Thinking About Hiring a Ghostwriter? Read This First.

photo by Paulina Fi Garduño, 2010, Creative Commons license

The topic was timely. “Hot,” even. Nay, “sexy.” The author had a job that lent credibility to his expertise. More than just holding a title, he had garnered awards and press coverage for special projects and achievements. He launched a small consulting practice, landed solid clients of some repute, and was a popular keynote speaker within the industry.

“You should write a book!” People said. “I’d buy it.”

But he had no idea how to write a book and figured learning how would consume more time than he had to spare. He turned to a ghostwriting firm that advertised online.

The ghostwriting firm advertised it can find a professional writer to produce a 225-page book from content the author supplies in three or four hours of interviews; that the author can use the book as a business calling card; and that the book can be a significant source of revenue. Like so many things that sounds too good to be true … it isn’t true.

Most ghostwriting firms promoting themselves that way earn their money by farming out the writing at low pay to inexperienced writers, and then upselling self-publishing services to the author.

There are really 3 types of legitimate, effective arrangements called “ghostwriting.”

A writer does all of the writing and the author puts their name on it. For example, a company might hire a writer to create the voice of the business and post work to a blog under an executive’s name.

The ghostwriter helps the author generate raw content and articulate ideas, then executes in the chosen format. Many of the best business books are written that way. So are many celebrity autobiographies and memoirs about extraordinary experiences.

The author provides mature content in one format and the ghostwriter shapes it into another. Imagine a psychotherapist wants to create a comprehensive web site about a method of treatment she’s invented. She has hundreds of pages of case notes, monographs published in scientific journals, and a master’s thesis, but neither the time nor the inclination to learn how to write web content.

What differentiates all three of those examples from the wishful thinking of the would-be author I began with? These authors make time and take responsibility.

If you are publishing as the spokesperson for collective wisdom, like many organizational leaders, delegating the entire writing process can make sense. However, if you’re promoting your own ideas, which you use as the basis for your professional practice, it’s up to you to own those ideas.

You’re not a thought leader if you outsource the thinking.

Even if you use a ghostwriter, producing high-quality writing is an intensive process. Find a reputable ghostwriter who will be honest with you about what’s required. Be prepared to articulate your thoughts, review drafts, and field questions. It takes time — from you — to get a writer oriented to a body of knowledge and perspective you formed over decades.

Aside from saving you money, writing it yourself may prove worth your effort. You could team up with a writing partner or coauthor, a colleague who shares your expertise but is a better writer. (Note that in some fields, professional ethics dictate that such contributors be named.) You could also hire a developmental editor to create roadmaps for your project or a writing coach to support your work plan.

Don’t ghost your readers! And don’t cheat yourself out of the opportunity to truly share what you know.