7 Secrets to Breaking Into Ghostwriting
I got a question in my inbox this week from a guy who described himself as a laid-off journalist. He wanted to know how to get into political ghostwriting. Great question, and it’s one I’ve heard before, so I knew it was time I addressed it in this space.
Ghostwriting is a great way to make a living writing, but it’s not for everyone. Some egos are too big for it: You’ve got to be willing to put aside the need for credit in your work, in exchange for a very nice fee. Some writers aren’t organized enough for it: You have to be super organized, especially if you are ghosting books. You’re collecting a large bit of information, sometimes over a long period of time. You’ve got to figure out the best way to collect the information, organize it, and make it interesting. Some writers get bored easily: You’re committing to a whole book. If you prefer shorter fare, this ain’t your gig.
But if all of that doesn’t deter you and you are still interested in ghostwriting books, then here are seven secrets to help you start or grow your ghostwriting business.
1. Break into ghostwriting through relationships
In my case, I fell into ghostwriting. I was a copywriter, creating anything from brochures to newsletters to Web content to sales letters. I attended a speaker training event held by one of the most popular and internationally known motivational speakers at the time. I gave him my card. He actually called. That turned into ghosting work for him and some of his students. I realized I enjoyed ghosting books and decided to focus my work on this aspect of writing.
I developed other relationships that led to more ghostwriting work over the years. I’ve even done work for politicians, as the journalist who emailed me aspires to do. My book ghostwriting, editing, and design company is wrapping up a book for a City Councilman now and recently completed a political book for a man running for Congress. Just like many other projects, these came through relationships. The first came via social media (see below), and the second came about when a happy client shared our name with someone who shared our name with someone.
Many ghostwriting opportunities come about because of relationships. So look around you. Let those in your world know that you are a writer and can help them with their book projects.
But don’t just look around your world. Be strategic about the world you want to be in — and then join it. If you want to ghost political books, then join a political organization or association. If you want to ghost business books, then join business associations or organizations. Build relationships in places where you can meet the people you want as clients.
2. Advertise to get some of your best clients
Another place I’ve actually found ghostwriting opportunities has been one that is decried by many: Craigslist. Two things happened about the same time that caused us to look to Craigslist. When the economy tightened and I found myself unable to work at my usual pace due to a difficult pregnancy, our business took a real hit. Projects just weren’t coming in at a good enough pace. After all, when money gets tight, book projects are things people can do without. So we felt the squeeze as would-be clients experienced their own effects from the economy and decided to hold off on projects. We had gotten most of our business from relationships and word-of-mouth, so we turned to advertising. With no actual money to put into it, though, Craigslist seemed the best option.
The reason many people don’t like Craigslist is because you get inundated with spam. But we quickly began to get a feel for what was spam and what wasn’t, so we could reduce the amount of time spent on nothing leads. Another reason Craigslist gets a bad rap is that those searching it often don’t want to pay anything for your services. Through trial and error, we learned how to cut through that clutter, too. And it paid off. Craigslist actually provided us with many good projects — projects that paid at a good rate. One thing we learned from the very beginning was to set our own rate. We opted to place ads offering our services, rather than to respond to ads. Responding to Craigslist ads for writers is a quick trip to the poor house. You’ll waste your time fighting for the lowest paid gigs out there.
In our case, we placed ads for our services and then fielded calls and emails related to those ads. Our ads focused on what we had to offer — and our superior experience — and not on offering a bargain basement price. If you don’t think you can land good clients out of Craigslist, I’m here to say you can. One guy even hopped a plane, flew in from Florida to meet us, and signed on. His was a five-figure project. Yes, from Craigslist. So it can happen.
We’ve moved into paid advertising, so Craigslist may not be on the menu for us now, but it’s a good place if you have a tight budget (or none at all) to get the word out.
3. Use social media to show off your work
Many of us have greeted social media with excitement, while others have looked at it with more chagrin, as we see it as one other thing we “must” do in the day. Well, I can say from my own experience, that social media can help you land book ghostwriting projects. We have gotten some projects via Facebook and LinkedIn connections. The thing about social media is that you can use it purposefully to build your brand and showcase your work, expertise, and projects. If you plan to use social media to help you get book business, focus your posts. I have several Twitter accounts, for instance, so that I can dedicate each to a different area or interest.
Remember that you can’t use a hard sell when you’re on social networks. People go to the networks for fun, first. So they’re not looking to be beaten over the head with your sales message. Post information that lets them see that you know what you’re talking about and when they are ready, they’ll seek you out. That’s how we got a recent client through LinkedIn. My LinkedIn profile is complete and it includes ghostwriter in my heading. So it’s easy to see what I do, and that I’ve done it a lot. That impressed this contact enough that he reached out, ran his book project idea by me, requested a quote, got a loan to pay for his project, and signed on. It wouldn’t have happened without my social media participation.
4. Have something to show off
Of course, to use social media to show off your work means you actually need to have work to show. So create a body of work. You can’t sit around waiting for your book ghosting project to fall in your lap. What you need to do is create the conditions for the project to show up. So write. A lot. This helps in two ways. One, it helps you hone your skills. And two, it gives you something to show your potential clients. Rarely does a prospect ask to see samples of my work these days, but it’s there, all the same. It’s easy to Google me and see examples of my work. And a prospect can click on the portfolio page of my company’s Website. A prospect can even find books that I’ve written under my own name on Amazon.
The good news for the out-of-work journalist is that he likely has a pretty good body of work. He can show off his best clips.
5. Focus the scope of the project
You’ll need to focus the project even from the outset. When you submit your quote or proposal, define the scope of the project. Is it for a manuscript of 50 pages or 200 pages? You can’t leave it open-ended, because you’ll never get the project completed. If you just say, “I’ll write a book for you,” then that’s a recipe for a never-ending project. And include the number of revisions in your contract.
This is especially important because writing is a subjective pursuit. You might write the manuscript well and the project may be quite good, but it may not hit the spot for some nebulous, random reason for your client. So to protect yourself — and to help your client keep from getting stalled — outline the number of revisions that are included. Once those revisions are exhausted, the client knows he or she will have to pay an additional fee. You’d be surprised how this one detail can help you get projects completed. That’s because it helps your client see that this is a project that has a start and must have an end. And it helps your client be more specific and articulate in giving you direction or feedback. Simply saying, “I don’t like it,” isn’t enough. When your client knows there is a specific number of revisions and that there is a specific scope of work — say, 150 pages — then it helps your client provide you the feedback you need to complete the project as envisioned. This, in the end, helps you have a happier client because you can actually manage the project and get it completed.
Clients come in many different varieties and being as specific as you can in your agreement can help you account for what can otherwise be time-wasting tactics. This isn’t to say your clients will intentionally try to waste time. But many clients have been dreaming of their books for so long that, as long as the books are in process, they don’t mind if the project takes a long time. So you need to help them. And some other clients are so indecisive that they have a hard time making a choice or declaring a project complete, even though there really is no conceivable reason why the project is not. So to help them, you have to define the scope and scale of the project.
You are more than a writer when you handle a ghostwriting project. You also are a project manager. You have to ask enough questions to clearly understand what your client wants. You have to plan the right questions and research to unearth the information you need. You have to coordinate your schedule with your client’s so you can conduct a series of interviews over some period of time. You have to write a manuscript that best articulates what you’ve understood your client to want. You have to produce the manuscript in a timely fashion and send it to your client for review. You have to follow up with the client to get feedback in a reasonable amount of time so you can make any revisions and complete your work. If you also will help with design or printing, you’ll need to oversee that. And you have to do all this while managing the relationship with your client.
6. Get your own website
One of the best moves you can make is to get your own Website. This is your home base online. This allows your prospective client to see who you are online, in an environment that has been created and controlled by you. That doesn’t mean you have to actually build the site yourself. If you can hire a professional, do that. But if not, then don’t let your lack of Web skills keep you from having a Web presence. You can build your own site using free software, or on a site like wordpress.com. You can have yourname.wordpress.com as a good first effort. Then as you grow or can afford to do so, you can register for your own domain name and hosting.
Your Website can include a list of offerings (services) you provide, your portfolio, and your contact info. It may also include a blog. In fact, a blog is an excellent way to help build your authority, share your expertise, and show that you’ve got the writing chops.
So this would be my advice to the laid-off journalist: Market yourself. Tap into your relationships. Let people in your community know you are a ghostwriter. Join your local chamber of commerce. Use advertising and social media to help you stand out. Get your Website and maybe even a blog. If you want to take on political projects, then blog about politics or writing. Blog about the news of the day, issues related to your target client, etc. And then do good work. One piece of good work can lead to others. And others.
7. Don’t leap at every writing request
Invariably, you’ll run into way more people who want to have a book written than who can actually afford to have you do it. So you’ll need to develop some way of ascertaining relatively quickly if this is a prospect who can afford your service. It does you little good to invest 30 or 45 minutes into discussing a book project with a prospect over the phone, only to find out the person can’t afford it anyway. (That’s also why I don’t advise running off to meet everyone who calls. Most business can be handled without the inefficient use of time to drive to meet someone face-to-face.)
Now, this isn’t to say every person you discuss a project with will sign up with you. Of course not. You still must go through your sales process, send a quote, and allow the person to make a decision. The person may choose not to go with you for any number of reasons. And that’s her right. But if the person absolutely does not have the ability to go with you because she has no budget, then there is really no point in a long, drawn-out discussion, is there? That’s just a waste of time for both parties.
So how do you determine who can afford your services and who can’t? Well, there are several ways, but one way is to get down to the money of it all. You don’t have to give a firm quote when you’re only discussing a project (And really, you shouldn’t. Take time to consider the needs of the project and write out a quote). But it can be helpful to give a range or use some other means to see if what you’d charge would be outside your prospect’s reach. That way, if it is, then you can get off the phone and get back to prospecting for clients who can afford your services.
But this isn’t the only reason to turn down a project.
In addition to turning down projects where the clients cannot afford you (Some will offer barter exchanges. I’ve even been offered a family heirloom, a broach, in exchange for writing. I don’t write for goods. I write for dollars.), you’ll also want to evaluate the projects for whether they are something you even want to do. After all, as I said at the top of this post, you’re committing to a project for several weeks or months. It needs to be work you like, or at least don’t mind. So if it’s something that turns you off — maybe the topic is boring or the prospect seems like a pain to deal with — then don’t be afraid to turn it down.
Lots of ghostwriting work is out there, but I realize it’s not always easy to find. In fact, most writers struggle with finding paying work. I’ve been there. It took years to develop the processes and systems I use to land projects, build good relationships with clients, and turn out the books they envision. I wrote this post to arm you with the knowledge to turn your interest in ghostwriting into paid projects.
But remember, regardless of how you break into ghostwriting, the proof is in the work. You’ve got to deliver. If you can’t deliver, then you won’t have a business. Remember, your clients have come to you to do the thing they have been unable to do: Write a marketable book. So make it happen.
Ghostwriting books can be an enjoyable and financially rewarding way to make a living writing. You can break into it with a bit of writing experience and marketing effort.
What other questions do you have about breaking into ghostwriting?
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Thank you for the wonderful piece of advice, Monica. What about ghostwriting for an established author? How does one go about finding those kinds of jobs? I am especially interested in non-fiction. Olga.
Thanks for the help! I've been looking at speechwriting for local politicians, and I've got an in with a State representative whose campaign I worked on. Now I'm all motivated to call him 37 times until he hooks me up with his friends (we're buddies--I can get away with it). Do you think that, since my portfolio is a little thin in this area, I should create some sample speeches, articles, or even write my own ebook? Will a client mind that I created something for the purpose of showing off my ability, even though I wasn't commissioned by someone else to write it? Thanks again.
Hi, Olga, thanks for the question. When you say "ghostwriting for an established author," do you mean being a ghostwriter for an established author and penning projects for this author? Or do you mean how does an established author break into ghostwriting? If you mean the former, then I don't have much advice for you, as my ghostwriting clients are not established authors, but businesspeople, consultants, and the like. But if you mean the latter, then the main advice is what we've discussed in this article. I believe the first point is perhaps one of the most important: Ghostwriting (especially as you increase your fees), is largely a relationship business. So lean on your relationships. Make sure the people you know, know you do this work. Chances are, somebody you know, needs your help. Do a good job, and ask your client to tell his/her friends about you. That's how it spreads, and that's how you can get new clients. The main thing, when it comes to ghostwriting, is that you can't be shy about letting people know what you do. So tell everybody that you are a ghost!
Hi, thanks for the note. And congratulations on seeing this opportunity. If your portfolio is a little thin on any one type of writing, then you show off what you do have. Most clients want to see that you have written some good (or great) stuff, period. Others may be a bit more discerning and want to see that you have written something specific to their needs, for instance a political speech. One thing you can do, if you've settled on political speech writing as the direction you want to go, is to put together an ebook aimed at this type of client. It doesn't have to be an ebook about political speech writing, but still something a political candidate or campaign would be interested in. For instance, you may do an ebook on speaking to multiple audiences and sharing one message or how to rally people behind your cause. The point is to allow the ebook to serve as a resource for your target client. And don't forget to put a page at the end of the ebook that lets readers know more about you and your services, including the fact that you help political candidates get their messages out through speeches. Drop me a line and let me know how it goes.