon. Which is why I only asked about the gift contents, not the contest results. That would have been way too come-uppity for me.

So feel free to ask the question, Colin, I'll share the water and chocolates that Kathy sends.

Susan said...

Thanks everyone! You're all bringing up some great points and discussion, which I appreciate.

Rosanna: Yep, the last book I just finished in June was done in two weeks BUT the first draft was already written. I went through and rewrote it all, fixing some scenes, adding in layers and themes, adding more to the characterization, and rewriting/writing new dialogue and better transitions, etc. But the crux of the story was already there. In a sense, I leveled it up. So I act as a ghostwriter in that regard. For my friend who started it all, we wrote a romance/thriller series. We would do something similar where she would either give me a very rough first draft or the skeleton of the story with the outline of scenes, and then I could go in and rewrite it however I saw fit. So it's much more than "here's the premise, write the story." I need to know where my clients want me to go with it and then I fill in the pieces. That's what makes the writing easy and so much fun for me. With my own work, I take years to write because I'm discovering it all for myself (and I have the added pressure of my own style and name attached to it).

Although I did write the first draft of my own new WIP in three weeks. That was amazing and has never happened to me before. But now I'm spending months and months agonizing over it. Like I said. Torture. ;)

BJ: I don't know of any places where trad publishers are advertising. It makes sense that Janet says it's about connections. But I'm certainly going to look. The more I think about this, the more I realize how much I love it and it feels right, especially since it's far from what I want to write on my own. There's something about bringing someone else's ideas to life that excites me... especially if I can make some money and then bring my own vision to life at the same time with my own work.

Really appreciate this discussion. I feel so motivated now.

Colin Smith said...

Susan: It's not for everyone, but if you love it, and this setup works for you, go for it! Is it really that different from someone who has a copywriting job, or some other paid writing gig, as their day job, and writes their own stuff on the side? And if it helps spur on your own writing, then that's even more wonderful. :D

Susan said...

I'm hitting my three comment limit here, but Amy:

"Different authors have different levels of involvement in projects involving ghostwriters. Some authors may have done much work on a project that also had a ghostwriter."

This is also why I have no problem with ghostwriting and no attachment to the story--it's not my story. The way I work with my clients is they bring me the ideas and the skeleton or first draft and I fill in the pieces, rewrite it, and bring it to life. So they are still heavily involved in the writing process--it's still their book.

If I were using my ideas, characters, etc, it would be a different ballgame--I'd either just publish myself or charge much, much more. But the thought of creating something outside of what I want to create (my coming-of-age books) just doesn't excite me as much.

Susan said...

Way over my limit now...

Colin: Yes, thanks! I completely get that it's not for everyone. Completely get that and understand why. Writing is hard enough for our own work as it is, and everyone questioning it has completely valid points. But it's a good fit for me. It just took a long, long while (and this discussion here) to see that.

I feel like I need to give you all a hug. This is like a breakthrough moment for me. =P

Kate Larkindale said...

This really resonated with me this morning because I'm currently ghostwriting an autobiography/memoir. It's not fiction, but much like Susan's process, the subject tells me the stories she wants included, and it's up to me to shape them into something compelling to read, and to fill out the details.

Not sure where this is going to take me yet, but it's certainly fun. Although, I'm not banging out a book in 3 weeks, that's for sure! The process is proving much slower than I had anticipated which means I'm not working on my own books nearly enough. But I've come to terms with that. This year is the ghostwriting year. Next year will be time for me to write my own stuff.

Ardenwolfe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Claire Bobrow said...

Great question and comments today. Lots to learn here, always. So cool to see a breakthrough happen before our eyes!

Ardenwolfe said...

Exactly what Caroline said. I can't fathom it either, but people do what they need to do to get their name through the door, I suppose. Me? I couldn't do it. Feels like helping someone . . . cheat.

Edit: Wish there was an editing option here.

RosannaM said...

Susan, Thanks for sharing your process. You are truly awe inspiring, and doing that much writing is definitely going to pay off for you as you continue on your arduous journey with your own stories. (I used the word arduous because I wanted to de-torturify it for you!)

nightsmusic said...

I'm very late to the party today, but I will say, a good friend of mine who has 40+ traditionally published novels to her credit has moved on and is now enjoying being a ghost writer. She was recommended to her first client from her agent and has now gone on to have several repeat clients. She is not acknowledged on the cover or anywhere in the novel, she does not tell anyone at all who she has written for (and no, I don't know either nor do I ask,) her work comes from other industry insiders or her agent, she gets paid for finished work and is loving the freedom of not having to deal with printing, publishing, book signings, hoping the series she's working on continues to sell, or any of the other downsides to being a published author.She has a steadier income now than when she was publishing under her own name though of course, that can always change, and she's really happy with her current freedom. While I miss her own work, she's happier than she's been in a long time. And if she tires of the ghostwriting, she can always go back to submitting her own work which still has to be done regardless of how many novels you've already published.

So, that's the other side for what it's worth...

Colin Smith said...

nightsmusic: a good friend of mine... has moved on and is now enjoying being a ghost writer. Uhhh... is she now literally a ghost writer??! 8-O

nightsmusic said...

Colin! Too funny! No, not a literal one. After all of those novels, she'd gotten tired of still having to submit, hearing that no, sales weren't what we wanted to see on that last book so you need to switch gears here, all those things that go with the pressure of being a money making author. Most of the pressure is off now and she's happy. And like I said, she can always write her own still and submit again. She also writes serials and publishes them on her site. So it's all worked really well for her.

Boris Ryan said...

Susan, why don't you take a look at the Harlequin romance website? It seems like this would be right up your alley as a good way to break into traditional publishing by doing what you already have experience doing, writing for guidelines. When you go to the site, scroll down until you find Authors, Write for Harlequin. Click there and you'll find all the info you need to write romances following guidelines, which is similar to ghostwriting, in a way. Please check it out, you may find it's just what you're looking for to bridge the gap from self to traditional publishing.
I thought of Harlequin as soon as I began reading today's blog & comments. Good Luck to you.

To address the bulk of other comments: I wrote Star Trek novels back in the day. It was for me, easy, quick and fun to bang them out while my original novels droned on, dragging their feet. My agent suggested I try genre fiction for this reason. So, I can equate this to what Susan is discussing. Of course, writing genre fiction following guidelines is not ghostwriting, you get your name on the book and credit for the story. It is in effect your novel you have developed. However, I do see there are certain comparisons that can be made.
So, I would recommend to anyone writing to look into genre fiction writing for series. Star Wars, Star Trek, or any of the movies or television shows that are serialized, Harlequin, etc.
Good luck to all.

kdjames.com said...

Susan, a quibble, if I may? You said, "I'm led to believe that the majority of self-published authors in certain genres are using ghostwriters." You then later say, in a comment, that the genre you're ghosting is romance, which I'm taking to mean the "certain genre" you refer to in the quote is also romance.

That's an astonishing statement and it's just . . . not true. Not in my experience. Your experience may be vastly different and I'm not questioning that. But whoever is leading you to believe this is perhaps ill-informed.

I've been a member of RWA for well over a decade (I've lost count), know hundreds of romance writers (trad and self-pubbed), and am on several industry email loops. If a "majority" of them were using ghost writers, I'd know it. I would have heard about it. Everyone would have heard about it. I know dozens who use pseudonyms, some openly and some secretly. But I don't know of even ONE romance writer who uses a ghost writer. Granted, there might be a few. But certainly not a quantity that would constitute a majority. The writers I know are FAR more likely to employ an assistant to help with everything BUT the writing (I know several who do) than hire a ghost writer.

I wouldn't even bother to address this except that you're looking for work as a ghost writer and it does you no favours to believe there is a huge number of self-pubbed romance writers out there looking for ghost writers. I wish you all the best in finding this kind of work and don't want to be a wet blanket on your hope, but it's just not as prevalent as you've been led to believe.

Then again, maybe you'll start a new trend and this time next year we'll all be using ghosts. Stranger things have happened.

Susan said...

KD: I may have been overzealous in saying the majority, and for that I'm sorry. I don't mean to negate anyone's writing or hard work. I know there are extremely talented and prolific writers in these genres, so I certainly don't mean to undermine them, their work, or their careers. Not my intention at all.

But I do stand by the assertion that there is a growing trend, particularly in certain genres of self-publishing for writers to employ ghostwriters. I mention Romance because that's the genre I've ghostwritten for and it's what I'm seeing the most on the freelance boards because it is a hot genre. I'm also seeing more and more authors on the writing boards/self-publishing FB groups talking about parsing out their work to other writers in order to grow their catalog quickly, especially as there's an ideology that frequent releases (we're talking monthly) and thus a large backlist increases a self-pubbed author's chance for success (particularly financially).

I don't know what level of involvement these ghostwriters have--if they create the full book based on a premise or if they just go through and polish already-written drafts. Maybe the latter doesn't even really constitute a ghostwriter. I can't say--I can only speak from my own experience and what I do.

But I will say as a final thought that my feelings on the matter are more complicated than I've expressed here because of my beliefs on what it means to create and be a writer. It's why when I ghostwrite, they're more like rewrites. My clients always present the first draft or a detailed skeleton that I can then fill in with details, rework some scenes, or polish, but it's still very much their story, their voice, and their book. As I said above, it would be an entirely different scenario if someone asked me to ghostwrite with only a nugget of an idea. I don't know how I would feel about that. Which is why I'm asking questions about venturing down this rabbit hole. I do love it, I'm having fun, and it's income, but there are caveats based on my own principles that warrant exploration.

But you're right--it may not be a majority, but based on what I've seen as far as freelancer requests and what I've read in these groups, I do think that it's a growing trend in self-publishing, specifically. What it means for the industry, I have no idea.

kdjames.com said...

Susan, I didn't mean to imply you were negating or undermining anyone's work. I know you, we're friends, and I know you'd never do that. I'm not questioning your motives or methods or anything else. [Note to others: A bunch of us talked about this over on FB and the discussion was more far ranging and, as Susan implied, you all are missing some context/detail here.]

I'm just [still] skeptical that the practice is as prevalent as you think it is. But I'm viewing this from the perspective of the RWA bubble (which is a pretty darn big bubble, albeit still a bubble) and your perspective is different. It's an interesting situation/trend and I'm glad you asked the question. Great discussion.