Hiring a ghostwriter? Pick a published author, not a rookie.


A friend reached out for advice yesterday. “How much should I charge to ghostwrite a business book?” he asked. I was surprised, because I knew he hadn’t written a book before. My first thought was, “You’re still a rookie author. So you and your potential client are going to be doing some very expensive learning together.”

Anyone who proposes to ghostwrite a book should have already published a book on their own. Why? Because learning to write a book and learning to ghostwrite are both challenging learning curves. Learning both at once, on a paid contract, will inevitably to lead to heartache.

What you need to learn

My friend is an experienced writer. Writing skill is not the issue. But an experienced writer is not an experienced author.

Here are some of the things you need to learn to write a book:

  • How to develop a book-worthy idea.
  • How to collect stories.
  • How to tell those stories.
  • How to conduct research to support ideas.
  • How to organize ideas into chapters.
  • How to assemble chapters into a book-length narrative.
  • How to structure a chapter.
  • How to rewrite based on editorial advice.
  • How to work with publishers to turn a manuscript into a book.
  • How to promote a book.

Ghostwriting has its own challenges. Here are some of the things ghostwriters need to learn:

  • What content and ideas you need from another person to fuel a book.
  • How to explain the book-creation process to another person.
  • How to refine someone else’s ideas.
  • How to write in someone else’s voice.
  • How to elicit ideas from a client.
  • How to assemble someone else’s ideas into a book-length narrative.
  • How to balance your own creativity with another person’s ideas.
  • How to manage a client review process for work in process.
  • How to work with a busy person towards a deadline.
  • What to do when a book is off-track and needs redirection.
  • How to set content and financial milestones in a way that both the writer and the client feel is fair.

Rookie authors will tell you it was a huge learning experience. And rookie ghostwriters will similarly share that the learning was intimidating. I can’t imagine trying to learn both at the same time.

Two more factors increase the degree of difficulty

Even if you thought you could learn to do all those things at once, there are two more complicating factors.

First, the ghostwriting client will have lots of questions about the process of creating a book — from how publishing contracts work to what happens in copy editing to how to secure blurbs. If you haven’t published a book before, your answer will have to be “I don’t know, I have no experience with this.” That’s going to be frustrating for the client.

And second, there’s the question of money. The ghostwriting client is going to be paying you tens of thousands of dollars. And there’s likely a publisher counting on getting the book they were promised, and paid for. When the challenges arise — and they definitely will — people are going to start wondering what they’re paying for. This isn’t just a collaboration, it’s a financial relationship. That makes everything more difficult.

So if you want to learn to write books, write a book. But don’t try to learn while someone else is paying you and counting on you. Because you may be an awesome writer, but a rookie author ghostwriting for the first time is a sure setup for tragedy and failure.

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