Should You Work with a Ghostwriter?

A woman who wanted to write about her “interesting life” called me recently. She asked if I could ghostwrite a memoir and if so, would that mean I was entitled to half the royalties and half the movie rights. I’ve never worked with an author whose book became a movie—not yet.  

Ghostwriting contracts come in all stripes. And, there are other types of writing help available, too, such as a co-author or an editor.


Celebrities, busy people or those not confident about their writing sometimes work with a ghostwriter. We are most aware of them in the category of autobiography or memoir, but ghostwriters pen all types of books. Sometimes a ghostwriter is acknowledged on the cover—“Sam Smith with Barbara MacKay.”  Other times, the ghostwriter is precisely that—a ghost. They are not visible and not recognized (perhaps mentioned in the acknowledgements). Generally speaking, a ghostwriter is a hired gun, a mercenary of the literary world. I have written entire books without any acknowledgement. A paycheque is my reward.  

Ghostwriters have different methods of working with an author. It can require hours of interviews with the author, and hours of research, such as interviewing other people in the author’s life. Other times, the ghostwriter is working from the author’s research, or in the case of memoir, from audio recordings or written notes. Some ghostwriters never meet the author! I recently wrote about Michelle Obama’s new memoir, Becoming. I have no insider knowledge, but if Obama had a ghostwriter, they did a great job sounding like Obama. Finding and maintaining the author’s voice is a challenge of ghostwriting.  


A co-author’s role can be equally amorphous. Sometimes a book is written by two people who have experienced or accomplished something together, for example, a duo who climbed Everest together or a medical breakthrough by lab mates. They may decide to be co-authors, even if one does more actual writing than their partner. Co-authors are co-owners of the book, and they share equally in the copyright and royalties and any other ensuing benefits—or lawsuits—that the book brings. (Co-authoring, like any contract, can have any number of variations on a 50-50 arrangement).


Editors, too, can have a hand in writing an author’s book. As an editor, I have re-written entire chapters of books with no acknowledgement as a ghostwriter or co-author. That is part of an editor’s role. In some instances, I have interviewed the author about a memory or experience that needs further exposition. Other times, I am working with an author’s first draft. The level of involvement of an editor in writing and rewriting is an important aspect to discuss when working with an editor. 


Researchers work with nonfiction and fiction authors and may or may not be publicly acknowledged. A researcher isn’t a writer, but their contributions can be vital, especially for historical novels or stories of espionage, politics or diplomacy, where facts and details add to the story’s veracity. For instance, a researcher can alert a historical fiction novelist to anachronisms—historically inaccurate appearance of people or inventions, a smartphone in 1977, for example. Authors are often their own researchers, but prolific and famous authors such as Dick Francis, James Clavel, and John Le Carré, for example, all worked with researchers. A researcher might be hired before and during the writing process and a fact-checker after the book is completed.

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