I am a ghostwriter.
I started writing for clients in late 2011, while I was in grad school. During 2012 and 2013, I became somewhat promotional and really tried to hype up the benefits of business leaders (my target customers) hiring writers to build their brands. At the end of 2013, though, I wrapped up my MBA and eased my way into a full-time position in data analysis.
For the last two and a half years, I’ve continued writing for a handful of clients. I love my job, but I also love writing. So, I do both. Given that I am no longer as financially dependent on my writing as I once was, though, I feel like I can give advice that may be a bit more objective. Yes, I’m still a ghostwriter. But I’m a ghostwriter “on the side,” and I do it because I enjoy writing and the challenge intrigues me. My goal here, then, is to give a straightforward explanation of what a ghostwriter does and whether or not it’s a good idea for you to hire one.
So, let’s get started…
What is a ghostwriter?
As the subtitle of this piece implies, a ghostwriter is a someone who is paid to write content under someone else’s name. The writer gets the money; the client gets the credit.
The type of content in question can take many forms. Many ghostwriters are hired by public figures to write books. Oftentimes, in this case, they’ll get mentions as pseudo-coauthors. When you see a book containing a prominent author’s name followed by “with so-and-so” or “as told to so-and-so,” the “so-and-so” is likely a ghostwriter.
Speechwriters for politicians and celebrities are also ghostwriters. These political figures hire people to create the content and they are the ones who get the credit for communicating it. When we talk about “writers” for talk shows or reality TV shows, we’re also talking about a form of ghostwriting. We credit the host, for example, with the material while it is actually someone else who wrote it.
For the most part, this is not the form of ghostwriting I’ve participated in. Although I have assisted one client in ghostwriting a book, most of my clients have been business leaders and consultants trying to use their content to promote their businesses or to build interest in speaking, coaching, and consulting opportunities. People from a variety of industries who are in leadership positions or are considered “thought leaders” in their respective fields routinely hire ghostwriters to translate their views into text for their audiences to read.
If you find yourself in this group of business leaders, this article will probably be more relevant for you than for others. If you are not part of this group, I would encourage you to consider what you think makes sense and disregard what you think doesn’t. In either case, take my advice with a grain of salt. I’m just one voice among many.
Why Do Business Leaders Need to Have Content Written?
In a word, exposure.
In a broad range of industries, there are trade publications that are constantly looking for content from leaders in the space they cover. Some magazines and journals even invite industry practitioners or experts to become regular contributors. These publications offer business leaders unique opportunities to demonstrate authority and expertise in their field.
The greater impetus nudging business leaders toward hiring writers , though, is the proliferation of content on the Internet. Increasingly, people in a professional environment are not looking to white papers or trade magazines to have their questions answered. They’re looking to Google. If you don’t have a presence on the Internet, for all intents and purposes, you don’t exist.
Some business leaders start their own blogs. Others contribute to other blogs or media sites. Some choose to publish monthly. Some weekly. Some even daily. Regardless of where they’re putting the content, they need a constant flow of search-friendly text to stay on the radar of the audience they are pursuing. Hiring a writer is for the contemporary business leader what hiring an ad agency has been for companies throughout the history of American business. It does two things essential for sustaining a pipeline of solid clients: 1) maintains top-of-mind awareness and 2) builds a consistent and recognizable brand.
If you are reading this and you think I’m dodging the obvious question, I’m not. Here it is: “Sure, business leaders do need to have content written to build credibility and trust with their audience, but why don’t they just do it themselves?”
The answer: many of them do.
Just because you need to have content created to build your brand, that doesn’t mean you need to hire someone else to do it. Many business leaders presumably find the time to do their own writing and they do it very well. That may be you, or it may not be. To help you determine which camp you fall in, let’s look at the primary pros and cons of business leaders hiring writers…
Pros: Hiring a Ghostwriter for Business
- You may not be highly skilled at writing. I actually hear this quite a bit from my clients. Writing is not their strong suit, and it is too frustrating for them to sit down and try to put their thoughts into words. My clients have no trouble having enlightening conversations or giving inspiring speeches, but there is something about the act of translating that audio content into written text that stresses them out. If this sounds like you, hiring a writer may be a good idea. If you’ve ever read the disjointed transcript of someone who’s “winged it” in a speech, then you know that writing something down is very different than saying it out loud. Your listeners can guess what you’re trying to say by your tone of voice and your gestures. Your readers only have the words. Writing requires clarity, and a ghostwriter can help you achieve it.
- A writer can help you save time. This is the reason that I hear most from my clients. Some of them are great writers, but they are comparatively better speakers, trainers, coaches, consultants, and team leaders. They aren’t writers, so they don’t want to spend their time writing. At the same time, they recognize the need to have a presence in the sea of content–especially on the Internet. As anything, it really all boils down to the return on investment. How long would it take you to write, say, a 500 word blog post? Now, how much money would you make serving your clients in that same amount of time? If you would earn more than it would cost you to hire the writer, it may be best to hire the writer.
Cons: Hiring a Ghostwriter for Business
- You may lose authenticity. To be honest, this is something that I’ve personally struggled with over the years. At times I’ve asked myself, is it ethical to write under someone else’s name? Am I putting someone in the position of passing another person’s work off as their own? This can be tricky, but here are my thoughts on the matter. Don’t just hire people to write for you; read what they’ve written. Does it sound like you? Are those ideas yours? Are those words that you would actually use? If they’ve done a good job, they will have adequately captured your voice and your expertise well. If you read what a writer has written for you and you don’t feel it represents your work, I would urge you to go with another writer or not hire a writer at all. Above all else, you want your content to genuinely reflect who you are. If you think this could be an issue with your audience, err on the side of disclosure. Tell your audience that you’ve enlisted a writer to help you put your thoughts into words. Chances are, they won’t mind; they might be more upset if they feel like you’ve tricked them.
- Writers can be expensive. When public figures pay to have books written, they can spend anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. For business articles in trade magazines or blogs, the costs can range from $25/hr to $135/hr. If you want a writer who understands your business and captures your voice, you’re going to have to pay for it. Again, you just need to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” How many hours would it take you to write the article, and how much could you be earning in that same time frame doing what you specialize in? If the writer charges more, then it may be better to do it yourself. Better to do it yourself than to hire a substandard writer whose work will denigrate your image.
What to Look for in a Business Ghostwriter
So, if the cons outweigh the pros for you, you don’t have to continue reading. If you’re up for the challenge, I would totally encourage you to do your own writing. However, if you’re thinking that hiring a writer would be worth it to you, then continue on. The next question you might ask is, “What kind of ghostwriter should I hire?” What sets a good writer apart from a bad one? Here are a few things I think you should consider when choosing your writer…
- High writing quality. Due to the confidential nature of the work, it can be difficult to get writing samples of actual work done by ghostwriters for their clients. But you should still get samples of their writing before hiring them, even if the writing was done under their name. To protect my clients, I do not offer samples of my work unless I have express permission from my clients. However, I have written two books under my own name–as well as over 500 articles on my website and others, covering a broad range of subjects. If you’re going to hire a writer, read their writing first.
- A fair market rate. As mentioned earlier, writers can be costly. Professional ghostwriters for business typically charge between $0.50 and $2.00 per word when they charge by the word. If you publish shorter articles on a weekly basis, this can cost you between $1,000-4,000 per month. On the other hand, you can scrape the bottom of the barrel and get articles written for you from websites like Fiverr and spend only $20/month (roughly $0.01 per word). These writers, however, are working for less than minimum wage. Do you really want to trust your reputation with someone who is making less than the fry cook at McDonald’s? Probably not. I charge $0.10 per word, ~$100/month in the scenario above. If I were you, I wouldn’t pay less than that. Find a writer you like, but make sure you’re paying them enough. The less you pay, the harder it is for them to care.
- Good professional etiquette. As with anyone you hire in business, you want your writer to be a “professional,” not just in the service they provide but also in the manner in which they communicate. You want a writer who communicates effectively in conversation, asking good questions and demonstrating that they’re listening well to your concerns. You want a writer who follows up on their commitments. When you hire a writer, you’re hiring a partner. Make sure you find one who is dependable.
- Solid research skills. More than likely, you’ll want your writer to review your material as well as material from other sources to come up with the content they’ll be writing. Your writer will need the ability to sift through a vast amount of content and retrieve material that can be used as fodder for their writing. A good writer is a good reader. You want a reader who is as invested in learning about you and your industry as they are in writing about it.
- The ability to capture your voice. After everything else, this is what it really boils down to. Does the finished product seem like something you would have written if you would have had the time and interest? Of course, this is very subjective. Only you can make this call, but it is the most important judgment for you to make. It shouldn’t be your writer’s content. It shouldn’t represent their thoughts, values, ideas, or even vocabulary. It should be yours. If someone asks you a question about the writing, would you be able to resond as if you were the one who wrote it? If so, then you’ve probably found your writer.
A Model: My Ghostwriting Process
So, what’s it like to hire a ghostwriter? Every writer works differently, but I figured it would be helpful to offer a general overview of how my onboarding process works with clients. So, here’s my process:
- Conduct initial interview. After receiving a referral from a client or an inquiry on my website, I’ll set up an initial 20-30 minute phone conversation via email. In the conversation, I’ll ask what the prospective client is trying to accomplish, and I’ll offer my advice on what has worked for other clients. By the end of the conversation, I will determine whether or not it makes sense for me to work with the prospective client. If it does, then I’ll offer my rate ($0.10 per word) and explain the rest of my process. If the prospective client wishes to proceed, we’ll decide on an intial piece to write and then proceed to step two…
- Gather available content. In order to undertand the client’s industry and business, as well as to capture the client’s voice, I’ll gather all the available content that they’ve already created. This could mean conference calls they’ve recorded, interviews they’ve given, speeches they’ve put on YouTube, or even past writing that they’ve done. I’ll review as much of this material as time allows (I don’t charge for anything but the writing), and I’ll integrate the nuances of the client’s style into my writing.
- Review preferred sources. Another thing I ask for from every client is what their preferred news and media sources are. What trade magazines do they read? What newspapers? What websites? What blogs? Do they listen to any podcasts or radio shows? Do they watch particular news programs on TV? As long as these sources are readily available to me, I will review them to find reference material to include in the writing.
- Submit initial piece. I always prefer to submit an initial piece of writing before a client hires me for the long-term. I want to make sure clients are comfortable with the writing I am providing and are confident in my abilities before we enter into an ongoing relationship. I recommend the initial piece being between 250-500 words ($25-50), depending on the criteria for the medium through which they plan to publish the content. I don’t recommend hiring me to write an initial piece at 1000-2000 words. I would prefer that clients get comfortable with me first before they spend larger amounts of money.
- Reach a decision. If the client decides they would like to work with me, we develop a monthly plan for the writing–including word counts for articles and frequency of submission. From there, I just get to work on the writing. I have no contract and clients can decide to stop working with me at any time it makes sense for them. I bill at the beginning of each month for the previous month’s work. Clients can pay via traditional mail or PayPal, whichever works best for them.
I hope this article has been helpful for you, and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have about ghostwriting–or anything else for that matter. I’m an open book. (Pun intended. Get it? I’m a writer).