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The ins and outs of ghost writing

Ghost writing is when someone writes something but the credit for the writing goes to someone else. Many, if not most, of the books you see written by celebrities are in fact written by ghost writers.

Most presidents give speeches that they have not written. Some people nowadays even have someone else writing their posts on Facebook and Twitter. Ghost writers are everywhere. But what to do if you’re approached for a ghost writing gig? How does it work?

The most common ghost writing gigs are usually a one-off writing project. Let’s say for example, a family wants to record their history in a book to be given only to other family members. I’ve heard of these sorts of jobs in Botswana.

In this case, it’s likely they will be self-publishing this book with no intention of selling it. They want the writer to put together the information that they have gathered. The writer might need to record some oral stories from members of the family and transcribe them. Then the writer would put it all together in a readable form, ready to be taken to a book designer for layout and the cover, and then to the printer.

It’s important for the writer in this instance to have the full extent of the work involved clearly written out and forming part of the contract the two parties will sign. Such a project can bleed into many, many more hours than you might have anticipated. You don’t want a situation where you have conflict with the people who hired you. Conflict is avoided by having a very clear contract. For example, three one hour recording sessions or all research materials will be given to the writer by a certain date, no research material will be allowed after that date. Otherwise what seemed like a nice, easy writing gig, can turn into your worst nightmare.

The set fee will include the complete copyright being owned by the people who hired you. You will not be able to use any of that writing because it was a work-for-hire and you will not own the copyright. This and the amount of hours you have decided the project will decide the one-off fee. I would advise at least a quarter be paid before the project begins. The remainder given as instalments as the work progresses. The final payment should be ten percent or less. Be sure to include the number of rounds of edits that you’ll allow. This means you write, you give it to the client, they make changes, you institute the changes.

Limit the number of times that the client is allowed to do that. You might want to have an outline stage, where an outline for the book is agreed. If that’s the case, then any major re-writes should be defined as well, i.e. not more than 10% of the manuscript.

If the book is a ghost writing project for a celebrity that is going to be published by a traditional publisher where royalties are earned, then there are some different scenarios. If the publisher has hired you, then again it might be a one-off payment. And again a detailed, well-defined contract is a must. And too, a one-off usually means that you are forfeiting your copyright.

Alternatively, you might be given a royalty agreement with the publisher. Though your name will not appear on the cover, and in its place the celebrity will appear as the author, you will still earn royalties as the author. This is a good deal if the person is uber-famous and you can keep your own ego out of the equation.

The ghost writing gig that you should avoid and one I’ve seen often is where a person approaches you to say: “I have a fantastic story. I think you should write it and we can go half- half on the money the book earns”. This person almost never has a publisher lined up. S/he is going to self-publish. You’ll do all of the work and get no money until the book sells, and, undoubtedly, the story is not “fantastic” and you will earn no money for a lot of work and all of the time lost with having to deal with a delusional person. Do not do this. Please.

There are some writers who only ghost write and offer themselves as such. I’ve seen people who wish, for example, they could write a novel but can’t. They will pay someone, often a very good fee, to write the novel for them just so they can put their name on the cover as the author.

The most important aspect of ghost writing is to be clear about the project. You must have a well-defined contract with no lee-way for either party and with a strict payment regime, with payments along the way as the work progresses and a substantial chunk paid at the outset before beginning the project.

Its all I write



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