Interview with a Ghostwriter
Ever flip through a book and wonder about its author? The real person behind the words may surprise you. It may be a sixteen-year-old teenager, jotting down scenes during Algebra class. Or a grandfather, supplementing his retirement income with steamy bestsellers. Or it may ... be a pre-med student named Brikitta Hairston.
While I published a book of the same name (The Ghostwriter) - it recently occurred to me that I am clueless about the ghostwriting profession. How does it work? What do these anonymous authors earn? And does it bother them when they see their novels succeeding with someone else's name plastered in glossy letters on the front cover?
I invited Brikitta, an accomplished ghostwriter, to lift the veil on this mysterious profession and discuss the process behind the roughly 250 novels under her accomplished belt.
Please walk us through the process - from start to finish - of the process.
Ghostwriting usually starts with a basic proposition of skills, and genre experience. Originally, I would scour large freelancer sites and search for open jobs to apply to. Clients would review applications; cover letters and writing samples, before reaching out. There are 'work for hire' situations, that always require an NDA, and or confidentiality agreement.
There are a few small publishers or independent clients who want to acquire full novels, already written, and may offer a royalty agreement, or upfront payment. There are also those who have just the genre in mind and post their open jobs on larger sites; these are most common.
Some jobs come with no outline, and they put 'creative freedom' in our contracts or prior agreement; others provide detailed chapter outlines.
Do you go through edits and rewrites with an editor or do they just take your manuscript 'as is'?
I've had clients more involved in the edits, and require some rewrites, as I have had others who required none at all and took the manuscript 'as is.'
How long are you given to write the novel?
A time frame is agreed upon before hire and written in the contract if there is one involved. There are, however, average timelines for certain word counts and genres. For example, when I do a contemporary romance job, 10,000 words is expected within ten days of hire. Longer works (30-60k) are required within 4-6 weeks.
Do you know the final title/author name of your novels, and you are alerted when they publish?
I rarely ever know the final title, even if I provided one at the time of submittal. I sometimes know the client's name, or small press they are publishing under, but never the author it is being published under. I always look for the client's name, and complete profile and hire history to ensure I am not being scammed, or have the potential to remain unpaid for my work. Most do use pen names to protect their anonymity.
Do you see sales figures, or find out how successful (or unsuccessful) a novel is?
If it is a long-term contract, I am told about readers' reactions, to improve the next book; but not usually sales figures and such. This also does depend on the contract agreement; there are work for hire situations where I receive a flat rate and that's it; but there are also royalty agreements where I require 5-10% depending on the length of the novel, whether I created the plot, etc.
As an author, I feel such strong ownership of my stories. I think it would be very hard for me to let someone else publish those stories with their name on it. Do you struggle with this at all?
I struggled with it later on, when I started publishing last year under my own pen name. I remember the first time I came across a book that had a familiar sounding description; I got curious and downloaded it only to find it was my exact story, one of the ones I created the plot for. It had glowing reviews, a beautiful cover, and was in the top 100 of each subcategory. After that, I can honestly say ghostwriting got harder.
Originally, I did not know the ins and outs of it, as I started ghostwriting when I was 16. It is easier when I am given the full plot and have no creative addition to the story besides stringing together the plot. When I do have all the creative freedom, it is a little hard to digest giving 'my' stories away, but then I remember the NDA or confidentiality agreement and know that it is not mine, 'technically.' I struggled more with it when I started finding the books on Amazon because the plots and character names would stand out; I even found a few of them under USA Today Bestselling Author names, so that was a struggle for me. It led to me publishing my stories myself as an independent author, and my ghostwriting income is what funds most of my business now.
How much can you earn as a ghostwriter? Are you paid extra depending on the success of the book? Can your income increase as your books become more popular?
A simple romance ghostwriting agreement will be $0.010/word. I did a few non-fiction, academic writing jobs and those paid higher, but I did not do enough to provide accurate rates. About two years after I started, and built my portfolio, I increased my rate to $0.012/per word. It does vary based on the client, their status, and if there is a royalty agreement. This comes in when there is an agreed royalty amount, and usually takes off 10% of my upfront charge. The income does increase, as I have noticed a pattern in the circles of the clients that hire me, and come by word of mouth. While I don't know sales figures, if the client becomes a repeat client, they do pay me more for the next story as our contract becomes long-term.
Are you reaching for a calculator? I'll save you the time. A 60,000 word manuscript will pay a new ghostwriter $600.
What's your best advice for someone interested in becoming a ghostwriter?
I would advise them to truly know their worth, and defend it. To be successful in the long run, and make it a career, there are always times you will have to say no and search for that better project. Taking up the jobs you are passionate about would be ideal, but starting out, you may not get the glowing projects you hope for. It is a lot like going through school; the more experienced or knowledgeable you are, the better jobs you get. So take everything in as a learning experience.
If someone wants to become a ghostwriter, where should they start?
I started with freelancing sites; Elance.com before it was dissolved, and then Upwork.com, which is currently still active. The clients I found here years ago helped me branch out and find the bigger LLCs, small presses, independent publishers, and join teams of writers that operate for one or several authors.I now have the ability to reach out to previous clients, or they sometimes reach out to me when new work arises.
I would submit applications to their team, and once tried to become a ghostwriter for publishing companies that link writers with celebrities or high profile people who are coming out with memoirs, tell-alls and such, and will not be writing it themselves. I recommend looking into this, because the payout will be much higher for each job, but I recommend building a portfolio up as well.
How long have you been ghostwriting? How many novels of yours have been published?
I have been ghostwriting for five years. A rough estimate would be ~250 books; including smaller novellas that the authors may use to increase back matter in their books and especially for KU authors. I believe each book made it to the publishing stage in some form, I have never been notified if they did not. I usually don't ever try and look for them, because so much can be changed once I submit the work.
More about Brikitta:
Brikitta Hairston is a junior at the University of Iowa studying English and Pre-Medicine, and intends to become a forensic pathologist. She has been a ghostwriter for five years, in the contemporary romance, regency, and historical romance genres. She also publishes New Adult romance as Bri Stone, and has written for dozens of small press publishers, PR companies, and independent clients. More than half her ghostwritten novels have moved on to publication and became bestsellers, or high performers on book retail sites. You can explore her published novels on Amazon or follow her on Facebook.