Ghostwriting is a common practice in the publishing industry at all levels. From fanfiction to bestsellers, you’d be surprised how many ghostwritten works appear in the lists. It may not have the glitz and glamour of being your own published author, but it’s a great way to make a career out of your writing.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a ghostwriter is someone who writes on behalf of a client. The client has full authorship, and the ghostwriter receives no credit for the published work.
Ghostwriters can work on anything from blog posts and editorial rewrites, to full manuscripts which makes it a great line of work to get into if you’re trying to build a portfolio.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all easy sailing.
I’ve been a ghostwriter for almost a decade, and believe me, I’ve had my ups and downs. I do it because I love writing, but it might not be the career path for everyone.
If you’re a writer who wants to make a career out of writing, these are my top pros and cons of being a ghostwriter.
Pro: There’s lots of variety
No two projects are the same when you’re a ghostwriter! Sure, some writers may be specialists, but most of the time you’ll take the work that comes along.
I’ve had the chance to work on everything from picture books to academic non-fiction, and every project not only teaches me something new but gives me a deeper appreciation for the varying skills required by each genre. You’ll also learn a lot on many different topics, giving you the chance to expand your personal, as well as your professional knowledge.
If writing is what you love, then the variety will definitely be appealing.
Con: You might have to write about things that don't interest you
While variety can be exciting, occasionally you’ll come across a subject that just doesn’t interest you. But when you’re a ghostwriter, you don’t necessarily get to pick and choose.
As your career progresses, you might have the chance to be pickier about what you write about, but as you start to build your name, you’ll probably have to take on any work you can. It might not be a topic you’re passionate about, but it will pay the bills.
Pro: You can earn a decent living
Ghostwriting has huge earning potential, especially as you progress into your career. When you start, you’ll probably take on smaller projects for quicker payments, but when you gain enough experience to start working on full fiction or non-fiction manuscripts, you can charge a decent sum.
Quality ghostwriters are often hard to find. The freelance industry is saturated with people charging little, and delivering poorly. If you build yourself a good industry reputation for speed and quality, you’ll always find clients willing to pay your rates.
Like any job, you might need to work your way up the ranks, but when you do, it’s a good way to earn money doing what you love.
Con: You won't get the credit for your work
One of the things that puts a lot of writers off pursuing ghostwriting as a career is the lack of credit. It’s natural to want to have your name attached to your creative output, but as a ghostwriter, it’s just part of the job.
It’s not easy seeing someone else get credit for your work. It’s a concession you have to make to do what you love in exchange for a regular income.
Writing a book is an inherently risky endeavor, both emotionally and financially, so ghostwriting allows you to trade the risk for the chance to be credited. But the downside of that risk removal is that you also don’t see any of the accolades or long-term benefits if a book is successful.
Pro: You get to do what you love
Writing in any form is a labour of love.
If the act of writing is what gets you out of bed in the morning, then being a ghostwriter means that you get to spend every working moment doing something that you’re passionate about.
For me, the art of storytelling is what writing is about.
I don’t care what project I’m working on (I’ve written on everything from data analysis to dragons and spaceships), it’s getting the information to readers in an interesting and engaging way that really gets me fired up. If writing is what you love, then you’ll love being a ghostwriter. You get to tell stories for a living, and that’s an amazing feeling.
Con: You don't get creative control
The most important thing to remember as a ghostwriter is that it isn’t about you. Everything you do is in service of your client and their vision. Sure, you get to have input and try to steer your client in the right direction, but at the end of the day, they’re paying the bills. You have to write what they’re happy with, whether it aligns with your own creative vision or not.
Giving up creative control can be a difficult thing for many writers, so if it’s something you think you might struggle with, then ghostwriting might not be the right career path for you. You’ll be writing in someone else’s voice, and that can be quite jarring.
I recently published a short story under my own name, and one of the things I struggled with most was finding my own voice. I spent so many years in service to the authorial voices of others that I found it hard to settle on one that felt genuine to me.
Giving up your own voice for the sake of a project is something that comes part and parcel with the job, so is definitely something to consider if you want to be a ghostwriter.
Pro: You don't carry any financial risk for the success of a book
There are no guarantees when writing a book, that it will ever be a success. Every writer hopes that their work will become a bestseller, but a lot of things have to be in alignment for that to happen.
One of the great things about ghostwriting is that you get paid no matter what. After you’ve finished a project to your client’s satisfaction, your part is over. You hold absolutely no responsibility for what comes after.
Sure, it can be difficult if something you’ve worked on tops the bestseller lists and you don’t get a share of those sweet, sweet royalties. But, believe me when I say that is definitely a small price to pay for a regular income that mitigates the risk and pressure of everything required for publishing success.
Con: You have to be business-minded
The reality of ghostwriting contrasts with the popular image of writers as flighty creatives, following their bouts of imagination wherever they lead. To put it bluntly, being a ghostwriter is a job, and you have to treat it as such. It’s not a hobby or a purely creative pursuit. It’s a career choice, and we’re in it to make money.
There’s a lot of admin that goes into building a career as a ghostwriter. You’re essentially running your own business. You must have a clear pricing structure, nail down contracts, know how to set client expectations, be confident enough to know your worth and make your expectations of your client clear, and above all, you have to have excellent project management skills — especially if you’re working with multiple clients at once.
The creative parts of ghostwriting are great, but there’s a lot more to being a successful ghostwriter than just the writing. There’s also a lot of admin, and back and forth between yourself and your clients when you’re lining up jobs. Some conversations may never lead to employment, so that’s something you have to be aware of as well. You have something to sell, and that something is your skill as a writer, which does take a little bit of the “sexiness” out of writing. It’s art for the sake of business, rather than art for art’s sake.
Ghostwriting is a great career if you’re looking to make money from your writing, but it certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s important to ask yourself why you want to be a writer, and what your goals are. If telling your own stories is your goal, then ghostwriting might not be the right fit for you. But if your aim is to write as a career, regardless of authorship, then it’s a valid and potentially lucrative choice.
Pamela is a seasoned ghostwriter, editor, and professional historian who is now the community lead at Novlr. She loves telling stories and thrives on helping and supporting fellow authors on their writing journeys. You can see more from her in the Reading Room at Novlr.org where she regularly posts writing and publishing tips.