Ghostwriter as project manager

Isabel Costes, photographed by Dafnisycloe

As a ghostwriter, you appear to work for your author client. Even so, generally speaking, you should manage the book project. Here’s why and how.

Why ghostwriters should manage book projects

Consider your own skills and abilities. You’ve most likely completed book projects before, so you know what’s involved. You know how to plan and execute research and content. You understand how publishing works. That means you know about what publishers expect, how their deadlines work, and what they can and can’t insist on.

Now think about your author client. They’re most likely a publishing newbie with little understanding of writing projects and publishing processes. Moreover, authors who hire ghostwriters tend to be very busy senior executives or celebrities. They don’t have time to manage the project; you do.

These are objective reasons. But there are selfish reasons as well. If you design a systematic and disciplined process, you can manage uncertainty. You can design deadlines that ensure you don’t have a frantic rush at the end. You can manage reviewers and review cycles. For your own sanity, you’re much better off if you’re in control of how the book gets created.

For any ghostwriting project, the content is a collaboration. There’s lots of give and take, but the author client is the ultimate authority on what gets written and submitted. You can’t control the content, but you can and should control the process.

My experience is that the author clients don’t resist this; in fact they prefer it this way. They want to depend on your publishing expertise. And by taking charge of the project in a calm and professional way, you establish yourself as the expert. This goes a long way when inevitable conflicts and challenges appear, because you’ve gained respect from your creative and project management skills.

What does it mean to manage the book project?

These are the elements of being a project manager.

  • You should start by working together on the idea and table of contents. An in-person kickoff meeting is often helpful.
  • You should work with the author client to establish key elements of the process, most notably, where the source material will come from and who will review the content. In many cases, the author is not the only reviewer; often corporate communications people or agents must also review content. And in some cases you will be working for coauthors. So set up guidelines on how long reviewers have to respond, whose reviews are most important, and what format their review comments come back in.
  • You should design a schedule for content creation and review, chapter by chapter. (Note that you can’t effectively do that unless you’ve settled the table of contents first.)
  • You should set up a series of regular virtual meetings (in my current project, those meetings happen every other week; in past projects, we met weekly). Typically, you’d use such meetings to go over the content of review comments and other elements of the book creation process, such as research and graphics. You should send an agenda email a day ahead of each meeting and a followup email within a day afterwards. The client’s commitment to attend these meetings and engage is highly correlated to the likely success of the project.
  • You should provide context for the author’s interaction with the publisher (or publishing services company): what the publisher is likely to expect, what can the author expect from them, what will happen after manuscripts are submitted and during the book production process.
  • You should help design a fact-checking process at the final manuscript stages.
  • You should manage the project during the publisher’s page layout and production processes. That’s when the author will be happy to have you taking care of things, and ensures that you maintain quality throughout the publishing process.

You should get paid for this

Some ghostwriters will read this and say, “Hey, I’m paid to write, not to manage a project.” That’s shortsighted. If you don’t take charge, you’re at the mercy of others, and that’s not going to work out well.

That said, you still deserve to get paid for this extra work.

That means your writing payments and milestones should include compensation for the extra hours put into project management. If you charge by the hour, include these hours. If, like me, you charge by the project, then build extra time into your estimates for these efforts.

It also means that you should continue to get paid after the manuscript is complete. I always include a fee for managing and supervising the manuscript through book production. This is typically about 5-10% of the total fee, since it’s less skilled work than actual writing.

If you design your processes, milestones, and payments around yourself as a project manager, you’ll have a much happier ghostwriting experience. And your clients will be calmer and happier, too.

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One Comment

  1. I. Love. This. Post.

    I suppose that an author/client can hire separate ones, but I’d argue as you do that the same person can and probably should fulfill both functions.