Ghost Writing and the Money Conundrum

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend about my ghost writing work: when I consider all the effort I’ve put into a piece, I feel like I haven’t been paid what I truly deserve.

I’m sure lots of writers feel this way. After all, only we know exactly how much we slave away on an effort. But there is a difference between writing an original work, and writing for someone else. There’s a difference in the theory of it, the practice of it, and the payment of it. But what are these differences, and how do they make me so frustrated?

The Theory:

Writers attach a lot of importance to ideas. We want original ideas that capture the imagination and leave our readers reeling. We want profound ideas that people will discuss over and over again with their friends and acquaintances. And when we get ideas, we both guard them and obsess over them. Thus, ghost writers, who use the ideas of someone else, get relegated to second class.

When I first investigated ghost writing as a way to make a living, other aspiring writers were rather disdainful of the notion. The word “hack” was mentioned more than once. In the craft, there’s this idea that a ghost writer is the equivalent of a second-class citizen, all because we write someone else’s ideas down and not our own.

Which brings us to the second difference:

The Practice

In practice, I get more ideas for stories than I can possibly use. I have strange dreams and intriguing conversations, hear bizarre tales, read fascinating news articles and come across thought-provoking art every single day. In this I am not an especially unique person. We all have experiences worth writing about, and every writer I’ve ever met has complained of having too many ideas and not enough time to put them all down.

Neil Gaiman, my favourite author, has often related a story in which somene has come up to him at a book signing or public function and said, “I’ve got a great idea that’s sure to be a bestseller. I’ll give it to you, you just jot it down, and we’ll split the profits 50/50.”

The problem is, as Neil so eloquently explains, that ideas are the easy part. Putting them into a cohesive narrative with an engaging voice in a manner that will draw in readers – that’s the problem. That’s the difficult bit. The hours and hours of writing, followed by more painful hours of re-reading and re-writing, destroying your piece and putting it back together again.

Ghost writers skip the idea part and go straight to the writing part. And we spend hours and hours writing, reading and re-writing something that someone else gets to claim as his. So shouldn’t we get some kind of compensation for that?

Exactly How Much Compensation?

This is where the ghost writing business gets tricky. In my mind, the question of money is intricately tied into the question of ownership. Let’s compare some examples:

I recently submitted my poem Snow White to the fairy-tale e-zine Enchanted Conversations. I was absolutely delighted when the owner, Kate, asked to post it as an honourable mention. Honourable mentions on that e-zine are unpaid, but that’s okay because my name will appear beneath something I am proud of, alongside other brilliant stories by talented authors. In other words, my payment is acknowledgement and publicity.

It is an oft-quoted piece of advice that writers should write for the joy of it and not for the money. Does the same thing apply to ghost writing?

For example, on, a client offers to pay $5.00 per 1,000 words, or half of one penny per word. Now, were I to sell a 5,000 word short story for $25.00 to a magazine under my own name, I would probably be pretty excited. Not ecstatic, but excited. I would never, ever ghost write for so little. At the end of the day I’ve put in effort for something I can never acknowledge as mine – so don’t I deserve some kind of compensation for that?

Clients don’t seem to think so. The above offer is hardly abnormal. Another job on ODesk right now offers $20.00 for 10,000 words of erotic content. Yet another offers a whopping $200.00 to the lucky person who can write an entire novel from a provided outline. Am I the only one who thinks these prices are ridiculous?

With the kinds of prices offered on the e-market for freelance and ghost writing, I wouldn’t be able to support myself even if I made freelance writing a full-time job, and never had to go a day without something to work on. And considering that I’m selling my name as well as my hard work, I hardly think that’s fair.

What are ideas, hours, names and identities worth in the field of ghost writing? How much should a ghost writer charge for the sale of her name and the building of someone else’s portfolio? It’s a question I don’t have the answer to.

Maybe there are some other ghost writers out there with the magic formula. Thoughts and comments are encouraged.