How to Avoid Ghostwriting Scams
Guest post by Marcia Layton Turner (Executive Director of the Association of Ghostwriters), in collaboration with Kevin Anderson & Associates
In recent years, a number of dubious websites promoting “bestselling ghostwriting” services have popped up. They dominate Google’s AdWords space, falsely showcase bestselling ghostwriters and book titles (sometimes hilariously notable ones, like Catcher in the Rye or Michelle Obama’s Becoming), and often bombard inquiring visitors with relentless text messages and other spam.
These companies (which all appear to be part of a single conglomerate) populate their websites with plagiarized copy from legitimate ghostwriting websites, falsely claim affiliation with established companies, and even go so far as to copy-and-paste other services’ testimonials and ghostwriter bios.
So, how do you know who to trust?
To avoid handing over your hard-earned cash and getting nothing in return, learn to watch for red flags that can signal when a ghostwriter website is set up to scam you. It’s pretty easy to be scammed today, especially with legitimate-looking websites cropping up. Since it can be hard to tell which companies are real and which are not, we wanted to offer some help.
How these Ghostwriting Scams Work
There are multiple websites promoting publishing, writing, or ghostwriting services that don’t deliver what they promise. In fact, we (i.e. Marcia, the author of this blog, and Kevin Anderson & Assoc.) have encountered multiple clients who have come to us during or after falling victim to these scams.
One such client of KAA’s was an executive at one of Wall Street’s most prestigious firms. The ghostwriting agency website he visited showcased many notable books, though the company stated they couldn’t share any references for reasons of “confidentiality.” When the client noticed similarities between the text on www.kawriting.com and the other website, including several carbon-copied testimonials, they argued that this was because they were a division of Kevin Anderson & Associates, but that the client couldn’t speak directly with Kevin as he was too busy with his flagship company. They even went so far as to include the name “Kevin Anderson & Associates Inc.” on a phony contract, which the client then signed.
When the client got the first round of work back from the service, the writing was of such poor quality that he finally reached out to KAA to verify, sharing numerous text messages and emails between him and the company. Unfortunately, he quickly learned that KAA had no knowledge of or relationship with the other firm.
The good news is that he was able to dispute the charge on his credit card, got all of his money back, became a client of KAA, and had his book published by Wiley in 2021.
He was lucky. A prospective Ghostwriters Association client from England lost $13,000 to a phony ghostwriting agency. Another in the US was able to get his $5,000 back from a firm that did not do what it promised, after threatening a bad review. Other aspiring authors have reached out to verify writers are working on their projects, only to learn the ghostwriter has no idea who they are.
These clients are often enticed by the lengthy bios of successful ghostwriters featured on the false agency’s website, suggesting the ghosts are on the firm’s team and will be assigned to work on client projects. What they don’t reveal is that the bios of some or all of those ghostwriters have been copied from other sites–effectively stolen–without the ghostwriters’ permission. In at least one case, the ghostwriter’s request that their identity be removed from the site was completely ignored; they came across this after being contacted by a client who had been scammed and told one of the listed ghostwriters was at work on their manuscript (they weren’t).
A few clients contacted KAA, upset about unsolicited marketing texts, claiming that KAA was behind the racket. After conducting some basic research, we learned that the scam site had plagiarized KAA’s terms and conditions page, but overlooked personalizing (or omitting) the contact email, leading clients to contact KAA rather than the actual scam site.
Many of these sites will take your money and then immediately try to upsell you on additional editing and marketing services before ever delivering any evidence that writing is being completed.
In most cases, you’ll receive nothing from them, and you’ll then spend hours trying to get your money back, first from the site, and then, when your responses go unanswered, from your credit card company.
Other sites will take your money and then give you poorly constructed and written material that does not get you any closer to being published. They often outsource the work (sometimes overseas) to writers who are unavailable or unwilling to connect with the client directly, and, worse, lack the skills and publishing experience to write a high-quality book. If you provide any samples up front of what you’ve crafted so far, such as an outline or early ramblings on your subject, you’ll likely get that same material back, regurgitated, and perhaps formatted, but with no substantive edits.
KAA just recently received a call from a client who had read an earlier version of this article and wanted to verify that the company he had enlisted to print his book project was legitimate. Although the website was extremely comprehensive (the scammer clearly went to great lengths to fool people) the telltale sign was on their “Meet the Team” page where many pictureless “employees” were listed, including Kevin Anderson himself, who they claimed was their CEO. Of course, Kevin Anderson has no affiliation with the false company, and we let the disappointed client know. Although it is unfortunate that he was scammed, he did the right thing by reaching out to KAA to check. And now, he is happily working with KAA to get his book out into the world through a legitimate path.
Signs You’re Dealing with a Ghostwriting Scammer
Not sure if you’re being scammed? Here are some red flags to watch for.
- Superlatives in the URL or company name. Many scam websites use words in the domain name like “best,” “excellent,” “top,” or “brilliant,” for example, in conjunction with a keyword like “writing,” “editing,” “publishing,” or “ghostwriting.”
- Discounted prices and special offers. “50% off!” One quick giveaway is that scam ghostwriting sites focus the bulk of their attention on marketing and sales. They will try almost any tactic to get you to work with them, including advertising deep discounts or limited-time offers to pressure you to sign today. Established ghostwriting and publishing organizations very rarely discount their services, and they certainly aren’t inexpensive. If you’re being told you can get a book written for a few hundred dollars, or even a couple thousand, be wary. Any reputable ghostwriter will charge at least $12,000 to write a book, and that’s on the very low end.
- High pressure sales tactics. As soon as you indicate any interest in their services, you will be bombarded with marketing messages from those sites to try to convince you to get started. They can become very aggressive and won’t leave you alone until you block them. Many victims have reported relentless text messages–as many as 7-10 a day.
- Similar-looking sites with similar names. It’s hard to keep track of scam ghostwriting sites because they often change the company name and set up a new website with a new URL. The URL and company name will often be something like “Best Ghostwriting,” “Bestselling Ghostwriting,” “#1 Book Writers.”. If you look closely at them, you may notice that the sites look a lot alike. There is apparently a template that many of the scam sites use. It looks very professional, but the more sites you look at, the more you’ll notice a pattern or a similar design.
- No ghostwriters, editors, or staff members are named on the site. Publishing-related firms should have no problem listing at least some of the members of their editorial team, including ghostwriters and editors.
How to Verify that You’re Working with a Legitimate Ghostwriting Service
If you’re in the process of choosing a ghostwriter, use some or all of these tactics to confirm you’re dealing with a real person who is a legitimate ghostwriter or a firm that retains ghosts as part of its publishing process:
- Reach out to writers listed on the site to confirm they are affiliated with the company. Many scam sites steal the photos and bios of legitimate ghostwriters and feature them on their sites as members of their team. In many cases, the ghostwriters listed have not given permission to use their names, and they have no relationship with the company at all. If they are a real ghostwriter, it will be easy to find them by name on LinkedIn or similar websites. Reach out with a quick note to the actual writer and ask if they’re affiliated with XX company. If they don’t recognize the company right away, you know it’s a scam.
- Ask to speak live with potential ghostwriter candidates. Legitimate companies will gladly schedule phone or Zoom meetings with potential ghostwriters, so you can choose which is the best fit for you and your project.
- Search LinkedIn to find the company or ghostwriter’s account. Do they exist? Are they easy to find? Do they have connections with other writers and publishing professionals? Ask to connect with them. Publishing is a relationship business. Any legitimate ghostwriting company (or ghostwriter) will have a LinkedIn profile that will be well connected to other industry professionals. On the other hand, if they can’t be found or have no connections, they may either not be very established or not be a real ghostwriter.
- Ask for writing samples. Run some of the phrases through Google or a tool like Turnitin to see where the material originally came from. If it is attributed to a book or article other than what the author claims, it may be plagiarized material–and the ghostwriter might not have worked on the project at all.
- Try to verify the testimonials listed on the website. Real people should be happy to confirm they wrote the testimonial splashed across a company’s website. But, again, if they claim not to know the company that showcases their supposed testimonial, you may want to share what you’re seeing.
- Ask the company for a W9 or their TIN/EIN number. Every company will have an EIN number, which is a matter of public record and not confidential. If you’re planning on writing off the service as a business expense, the company or individual is required by US law to provide a W9 upon request. If a company refuses to provide an EIN or W9, do not proceed. If they do, look it up to ensure the company is a registered business and registered under the same name.
- Look up the physical address on the website. Is it an actual building or a rented mailbox?
- If the company claims to be a division or business unit of another company, verify that. Some scammers state that they are affiliated with other legitimate publishers or agencies, when, in fact, there is no such connection. Verify with the supposed parent company that they know anything about their “division.”
- Don’t be fooled by a company’s inclusion on a “Best of” or “Top Company” list. Scammers send out press releases announcing that their business is one of the Top 10 ghostwriting firms in the U.S., to make up an example. On those lists, nine of the businesses listed may be legitimate and one will not be, but unless you do some digging, you won’t know which is which. If you rely only on such a list, you may end up making incorrect assumptions.
- Check with the Better Business Bureau. How long ago was the company started? What kinds of ratings have they received? A company’s history should go back further than a year or two.
- Ask for a referral or evidence of credit. Most seasoned ghostwriters will have specific testimonials, referrals, and/or some sort of credit on a published book. It is relatively easy for a writer or company to send you a link to a published work (or its acknowledgments page) that includes their name. Don’t be fooled or convinced by the defense that all their relationships are protected by confidentiality agreements. Any seasoned writer will likely have received some proof of involvement, or be able to refer you to an editor or agent who can vouch for them.
List of a Few Legitimate Ghostwriting Services
We strongly believe in protecting the integrity of our industry, so much so that we’d rather list a few honest competitors than have anyone fall victim to one of these many scam operations.
- Association of Ghostwriters: The only professional association dedicated to raising the visibility of and finding work for its experienced ghostwriters at no additional cost. Full transparency: the author of this article runs this association…and is quite proud of it!
- Kevin Anderson & Associates (KAA): Team of former Big-5 acquisitions editors and New York Times-bestselling writers provides a white-glove approach to book planning, ghostwriting, coaching, editing, cultural accuracy reading, beta testing, publishing strategy, and agenting. Full transparency: We (KAA) asked Marcia to write this article because of the many clients complaining about these terrible scams.
- Greenleaf Book Publishing: A high-end hybrid publisher that includes ghostwriting in some of their publishing packages.
- Advantage/ForbesBooks: A high-end hybrid publisher, specializing in business and thought leadership books, that often includes ghostwriting as part of their publishing package.
- Reedsy: An online database of carefully screened editorial providers, including ghostwriters, editors, graphic designers, indexers, and proofreaders.
- Scribe Media (formerly Book in a Box): Hybrid publisher, specializing in books for entrepreneurs and business owners, that includes ghostwriting services in some of its publishing packages. ***As of May 24, 2023, Scribe has folded and is no longer recommended as a viable option.
- Gotham Ghostwriters: An extensive matchmaking service that helps authors find freelance ghostwriters for a variety of tasks, including articles, books, and speeches.
Need Help Vetting a Ghostwriter or Ghostwriting Firm? We’re Here to Help!
Not sure if you’re dealing with a legitimate business or trustworthy ghostwriter? Feel free to reach out to Marcia at The Association of Ghostwriters or contact KAA at firstname.lastname@example.org or (844) 997-4837. Even if we’re not the right fit for you, we’re more than happy to review the potential ghostwriter or service you’re considering and advise you accordingly.