A controversial homebirth midwife; a woman cop who took six bullets as she helped stop a terrorist attack; a young woman making the best of life despite a disfiguring disease; a ’60s-pop-music buff who, after his fourth bout with cancer, decided to live out his dream of writing about his encounters with his idols. Those are the kinds of people I have ghostwritten books for — not people like V.C. Andrews or ex-presidents. You don’t get rich ghostwriting for regular people. In many cases, you also don’t get rich writing for the big names, either. You’d be surprised — sometimes it’s the wealthiest and/or best-known clients who pay the least. Exactly how much do I make writing other people’s stories? For most books, I receive a flat rate — anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 in my case, plus or minus a percentage of the author’s royalties. Sometimes I get a percentage of the author’s advance –25 percent to 40 percent in my experience, plus or minus a percentage of the author’s royalties — but I am told the top ghostwriters get 50. In the best cases I have gotten 40, with 25 percent of the author’s royalties. Here and there, I charge by the hour, $50 to $90, for what I call “editorial hand-holding” for clients who can sort of write, but need a lot of guidance and editing work.
For me, ghostwriting is a job — one I wouldn’t do if I didn’t need the money. Like any job, it has its pros and cons, its ups and downs — lots of freedom, the satisfaction of helping someone tell their story; but also, frequently, having to handle intense personalities with kid gloves.
And yet, I still have not given up on ghostwriting entirely. For every bad client there’s also an instance of grace — mostly people grateful for my ability to help them express themselves, even if their books haven’t been blockbusters. There have been moments that made it all worthwhile, like helping an author’s daughter, who had severe learning disabilities, write an afterword that made her feel proud. Not to mention it’s a way for me to use the skills I have to make at least some money, while working at home, at my own pace.
Here are a few of my most memorable deals from almost two decades in the trenches.
THE FIRST TIME
It’s 1996 and I’m looking for a way to leave my full-time job as a writer for fashion magazines Women’s Wear Daily and W and go freelance. I meet a young agent at an Authors Guild event I’m covering. She’s looking for someone to ghostwrite a book for a wedding planner. It sounds pretty easy. I’ve been interviewing people, writing profiles, and doing lifestyle journalism for a decade already. I know how to listen, how to construct a story arc, how to keep a story moving. I’ve also dabbled in nonfiction MFA programs I ultimately dropped out of — Sarah Lawrence and City College of New York — and have been working on a memoir. This seems like something I can easily do, and something that can supplement the money I’ll make freelancing, so I quit my job.
If we land a book deal, the $3,000 I get up front to write the wedding planner’s book proposal will be deducted from the $15,000 in total I’ll receive for writing the book, in three increments: on signing, on delivery, and on acceptance. I’ll also get 15 percent of the author’s royalties once she earns out her advance.
I get that job, and at the same time, another — $10,000 for a book about hair and beauty styles for weddings by a hairstylist. Again, I will be paid in three increments, and this time I secure 25 percent of the author’s royalties. The hairstylist is my first client to muse aloud, from the beginning, about what he is going to say when he appears on Oprah. He is even paying for media training for this express purpose. He is far from the last client I will ever have who verbally anticipates an impending star turn on Oprah.
Doesn’t sound too bad, right? But after I write four very different versions of her proposal, the wedding planner’s book never secures a deal. And the hairstylist’s book never earns back its advance. He never makes it to Oprah’s couch.
THE GREAT MASCARA CAPER
In 1998 I get a gig writing a book for the multimillionaire founder of a major cosmetics company. He’s paying $25,000, but no royalties. However, I am told it’s going to be an easy job — probably taking no more than a couple of months — because the author has all his information and research ready to go. As a consolation for my missing out on royalties, he also promises me the employee discount — 75 percent — on the company’s products, for life.On three separate occasions I spend three weeks working with him in a tiny town in Wisconsin (population: 650). I do what I do with all my clients: a combination of recorded interviews — which are then transcribed by a professional transcriber (the client balks at paying the fees, but my agent insists) — and getting my client to do some freewriting (free-associating on paper) because sometimes people brainstorm better that way.
I keep waiting for him to give me some big folder full of all the research, but it turns out it’s all conveniently stored in his brain. Some details come out a little different each time. So I interview the scientists at his company myself. I learn to translate into layman’s terms why curly hair tends to be drier than straight, and other secrets of beauty science. The job seems like it will never end. It ends up taking nine months, monopolizing my life, and leaving me nearly broke. Within a year, the client has sold his cosmetics company, and I promptly lose my discount.
THE BEST (AND WORST) DEAL
This is the memoir of a mother whose son had become quadriplegic after an accident. I race through the proposal so my agent can have it in time for a big international book festival. She’s hoping to get offers in the $200,000 range. That sounds good to me; I’ll receive 40 percent of the advance. My agent calls three times from the festival, first to say she’s gotten an offer of $250,000, but will keep going. The second call, she says she’s snagged a $750,000 offer, but she isn’t stopping until she has $1 million. By the third call, she’s made good on her word. This is it. I am going to make $400,000 in six months for writing one book, plus 25 percent of the author’s royalties. I am stunned. But I am also so scared. What makes a memoir a million- dollar book? How would this have to be different from a book I would have delivered for $200,000? How the fuck am I going to do this?
I receive my first of three scheduled payments: $113,000 after my agent’s cut. I have never made that much money in a year, not even when I was an advertising copywriter.
But that’s the only check I get. The editor gushes over early glimpses we give her of the manuscript. But then she changes her tune. She rejects two different drafts of it. This is now 2008. The economy is changing. The business is changing. The publishing house wants to kill the book. It seems they’ve realized they’ve been too loose with their money. The agent campaigns to not have the book killed. How can you do this to a woman in her situation? she argues, pulling out the author’s backstory for sympathy. Instead of killing the book, they fire me.
I wonder if there’s some kind of lesson I’m supposed to learn from this: I have made the most money I have ever made in ghostwriting on a book from which I was fired. The book eventually comes out, and it’s a huge flop. (And no Oprah appearance.)
THE $20,000 BESTSELLER
At a time when I am fairly desperate for work, a celebrity’s wife comes along. She wants to write a memoir about raising a kid with a disability. She’s offering $20,000 with no royalties. Subtract my agent’s 15 percent and taxes. Know that this work is very taxing with even the best clients. Know that I need a job. My agent presses for royalties, but the woman and her people refuse. Don’t worry, my agent says. This book won’t be big. There probably won’t be any royalties.
I go to meet the author and resentment rises up inside me as she proudly shows me around her 10-bedroom mansion. At the end of our first interview, I ask whether she’s ever tried a gluten-free diet for her son. No, I can’t do that, she says. He’d freak out if I served him something different from his brothers and sister. Tonight, for instance, I’m making spaghetti. It’s his favorite. I can’t deprive him of that.
A half hour later, we walk into her kitchen, and there, in front of the stove, is an older woman in an apron making spaghetti. Oh, my god, I think, my client thinks she’s making spaghetti. She’s so used to having people do things for her, she doesn’t even know she’s not actually doing them! I feel like another one of the many people she pays to live her life for her, and it doesn’t feel great.
After the book comes out, my client reportedly tells interviewers she didn’t have a ghostwriter — that the publisher had hired someone, but her work on the first chapter was unsatisfactory, so they fired her and the author wrote the whole thing herself. In five weeks.
That false claim amounts to a public retraction of the acknowledgment stipulated in my contract. I am advised to have my lawyer send her a cease and desist letter. To add insult to injury, not only are there royalties for the author, the book lands on The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks.
I get nothing for it beyond the $20,000. That sours me on ghostwriting for a while, at least for stingy quasi celebrities.
A couple of years later, I’ll have a very gratifying experience working with an unknown author on his memoir about his struggle, in his 20s, to come out. I don’t get rich on it by any means, but I am fairly paid and enjoy the work. There are aspects of this client’s story that resonate with the memoir I’ve been struggling to write, and so I feel personally invested.
This job leaves me feeling hopeful about ghostwriting as a means of supporting myself. Helping people tell their stories, writing books in one of my favorite genres — memoir — feels like the most logical and best possible use of my skills, in cases where I am being remunerated decently and treated fairly. It keeps me from having to acquire new skills to stay afloat, like some colleagues who have become real estate agents and lab techs, or are studying nursing.
Since then, I’ve had a couple of easy, small gigs, and one nightmare job that would have put me off ghostwriting forever if I weren’t lacking other skills that are as lucrative. As of this writing I’m considering another longer project. The woman who reached out to me has said two things that caught my attention: Money is no object, and, The client is…well…emotional. Here’s hoping that, at the very least, the former makes up for the latter.
From Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin. Copyright ©2017 by Manjula Martin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.