Libby Harkness has worked as a journalist, editor and writer for over 35 years. For the last 15 years, she’s also worked as a ghostwriter, writing the stories of some truly remarkable Australians. Her most recent books are The Widow: A memoir, which she wrote with Nola Duncan; and Everything to Live For, the story of Turia Pitt.
In The Widow, Libby tells the story of Nola, who discovered her husband’s infidelity a year after his death. In Everything to Live For, she worked with Turia Pitt, to write the story of Pitt’s final ultra-marathon race in 2011. Pitt suffered devastating burns to 65% of her body while she was competing in the race in northern Australia.
Libby now specialises in life stories and works closely with her subjects to write and publish their memoirs. In 2013, she was a guest at the first international ghostwriters conference in California.
BY LIBBY HARKNESS
I am a professional full-time writer and I sell my skills as a writer to people prepared to pay for them. People hire writers for many different things e.g. brochures, speeches, company histories, business presentations, annual reports, company magazines, even to write their curriculum vitae. When I worked as a free-lance journalist I undertook a lot of this type of work.
Writer for hire
My first ghostwriting commission came by default about 15 years ago; a well-known writer pulled out of an autobiographical project because he found he could not work with the client. A mutual friend put me in touch with the client. The client was not easy but the book was written and published and I enjoyed the challenge of the process.
After this, I established my ‘writer for hire’ website adding ghostwriting as a skill. Over the years my ghostwriting work has superseded all other work and I am now considered a specialist in this area. I now have to decline several life-story writing jobs a week, unfortunately some of them I would love to have time to do.
As the published author of many of my own works, I’ve found writing someone else’s story very different; I have to ‘capture’ that person’s voice and expressions so that the reader will believe they are actually telling the story and at the same time create a professional manuscript. But while my own voice is sublimated, my writing style is not; it’s a balancing act.
The amount of time spent with a client when writing their story depends on several factors: a) the client; b) the length of the work and c) the complexity of the research (e.g. making sure dates, places, events are historically correct). I usually record 15 to 20 hours with the client and sometimes record other family members, friends or colleagues for colour and background. Recording is usually restricted to about two hours at a stretch as it can be very tiring, especially if the client is elderly; it is often emotional for the client as well.
The transcription is tedious but I don’t use a transcribing service as listening over and over helps get the voice right. The actual writing can take up to three months for first draft. I usually write for about five hours a day and I try to write every day, although that’s not always possible. I stay in touch with the client during the writing process but prefer to work unhindered during the first draft. Subsequent changes and additions to the manuscript may take another month and a professional edit may add more time. If the client is looking for a publisher, that is a separate process.
Who can be a ghostwriter?
I think people who are genuinely interested in other people’s lives make the best ghostwriters. For me, the most rewarding aspect of writing other people’s stories is pulling it all together and having a happy client at the end of it. I can then walk away – job well-done.
Ghostwriting is not for every writer. Sometimes you may get a cover credit on a published work but more often not, so you must be prepared to stay in the background and let someone else take the credit for what you’ve done. Two other necessary qualities a ghostwriter needs: being a good listener and empathy with the subject; it also helps not to be judgemental.
I love reading biographies and autobiographies. I have eclectic taste in fiction and enjoy women writers such as Helen Garner and Nikki Gemmell; my favourite crime writer is Michael Robotham, who lives in Sydney and once made his living as the pseudonymous (ghostwriter) author of many best-selling books on famous people.
If you’re interested in writing life stories, check out our Creative Writing courses held in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Online.
What is a ghostwriter?
A ghostwriter is a writer who writes books, stories, blogs, magazine articles, or any other written content that will officially be attributed to another person – the credited author.
Why use ghostwriting services?
Sportspeople, politicians, celebrities, and business people are the traditional users of ghostwriting services. While these people are experts in their fields, they are not professional writers. Hiring a ghostwriter to write their autobiography, biography or business document ensures they convey their message clearly and professionally.
I’m not a celebrity. Why do I need my story ghostwritten?
Some reasons that you may choose to work with a ghostwriter are:
- English is not your first language and you are not confident about writing a book for publishing
- You are writing your first book and need help getting started
- You have a story that is important to you. It may be a memoir, a biography, your autobiography, ‘that’ story you have held inside you for your whole life, a ‘how-to’ or self-help book that you want to share with others, an article, or an online blog. You do not have the confidence to express your ideas with clarity or the experience to write with confidence.
What do ghostwriters write?
A ghostwriter may be hired by the credited author (or the credited author’s publisher) to:
- write a complete book, article or blog
- do most of the writing for a book based on a specified outline
- do research for a book, article or blog
- finish off a book in the same style as the author to free them up for other writing work
- write sections of a book in collaboration with the credited author (similar to ‘developmental editing’).
How do I find a ghostwriter for my book?
The best way to find a good ghostwriter is to:
- consult professional publications
- consult professional organisations
- do an online search for ghostwriting, contact several writers, and ask them about their experience.
Ghostwriting Australia: Finding a Ghostwriter
How much does it cost to ghostwrite? There are several considerations around fees:
- How much material is involved and how long will it take to write?
- How much written material can you provide the writer, and what kind of shape is that material in?
- What is the complexity of the subject matter and the required expertise of the ghostwriter? If you need a book written on rocket science, you would expect to pay both for the ghostwriter’s writing expertise and for their knowledge of the specialised subject
- How established and experienced is the ghostwriter?
To write a complete book, a professional ghostwriter can take several months to a year to research, organise, write, edit, and revise a non-fiction work. Meantime, they have to live, and so if they are working pretty much full time on your book, you will need to expect to pay accordingly.
Some ghostwriters charge a flat fee per word, or per page. Other ghostwriters may accept a percentage of the royalties on the sales of the book. If you are an unpublished author and you do not yet have a publishing contract, it is unreasonable to expect the ghostwriter to accept payment based exclusively on a percentage of royalties when there is no realistic basis for expecting there will be any.
Book ghostwriting fees can range from the ‘low’ end at $10,000, to $100,000 per project charged by established celebrity ghostwriters (some celebrity ghostwriters command $250,000 plus).
If the project is small – the ghostwriter will write a blog, an article, or a few chapters of your book – then you can expect to pay an hourly or per-page rate, and this depends on what the individual ghostwriter charges per hour or per page.
It is worth checking with your accountant, as the cost of ghostwriting a book related to your business may be tax-deductible.
How long does it take to ghostwrite a book?
As a rough guide, a 200-page non-fiction book may require close to 300 hours of time – around 70 hours of research and organisation time, one hour’s writing time per page, and one hour of editing/revision time for each 10 pages.
Why shouldn’t I hire a ghostwriter offshore?
A recent trend has been to outsource ghostwriting jobs offshore. While this may initially save fees, the quality varies wildly and usually, a book that has been ghostwritten by someone whose first language is not English is never published. The ghostwriter does not understand the culture, or the nuances of the English language, or the vernacular (e.g. Australian English).
In suggesting that it is not ideal to hire a ghostwriter whose first language is other than English, our intention is not to be culturally insensitive. We are simply being practical. If the boot was on the other foot, and you wanted your book written in a language other than English, you would not hire a writer whose first language was English.
Choosing a ghostwriter based exclusively on price is false economy and ultimately not cheaper. You may need to spend a lot of time communicating your intent when the ghostwriter does not ‘get it’. The ghostwriter may have to rewrite multiple times before they get it right – if they do. Isn’t that precisely why you hired a ghostwriter? To get it right the first time?
It’s simple really; you get what you pay for.
What should I look for in a ghostwriter?
- A good writer. Give them an idea of what you want and ask them to write a few pages
- A ghostwriter you communicate with easily and feel at ease with
- A ghostwriter whose first language is English
- A ghostwriter who understands the cultural context of your story, and the nuances of the English language.
Should I credit the ghostwriter for writing the book?
There are various ways that a ghostwriter can receive credit for their writing contribution if you as the credited author wish to. It is up to you how much credit, if any, you give to the ghostwriter. The ghostwriter may receive partial credit (‘with…’ or ‘as told to….’ on the cover), or the acknowledgement may mention the ghostwriter’s contribution.
If you do not wish the ghostwriter to receive any official credit for writing your book or article, you as the credited author can agree this with the ghostwriter. You may ask them to sign a nondisclosure contract that forbids them from revealing their ghostwriting role.
Is the ghostwriter entitled to a share of royalties when my book is published?
If you are paying per page or per word, or you have agreed a flat fee for ghostwriting your book, you generally keep the royalties. How you pay the ghostwriter and whether you share the royalties is part of negotiating with the ghostwriter.
Should we have a contract?
As with any business arrangement, it is always a good idea to have a written contract, signed by both parties, setting out the agreement between you. The Australian Society of Authors has a template the ghostwriter can use as a basis for the agreement.
Please note: Due to other work-in-progress, and in order to dedicate more time to my own writing, I am not taking on any new major ghostwriting projects at this time. I am still happy to discuss smaller projects, and to answer any questions you may have, so feel free to send an email.