1 Reason Quality Ghostwriters Shun “on Spec” Work


Recently, I turned down a potential ghostwriting client because he clearly didn’t have the money to pay me. He then asked me if he could pay me after the book sells. I responded, “No, I don’t work on spec.”

That pretty much ended my conversation with him, but it made me realize that maybe not everyone understands why professional ghostwriters don’t work that way.

First, a definition. Writing on spec (short for “on speculation”) means to write without any guarantee of getting paid for the work. Nobody wants to do that, and anybody with a track record doesn’t and won’t.

Here’s why not: In the words of the late, great Don Ohlmeyer, “The answer to your question is money.” The picture above illustrates that.

Writing on spec is not lucrative. Some might think it’s foolish. About the only people who do it are those trying to get started in an industry and don’t have a body of work to fall back on. (I’ve also seen it recommended for people who aren’t bringing in a lot of money at that moment. I suggest doing something else that brings in some money—here in California, fast food workers are making $20 an hour. Do that and write on your free time.)

People who hire ghostwriters want the manuscript published, but publishing also isn’t lucrative, except for a tiny few. As ghostwriter Beth Turnage wrote on Quora: “The only one raking in money is the 1% that have multi-million dollar deals. … But otherwise, writers aren’t called starving artists for nothing.”

If you go with a hybrid publisher, it’s pay to play. I’ve seen cost estimates range from $5,000 to $50,000, so if you’re in it to make a lot of money, don’t bother. If you don’t sell enough books, you will end up with thousands of books in your garage gathering dust. Hybrid publishers can help with marketing to sell some more copies, but you have to pay for that, too. 

If you go the self-publishing route, you can expect to pay less than $10,000, but again, will you sell enough books to cover your costs? Most books only sell a handful of copies, so the odds are you will lose money. I did, I invested $2,000 and got back only 10% of it.

This is a long-winded way of saying that an aspiring author isn’t likely going to make lot of money, so if said author wants to use a ghostwriter, why would that ghostwriter do anything on spec? It’s much better to sign a contract in which the ghostwriter gets paid up front for the work. If the parties want to negotiate a percentage of sales on top of that, that’s fine.

As Franklin Veaux wrote on Quora: “If you publish a book and release it as the author, you take the risk. If the book tanks, you get nothing beyond your advance. If you ghostwrite it, you charge your full fee. You still get paid if the book flops.”

Veaux used simple math: An average advance is $3,000-$5,000. Most books don’t earn that in sales, so authors hit an earning ceiling. Meanwhile, any ghostwriter worth their weight can charge between $15,000 and $50,000, and even more if it’s a celebrity you’re ghostwriting for.

When I started ghostwriting a decade ago, my first client paid me $8,500. I asked for that amount but would have settled for $7,000. Now, I‘m in the $15,000-$50,000 range.

I equate being a successful bestselling author with being a professional athlete: An extremely large pool of people aspire to it, but an exceedingly small number accomplish it.

Why would I want to invest a year working on a story, compelling as it might be, for no money? 

I wouldn’t, and neither would any ghostwriters I know. 

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