Do You Feel Lucky?

Part of the fun and excitement of ghostwriting is that you never know if you have a bestseller on your hands.

I’ve received a bunch of inquiries about different book projects in the past few weeks. I’m not sure any of them will gel into actual jobs, but just having the possibility of some new projects is refreshing in these uncertain times.

Three of them happen to be fitness books, one is in the behavioral health arena, and another is all business. In different ways, they fill me with anticipation and tons of questions. Are any of them worth doing on spec for a share of royalties? Which ones warrant writing a whole manuscript and which make sense to keep in synopsis form?

These are all questions that need to be answered with carefully crafted contracts, but you never really know if you’ve answered them correctly until the books are done.

Being in this position reminds me of the book I first read when I was seriously considering becoming a ghostwriter, Ghostwriting by Andrew Crofts.

I always liked the section called “Who Pays the Ghost?” because it lays out the financial terms of ghostwriting projects and explains what a wild roller coaster ride ghostwriting can be as a career.

Crofts discusses important things like deciding what to charge based on what you need to live on and what you think your author can afford, but the bottom line of the section is a lot more open ended. His advice: “Have some guaranteed money coming in to keep you alive and some pipe dreams to keep you awake.”

He tells the story of a project he did for a flat fee, when he should have taken a gamble:

I was recently approached by a young man wanting to
write his autobiography. He suggested that we write it
as a partnership, dividing up any money that the book
eventually made. This is an arrangement I have often
found to work well, but in order for it to be successful I
have to be confident that we can find a publisher who
is willing to pay a large enough advance to support me
during the writing process, having only seen a synopsis.

Although I liked the young man enormously and thought
his story was very moving, I was not sure that we would
be able to convince a publisher without showing them the
whole manuscript. I was not sufficiently confident of
success to be willing to write the whole book speculatively.

Regretfully, I told him of my misgivings but he insisted
that he wanted to go ahead anyway and was willing to pay
me for my trouble. I quoted him a reasonable fee, which
I was confident he could afford. We wrote the book and I
introduced him to an agent who sold the book to a
publisher within four days, for a sum nearly ten times the
amount I had been paid—and that was just the advance!
Had he not had the courage of his convictions and been
willing to put his money where his mouth was, the book
would never have been written and I would never have
known what I had missed. I could tell many more stories
of projects for which I agreed to take a percentage and
ended up earning less than the minimum wage for my
labours, and others for which taking a fee was the right
thing to do. I could also point to those for which a share
of the royalties has come out to far more than any fee I
would ever have had the nerve to charge.

“Every time you make a decision on how to charge for a book, you’re placing a bet,” Crofts says. He reasons that if you gamble enough to keep yourself interested, while still bringing in enough paying work to cover your living expenses, the law of averages makes it possible to have a rewarding and profitable career as a ghostwriter.

[Photo by Sinistra Ecologia Liberta]