Does it ever make sense to employ a ghostwriter?

Over the years, the Writers’ Workshop has handled a fair few ghostwriting projects. The best of these have been massively successful. We have:

  • helped an internationally bestselling thriller writer refine and perfect his latest work;
  • written a non-fiction proposal for a client, secured an agent within a week, then helped secure an excellent UK deal within a further fortnight. US and other international deals are currently being sought now. We are turning the proposal into a fully fledged MS right now.
  • done extensive editorial work on a memoir by Barbara Tate. We then sold the MS (West End Girls) to Orion and saw it become a bestseller. The book has had TV interest from well over a dozen different production companies.

We have one further, very exciting, project in the hands of a leading agent now and are expecting good things from that assignment this autumn.

On the other hand, we’ve also handled projects that haven’t worked. Although our success rate is excellent – we get a publication deal for better than 1 in 2 of these books – it’s not 100%. So here are our tips on making something work:

The book / proposal / idea needs to be compelling. However brilliant the ghostwriter, a poor idea will never fly. The client needs be able to take advice on this topic. Naturally, any client will be passionate about their own idea, but if an expert third party (like ourselves) is negative, it’s a foolish client who doesn’t listen!

The ghostwriter needs to be passionate about the project. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a successful ghosting project where there wasn’t a really good match between ghost and assignment. Usually that’ll mean that we assign the most obvious author. If it’s a book about finance, we’d use someone with background and interest in that area. But it doesn’t have to work like that. We’ve also been really excited about a chick-lit-type memoir which was handled by a ghostwriter who wasn’t really the chick-lit type. But she got into the project, got enthused – got passionate.

Fiction is harder than non-fiction. We’ve successfully worked on projects in both categories, but there’s no doubt that it’s easiest for us to work with non-fiction – and easier to achieve sales. Either way, though, there needs to be a good idea and passion.

There needs to be a good, trusting relationship between client and ghost. Usually, in fact, there needs to be something a little like friendship. You’d think these things shouldn’t have to matter, but they do. It’s amazing how predictive those things are of success.

Additionally, the client needs to be able to let go of their own work, their own ideas, their own phrasing, their own titles, their own structures. That’s not to say that the ghost doesn’t want to make use of those things, but if the ghost doesn’t have creative freedom, they can’t do their job. The universal result of a manuscript which is tightly controlled by the client is an unpublished manuscript.

Also, the finances need to be right. Good writers aren’t especially cheap and, in our experience, ghostwriting always takes longer than expected. If the budget isn’t properly worked out from the off, the project will have problems down the line. That sounds very self-serving (because the WW benefits from large ghostwriting deals) but it also happens to be true. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a successful deal that was done on the cheap. Nor do I ever remember a project that lasted less long than expected.

And last – you have to enter on these things realising that they might fail. Publishing is a horrendously difficult business. It’s poorly paid, unpredictable and the market conditions have been getting worse for years. If you’re the client, you need to realise you aren’t investing money, you’re speculating. You might lose everything you put in. You’ll get a manuscript, of course, but you may not get a book deal.

None of that is exactly a compelling pitch to the would-be client. You get to pay a lot of money for a project that may fail to see print. So why do it? And, in fact, that’s mostly what we say to would-be clients. We turn down or deter 19 potential ghostwriting clients for every 1 we take on. You could even argue that we should be more selective still. Only when we’re blown away by a project do we start to see if we can put something together. I think that’s the right approach. The only one. And if you reckon you’ve got something that would blow us away, we want to hear from you!

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  • JoAnna

    I’ve been writing this book for 2 years now, but I just think it can be revised better. I need help! People are saying that my idea of this book, is really really good, and they’d pay money for my idea. It can be worth a lot. Especially with the age I am. I need imformation!

  • Harry

    Hi JoAnna, no one will pay money for an idea: that’s just not how things work. But if your fundamental concept is strong, you’re still in a good position. Your best bet is to start building your writing skills so you can complete your project yourself. You can either take a writing course or get professional feedback and advice on your work. Both are good things to do. The former is a bit better for building your skills generally. The latter is better as a way to address any issues that exist in your manuscript itself. Best of luck!

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