How to become a ghostwriter

If it’s your ambition to ghostwrite books, what do you need to know, and what do you need to do? To start, here’s an inventory of the skills you need for nonfiction ghostwriting (with some notes about fiction at the end of this post):

  • Writing experience (and a lot of it — authoring nonfiction books is among the most challenging of writing projects).
  • Experience doing research.
  • Experience interviewing people and writing their stories.
  • Experience writing long pieces, not just short essays.
  • Facility dealing with big ideas.
  • An understanding of how to assemble lots of content into a book.
  • Experience working with publishers.
  • Project management skills.
  • People skills.
  • Ability to successfully run your own freelance business.

Whew! That’s a lot to know. But you also need a source of clients. That means you need some base from which to operate where you are constantly exposed to people with a need for ghostwriting and the ability to pay. Clients are typically either (1) prominent people with a need to get a memoir out or (2) people with big ideas — entrepreneurs, consultants, “thought leader” types — that have a successful business to build.

Career paths for aspiring ghostwriters

Here are several ways you can accumulate the writing skills and experience you will need. Keep in mind that this is likely to take at least five years until you can say, “I’m an expert at book writing for hire.”

  1. Public relations. PR is an excellent place to start. Publicists write press releases, web copy, and lots of other content. They’ll often need to ghostwrite short pieces for clients such as op-eds, speeches, or bylined contributed articles. If you’re in PR, you may also get the chance to work on a book publicity campaign, which will get you valuable experience in how books can make clients successful. Finally, PR folks are regularly in contact with prominent people who are hoping to get a book out. There’s a gap here — there’s a big difference between writing an op-ed and writing a whole book — but if you’re a talent writer, a client who trusts you with their ideas for PR may be willing to give you a chance to ghostwrite a book.
  2. Authoring. People who’ve written a book for themselves, or with a coauthor, are in a very strong position to ghostwrite. They’ve got proven skills in writing, idea development, and book development. If they’re willing to subjugate their ego to the needs of an author client, they’re ideally suited to this work. If you’re on the path to promoting yourself as an author, you may view ghostwriting as a detour — or you may transition to doing it as a full-time job. (How can you write and publish a book to get onto this path? That’s a big question beyond the scope of this post. You can find some answers in my book.)
  3. Working for an author. Authors often need various kinds of assistants. Researchers in particular can expand their skills, learning how to conduct interviews, write parts of books, and deliver on the needs of an author. An internship with an author could be a good way to get started on this. (I wish I had a list of openings, but regrettably, I don’t.)
  4. Journalism. Journalists rapidly become experts at nonfiction writing. They’re also adept at interviewing subjects and structuring information into stories. Journalists regularly develop connections to prominent people like athletes and politicians. It’s a big step from articles to books, but some journalists take this step by becoming authors themselves. (That’s what Prince Harry’s ghostwriter did.)
  5. Publishing. Editorial staff at publishing houses must regularly deal with book-length content and how to structure it. There’s no better way to become familiar with what it takes to produce a book than to publish a bunch. While editors are not necessarily writers, most of them have excellent writing skills that will serve them well as ghostwriters. They are also frequently connected to prominent people who need ghostwriters through their author and agent contacts. The challenge here is that editorial jobs in publishing are dwindling. There are plenty of ex-editors who’ve now become ghostwriters, but not very many openings for new editors.
  6. Speechwriting. If you’re interested in political books, a good springboard is to become a speechwriter. Speechwriters deal with words and ideas and must understand and execute on a client’s objective. Taken together, that’s a good start for book ghostwriting.

The market for ghostwriting fiction has significantly more challenges. There are fewer opportunities and far more writers aspiring to get paid. A successful fiction ghostwriter probably got there through starting as an author or editor. So my recommendation for aspiring fiction ghostwriters is to write and edit as many books in your genre as you can, which will put you on the path to become a credible expert.

One more recommendation: sign up with one of the agencies, like Gotham Ghostwriters. You’ll get exposed to the opportunities they’re making available, which is a good reality check. In general, these agencies aren’t exclusive — so there’s no reason not to sign up for several.

Enjoy the path

Most of the ghostwriters I met didn’t start out hoping to be ghostwriters. They instead pursued one of the above careers and then were offered an opportunity to ghostwrite a book — and realized that they liked it.

So if you think ghostwriting is intriguing, keep that goal in the back of your mind as you pursue your career in publishing, journalism, publicity, or politics. Seek out opportunities to write, help produce books, and participate in book launches. You’ll soon figure out if ghostwriting is something you’ll enjoy — and you’ll be building the network you need to make it work for you.

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