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Originally published on March 8, 2017 @ 7:00 amEstimated Reading TIme: 11 minutes
“This is my first time hiring a ghostwriter, sorry if I seem a bit scatter-brained.”
I hear this apology during almost every initial consultation or interview that I have with most potential clients: This is my first time hiring a ghostwriter, sorry if I seem a bit scatter-brained.
You know what? It's okay to feel a little bit scattered when it comes to hiring a ghostwriter. It's not as if you do that every day, right? And it's not as if hiring a ghostwriter works exactly the same way as hiring an editor or hiring a social media manager or hiring a housecleaner.
Hiring a ghostwriter is no easy task. Your book, especially your first book, is your baby. It's your brand, your voice, your promise to your readers. And that's not something you can trust to just anyone.
And, to add to the complexity, you can't necessarily ask for certain things that would make it easier on you, right? You may be able to take a look at some of their writing samples, but even that might not tell you exactly how they will adopt your voice.
So, I've put together this list of 19 questions you should ask before hiring a ghostwriter. Should you find yourself thinking about a ghostwriter, try to gather the answers to as many of these questions as possible to help make your decision easier (you may not even have to ask, if the ghostwriter you are considering has a website with an FAQ, they may have these answers available for you there, saving you a bit of time on the interview).
19 Questions you Should Ask Before Hiring a Ghostwriter
1. Do they have a sample contract available you can read through?
Most ghostwriters work with some sort of contract. Some of them may have drawn up their own contracts, and some of them may be working under a blanket contract from a freelance site such as UPWork or Freelancer. Ghostwriters who have drawn up their own contracts usually make adjustments to each one based on the client or project, but they should still have a copy of a blank one or a template of sorts to show you upon request.
2. How much (if anything) do they know about the subject matter?
Most ghostwriters make adjustments in their charges to allow for research. The more research they have to do, the longer the project takes and the more they will charge. This is true whether you're hiring for a fiction or a nonfiction project. So you need to know what their baseline is before they get started. This could include actual subject matter itself (for nonfiction) or elements to develop the subject matter, such as developing magic systems, constructing languages, or world building (for fiction).
3. How many other projects are on their plate right now?
Like many other freelance writers, ghostwriters are always on the lookout for their next client — even while working with one. This helps to ensure a steady stream of work. But sometimes it can also lead to a bit of a backlog. By finding out how many projects are on their plate, you can also find out about when they will be able to get started on your project.
4. How do they charge?
This is probably a more important question than even “how much do you charge?” In fact, you don't even want to ask how much they charge — but I'll cover that at the end. You need to know whether or not they charge by the hour, by the page, or by the word, and what they do to calculate those charges.
5. What is included with their fee?
Some ghostwriters charge for the writing and that's it. Some will include edits or revisions, some will include the research, and others will include formatting. You need to know up front what's included with their fees so you know what you'll be paying for.
6. When will payment be due?
Most ghostwriters expect at least a portion of their fees up front. Others will work on a milestone basis. Some will accept payment after completing the work. You will want to know ahead of time how your ghostwriter works so you can make arrangements.
7. How long will it take?
I have to say, I hate this question. Absolutely hate it. Yes, I can pound out a novel fairly quick. I do NaNoWriMo two or three times a year. But that doesn't mean I can whip out your memoir or your novel in under a month. And there's no good way to estimate how long a project is going to take until you're in the middle of writing it.
Things come up that may delay the writing: personal issues, research issues, a computer might freeze. The writing process does not exactly lend itself to deadlines very easily, and I often prioritize quality over deadlines. But, you still want to get an estimate of what their average turn-around is, even if the ghostwriter isn't comfortable specifying a date. What is the fastest they've ever completed a project of a length similar to yours? The longest?
8. What deliverables can you expect?
Will they send you an MS Word file or a PDF? Both? How will the file be formatted? How many copies will you receive? What about the files they may have saved or collected for research? What about your files that you sent them?
9. What happens if the contract gets cancelled?
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we have to part ways. It doesn't mean you hired a bad ghostwriter or that you were a bad client. Sometimes schedules just don't work, communication falls out of sync, or family emergencies get in the way. Understanding what happens to your idea and your research if that happens is an important step to protecting your intellectual property (not to mention, it will help the ghostwriter to know what happens with the work he or she has completed up to that point).
10. Do they handle the writing themselves or do they pass your project on to someone else?
I still handle 100% of my clients, but that's mostly because I'm too anxious that something will get missed or done incorrectly to trust my clients in the hands of someone else. However, I am getting busier and busier and as I expand on my services I am finding myself having to turn down projects before I start juggling too much.
It may not be long before I look into hiring a team of ghostwriters to work with me to help juggle some of this workload. And should that time come, clients are going to want to know up front who is doing the actual work, why that person, and what criteria I used to hire that person.
11. How about communication?
What is the easiest way to get a hold of your ghostwriter? How often can you expect to hear updates? I am horrible at providing updates between milestones. Absolutely horrible. So, unfortunately, many of my clients start to get antsy after not hearing from me for about a month or so.
And I totally understand, I just suck at sending out emails that read “no new progress made. Still working on the first draft.” So it's important to get that type of information ahead of time, that way if communication does slow down, you'll know how to handle it.
12. What other services do you provide?
Most of the ghostwriters I know do more than just ghostwriting. Many of us are authors in our own right, editors, formatters, and even publishers. And as such, there are times when our attention may be pulled in multiple directions. If you and your project need a lot of undivided attention, then you will want to look for a ghostwriter who concentrates on one project at a time.
13. Is there a place where I can see your writing?
Do not ask for a writing sample. Do not ask the ghostwriter to submit to a writing test. And do not ask if the ghostwriter has been published. First of all, none of these things are relevant to your project. Most ghostwriters submit written proposals for projects. If that is not enough to glean the writing ability, ask if they have a website or blog — most of the time the answer is yes.
Some ghostwriters may have their own projects they've written, others may have been published; but neither of these is guaranteed. I've been ghostwriting for 12 years, but didn't start collecting samples of my own writing until the last 8 or 9 years. And asking for them to submit to a test or create a writing sample for you? Well, that's just rude — no ghostwriter should be asked to work for free.
14. Do they have a policy about accepting serial work?
Once you find a good fit with a ghostwriter, it's hard to let that go at the end of a project. Especially if that project blooms into multiple projects. However, as I said earlier, ghostwriters are always on the lookout for their next project. We can't really afford to let one project end without another one on the hook somewhere. So if you think there is a chance that your project may turn into multiple projects, it's good to find out up front how if your ghostwriter will accept both at the same time, will they draw up separate contracts for each, etc.
15. What programs do you use?
It might seem like a given that your ghostwriter has some sort of word processor. But whether or not that word processor is compatible with your word processor is a whole other story. Just last month, I had an issue with a project when I tried to send her an MS Word document to review, and she couldn't get it to open. I had to convert the file over to a PDF so she could review it. And that made things like commenting where she wanted changes made difficult. You'll want to know ahead of time what program(s) the ghostwriter uses so you can be sure the file is compatible with your equipment.
16. What style guide do you go by?
Most of the time, if a client has been unhappy with my writing style, it's been because of things like using the word said as a dialogue tag when they want words like opined, retorted, and confirmed. And while these may not seem like major problems, when you've just completed an 85K word novel, changing these all out is time-consuming and liable to make my head implode. If you are married to a particular style, let your ghostwriter know ahead of time.
17. Can your ghostwriter write other pieces related to your project?
Once a book is done, there is still plenty more to be written: sales copy, marketing plans, blurbs, query letters to agents and publishers. Depending on your plan for that book, there may be five or six miniature writing projects to go along with it. And it might be better to have the same voice heard throughout, which means it might be best if your ghostwriter is available to write these extra projects.
18. What genres/niches is your ghostwriter experienced in writing?
Most ghostwriters excel at writing in multiple genres. But that doesn't always mean they are capable of writing in every genre. Ghostwriters who concentrate mainly on how-to guides and self-help books may not have the same understanding of story structure as a ghostwriter who focuses on fiction stories. Short story writers don't always know how to stretch to a full-length novel. Novelists don't always know how to novelize a screenplay. You'll want to know ahead of time if your ghostwriter has experience in the genre you're looking to have written and if they enjoyed working in that genre.
19. What do they need from you to get started?
If you have already started the research for your project, how should you deliver it to your ghostwriter? Other than signing the contract, what steps need to be done before they can get started? If the project is a memoir, will they need to interview you or your family?
20. How did they get into ghostwriting?
Every ghostwriter gets into ghostwriting for a different reason or through a different way. Each of our journeys is different. But there are a couple of recurring themes through several of our stories. In a lot of cases, ghostwriters started off as authors who then found that they could help other authors write their books. After all, once you've written a book, you are in a unique position to be able to help someone who has never done it be able to do it. So, in a way, that's a very natural progression.
Other ghostwriters get their start from deeper inside the publishing industry. They might not have ever written their own book, but they might have been an editor or worked for an editor or been a proofreader or something else related to the publishing industry, and took that knowledge to help other people write their books. This gives them a strong perspective from the publishing side of writing a book more than the writing side.
Pending on their answer, that'll give you an idea as to where their strengths lie. If they came up through the author path, then their storytelling skills are probably pretty strong and they can probably really help pull everything together creatively for you. On the other hand, if they came up through editing, then their strengths lie more on the marketing side. They'll already know what publishers and agents are looking for, and they can help write your book with sellability in mind.
Either way, this is a huge strength for you and your book. This isn't about whether or not one is better than the other, but rather it will give you an idea of what they can bring to your book that another ghostwriter might not be able to bring.
21. What is their process for learning your voice?
Regardless of who you hire to go straight your book, the end goal is the same: the book needs to sound like you. It needs your voice. Anyone who picks up and reads that book needs to be able to recognize you in there.
The best ghostwriters have a process for getting your voice through their writing. The process itself varies from one ghostwriter to another. Sometimes it entails a series of conversations, sometimes it entails interviews, collecting materials, or watching videos you've recorded.
Whatever their process, ask ahead of time. If they are stumbling over this question, or if they don't really know, then chances are they have not had a lot of experience yet in this facet of ghost training. That does not mean that they would be a bad ghostwriter, and it does not mean that they would not be able to adopt your voice. Just that they don't have as much experience in ghost writing just yet. So if you are looking for someone who is highly experienced, you might want to look elsewhere.
So, why shouldn't you ask for the cost of hiring a ghostwriter during the interview?
Okay, I know you have a budget to look after. And I know that you need to know the cost before choosing to hire the ghostwriter. I'm not suggesting that you don't ask at all… Just not during that initial interview. Ghostwriters take a lot into consideration when it comes to calculating how much to charge.
- How much research is going to be involved?
- How long (in days / weeks) will it take to complete?
- How many hours will it take to complete?
- How long is the project?
- What deliverables is the client wanting?
- What is the client wanting besides writing?
Most of these factors require having an understanding of the project and of your expectations, which doesn't come about until during that interview when we ghostwriters get to ask you about your project. Asking for a total price puts the ghostwriter on the spot to spit out a number without having all the information, which almost always leads to issues.
Instead of asking for a price, at the end of the interview if you believe you like the ghostwriter, ask him or her to submit a formal proposal including their charges. This will give the ghostwriter the chance to take all the information into account and send you a proposal in writing for you to review before deciding to hire them.
Can't I ask What other Books They've Ghostwritten?
Sure, go ahead and ask. However, they can't tell you and asking them may end up accidentally sending them into a struggle with imposter syndrome and self-doubt.
As soon as someone asks me about clients, my mind starts racing and my anxiety climbs because I know—I know—why they're asking. They are looking for that social proof. They want to see that final element that shows for certain that I know what I'm saying. And as a society we have been trained to trust reviews from others.
If you can find out what else this person has ghostwritten, you can do some independent research — you won't be beholden to their word alone. You will be able to see the reviews on that book, how it has been received, and how well it's doing on the market.
So, ghostwriters understand the motivation behind asking a question like this. But we are tied to our legal obligations to retain our clients' confidentiality. When hiring a ghostwriter, a portion of your fee is to purchase the ownership rights over the finished work. For the ghostwriter to release a statement at any time claiming credit for the finished work would be a huge ethical and legal problem.
But not being able to give that information when asked — not being able to provide people with the specific type of proof that they are asking for — is anxiety-inducing even on a good day. All the thoughts start bubbling through my head regarding what to do if they don't like my answer, and why couldn't the get an idea of my skill based on what I had already shown them. At that point, I'm not thinking about what I need to show you, I'm thinking about why what I've already shown you has failed…
Well, more accurately, how I have already failed.
Of course, not every ghostwriter goes through this thought-process. There are varying degrees of imposter syndrome and some ghostwriters don't face it at all. But they still wouldn't be able to answer this question, so it's better to just skip right over this question and stick to some of the questions I listed above.
Did you enjoy this article? Here are some other posts on writing you may like:
- The Stress of Not Writing… You Must Forgive Yourself
- 15 Borderline Genius Things about Creating Cultures in Fiction You Need to Know Now
- Blog Post Ideas for Fiction Authors
- 21 Questions you Should Ask Before Hiring a Ghostwriter
- How to Write Through Stressful Times