- the probable length of the manuscript
- what kind of book it is (memoir, business or financial, technical, scholarly, how-to, children, fiction, and so on)
- how much, if any, research needs to be done, and what kind of research it is
- how much, if any, material already exists (such as articles, blog posts, speeches or speaker notes, class notes or scripts, audios and videos, diaries, napkin jottings, etc.)
- how many interviews with how many people will be needed
- if there is travel involved
- if there are tables, graphs, or unusual formatting
- when the book needs to be finished
- and many more
Some ghostwriters will write “on spec” in exchange for a share in the profits, but many are hesitant to do so. My preference is to work on a work-for-hire basis only, meaning my client pays me a fee (usually a flat fee based on those factors above), and the glory, copyright, royalties and profits belong solely to the author. The reason I am not usually thrilled about royalty-sharing is simply because the financial success of any book, no matter how beautifully written, is heavily dependent upon marketing and promotion – which the author must do. I prefer not to tie my compensation to something over which I have no control. Royalty sharing means the ghostwriter is gambling that we may or may not get paid, and because most books do not make a lot of money, especially those from first-time authors, the odds are quite good that we would not make enough to adequately compensate us for our time and skill.
I often wish I was wealthy enough to ghostwrite on spec, because I’ve had to turn down some books that would have been fun to write. But I make my living by ghostwriting, and I find it surprising that people would expect me to work for as long as three, six, or even nine months for nothing but hope.
Of course there are exceptions; for instance, if a prospective client is famous, or their topic is super-hot, or if they already have a to-die-for marketing platform. I might also accept royalty-sharing with a book in the genre of my own books or that match my own particular passions. For instance, because my book Making History is about how to see your own individual life as part of “big” history, I might be interested in co-writing or sharing the royalties in a book about history, historical detection, genealogical research, or other topics that would dovetail with my own book. I might also be interested in royalty sharing in a book about dogs, because my book Dog Park Diary, and a book I’m currently writing, are about dogs. So if a dog trainer wanted me to ghostwrite a book about her new dog training methods, I might be more flexible in how I am paid. Plus, I’d help with the marketing.
It’s important to remember in choosing a ghostwriter or an editor that the most important factor is not cost. Does the ghostwriter share your vision? Are they excited about the project? Are they knowledgeable about your topic, or if not, are they willing to learn? How good are they at listening to you? Can they ask penetrating questions that draw out your stories? Can they write clear and compelling prose in your voice? Can they be fiercely dedicated to producing an excellent work of art, and yet still be able to recognize that the work is yours and not theirs?
Money and how it’s paid are negotiable. The answers to the above questions are not.