While just a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands who want to write a book will actually do something about it, that still leaves a huge market for talented freelance writers who fancy ghostwriting as a career. And what’s not to like about being a ghostwriter? It’s a steady job with good pay, offers an amazing variety of subjects to write about and there is genuine freedom and flexibility in the working day. Pick your jobs carefully and you will be endlessly grateful that you turned to ghostwriting as a full time career.
I would encourage anyone who is a freelance writer, or simply someone who is an expert in their particular field, to think about ghosting. Yet, while there is a good market for ghostwriters, it’s not an easy profession to break into. In fact, when it comes to securing potential clients, the ubiquitous chicken and egg situation comes to mind. Authors seeking ghosts want accomplished, published writers. Yet, how do you become an experienced ghostwriter without securing writing jobs?
Somewhat frustratingly, there are no set career paths into this job. Indeed, most of the ghosts I know, including me, are what I’d call ‘accidental ghosts’. By this I mean they were happily involved in one career when someone came along and asked them to write their book.
My experience dates back to the cold winter months of 2005, when I was invited to Selfridges to have a cup of tea with the then deputy chairman Allan Leighton. At the time I was a journalist working for a national newspaper. After a bit of a chat he casually asked me if I’d ever thought of writing a book. I’d known Allan for a while, thanks to my work as a business journalist, but had to admit that no, I had never considered writing a book. Indeed, as I was fond of saying, I believed I must be the only journalist in the world without a book in me.
‘Then why don’t you write my book?’ he said.
Allan had been approached by Random House and had been given an advance to write a book about leadership. He’d been told to pick someone he liked and respected to help him write it and that’s why he came to me. Up until then, I was more used to writing 500 word news stories, not 80,000 word books, but hey, I’ve always liked a challenge. Thus my ghost writing career was born. Since then I’ve gone on to write more than fifty books.
Once I became established as a ghostwriter, I wrote a book about it: The Complete Guide to Ghostwriting. During the process I interviewed dozens of ghosts and discovered my accidental career diversion was not unique. Many other leading ghosts were journalists like myself, but they also came from fields as diverse as acting, marketing and (perhaps predictably) as authors in their own right. Another common route I found was where someone was an authority in a particular area. They could be, for example, an expert in food and nutrition and therefore promote themselves as a specialist ghost writer for diet and health books.
Of course, as with any job, getting your foot in the door and winning the first ghostwriting gig is the hardest part. Like I say, experience is really important in this line of work, since if any ghostwriting client is going to invest significant money to get their book written, they’ll want a recommendation or a referral from a trusted source. In the beginning, aspiring ghosts may have to take a few very low paid ghosting jobs to help build up a portfolio of work. I would advise people in this situation to ask around friends, contacts and business owners to see if anyone has a great story to tell. If the would-be ghostwriter has an expertise, then they should focus on that market. Career coaches should approach other career coaches, or sports writers should target sporting figures. The same goes for anyone in business, law, or healthcare. There will always be others in your sector who want to write a book but don't have time.
Alternatively, writing websites like guru.com or upwork might be a way in. The money will be terrible, but it will help build up some references for your work as a freelance. Once you have a decent portfolio you can look for more lucrative assignments.
Another potential avenue for work is via literary agents and publishing houses. They will often seek to pair an author with a ghost. The named author may have a solid market and a great idea for a book, but not have the capacity or skills to write it. Again though, they will want evidence that the ghostwriter is a highly experienced, safe pair of hands.
Don’t forget to market yourself extensively: being a ghost does not mean being entirely invisible. You must be very proactive in promoting your ghostwriting services. A website is essential and offers unlimited low-cost ways to market your work. It should include examples of your writing, perhaps some sample chapters from books and testimonials from satisfied clients. You should also give some thought to building up your online presence with a blog and social media posts on sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Word of mouth is a powerful tool too, so always ask your clients to recommend you to people they know.
It would be a mistake to focus too solidly on your writing skills. While good writing crucial for a ghost, pay attention to your interviewing skills too. You need to be able to drill down into the detail and ask the right questions to get all the information required to write a successful book. Accept also, that you will need to put your ego aside. Ghostwriting is not about you. Your name will not appear on the cover. If the book becomes a bestseller, it is highly likely no one will ever know about your involvement, bar a small thank you in the acknowledgements section. You are paid to keep quiet. Most of all, you need to be inquisitive, curious, hardworking and articulate to succeed. With that combination of characteristics, plus a little luck at being in the right place at the right time, and you’ll be a great ghostwriter.