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How to Pay a Ghost

It’s usually the first question I am asked: “How much do you charge?” It is also the hardest question for a ghostwriter to answer.That’s because ghostwriting fees can have an extensive range, depending on a host of factors. Costs are unique to each project. Some of the factors which may determine the price are:
  • 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
      The next most popular question I am asked is whether I will ghostwrite a book in exchange for a share of the sales of the book, or for credit as co-author and a share in the royalties. Usually the people asking this are not writers and are brand new to the “book biz”, so they have unrealistic expectations of what an author may earn in royalties. They also may not know how to market and promote a book and how much time, effort, and expense it takes.

      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.

      Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit
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      1. My answer to the question 'how much do you charge' is 'how much do you have?'

      2. This is interesting, Kim. I especially like this:

        "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."

        As a developmental editor I have been approached several times by people brazen enough to suggest that I might like to donate my services for the sheer joy of bringing their book into the world. Now my involvement usually lasts only a few weeks, and I do enjoy the inherent rewards of improving their work—but unless they are going to bring me meals and renegotiate my mortgage, that doesn't really work for me.

      3. If I make more than $25/hour writing, editing, marketing, or coaching, I'm satisfied. I guess I'm easy to please, and I seem to have as much work as I want.

      4. This comment has been removed by the author.

      5. Kim, the value a writer puts on his/her book and its potential earnings always amazes me when compared to how little my time and effort are valued in bringing it to a marketable form. I remember one writer some years ago who was stunned when I refused to edit her very needy manuscript and be paid out of her royalties.

      6. Very helpful post, and I am so glad that you addressed the subject of payment directly. Like you, and many other editors and writer, I have had people ask me to work on spec. They never seem to understand why I can't do that. I may take Kathryn's suggestion and ask them to bring me meals and perhaps pay my electricity bill for a couple of months.

      7. I figure a person would have to be pretty rich to afford a ghostwriter, and delusional to think they will make their money back in sales (unless they're famous or it's a business manual). And, I figure once you've handed over the manu the client is totally lost about what to do with it.

      8. I am so glad that you addressed the subject of payment directly. Like you, and many other editors and writer, thanks for sharing.
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      9. This is an interesting post and you offer some great guidelines.

        Ghostwriting seems like a good way for a writer to earn a living, providing they can write quickly and well.

        What bugs me is those who hire ghostwriters and don't acknowledge the writer who did the heavy lifting. I think every ghostwriter deserves a byline!


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