Ghostwriting Isn’t Spooky (Part 1)

Let’s get the negatives out of the way.

  1. Ghostwriting causes a split personality: the publisher expects you to deliver one kind of book, but the client wants something totally different. When in doubt, favor the one paying.
  2. Ghosting is hard work and you often get no credit. One woman, whose entire book I wrote, thanked me on the acknowledgments page for “proofreading assistance and help with typing.”
  3. No matter how the book fares, you, the ghost, come off the loser. If the book hits #1 and sells five million copies, you won’t get a dime more than you were originally paid—unless you have negotiated a percentage deal. If the book tanks, everyone will blame you for writing an inferior manuscript.

Where’s the upside?
With those negatives, why would a guy like me, who has written 34 books under his own name, also ghostwrite for others? Because writing is what I do, and a bad day of writing is better than a good day of mopping floors.

Another reason is that sometimes the clients are nice. When I ghosted for Dr. Chris Thurman, a prominent psychologist in Texas, he turned over to me his notes, rough drafts, and research—and allowed me to follow him for five days, taping interviews.

The book I wrote, The Truths We Must Believe (Thomas Nelson, 1991), sold very well. The cover didn’t bear my name, but in the preface Dr. Thurman wrote, “I gave Dennis E. Hensley a lump of coal and he gave me back a diamond.” That was gracious.

Flat fee payment
If you’re a ghostwriter, publishers will contact you and say that a famous person needs a book with her name on it. The advance will often all go to you (half upon signing the contract and half upon delivery of an acceptable manuscript). If the book sells enough to pay back the advance, often all future earnings go to the celebrity. Some agents have been able to negotiate better deals for their writers, even including straight splits of all proceeds.

Pay to ghosts varies, depending upon experience. Some small publishers will pay $6,000 for a ghosted project, whereas Newsweek staff writer Charles Leerhsen was paid an estimated $150,000 to ghostwrite Donald Trump’s book, Trump: Surviving at the Top. Other ghosts have been known to make twice that.

Here’s my suggestion: Listen to what the editor offers, and, if you don’t like the terms, counter them. Explain why you are asking for more money, such as that you’ve had better offers from other publishers or that you earn more money writing under your name.

If the editor says it’s too much, thank her thinking of you and go back to whatever you were writing that was paying better.

Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D., is director of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University and the author of more than 50 books, including How to Write What You Love and Make a Living at It (Random House).Visit him online.


  1. Rachel Laird says

    Interesting article. I think I’d prefer not to write “ghost” stories since I’m an unknown right now. I like the way you presented the pros and cons.

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