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Great Story, No Talent: Ghosting Out Your Book

Updated on March 20, 2011

The Pros & Cons Of Calling In Casper

You have an incredible story to tell. Maybe it's the history of your family overcoming wars, tragedies and other hardships. Or maybe it's a book sharing your experiences with model trains or Cleveland 351 V8s or breeding Cinnamon Ferrets. Perhaps it's the Ultimate American Novel that you've got completely worked out in your mind but you'll be damned if you can type more than a line without giving up and walking away, shaking your head.

You shouldn't let your utter lack of writing experience and/or talent stop you from telling your story to the world. All you have to do is to turn it over to the Caspers of the Writing World: Ghostwriters.

Ghostwriting can be fun and profitable!
Ghostwriting can be fun and profitable!
C'mon. You didn't really think Paris could write... or read!
C'mon. You didn't really think Paris could write... or read!

Ghosts are experienced, published authors that will write your story for you. When the book is published, your name will be on the cover, not theirs. In exchange, all it costs is ca$h.

The majority of famous autobiographies you see on the bookshelf these days are written by ghosts. The "celebrities" possibly being too busy or inebriated to master the art of writing. The exact statistics of how many titles are actually ghostwritten may never be known, but some estimates could reach as high as 20 out of the 100 bestsellers at any given time.

There are no limits to what can be ghostwritten. Most ghosts deal with both fiction and non-fiction books, but are also active in political and corporate speechwriting, e-books, and even blogs!

No, I guarantee I'm really writing this blog! I'm not subcontracting it out to a ghost! Honest!

Sometimes the ghost actually gets joint or subcredit. One of the best examples are William Shatner's various TekWar and Star Trek books. Bill's writing talents obviously don't go beyond compiling a shopping list so his ghosts, such as Garfield & Judith Reeves-Stevens, are listed on the cover as "co-authors" (read that "only authors").

The Reeves-Stevenses: "Hi, Bill. What book do you want us to write now?"

William Shatner: "I want... a book... about... Captain Kirk... surviving Generations... and saving the universe... one... last... time!"

The Reeves-Stevenses: "Great, Bill. We'll have it to the publisher by the end of the month. See ya."

(Note to Mr. Shatner's attorney... that dialogue is fictional, ok?)

Is ghostwriting a con? That is a vivid debate that has been going around publishing circles for decades. There have been stories about "celebrity authors" being credited for books that they never even ended up reading. That is inherently unfair to the reader who has picked up that book largely on the appeal of the "celebrity author's" name on the cover. However in most cases, the ghost performs a very valid service in compiling information, researching, conducting interviews and organizing the whole shebang into a highly-marketable and successful book that satisfies and pleases the reader. There's nothing wrong with that!

If you've decided to ghost out your story, or maybe even become a ghost, you should learn about the bottom line, and that's always money.

In most cases ghosts will charge a flat fee. That fee varies wildly between assignments, writers, topics, formats, etc. However, you should fully expect that the absolute scraping-the-bottom, bare-minimum for a properly ghostwritten book would be $15/page, or just under $5,000 for a 300-page volume. You can certainly go onto "Freelancer" websites where Third World so-called writers with questionable mastery of the English language, not to mention talent, education or even ethics will bid to write whatever you want for a buck a page, but 99% of the time, you're getting exactly what you're paying for.

In some rare occasions, especially if the ghost is a well-established author, they may charge a percentage of up to 50% of the total royalties perhaps over and above their flat fee. Regardless, contracting with a ghost is a matter best left for an experienced publishing attorney. Handshake deals often end up in Small Claims Court or worse.

It's very important that the originator and the ghost are comfortable with each other's capacities, characteristics, demands and time-management. It is not unusual to have an originator and ghost come to blows because the ghost is a morning person and the originator stays up all night at the clubs. Furthermore, it seems that in a large number of cases, the originator is imagining one final product while the ghost has quite another in mind. It's extremely important to communicate extensively and thoroughly at each and every step of the process so that the originator receives what they're expecting and the ghost can meet those expectations.

Ghostwriting can be a boon for the originator of the material who doesn't have the time, inclination, talent or education to write their own book. It can also be a great way to make a living out of the comfort of your spare bedroom as many ghosts never end up meeting their beneficiaries face to face, but only over email, phone and fax. It's a booming business and you might be able to find your niche in it!

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