Love of the Writing Craft

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Love of the Craft Q & A

How to Find Work as a Ghostwriter

Is Ghostwriting a Good Way to Make a Living?

By Writing Coach David Duggins | Posted June 2, 2007 | Updated July 22, 2019

Q. I've heard that ghostwriting is a good way for writers to make a living, but I've also heard that writers who "ghost" books don't get recognition for their work.

A. That depends on how you define the terms "recognition" and "work." The profession is severely misunderstood, conjuring images of minimally talented hacks slaving away under sweatshop conditions, turning out book after spiritless book to appease the bloated egos of Fortune 500 CEOs, movie stars, and other assorted eccentrics who wish they could write but can't.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The folks I spoke with were professionals — previously published, with substantial credits of their own — employed by professionals, writing to deadline every day of their working lives to meet the demands of high-profile clients with marketable stories worth telling.

And they are drawn to their jobs by the same force that compels us all: passion.

Larry Leichman, 30-year veteran ghostwriter and co-founder of Arbor Books, discovered writing and theater in high school and college. "But I really got my start in my late teens," he says. After landing a summer internship at a major city agency in New York, Leichman was promptly "adopted" by two women in the Public Affairs office. "They saw this eager but raw kid, and turned me into their protegee." Trained and seasoned, Lichemann found himself writing speeches — for the Mayor of New York City. Two mayors, in fact.

Ghostwriter Eric Shapiro published his first book in 2002, sent hundreds of resumes to writing and editing companies, worked steadily and entered a partnership with Michael McKown to form Ghostwriters Central, where he has written for six years in a variety of areas, gaining experience as a writer and partner.

Sara King, Project Manager at Penn Group, works with writers and in-house staff, serving as a "human switchboard" for connecting people with common interests. She has a journalism background, seating her in the "expert" section next to Leichman and Shapiro.

I invited these three seasoned vets to a little round-table discussion about the art and craft of ghostwriting, and they gave me more than I asked for.

They're the experts. I asked the questions, kept my mouth shut, and listened.

This is what I learned. ...

Q: I want to be a ghostwriter. How do I find work?

Sara: Most writers come to us through direct referral from other writers that we've worked with. All of our writers must be well-published, with a solid track record of writing marketable books. Some of our writers stick almost completely to ghostwriting, and many of them have written highly successful books under their own names. They do have to be versatile, and it helps if they have experience in very popular genres — if you write books about poodles, and only books about poodles, it will be hard for us to find assignments for you, because the demand for poodle-related books is just not that high. If you can also write memoirs, that helps. We can assign you to a memoir about someone who has a dog.

Larry: Before you can be a ghostwriter at our level, you also have to be published. Try writing for local newspapers — even community weeklies. Submit articles to newspapers. And especially try self-publishing your work.

Q: Can you briefly describe your writing "day?" Do you work on more than one project at once, specialize in a particular genre, start writing in the morning, work in an office situation or at home?

Eric: Every day is genuinely different because I'm always working on a new combination of projects. I work in a home office and have no genre specialty. At any given time I have 2-3 long-term writing projects (books, screenplays) and 3-4 short-term ones (biz plans, speeches, editing jobs). The first few hours of my day are devoted to the non-writing aspects of the business: assigning projects to our other writers, talking with new prospects, making project deliveries, doing accounting, etc. Then, as the phone stops ringing and e-mail calms down, I venture into writing. I need quiet, so it's usually saved for the late afternoon or evening.

Larry: As a full-time writer, I worked at home, in an office, on location. There was no rule. I don't write much anymore because I am too busy running Arbor Books with my partner, Joel Hochman. Most of my writing is confined to promotional material and my time is spent teaching my writers how to write better. Here's the ultimate irony: I am having four of my own novels ghosted right now!

A typical day for a ghostwriter: some of my writers have traveled around the country (nearly every state in America) and around the world (Morocco, France, Portugal, Jordan, Italy, Mexico) on assignment. But most writing does not involve travel. Most work is done right on the phone.

Sara: I have a roster of writers, which includes notes about their genres, who they have worked with, and how many projects they can take on at once. When I take on a new client, I check my roster to see which writers are suitable for that client's work. Then I call those writers and begin the process of arranging conversations between writer and client. When the two really connect, I step out of the way and allow them to work together directly. At that point, they establish their own strategies and schedules.

Q: You have an opportunity to share what you do with young writers who may be considering a ghostwriting career. What would you say to them?

Sara: Three things:

  • Stay organized. Ghostwriters are responsible for helping other people to realize their dreams. They have to be responsible and stay on top of things. Some young writers only write when they're "hearing the muse." A ghostwriter's muse may be a Fortune 500 CEO who will be extremely aggravated if you don't deliver the number of pages that you promised, on time, in order, and in 12-point Times New Roman font.

  • Stay patient. People hire ghostwriters because they don't know how to write books on their own. If a client has questions or requests that seem strange, he or she may be operating on a set of beliefs that are different than yours. Clarify without being condescending and remember that you are a professional consultant as well as a creative partner.

  • Stay professional. Ghostwriters capture the client's vision. If you disagree on a creative issue, offer advice and support. If you insult the client's ideas or impose ultimatums, you can and will be replaced. If you write the book that the client wants, you'll get paid for your work. Then you can stay home and write the work that you publish under your own name.

Eric: If you have the following three traits, you'll be great at it: (1) The ability to write well, (2) the ability to write quickly, and (3) the ability to interact heavily with a wide assortment of clients, and shape your talents in accordance with their needs.

The final question — the one I was most curious about — got me answers that completely changed my perspective on ghostwriting.

I asked: how do you handle not getting credit for your writing? This is one heck of a lot of work. A big paycheck is nice, but if I did all the work, why isn't my name on the cover of the book?

"At the beginning, I worried that it might bother me, but it really doesn't," Eric says of working behind the scenes. "A ghostwriter is largely a provider of form. The content comes from another person, so I don't feel any injustice in not getting credit. If a writer feels deserving of credit for a great simile or turn of phrase, it's likely that writer isn't paying enough attention to content. Substance is everything."

Sara agrees, pointing out that ghostwriting can help writers develop critical talents in their own work. "I find that many young writers have trouble creating convincing characters because they can't enter another person's mindset," she says. Writers who take on ghostwriting assignments "immerse themselves in another person's history, thoughts, goals and aesthetics. That can be enormously instructive. Even if you don't put your name on the cover, you walk away with a lot you can use elsewhere."

Some of Sara's clients do, in fact, get cover credit. In any case, "recognition" is a more complicated issue than surface suggests. Maybe you and I don't know who the ghostwriter is, but industry people do — and they're the ones doing the hiring. "There is one writer in particular," Sara says, "who recently published several books in very different areas. The public may not know who he is, but he has tremendous power in the industry because of the work he does."

Larry worked on his agency newsletter, handling press releases and public relations, writing reams of material that did not have his name on it. "It never mattered to me," he says. "I loved the idea that I was helping and informing people. I've never had any misgiving about being in the background or uncredited. I love writing and art and I want to make a living at it — that means making a living," he says. "Ghostwriting is work, and I'm a professional. If you have trouble with that basic concept, you are definitely in the wrong business."

These are the values that propel any writing career. Good work earns respect. Professionalism is expected. Reputations are made on what you do.

If you find all of this surprising where ghostwriting is concerned, you're in good company. I learned a very important lesson: this ain't the bus leagues. These writers are in the show. If you were thinking of a ghostwriting career as a way of sneaking into the stadium through the back door, you'd better head back to the minors. You're not ready for this game.

©2007 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

Next: "I Give Up Writing. I Quit."