Who NOT to Hire as Your Nonfiction Ghostwriter

14 Dec 2021


A great memoir, biography, or history burns at your insides, just waiting to be born and put your name out there. Unfortunately, you can’t or don’t want to write it. The search for a ghostwriter has tentatively begun, but you don’t know where or how to begin.

On the bright side, ghostwriters are as common as dirt. On the downside, many ghostwriters aren’t much cleaner than dirt. By the same token, finding a good one requires copious digging, panning, and sorting.

To make that initial search easier, here’s our advice: Cull the bad ghostwriters first. Once you’ve removed the dross of scammers, wannabes, and bad fits, the remaining nuggets will be easier to sort through.

Ghostwriting is a personalized, highly involved act of mimicry. The average reader should pick up your completed autobiography, memoir, history, or other nonfiction book and hear your unique knowledge, conclusions, story, and voice.

They should automatically assume that the person on the back cover — you — typed every single word. They believe this because your ghostwriter did an excellent job of channeling you personally.

With that end in mind, we’ve compiled a list of who not to hire as a ghostwriter.

Who Not to Hire as Your Nonfiction Ghostwriter

The (Supposed) Speedster

Ghostwriting a book takes time — the ghostwriter’s, editor’s, and yours. Hundreds of committed hours get baked into the cake, so anyone who claims otherwise clearly isn’t following the recipe.

“[Books] take six months to a year, some take two years to complete,” says Wintress Odom, owner and editor-in-chief of The Writers For Hire.

How is that possible? Are those writers just slow? It’s a valid question, especially since the internet abounds with fast turnaround “500 words an hour!” “I’ll deliver your ebook within a day!” offers.

Yes, some people write that quickly — but it’s physically impossible to ghost write full-length, nonfiction books at that speed.

To clarify, a full-length book generally spans 30 to 80,000 words. Memoirs, biographies, histories, business, how-to books, and general nonfiction often double that.

(Writers promising a “book” in one to five days often mean 2,000-word eBooks or 10,000-word novellas, so don’t conflate those with your in-depth memoir or niche history.)

Even so, it may be tempting to expect a faster turnaround than six months. “If they write 2,000 words a day and my memoir’s 60,000 words, can’t they do it in a month?”

That math assumes one particularly faulty variable — the word “they.” As the primary author, you also sink significant time into interviews, read-throughs, and multiple revisions. As with any process that juggles multiple people’s schedules, it takes longer than a lone wolf’s timeline.

“We often have to do 20 to 40 hours of interviews, and that’s just to get the information,” Odom points out. “If you do a lot of interviews with them, you can figure out how to hear their voice.” It takes time for the ghostwriter to gather and digest your knowledge, desires, and style. They can create a book without that understanding, sure — it just won’t be your book.

Bottom line: Partly because good ghostwriting requires such deep communication and back-and-forth, it’s a heavy time commitment from both parties. If your prospective hire promises quick turnaround or requests very little of your time, then expect the literary equivalent of a new picture frame’s stock photo.

The final book will exist and possibly even look good, but it won’t reflect your full knowledge, story, or voice — which largely defeats the point of nonfiction ghostwriting.

The Cheapskate’s Dream

Time equals money, so don’t expect a super saver’s deal on your book.

“Most books take 300 hours to complete,” Odom reveals. “And we’ve had books that go past 1,000 hours. We bill by the hour, and the price tag at the end of the day is not insubstantial.”

As with all goods, that billing stems from more than the sheer number of hours — you’re paying for highly specialized, skilled craftsmanship.

Ghostwriting isn’t an entry level job, and the price tag reflects that.

“Writing for others takes a special skill set, and some writers just don’t have that,” ghostwriter and family history specialist Jennifer Rizzo points out.

A competent ghostwriter has built up strong communication, interviewing, organizing, collaborating, and, of course, writing skills. Depending on the project, they might also bring specialized research skills to the table.

“So much of family history research is diving down rabbit holes, trying to remember random facts along the way, and then figuring out how to connect the dots,” Rizzo adds. “To truly find the answers and do a project justice, it takes hours upon hours of research. It’s not something that can be done with a quick search in the Ancestry database.”

Ultimately, your ghostwritten book is a unique, highly personalized product — you’re hiring a tailor to make a bespoke suit through multiple fittings, not dashing to Wal-Mart for a polyester T-shirt.

The Lead Singer

You’re the star of your book, not the ghostwriter.

Someone who fails to request and defer to your expertise, vision, and voice simply isn’t doing the job.

“When you are ghostwriting a book, you are not actually writing the book,” Rizzo explains. “Yes, you are physically putting the words to the paper, but those words and the ideas behind them come directly from the client, who is actually the author.”

That’s precisely why you, the primary author, remain vital in the entire ghostwriting process. Without regular input from you, the drafts morph into a book that’s not really yours.

“We ask [every] client to read and approve each chapter. Then you have a completed manuscript, and they have to read that, possibly more than once as you make additional changes at their request,” ghostwriter Flori Meeks explains.

If the ghostwriter seems less interested in your input and more concerned with their beautiful ideas, prose, and approach, then good for them — they’ll write wonderful books of their own. Your book, however, deserves a ghostwriter who prioritizes your vision.

“[Ghostwriting] requires channeling the other person. It’s not our book, it’s their book. We are just adding a layer of skill and organization and writing to their stuff,” Odom concludes.

The Lone Wolf

Hiring one person gets you a draft. Hiring multiple people gets you a finished book.

Writing books sounds completely solitary, but completed volumes only hit the shelves thanks to teams of specialized workers.

For starters, any final draft requires at least two people. Besides the core ghostwriter, it needs a separate, designated editor. Without a pair of fresh eyes, that draft will bloom with spelling, grammar, and other basic errors.

“You need at least one editor who’s removed from the writing process, and ideally a third person who’s doing the final proofing,” Meeks explains.

It is viable to find and hire, one by one, your writer, editor, and designer. Selecting each individual, however, can involve draining amounts of time, effort, research, and coordination.

Good writing agencies, by contrast, relieve much of that “team leader” burden. Armed with multiple researchers, writers, editors, and proofreaders, they cut out the hiring and management process. A sizable staff also guarantees delivery — if your lone wolf ghostwriter gets sick or suffers a personal loss that brings your book’s progress to a halt. An agency, however, has additional writers to keep things moving.

Some agencies also extend support beyond the final draft. Keep in mind that design and publication are two entirely separate processes in their own right. While not all agencies perform those functions, they’re usually well connected enough to offer useful recommendations, advice, and contacts.

Bottom line: Creating a polished manuscript requires two people at minimum. Designing and publishing the book takes you into completely separate, specialized realms. Any individual who promises both creation and publication within an amazingly short time frame is probably a scammer, not a magical lone wolf.

The Newbie

Writer Number One has spent the past decade cranking out bestsellers. Writer Number Two just completed their first project, a ghostwritten book.

Always hire Writer Number Two — they’re the more experienced candidate. Yes, the bestselling author has produced more work, but it’s their work, not somebody else’s. Writer Number Two, by contrast, has proven an ability to write in somebody else’s voice and for somebody else’s purposes.

“You want to call someone who has specifically ghostwritten full-length books,” Odom says. “It’s a completely different experience than making whatever book you want. [Ghostwriting is] more like a homework assignment, that skill set [of] being able to take information that was given to you, reformat it, and put it out in a different way, versus being this creative genius.”

Many romanticize writing as a completely solitary, creative, independent process. Ghostwriting nonfiction, which requires great communication and intense collaboration, is almost the complete opposite.

Of course, you shouldn’t settle for anyone under the general umbrella of ghostwriting. Like any broad field, it contains specialists with experience in the particular product you need. If you want a deeply emotional memoir, don’t call the ghostwriter with a portfolio of corporate history books. If you want an autobiography, don’t call the ghostwriter who specializes in romance novels.

Just because they write well doesn’t mean they write well for your particular genre. Don’t settle for someone without a history in your type of project — someone’s already out there with the experience and savvy to do your project justice.           

The Robot

Ghostwriters are like therapists, mattresses, and thermostat settings — choose a comfortable one, seeing as you’ll spend lots of time together.

“You’re going to be interviewing with them for hours and hours, having lunch, etc. And if you don’t like them, that’s not going to work very well,” Odom points out.

Depending on the project, it’s not just a matter of sharing space comfortably and talking — the deeper the connection, the stronger the book.

“The more they are willing to open up and tell me, the better their final product will turn out . . . The more people are willing to be vulnerable and let me inside, the easier it will be for me to really capture who they are in the pages of their book,” Rizzo points out.

The Friend (Maybe)

If the best ghostwriters make you feel comfortable, a logical question follows: Can a friend ghostwrite for you?

Depending on whom you ask, the answers are virulently different. “Yes, and very successfully!” “No, it’s always a terrible idea!”

“Sometimes it’s easier to share personal details or painful memories with someone who’s professional, who you don’t know, than sharing really intimate details of your life with someone that you know,” Meeks points out.

It’s the same reason people confide more in a therapist than a friend, family member, or even a significant other.

On a practical note, though, a stranger’s interview will probably pull more thorough, detailed stories out of you.

Being forced to start from the beginning, and craft a complete picture for someone with no context, often results in a better picture.

“If you’re being interviewed by a friend or family member, you might assume they know certain aspects of whatever memories or stories you’re sharing, so you might not go into as much detail, you might not provide background,” Meeks explains.

And, of course, there’s the double-edged sword of caring about someone: Friends and family members can find it harder to provide and receive harsh, objective criticism.

That being said, there are some situations where ghostwriters work perfectly well with their loved ones. “I frequently have friends ask me to research things for them or solve old family mysteries. It’s such a passion for me that I’m always happy to help as much as I can,” Rizzo explains.

Bottom Line: Working with family and friends can be tough — apply that logic to your ghostwriting project. It’s a serious endeavor and you might be more comfortable, and get a better product, by working with a professional.

The Man Behind the Curtain

It’s common sense, but vet your ghostwriter before hiring. Like any profession that requires so much money, trust, and time commitment, it attracts plenty of scammers.

“Before he came to us, a client paid someone $15,000 [up front] for the whole book, got a couple chapters, did the interviews, and then the ghostwriter literally disappeared — literally ghosted him,” Odom says dryly.

Beyond basic due diligence — asking for references, running a few Google searches, looking at their portfolio — we recommend treating this like a competitive interview process.

Just because they’re clean and competent doesn’t mean they’re the best candidate for you personally.

Have a good conversation with them in real time, just to see if there’s a good rapport.

And most importantly, ask them for a writing sample in your voice — it’s better to find out now than later if they can’t sound like you.

To really verify they know what they’re doing, take a step further and see if they’ve done their legal homework. Many experienced ghostwriters will have boilerplate Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and other contracts prepared in advance. Someone who completely neglects that paperwork may just be inexperienced, not malicious, but their lack of clarity can cause problems down the line.

Remember that your creative and intellectual property is on the line — use the same care you would when hiring a babysitter, accountant, or new doctor.

What TO Look For

We’ve described bad ghostwriters pretty thoroughly, but let’s talk about good nonfiction ghostwriters.

They enjoy learning and conducting interviews; care about you, your voice, and goals; take the project very seriously; communicate well; give honest feedback; think of themselves as a presenter first and writer second; and have specific ghostwriting experience.

If your ghostwriting candidate lacks any of these qualities, then keep looking — someone with all of them is waiting for you.

There’s an ocean of ghostwriters out there, both real and fake. Using this list should dry that ocean into a manageable pond.

Cecile Brule  

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