Before You Ghostwrite a Memoir

One of the most interesting things I do is ghostwrite memoirs. At the same time, a gig to ghostwrite a memoir can also be extremely frustrating.

Meeting interesting people is one of the perks of my job as a freelance writer. There are so many interesting stories out there, and, as a writer, I get to help tell them.

Most of the work I do is fairly straightforward. I’m hired to provide content for web sites. Much of the time I do a little research, provide some copy, make sure a keyword or two is used, and I’m done. When the opportunity to ghostwrite a book comes along, I usually jump at it, since it’s a change of pace.

Memoirs are especially interesting to me because there are usually fascinating stories from people who have done cool things. Even if someone isn’t famous, he or she often has an interesting story arc to his or her life, and ghostwriting a memoir is a great experience. Plus, you often get to travel somewhere new to meet the subject of the book and interview him or her. That’s a bonus.

Ghostwrite a memoir

But before you rush in to ghostwrite a memoir, it’s important to understand that it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. It can be extremely frustrating to ghostwrite a memoir.

Memoirs vs. Books for Professionals

When you ghostwrite a book for a professional looking to publish something useful that he or she can point to more for marketing purposes than anything else, the whole process is fairly straightforward and easy. Normally, the professional is just looking to publish something authoritative for his or her niche, so all you have to do is write something along the lines of advice. The easiest books for me to ghostwrite are those in the finance space, since that’s where a I work.

I get a basic outline, and the book follows time-honored advice about how to invest, plan for retirement, or buy a house. Sometimes, if the professional provides the right information, there is some personalization with anecdotes and observations. Easy-peasy.

A memoir is another beast altogether. You have to try to sound like the other person would sound. This isn’t professionalism softened by a little personality. The whole thing is personality. You have to get to know the subject of the memoir so that you can put his or her story in words that at least sound familiar.

You might also need to do research so that you can place a person in time, providing context for major events in history. It’s always interesting to do this kind of research, but you also need to find the balance between the history and the subject’s interpretation of events. It’s a bit of a balancing act.

Collaborating When You Ghostwrite a Memoir

Ghostwriting a memoir is also more of a collaboration than many other kinds of writing. No matter how you interview someone, the subject is likely to forget something, have confusion over dates, and want things changed. When you ghostwrite a memoir, you need to be prepared for more of a collaboration than anything else.

Collaboration

This collaboration can be part of what makes ghostwriting a memoir so frustrating. First of all, you need feedback from the subject. What’s even worse is when there’s someone involved who wants to get things moving on behalf of the subject, but who has a different agenda. Waiting on feedback can be frustrating. You want to take a little bit at a time, so that you can collaborate, but at the same time you want to move forward when you have the time, since there are other projects you are likely working on.

It’s possible for the person paying for the memoir to get frustrated as well, especially if he or she is busy with other things. Providing feedback and participating in the collaboration process is not a priority, and you are expected to basically be “on call” throughout the writing. My favorite situation, though, is when someone complains that you aren’t moving fast enough, and asks what can be done. All you want to do is say, “You could provide feedback in a timely manner so that I know if I’m on the right track. THAT would move the process forward.”

Also, you might pay me. That generally moves the process along.

Getting Paid When Ghostwriting a Memoir

When I ghostwrite a book, the fee is usually broken up into three or four payments, and the first payment is made before I even start the work. This is because writing a book — no matter whose name is on it — is time-consuming work. When you agree to ghostwrite a memoir, you have to push other work aside, and make room for this project (unless you’re a masochist and want to flirt with burn out). Getting at least an initial payment up front is a must. And you should get paid at various points throughout the project in order to ensure that you have the financial support needed to devote the time to the project.

Money

I don’t actually manage my book ghostwriting clients, other than communicating with them and delivering the product. My book writing work is mostly handled through a ghostwriting service that sends jobs my way. This is easier for me, since they can manage the contracts and payments and other legal items. I don’t usually go through the trouble of putting together a contract for a straightforward blog writing service; spelling the terms out in an email is usually sufficient. When you’re ghostwriting a book, or doing another large project, though, a contract is a must. And I like having someone else handle that end of it, even if it means they get a cut of my fee.

And don’t forget to remind clients to pay you when you’re working through the project. Invoice regularly, and halt work if clients aren’t paying. Your time is valuable — especially if you’re like me and you don’t always charge what you could. I actually price myself on the low end of the memoir ghostwriting fee as compared to others. (It’s part of my active campaign to Not Get Paid What I Should.)

Of course, that brings me to one of the most frustrating things that come along with ghostwriting most books: It’s often the people who are getting a good deal that are the most demanding. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that they are used to driving a hard bargain and wringing every last penny’s worth out of everything.

But it sure can make it hell to ghostwrite a memoir.

11 thoughts on “Before You Ghostwrite a Memoir”

  1. Great advice Miranda – I find one of the easiest (yet most time consuming) ways to capture the subject’s voice is through interviews, whether it’s face-to-face or even over Skype. However, where I run into problems is when it comes time to transcribe the interview. I think it might be about time to invest in one of those transcription pedals.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      I think it’s important not to include the interview process and travel in the writing fee. Charging a per diem makes more sense, especially if you travel. I’ll have to write about that for another post…

  2. Solid post, Miranda. I’d like to share a few features in my own approach.

    1. I don’t transcribe an interview. I use it to inform the text I am writing. The conversation is recorded and I can refer to if many times to be sure I get what was said, but I don’t actually transcribe because the narrative has never seemed to me to require it. Even the quotes don’t require transcription. I may change them for fluency or emphasis. The subject of the memoir always sees the text and once it is approved, the quote becomes—well—approved and so the actual words of the subject.

    2. So true about halting if you have problems being paid. I get very involved in the writing and in the story. I have ambition for it BUT I never forget that it is the client’s story not mine; I cannot care for it more than the client does.

    3. I don’t use a contract either, but I am my own agency. I work by the hour and generally never let the billing go beyond $300. I tell clients that I have to place that limit as I have overhead, etc., to pay and need to have cash on hand.I suggest the client leave something on deposit.

    It’s great work.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      Thank you for the great insights! I, too, find it difficult not to get involved in the story! But you’re right that, as professionals, it’s important to step back.

  3. Janice Weaver

    I’m starting a new concierge business in the midwest. Ghostwriting memoirs is one of the services I want to offer. I’m practicing on my 100 year old mother-in-law. I have no idea what to charge a real client. Any suggestions?

    1. Miranda Marquit

      It’s pretty common for the ghostwriting of a memoir to cost between $8,000 and $12,000 per 100 pages. All of this depends on the research involved, how much the client has completed already, and whether you will be required to interview someone. When starting out, charge at the low end. You might even charge a little less ($6,000 per 100 pages) to land your first client. Then you can charge your next client more because now you have some experience. Good luck!

  4. Yes, that is the range I charge and it turns out to be rather reliable as a
    quote. I always add something about “It’s like asking how long it takes to cross the ocean to France in sailboat. The answer will depend on many variables like the wind, the weather, the sail boat itself, etc.

    A rule of thumb: be meticulous in keeping the hours you devote-—the actual writing and interviewing hours and not the hours you are thinking of the project as you take a shower or walk the dog. Then decide on an hourly wage you would feel comfortable with and multiply the hours by the wage. If it exceeds $12,000, you are taking too long to write. With practice, your writing will take less time. Your first clients are a practice. Be generous with them but don’t shortchange yourself——and keep good records.
    Good luck.

  5. When you ghostwrite a book for a professional looking to publish something useful that he or she can point to more for marketing purposes than anything else, the whole process is fairly straightforward and easy. I can imagine that having a ghost writer write your biography could be beneficial because of the different point of view. What types of formalities have to occur for this writing process to occur?

    1. With an autobiography, I find it helps to actually meet with the subject in person for two or three days. Get their stories, get a feel for who they are, and get some first-hand knowledge. That does mean, however, a contract clause stipulating they pay for travel.

  6. Miranda,
    Thank you for your insight. I learned a great deal from you and those who commented. I have a question, too. I’m writing a memoir, and need advice on story arc. My client’s mother died of leukemia when my client was only seven years old. The book is about the deceased mother. Basically, my client wants to “get to know [her] mother” through the information I collect and write. I’d like the final book to reach more than just my client. She agrees. I’d love your suggestions on how to build a story arc in this scenario.

  7. I’ve ghostwritten a few memoirs. They can be fun but they are also challenging. One of them, actually my first ghostwritten work, was of a Afghan man. I had to come up to speed on Muslim and Afghani culture and information fasta. It was challenging for sure.

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