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Matchmaker, Freelancer, or Firm?: Understanding the Evolving Ghostwriting Market
By Kevin Anderson
Ghostwriters have long been the secret force behind many big-name authors. Speechwriter Ted Sorensen, for example, penned John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. Harry Houdini published a story in Weird Tales that was actually written by H.P. Lovecraft. Even bestselling authors James Patterson and Tom Clancy are known to have hired writers to flesh out their artistic vision. It’s common knowledge among industry insiders that a significant portion of the bestselling nonfiction, and even fiction, is written by a ghost or with a close collaborator.
While ghostwriters often used to work in the shadows, the stigma and secrecy surrounding the practice has dissipated significantly in recent years. In fact, the open use of ghostwriters has become widely accepted and even respected within publishing industry. It seems most people have come to accept that aspiring authors with powerful stories and messages shouldn’t be blocked from sharing them with the masses just because they lack writing skills.
The trend toward acceptance has led to a proliferation of ghostwriters and platforms through which authors can locate and collaborate with them. In some ways, it’s never been easier to find a ghostwriter, but the sheer number of options can be daunting, and many authors lack the professional experience to adequately judge a writer’s qualifications and reputation. A poor choice of ghostwriter can mean more than just a bad investment, but also lost time, production dates missed, and in some cases publishing contracts cancelled. Choosing the right writer is of paramount importance.
Traditionally, authors find a ghostwriter in one of two ways: by independently searching for writers and then contacting them directly (or via their agent), or by using a matchmaker service that pairs the author with a writer and then steps aside. In recent years, however, a new model has emerged: the ghostwriting firm. In this option, the author’s contract is with the firm, which pairs an author with a writer and then oversees and supports the process.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these approaches.
The advantages of connecting with a freelance writer directly are typically cost and simplicity. The author and ghost can negotiate a fee one-to-one, and they each have immediate access to the other. Changes to the contract or working arrangement can also be made quickly and on the fly.
These advantages, though, also make this option the most risky. By trusting the entire project to one person, the author has no recourse should anything go wrong nor does the author have anyone to advocate for their interests. It’s also not uncommon for writers to overpromise; a freelancer’s workload is often uncertain, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the answer to any new contract offer is often “yes,” leading to potential scheduling bottlenecks down the road.
Matchmaking services mitigate some of these risks. Companies like Gotham Ghostwriters and Reedsy allow an author to pitch their project to a large number of potential ghostwriters, who then bid on the contract, with the matchmaker taking a percentage of the freelancer’s fee. While matchmakers typically don’t oversee any part of the writing process, they do serve as a loose vetting tool, highlighting writers with a more established track record and publishing history. Reedsy even offers a “Project Protection” program, which serves as a financial insurance policy against breach of contract. One of the biggest advantages to the matchmaker approach is the sheer volume of collaborator options (and associated ranges in cost) that it presents to an author.
The third and newest option, the ghostwriting firm, offers additional layers of protection and quality control. A ghostwriting firm is composed of a team of in-house editors, writers, project managers, and other staff who collectively ensure the success of the collaboration. As a result, the ghostwriter becomes just one part of a larger team geared toward a project’s success and not the deciding factor in whether it fails or flourishes.
In the case of an unfortunate writer/author mismatch, the author doesn’t have to go through the whole solicitation process again. The ghostwriting firm replaces the writer without kill fees or renegotiations, ensuring that momentum continues, deadlines are safeguarded, and the project is completed.
The ghostwriting firm can also provide an author, especially an unagented one, with many other beneficial book-related service options that a freelance writer isn’t in a position to offer. A single package may include book-planning sessions as a team; layers of editorial review and direction from former acquisitions editors; beta reader testing; cultural accuracy readings; book proposals and pitch materials; publisher and agent solicitation; marketing, publicity, and bestseller sales strategies; and general industry guidance throughout the process.
While the ghostwriting firm would seem to favor the author, some ghostwriters actually prefer this option. Eric Spitznagel, who’s collaborated on dozens of books with celebrities, chefs, and CEOs, says, “I’ve had substantially better experiences working with a firm than doing it alone or with matchmakers. There’s a freedom in knowing everything doesn’t rest on your shoulders. The extra layers aren’t just there to protect the author; the ghostwriter also benefits, whether it’s help with scheduling or an objective set of eyes on first drafts.”
The ghostwriting firm is also well-suited to serving publishers and agents with multiple ghostwriting needs. Rather than hiring individual writers for every project, a firm can operate as their one-stop-shop with each book falling under the same boilerplate contract and editorial management. “It streamlines everything when you’re not having to micromanage each writer,” says Tim Burgard, a senior acquisitions editor at HarperCollins Leadership. “You know the firm is going to get the books done on schedule even if a writer replacement needs to be made.”
Of course, the ghostwriting firm may not be right for every author or project. While costs can be comparable to freelancers—as some writers are willing to accept lower fees in exchange for the firm’s advocacy and author handling, steady workflow, and editorial assistance—the additional oversight and management comes at an additional cost to the firm and, ultimately, the client. If an author wants to work one-on-one with a writer and isn’t concerned about the writer’s dependability, then the direct and matchmaking options can be less expensive. And some authors, as well as some ghosts, simply prefer a one-on-one relationship, especially when the material is highly personal or sensitive.
In the end, choosing a ghostwriter is a personal and professional choice that depends on the author’s comfort level, priorities, and goals. As the publishing landscape continues to change—with publishing staffs being trimmed, but not lists, thereby leaving editors overloaded and with less time than ever to work with authors on their manuscripts—ghostwriting firms and freelance editorial options are likely to play an ever-increasing role in the process of bringing books to publication.