Rules to Effective Ghostwriting

Why is ghostwriting getting such a bad rap lately?

The closet doors have been thrown open. The ghosts have escaped, and once free, they are bashing themselves to oblivion. In essays and books, ghostwriters publicly shed their ghostly identities. Giving up the ghost, proclaiming they are mad as hell, they are simply not going to ghostwrite anymore.

Not me. I’m proud to be a business ghostwriter. Along with writing books under my own name, magazine work and speechwriting, ghostwriting will remain a substantial part of my writing practice.

I acknowledge the traps of ghosting. It’s seductive and not in a good way. Ghosting makes it easy for lazy writers to get by. It’s easier to echo the voice of someone else than to find my own. It’s less work to dress up the experiences of someone else than to figure out what my experiences mean. Ghosting often means better money, which is okay, but the focus on the money rather than the writing can subvert any writer’s authentic work. Ghosting touches on real moral concerns concerning questions of authenticity, professional ethics, and ownership.

That said, I intend to continue ghosting. There’s honor in assisting someone to write something worthy of writing.

Balance is the key. I’m not judging ghostwriters who do nothing but ghostwrite. I am suggesting that a writer’s authentic voice is a muscle that needs to be exercised. If that muscle is allowed to atrophy, no good—including one’s ghostwriting—can come of it. So, writers of all stripes, ghost away. But keep an eye on your own writing and attend to some of these principles that I have honed ghosting 10 business books. Herewith, my Ghostwriting Rules.

1.) What’s in a Name?

I don’t like the term “ghostwriting.”  I’m not alone in this.  One of the first things that ghostwriters always try to do is to rename what they do.  “Collaborator” is a favorite term for many ghosts, but I don’t like that word, because of its connotation as a traitor.  “Associate” is another term that some ghosts prefer.  I don’t like “ghostwriting”, either, because I don’t intend to be invisible.  So what do I prefer?  I like to think of myself as a “writing partner.”  The term not only makes me feel more significant, it offers numerous advantages to the principal when it comes to referring to or introducing the ghost.

2.) The Principal is not your Pal

Ghostwriting can be seductive.  So paste this on your bathroom mirror.  “The Principal Is Not Your Pal.”  In other words, you can be friendly, but you can’t be friends.  The penalty for forgetting this is severe.  It’s easy to get confused about your role.  The penalty for screwing this up will cost you the job

It’s easy to be seduced.  You’ll be spending lots of time with the principal, who is often powerful, wealthy, or a celebrity.  They live in big houses, travel in private jets, and lead lives that look very attractive.  You might even be invited to travel on the private plane and get to know the family.  The principal may ask you for advice about matters unrelated to the book.  Many principals are isolated and lonely.  They may treat you as an advisor, therapist, and friend.

Never forget why you are there.  Hold your tongue.  Stick to the project.  Know your role.  Remember the agreements.  Be friendly, but resist overtures to socialize.  Politely but firmly decline invitations to stay in the principal’s home.  If you make the mistake of attempting to overlay another role (friend, advisor, shrink, rabbi, confidant, investor, or, God help you, lover) on the ghostwriting arrangement, you will destroy it and your reputation (see Rule 4) in the process.

3.) It’s the Money, Stupid

“No man but a blockhead wrote except for money,” said Dr. Johnson.  One of the agreeable aspects of a ghostwriting gig is that there is little pretense about money.  From the ghostwriter’s perspective, it’s not about “art”, getting credit, leaving a legacy, or any of the other reasons authors trot out to justify their need to add one more book to the library.  Ghostwriters are in it for the fee (frequently to support themselves while they write their own novels or screenplays).

That means get as much cash upfront as possible, not because you need the money—which you do—but because it’s good for the project.  The more skin the principal has in the pot, the more likely he or she will want to play out the hand.  Developing a book is a tedious, drawn-out affair.  There will be many points where the principal will be tempted to drop the whole thing.  A significant buy-in discourages the principal from walking away when the going gets tough, which if you’re doing your job right, it frequently will.  A sizable down payment protects both the project and the ghostwriter.

If the principal balks at giving you a sizable check upfront, just walk away and don’t look back.

What about royalties?  In lieu of a fee, many principals will offer ghostwriters some or even all of the anticipated royalty revenue stream. Don’t do it.   Negotiate the best fee you can and leave the royalties to the principal.  Some will argue that sharing the royalties aligns the interests of the principal and ghost.  But I prefer a clean, time-limited arrangement that concerns matters over which I have control.  Royalties are outside the ghostwriter’s control.  Sharing revenues locks the ghostwriter and the principal into a permanent relationship.  Of course, if a percentage of the royalties are offered in addition to the fee, take them.  If the principal is really interested in aligning objectives, a definite performance bonus linked to specific deliverables works better than indefinite royalties.

Same thing with credit.  If the principal is willing to share the credit, accept it graciously and say thank you.  Some principals try to negotiate a smaller fee for a bigger credit. Just say no.

Now, a word about expenses.

The conventional advice for ghostwriters is to negotiate a fee plus expenses.  There’s a better way:  Unless the project involves significant international travel, bundle the expenses (including domestic travel) into the writing fee.  The benefits for both the ghostwriter and the principal are compelling.  For the ghostwriter, this arrangement avoids the tedious work of submitting expense reports, energy that can be better spent writing.  The principal also benefits by having a totally predictable project cost.  It eliminates the need to write periodic reimbursement checks.  For the writer, given that expenses are frontloaded, the advantage of prepayment is obvious.  If the ghostwriter estimates well, he or she will almost always come out ahead.

4.) Trust and Confidence

Next to money, trust is often the biggest obstacle to moving forward.  The biggest issue that many principals have is trust.  They are about to open up the vault and they are scared.  Many principals are powerful, wealthy, or famous.  Many are security conscious.  A ghostwriter can be threatening.  Can they trust you not to reveal their secrets, not to steal, and otherwise betray them?

The most important way to reassure them that you are trustworthy is to be trustworthy and scrupulously professional.  Your integrity and reputation must be impeccable.  I am usually asked to sign confidentiality agreements.  I sign them.  I respect them.  Discretion is key.  I don’t talk about my other clients.  Sometimes they ask me to show them copies of books I have ghostwritten.  Usually that’s no problem, but in a couple of cases, I promised my principal that I would never take credit for the book, even with prospective clients.  When they hear that, the prospective clients seem to get it.  If I’m that discrete with other clients, maybe I’ll be discrete with them, too.

Another common source of anxiety among principals is whether the ghostwriter will inject his or her own opinions into the book.  This was a major consideration for Pfizer, which hired me to assist CEO Hank McKinnell with a book about his vision for healthcare.  They apparently had interviewed a number of ghostwriters who were very articulate in what they believed should be McKinnell’s healthcare platform.  When the selection committee asked me about this point, this is what I said.  “I do have a vision about healthcare, and when I want to express those ideas, I’ll write a book and put my own name on it.  I’m not going to burden Hank McKinnell’s vision with my own.”  I got the project.

5.) You’re the Writer, Put it in Writing

When the parties have reached a verbal agreement, it’s time for the writer to put the agreement in writing. I suggest keeping it simple. A lot of legalese and boilerplate just frightens the principal. I find that a one or two page intellectual property agreement works well. It is surprisingly simple but covers all the essential details, including the fee, payment schedule, intellectual property ownership, confidentiality, and dispute resolution.

Here’s an outline of the intellectual property agreement I have found useful.


THIS AGREEMENT, executed this (date) ____________ between __________ and ________ memorializes and confirms the following agreements between the Parties:

1. Summary of book, including approximate length

2. Delivery. Deadline

3. Copyright: Statement that as a work for hire, the principal has all interests in the copyright.

4. Editorial Control: Statement that principal has unlimited editorial control over all aspects of the Work and ancillary materials.

5. Project Fee: Summary of fees and payment schedule. Typically, principals pay the writer one-third upon signing the agreement, one-third upon presentation of a satisfactory first draft, and one-third on a final draft or publication.

6. Expenses. Statement of how expenses will be handled or reimbursed.

7. Author Credit. Statement of how the book credit shall be assigned. I include a clause that explicitly gives up any right to author credit.

8. Advances and Royalties. Statement of how advances and royalties, if any, will be distributed.

9. Unsatisfactory Manuscript: Statement about what happens if the principal finds the work unacceptable.

10. Satisfactory Manuscript: Statement that the principal must notify the writer when the work is deemed acceptable.

11. Termination: Statement about terminating the agreement. There is usually a schedule of kill fees to protect the writer against arbitrary termination.

12. Confidentiality and Non disclosure: Language along these lines: Any information disclosed by ________ will be considered confidential and shall not be disclosed to others or used for a purpose other than as determined in this Agreement without the prior written consent of ___________ , such obligation being further detailed in a separate Confidentiality undertaking to be signed.

15. Return of Materials. Statement that all correspondence, documentation, and research materials remain within the ownership of _____ and shall be returned to ______ immediately after expiration/termination of this agreement.

16. Originality: Statement that the writer warrants that the Work is an original work of the creator’s independent authorship, except as to any matter specifically attributed otherwise. The writer also agrees to indemnify and hold harmless ______ against any loss or injury suffered by _________ as a result of the breach of this warranty.

17. Publicity: Statement that the writer shall not disclose to others any information nor originate publicity, news releases, articles, promotional materials, or any other public announcement in any way related to the Work, this Agreement or to this project without the prior written consent of _________.