The paranoid ghostwriter’s checklist

When pitching yourself as a ghostwriter, you may worry most that you won’t get the job. But perhaps you should worry more about what happens if you succeed.

At the start of ghostwriting projects, everyone is smiling and optimistic. It’s no fun to think about what might go wrong. But unless you protect yourself, you could find yourself in a very uncomfortable position — one in which you are wasting your time, are at odds with your client, or aren’t getting paid for the work you’re hired to do.

Use this checklist to protect yourself

Some of these items are part of your legal agreement. Others are about how you interact with your client. All of them should be on your mind as you negotiate and execute your ghostwriting project.

  • Are you getting paid enough up-front? Any ghostwriting contract should pay at least one-third on signing. This is your best protection to make sure you don’t do a lot of work for too little compensation.
  • Are you getting paid for idea development? Projects rarely arrive fully formed and ready to write. That means you’ll do significant work with the author identifying ideas and structuring content. Make sure you’ve estimated this work and have built the cost of that time into the contracted amount.
  • Have you agreed on where the source material for the project will come from? There are a lot of ways to get this source material — dictated by the author, from the author’s existing documents, or via interviews augmented with your own research, for example. But you need to know how it’s going to work before you get too far into the project.
  • How much research will you need to do? You might be doing web research, sourcing interviews, conducting interviews, or even analyzing data. All of that is work. You don’t want to get neck deep in it until you’ve estimated the time it will take and the way you’ll get paid for it.
  • What process will you use to collaborate? When you write a chapter, how will the author review it? After you revise it, will they review it again? Have you checked if the author is comfortable with redline edits (track changes) in Microsoft Word or Suggesting Mode in Google Docs?
  • What happens if the author client becomes unresponsive? Authors are often busy people; that’s why they hire ghostwriters. But extended periods of non-responsiveness will not only blow up your schedule, they’ll interfere with your ability to take on other projects and make a living. One way out of this conundrum is to charge a monthly retainer and then reduce other payments in your contract by the retainer payments already made. This makes sure you’re getting paid even if the project is stalled, and puts the pressure back on the author client to get moving.
  • Can you use the project as a demonstration of your skills for future pitches? Some projects give the ghostwriter billing on the cover using the word “with.” In others, the clients will be willing to thank you in the acknowledgments and allow you to take credit for the project. But others won’t allow you to acknowledge your contribution at all. Check this ahead of time; if a project won’t be referenceable, you should probably get paid extra for it.
  • Are you getting paid for supervising the production process? Ghostwriters typically end up reviewing copy edits and page proofs. If you’ve done a good job on the project, this isn’t onerous work, but it is time-consuming. In my experience, though, author clients won’t pay for it because they don’t realize that it’s even necessary. The best solution is to estimate the time you’ll spend on that and fold it into payments for earlier project stages. This makes sure that by the time you get to final book production, you’ve already been paid for your work supervising it.
  • Have you staged the work and payment milestones to protect yourself if things blow up? If the project falls apart partway through, you deserve to get paid for the work you did so far. Contracts typically include a provision for this, but getting money out of a client once the project has blown up is very difficult. To avoid this situation, make sure you’ve broken the work up into four or five major pieces for which you can bill. (I typically bill up-front, after idea development, after half the chapters are drafted, after all of the chapters are drafted, and on completion of the second draft.) That way, you won’t have a huge amount of unpaid work left on the books if the project goes south.
  • Are you protected legally? Contracts should specify that the author indemnifies you. Even if you make an error, it’s often because you believed the author when they told you something false, or the author should have caught an error that you introduced. Every ghostwriter strives for absolute accuracy, but you don’t want to be ruined if there is an error that is the client’s responsibility. (Check with a publishing lawyer for more precise advice on this.)
  • Do you like the author and believe in the project? If the author is an asshole, you’re going to hate every minute of working on the project. And if the topic of the book is something you don’t believe in, writing it is going to be emotionally painful. The key is to look out for these problems before you sign the contract and walk away if things look dicey.
  • Do you know how billing and payments will work? I recently completed a project that seemed ideal. The publisher who hired me is a friend and someone I trust. I liked the authors. They had ample, detailed source materials. I knew the topic well enough to do a good job. We all got along great, and the result was excellent. Even so, getting paid was a hassle. The publisher wouldn’t pay me until he got paid by the authors (a reasonable position for him to take), and the details of the process of getting the authors’ company to pay turned out to be painful and confusing. While I eventually got paid in full, I also learned my lesson: get the billing and payment process settled before you get too far into the work.

This is certainly not everything that can go wrong. But it’s a worthwhile checklist to start with. Check these things up front, and you can spend your time on writing and ideas, not on regretting your lack of foresight as you struggle through a troubled writing relationship.

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