How to pay a ghostwriter

I write books. I also ghostwrite books for others. People who’ve never hired a ghostwriter before seem to be confused about how it works, so let’s clear things up.

Here’s the first thing you need to know: you’re going to have to pay me before the book is published.

Why you pay me first

“Hey, here’s an idea! Why don’t you and I do a book together? If it succeeds, we’ll both make money!”

Yes, I get this all the time. And no, that’s not how it works — unless you’re really famous (and I’ll get to that in a minute).

As a ghostwriter, I am a craftsman. My craft is writing books. I know how to do that really well. You, the client (and after the book is published, the author) want a book. You may want it to boost your business, boost your reputation, become a paid speaker, tickle your fancy, or possibly to sell a load of copies. But those are your goals, not mine. They’re going to pay off for you, not me.

I want you to succeed. But to be fair, much of that success is in your hands. It depends on the quality of the idea and your skill at promoting it. I’m not gambling six months or a year of my effort on whether you do that really well. I’m not a venture capitalist investing in your idea, I’m a craftsman you hire.

You wouldn’t hire a Web designer and pay him out of the new leads his site design generates.

And you wouldn’t hire a strategy consultant and pay her only if the strategy pays off.

You pay us for the work. How — and whether — it pays off for you is largely up to you.

If you want to partner with me on a book, that’s called coauthoring. I have certainly had great experiences coauthoring, but those were projects I chose because they would boost my career along with the other authors’. I can do at most one book a year like that, and I already know what those projects are. If I don’t already collaborate with you, what are the chances that you will bring that idea to me and I’ll become invested in it? Pretty close to zero.

(Now, as to the famous people exception: if you are, say, the manager of the Boston Red Sox or the Vice President of the United States, you can make a case that your book will sell a lot. And perhaps you can convince me that I should take the risk of producing the book purely in hopes of getting a share of the advance and royalties. I bet you’re not that famous. But if you are, call me and we’ll do a deal.)

When you’ll pay me

Just like any other craftsman, you’ll pay me as we go along.

My typical payment schedules include payments at these milestones:

  • When you sign the contract, before we get started.
  • When I complete the book proposal (if we’re pursuing a traditional publisher).
  • When I complete a draft of half the chapters.
  • When I complete the full first draft.
  • When I complete the final draft.
  • When the book production schedule is finished.

There is typically an opt-out on both sides after the proposal, in case we figure out that we really can’t work together.

Why do it this way? Because I work fast, but I can’t do my work without your help. You’re going to have to spend time with me on your idea. You’re going to have to spend time with me on the chapter content. You’re going to review chapters and have feedback that I will address.

If you work fast, this schedule will fly by. But most people who hire me are busy people. They can’t turn things around quickly. So rather than wait around until the very end, you’re going to pay me some up front and then all along the way. And while I’m waiting for you, I may take other work. Don’t worry, I’ll respond very quickly once you start engaging again.

I recently heard this suggestion: that the ghostwriter should get a monthly retainer, deducted from the other payments. If the project goes quickly, that will end up costing exactly the same. If you, the author and my client, don’t do your job to move the book along, the delay will end up costing you. I like that, because it incents you to do the work I need you to do so I can make progress.

Incidentally, what’s that last payment, for “book production”? It’s because my clients often think the work is done when the manuscript is handed in, but I, an experienced author, know it is not. I’m going to have to review copy edits and page proofs. It’s in both of our interests for you to pay me for that, rather than have it happen after you’ve paid me the last payment.

(Clients sometime hire me for additional work — for example, reviewing publisher offers, consulting on book promotion, or writing bylined articles in the promotional period. Those aren’t included in the ghostwriting contract, so they pay by the hour for those tasks.)

We might include a kicker — a percentage of the advance or royalties. I’m open to that, and might even reduce the up-front prices a little for it. But since those payments are uncertain and in the future, it won’t save you much. (Unless you’re famous.)

How much?

That’s highly variable based on what kind of ghostwriter you hire. But let’s do a little rough math, shall we?

Here’s a possible hourly breakdown of the work of ghostwriting your book of 65,000 words in 12 chapters.

  • Develop idea, title, and table of contents: 6 hours.
  • Complete proposal, including sample chapter: 30 hours.
  • Research, including reviewing ideas with you or listening to your dictated ideas: 4 hours per chapter, or 48 hours total.
  • Writing: 4 hours per chapter, 48 hours total.
  • Reviewing and revision of chapters: 2 hours per chapter, 24 hours total.
  • Supervision of production process: 8 hours.
  • General overhead and discussion: 20 hours. (There is always more of this than either of us expect).

Total: 184 hours.

So how much will that cost you?

If you hire a ghostwriter who works for $50 per hour, that will be $9,200. And the results will be crap. Only a total newbie or a hack works for that little. You might get lucky, but why would you invest your own time and energy on a book that represents you and pay that little?

If you hire a ghostwriter who works for $200 per hour, that will be $36,800. That’s still pretty cheap for a ghostwritten book, but there are people who work that way.

You might hire a ghostwriter with specialized skills — like someone who has written science books before, or a specialist in celebrity biographies, or a former technology analyst and author who’s written multiple strategy books. If you hire someone like that, you’ll get a quality result. But it will cost you a lot more than $40,000.

Don’t get the wrong idea — I love making books happen

When I’m on a ghostwriting project I’m all in. I love the author’s ideas. I love the process. I love finding out new things about the topic. I love the back and forth. I love the finished manuscript, and I love holding the book in my hand.

It’s a labor of love alright. Those are the only projects I take on. You can’t pay me enough to write about something I’m not interested in — and luckily, I can become interested in just about anything.

I’m betting it’s the same for most other ghostwriters.

Since I can only do one or two projects like this per year, I’m invested in their success. When they take off, I’m thrilled for you — the author whose vision I have helped to realize — and for the book, which is making an impact after all my hard work.

I always end up putting in way more hours than I planned, because I’ll do whatever it takes to make the book succeed. I don’t know how to do it any other way.

So I love what I’m doing. Just don’t try to pay me in love and hope and shared dreams.

Because in the end, it’s your book. That’s what you’re paying me to produce.

5 responses to “How to pay a ghostwriter

  1. This is the equivalent of being asked to work “for exposure.” In Canada we can die from exposure. If you can pay the caterer you should pay for the entertainment.

  2. When I’ve ghostwritten books, I ask for payment AND co-author credit (which, I guess, means it’s not actually GHOSTwritten then).

    I am curious though, in your payment schedule, what are the percentage breakdowns of your fee? There are six times you get paid, but are those six equal payments? If you were charging $24,000 for a book, are you getting paid $4,000 per time? Or do you break it up into varying amounts?

    1. You’re still a ghostwriter if you get “with” credit — which I did on the last two books.

      I won’t lay out all my fees here, but it’s about 1/4 up front. The rest of the payments are commensurate with the work I do and the hours I put in. That means that the biggest payments are for the proposal and the three writing deadlines. It’s not quite an equal split.

  3. Each September 3 when I turn a year older I raise the prices of my basic contract parts for ghostwriting a business book by $1,000. It started as a marketing tactic: “Sign now before costs increase on 9/3.”

  4. This was very helpful and so clearly laid out – thank you. I bumbled my way through one ghostwriting project that would have gone much smoother with this kind of road map.

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