Ghostwriting: The Great Fallacy

I often see on Craigslist and other places where someone wants to write the story of their life or perhaps their one great novel, observations on the mating rituals of hummingbirds, or the meanings of shadows cast by the great pyramids. Anything. Everyone does have a story in them and if there is only one it is the story of their life. However, many people write their novels without comprehending the writing and publishing process, without taking training or otherwise learning the ropes. Would you want a pilot who had been trained first? Would you want a surgeon who just knew he had it in him? Writing, like any craft or skill takes training and practice. Few of us are naturals.

Some people recognize this. They realize they don’t have the skill to write the story they want to tell, or they don’t have the time. So they want a ghostwriter, who is someone that writes the story but someone else’s name is put on the book. Ghostwriters are also used for a lot of those novels that have a famous movie/rock star’s name attached. In very few cases has that star actually written the book. In some cases the star may have actually come up with the idea but has no clue how to write the story. William Shatner’s Tekwar books were not written by him though I believe he did give input or supply at least some of the plots. But his name will sell whereas George Smith might not.

Some people who want someone to write their life story (or other interesting event) might post for a writer. And they’ll often offer, as compensation, a percentage of sales. I wonder how many people actually ever get someone naive enough to fall for this venture. There are several things wrong with undertaking such a job. If you’re an aspiring writer, you want to write your own ideas. If you’re a writer, who writes articles or even books, well, you want to make a living off of your writing. If Jane Doe got George Smith to write her biography, George not only has to be a good writer himself, he has to devote a great deal of time to listening to Jane’s ideas and life history going back and forth with her to get or clarify details as well as probably her reading over the manuscript and making him change piece upon piece. She might also have scrawled notes on all sorts of scraps of paper that have to be deciphered and put in order.

The hours involved in such a venture can be astronomical and to work on spec is highly unlikely and pretty well stupid. If someone says to me well, I’ll give you 50% of the sales or what I get paid, you better have a contract and a good fairy. Here are the factors to consider on the way to getting published. Is the writing good enough? Is the story interesting enough with the right amount of information and detail? Is it something others will want to read? Is it a story that a publisher will want to buy? Will it sell many books? Presume that you won’t sell more than $2,000, work out the cover price after looking at other books that are similar, then subtract 40% right off the top. After that, consider that the publisher still has to pay the printer and their staff and you get only a small percentage. Perhaps it is a percentage against royalties. Perhaps it’s a flat rate. Perhaps it’s print on demand and they only print ten copies at a time at $20. You get maybe 40% of net earnings. I’ve sold ten at $200, which means that 40% is $80. What percentage does that writer get and is it worth it?

The problem is, unless you’re writing a famous person’s bio or have signed a deal with a major publisher who guarantees you this much to write the novel, writing someone else’s story is a crapshoot. I would never do it unless I was paid a rate, a very high rate, either by hour or by page. And if I’m writing my own novel, just how much time do I want to devote to someone else’s? I can’t say I would never do this but I certainly would never be a ghostwriter for the dream of sales.

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3 Comments

Filed under art, Culture, Publishing, Writing

3 responses to “Ghostwriting: The Great Fallacy

  1. Mick Sylvestre

    I’d rather work on my stuff anyways.

  2. I’m a ghostwriter, and would never, ever work on spec! You’re right–most ghosts do work for a fee up front. Usually that fee is lower than it should be for writing an entire book, but once in awhile we get what we’re worth. No writer should ever give away their work! Keep telling them! (Some don’t know it yet!)

    • colleenanderson

      Yes, and people hiring ghost writers don’t get it either. Its the old adage of you get what you pay for. If you don’t pay, don’t expect much, even completion.

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