Dear Dr. Freelance: What would you say are reasonable ghostwriting rates for a non-fiction book for a leading authority on a topic, based on his research and data? (He’s a Ph.D. and the president of a large university.) When negotiating a contract, should the ghostwriter ask for payment during the writing stage, plus a percentage of the book royalties? The author has also offered to share credit. — Could Be Casper
Dear Casper: How appropriate that a ghost would write in just before Halloween! Honestly, there are a 101 ways for a freelancer to skin that black cat. For starters, this “How Much Should I Charge?” pdf from The Writers Market says this about ghostwriting rates (without royalty or credit): $70 an hour, with a per project low of $5000, high of $100,000, and average of $36,000. The per word costs are 50 cents low, $3 high, and average $1.65. Yeah, that’s a pretty wide range!
Ultimately, the book will cost whatever the market will bear. But as part of the calculation, there are several immediate factors to consider for the freelancer who wants to add ghostwriting into his or her arsenal:
- An experienced ghost can command a much higher fee than a newbie.
- The length of the book, in terms of word count and page count.
- How much research needs to be done, or if the content is already in some written form, or if the author provides audio files that can be transcribed (or converted with Dragon) and edited, rather than starting from scratch.
- How much back-and-forth can be expected in the editing process.
I’ve participated in several ghosting projects and have turned down more than I can count. Here are a couple of examples from my own experience:
- I ghostwrote a short-ish book last year for someone who gave me audio files for each chapter. It took me about 60 hours, and I charged $100 an hour — but, admittedly, that’s a lot easier than writing from scratch. It was pretty breezy stuff, and I didn’t have to do any research. As far as payment, I asked for 1/3 up front, 1/3 at the halfway point and 1/3 upon completion, but I didn’t ask for royalties or credit.
- I’m currently working on another ghostwriting project that’s purely hourly. Again, I am working mostly from existing material that is being edited/fleshed out. For this one, a little research is required as well as some meeting time with the author. I expect it will take a little longer than 60 hours…I estimated it at 100.
- For a project that’s currently back-burnered, I got paid a couple thousand bucks to create the book proposal and two sample chapters. So far, no bites on agents or publishers, but I got paid for the work I did. (In retrospect, I should have asked for more. Lesson learned!) If the book gets picked up, I am contracted to receive a 15% royalty in addition to getting a percentage of the advance — but I’m not holding my breath.
When you add royalties or credit in, it changes the negotiation as well as the ghostwriting rates. And those are also affected by whether the book is going to be self published or if the author has secured a name publisher. (In the latter, royalties would likely have higher value, unless the author has an exceptional sales and marketing plan. Ghostwriting a timely book for a 15-minute celebrity would clearly be more lucrative than even the most respected academician…as sad as that is.) Without a track record, it’s a bit tough to quantify the value of royalties and credit, so I would want to make sure I was paid appropriately for my efforts regardless. Freelancers know very well that fame doesn’t pay the mortgage as well as fortune does.
Finally, both parties need to go into it with eyes wide open. Skilled ghosting is more expensive than most inexperienced authors realize. And it goes without saying that I would have an intellectual property lawyer review the contract before signing anything!
Do you have tips on calculating ghostwriting fees? Please share your thoughts in the comments!