Interview with a Ghost Writer

in Jobs in Writing

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Melanie Mallon gets JobShadowed about her career as a Ghost Writer.  You can find Melanie at www.malloneditorial.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar.  

What do you do for a living?

I am a freelance editor and ghostwriter.

How would you describe what you do?

As a ghostwriter, I work with various kinds of clients. Some people are experts in their field but not writers, and others write well but don’t have the time to get their thoughts down in writing. I work with them to create a book (or other written product) that captures their ideas, expertise, and voice.

What does your work entail?

When a client first contacts me, I ask questions about content, desired length, format, and materials the person can provide, such as drafts, outlines, previously written pieces, audio or video files of the author speaking or teaching—anything is helpful, even if the material won’t go in the book, because it helps me get inside the head and voice of the person. Some clients provide nothing at all. Usually, I will get at least a rough outline of the book.

I provide a rough estimate, to be confirmed after review of the materials. If the person is still interested, we have an initial conversation about the book, and I schedule as many interviews as possible in advance. My schedule fills up quickly, so I like to have this time blocked off as much as possible. Scheduling the interviews also helps me estimate the subsequent deadlines (sample chapter, rough draft, final draft).

I then provide a work-for-hire agreement that details the specifics (length, time, fee, cost of work that goes beyond the agreement) as well as stating explicitly that I do not claim any rights or payment (such as royalties) beyond this fee. I send an invoice for the down payment with this agreement. Interviews begin only after I have received this first payment.

I usually set up about an hour per interview, with each interview covering a chapter. Some chapters require several interviews, and often we end up deciding, throughout these conversations, that some chapters need to be combined and others split into two or more. (This is if we are working from an outline. If no outline, then we figure out how to group the content as we go.) I always call the client so that I can use Skype and record the call. (I call the person’s phone number through Skype rather than making a Skype-to-Skype call because this is easiest for most people.) I use the professional version of Pamela for Skype to record, but other third-party recording options are available.

After the last interview, I write a sample chapter, usually completed within a week (although I’ll be working on it throughout the interview process). I charge more if a client wishes to see a sample chapter before the interviews are finished (and I clarify this up front). I prefer to have a sense of the entire book before starting that first chapter because often later interviews will inform the shape of earlier chapters. If I write a sample chapter too soon in the process, I usually end up having to significantly revise it later (even if it is initially approved by the client).

After approval of the sample chapter (which sometimes requires revisions, but usually nothing extensive), I write the rough draft of the entire book. This can take anywhere from a month to several months depending on the book and my schedule. The client reviews the rough draft, and I incorporate changes and corrections and give the manuscript one last read before sending it as final.

What’s a typical work week like?

Typical? I have no idea what that word means. Because I edit as well as write, my work week varies. Some weeks, I spend most of my time editing (copyediting or developmental editing), which means hours at a time at my computer. Other weeks, I am writing more, which also means hours of time at my computer. So yeah, I guess that is typical—hours of screen time, usually in Word—but what I’m doing varies so much that every day feels completely different from the last. When I have interviews, phone calls are sprinkled in throughout the week, but otherwise, I correspond primarily through email with my clients (publishers, authors, etc.).

I work from home, and my kids are home with me, so that adds another dimension of fun to my day (and I mean that seriously and sarcastically). Some days end with all-nighters, and other days, I have the luxury of taking a few hours to run errands, meet someone for lunch, hang outside with the kids, or spend way too much time on the Internet (social networking in particular is both a time suck and a necessity for people who work long hours at home).

How did you get started?

My route was fairly straightforward. I majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing. I took courses in professional editing, interned at a small literary press, then got a job with another small publisher as an editorial assistant. Part of my job there involved some writing (creating various books for kids).

Then my husband and I moved from Minneapolis to Tucson on a bit of a whim. There, I began freelance editing and proofreading. At one point, I worked in-house for one of my clients, a small publisher of pregnancy, parenting, business, health, cooking, and gardening books. This publisher purchased many books from the UK and Australia, so I would rewrite them for a U.S. audience.

This publisher was acquired by a much larger one and moved out of Tucson, so I happily went back to freelancing, this time as an editor and a writer (but still primarily editing). Now I’m back in the Minneapolis area, and ghostwriting work keeps coming my way through referrals, so I’m writing 75% of the time and editing 50% of the time. (Yes, that math is correct. Did I mention the all-nighters?)

What do you like about what you do?

I love working with words in every way, especially how energizing and creative it is to come up with the perfect way of phrasing something or a solid analogy. The more I write, the more ideas pop into my head, and the more connections I see in all areas of my life, and that’s amazing. Being creative begets creativity, and this bursts out into everything I do.

What do you dislike?

I despise the telephone. Despise. Interviews have gotten much easier because we’re on the same page and the other person does most of the talking, so much of what I dislike about talking on the phone is minimized (such as being caught off guard and agreeing to something I shouldn’t or estimating poorly because I will say anything just to get off the devil device). I have learned to almost automatically tell people that I need to think on something and get back to them, which has helped. But again, the interview process isn’t like the usual phone call, and I’ve actually started to enjoy these conversations because of the flow of ideas and how excited my clients get about being understood, coming up with new ways of looking at the familiar, and getting closer to the final product.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

For ghostwriting, I charge a project fee based on the estimated length (give or take 10%). I always discuss length in terms of word count because page count can vary so much depending on margins, type size, font, and so forth. Word count minimizes the potential for misunderstanding. This means that when a client tells me roughly the length of the book he or she wants, I figure out a range of words that should end up, when typeset, being close to that length. Because the process is so lengthy and the fee often high, I break it up into four payments, with 25% due up front, 25% due upon receipt of the sample chapter, 25% due upon receipt of the rough draft, and 25% due upon completion of the final draft.

How much money do Ghostwriters make? 

The fee I charge depends on many factors: length desired; how complicated the topic is, how much material the client can supply up front; whether the book will include art, sidebars, boxes, pullquotes, or other design elements and my role in working with these; and other elements. I usually charge between $20 and $50 per manuscript page (=250 words). Ghostwriters with technical expertise or celebrity projects on their book list can usually charge much more (as in tens of thousands of dollars).

How much money did/do you make starting out? 

Starting out for me was editing more than writing, so I charged my editing rate at first, which back in the day (15+ years ago) was $15/hour. This went up to $25/hour until I realized, Hey, I’m ghostwriting. Then I started looking up what other people were charging and realized I was way underbidding. So I went from charging several hundred or a thousand-plus to charging at least $2,000-$3,000. But even then, I had several projects under my belt.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

I highly recommend taking some writing courses just to get feedback on whether your opinion of how you write matches reality. I personally think editing courses (and editing experience) are invaluable, especially developmental editing, but these aren’t necessary, I suppose. Still, clients will expect the manuscript to be grammatically correct and fairly clean, so being a creative writer alone won’t cut it if you don’t have an excellent command of grammar, syntax, consistency, and so forth.

Having experience with publishers helps immensely because you get a sense of the market, house style, the overall publishing process, and what submissions are routinely rejected and why. This is important even if your client is self-publishing. I can often tell a self-published book within a few minutes of looking at it, which you want to help your client avoid.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Having to be clear and direct throughout the process to minimize misunderstandings. With nearly every client, I add something to my list for next time, such as “Make sure client understands that writing does not include graphic design or e-book coding.” During the interviews, I often paraphrase what the client is telling me to make sure I’ve understood it, which is another way to prevent misunderstandings that could lead me way off track with the writing.

What is most rewarding?

Those moments when what I’m writing or what we’re talking about in an interview leads to further insight or a new way of describing or explaining something that is an aha moment for me and for my client.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Think in terms of how you might get your foot in the door doing something related rather than trying to jump right into ghostwriting without any related experience. For example, write your own books or articles first or go the editing route. You could try copywriting or website writing first, or ghosting someone’s blog, such as if you notice that someone doesn’t post much (perhaps because the person is too busy) and you have a good grasp of the topics and background. Offer to write a guest post and go from there. Simply building your own writing portfolio in any way possible will help give you something to show potential ghostwriting clients (not only to illustrate your abilities but also to give them an idea of whether your style is a match—sometimes it’s not, and you shouldn’t take this personally).

Also, keep in mind that making a living at this requires quite a bit of self-discipline.

Scratch that. It actually requires recognizing that you aren’t self-disciplined (in most cases) and not telling yourself you’ll be better tomorrow. Consciously develop systems and ways of tricking yourself to compensate for the desire to procrastinate or the tendency to get distracted.

How much time off do you get/take?

Ha! In theory, I can take time off anytime I like, but in practice, I’m usually too swamped. That probably has more to do with my work habits than the job itself, although I know it’s a common problem with freelancers in general. Part of it is that I don’t get paid for all my work time, so the time I spend on my own accounting or marketing, for example, is unpaid work. This means scheduling enough work on top of that to meet my financial goals. Still, I can schedule appointments anytime and take random days off whenever I can fit them in, so the flexibility is there, and I love it.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

In general, people think freelancers have all the time in the world. I’ve had to be assertive with people who call during my workday just to talk (which I don’t like to do anyway, so being assertive is easy). That’s an ongoing battle, this sense that my work isn’t “real” work in the same way as an office job, that I can drop everything and go do something anytime or that I spend half my day playing Angry Birds or Words with Friends. (I fight the urge to do just that—don’t get me wrong—but I’d be out of business if I gave in to it.)

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

My main goal is to reach a point where I am not working quite so many hours. I’m actually about to achieve that goal, so after that, my next goal is to be increasingly picky about the jobs I take, doing only work that I absolutely love. I am somewhat selective now, but I have occasional projects that are not exactly exciting to me. Fortunately, though, the occasional project like this is offset by how much of my work I adore.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

Take the time to look into all the legal and ethical issues before you begin. I think it’s important for ghostwriting to be an ethical field, and I cringe at the occasional story of a ghostwriter doing something like writing about research for publication to divert attention from the original researcher being on the payroll of a company that profits from the findings, just for example.

Also, understand that you really don’t want any and all ghostwriting work. Make it part of your process to find out if you’re a good fit for the project. Ghostwriting is intensive and time consuming to begin with—it can become a nightmare if on top of this, you have to deal with constant rewrites and misunderstandings that stem from simply not being the best writer for the person or topic.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Guntar January 28, 2015 at 6:22 pm

This is a very good interview. I’ve learned a lot from it. Thank you verymuch for posting this.

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