The Honest Truth About Ghostwriting

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Ghostwriting is a great way for an expert with a book idea and no writing skills to get their expertise out there. The demand is high enough that you can make a good living.

I started writing as a Ghostwriter, during last three years, I wrote around 300 blog posts.

For those of you counting, that’s five articles a week. One a day.

For each article, I generated ideas, wrote outlines and finished drafts. The research was deep, the editing long. Each article took me between four and eight hours to complete.

Furthermore, I wrote on topics outside of my normal discipline : advanced search engine optimization techniques, business innovation, startup challenges and web analytics.

And these articles landed on notable websites like InVeronica.com, so the pressure was on to look good.

It was enough work and exposure to make me into an authority. But there was one problem.

Not one single article has my name on it. Someone else got all the credit.

That was on purpose. See, I traded credit for cash. In other words, I got paid to be a ghostwriter.

But for me, not all was sunshine and peppermints.

During this time I discovered something about myself. While I’m not generally over-the-top debatable, I missed the attention, the recognition, the authority of having my own name on the writing.

The Four Flavors Of Ghostwriting

What I described above is a common relationship in the content marketing and book publishing community. Busy CEOs and executives (who are probably poor writers to begin with) hire writers to write in their name.

Here are four common varieties:

  • Anonymous sales letters: Someone hires you to sell their product. If it’s a letter from the CEO, it’s clearly ghostwriting. But, if you are creating copy that is anonymous – say, on a sales page where personal brand recognition is not a concern and nobody is getting recognition, then this is not a case of ghostwriting.
  • Their ideas and words: In this scenario, someone pays you to turn their ideas into an article or book. You listen to them talk or take their notes and develop that into content. Or they email you a rough draft. It’s your job to clean up that rough draft.
  • Their ideas, your words: In this scenario, someone pays you to write from an outline or transcript they’ve given you. You do all the research, they approve the final draft. Or they might make substantial changes.
  • Your ideas and words: Here, someone pays you to come up with the ideas yourself, create the outlines, and write the book or articles. Their only involvement is to approve. This would include social ghostwriters (celebrities who hire someone to run their Twitter accounts, for instance).

Pros and Pitfalls of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting is usually the first job a freelance writer gets fresh out of the corporate cubicle – especially a writer that’s fretting about bringing in income. Busy people are always looking for writers. Think easy money.

You can get a free education as a ghostwriter if you research and write about a new field.

You don’t have to worry about taking the public criticism of your content. You just write.

However, there are also disadvantages:

  • You may get taken advantage of: A wet-behind-the-ears-freelancer may not have the experience or courage to negotiate a good fee. And the temptation of volume will depress the per-article fee, meaning you work harder and faster for less. Ghostwriting for SEO is rarely worth it because most people willing to hire a ghostwriter aren’t willing to pay the rate needed to do a future proof job. With Google constantly updating their algorithms, only the highest quality content will work. Otherwise, you’re climbing a mountain of sand.
  • You are at your clients’ mercy for referrals: Do a good job and your client will refer you to other clients. That is how it is supposed to work. However, this is not in your control. You may land a friendly, generous client who liberally shares your contact information with everyone you meet (which was my case). Or you may meet someone who is absorbed in business affairs and forgets to recommend you even if you do a slamming good job.
  • You won’t build your expertise: We all know content marketing is a hot topic. The demand for content is high, and is only going to rise over the coming years. There is a need out there. So you can make money now, but you need to also consider the long term, like building your expertise (in something other than being a ghostwriter). In the age of authorship, being anonymous won’t help your career.

Is Ghostwriting Ethical?

There is one fundamental difference in the ghostwriting community: there are no foils like in the SEO community (think black hatters).

The dominating argument for ghostwriting is that it is a common practice. It’s a business transaction.

Smart ghostwriters learn how to bank off the growing success of their clients by incorporating royalties and success measurements into their contracts. So if your client’s work becomes a best-seller or you’re bringing gangbusters traffic to their blog, you reap the additional success.

The more money you make, the more justified your occupation. The only problem with this is that expediency is a poor indicator of right and wrong. Look at it this way: hiring a ghostwriter is not not unlike buying someone else’s research and calling it your own.

Then there is this: what would happen if your client’s readers discovered she did not write the blog posts or book she said she did? Would that tarnish her reputation?

Violating the Contract with the Reader

When someone sits down to read a book or a blog post, there is an unspoken contract that says the name on the content is the person who wrote it.

Where I come from, we call this trust.

So if a real person is claiming to be the author behind a book or blog but hires someone else to write the content, he or she is violating that contract. He or she is breaking that trust. And losing credibility.

Think about it: in the online economy, trust is huge. Ghostwriting violates that trust. You are telling somebody you are responsible for the words and thoughts when, in fact, you paid for it.

Indeed. But does this make it ethical?

Two Takeaways on Ghostwriting

At this point I want to talk to the people on both sides of the ghostwriting relationship: the client and the writer.

For the writers: The first thing every writer should ask is this: What do you want to accomplish as a writer? Is building a personal and visible platform important to you? Will it help you in the long run? If you have to ghostwrite to make ends meet, fine. But beat a hasty path out of the business as soon as possible. It’s your turn to run the show.

As a visible, credible writer, you should build your online profile in subject matters you care about. When you do, your passion will come across (something difficult to translate through a disinterested ghostwriter).

For the clients: Resist hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, learn how to write or hire people who can write for you – in their names. This is an opportunity to nurture a rising star. To move away from a consolidation of power and cult of personality and expand your reach within your own ranks.

This is why big media try to hire notable writers. They know the company will rise with the tide of their stable of writers. They can benefit from rising writers. In other words, there is no reason to consolidate power behind you.

And if you have to hire someone to help you write, give them credit as a co-author. It’s only fair.

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