What is a ghostwriter?

What is a ghostwriter?

You know that saying, “Never judge a book by its cover”? You really shouldn’t. A surprisingly high number of books aren’t written by the author whose name appears on the book jacket. They’re ghostwritten. So what exactly is a ghostwriter? Why do authors use them? And is it even legal? 

Shadowy image of a man sitting at a desk before a window to illustrate what is a ghostwriter

If you’re new to ghostwriting and curious about the industry, read on. You’ll find answers to these questions and more in this handy guide.

What is a ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter gets paid to write material in someone else’s name. If you hire a ghostwriter to write something for you, you’re named as the author, not them.  In most cases, you’ll own the copyright to the work produced too.

The simplest way to think of a ghostwriter is as an author for hire. You pay them to act as your pen. And as the term suggests, a ghostwriter’s part in the process is invisible. 

No one need ever know a work’s been ghosted. Not just because of the confidentiality agreement between you. But because a skilled ghostwriter turns out text that sounds like you, not them.

Ghostwriters are not the same as co-writers. A co-authored book credits the writers who contributed to it and ownership of the work is shared between them. 

What percentage of books are ghostwritten?

Most ghostwriters are bound by confidentiality agreements or NDAs. So it’s hard to know exactly how many books on the bestseller list aren’t actually the work of their ‘authors’. In non-fiction, estimates range from 60% to a whopping 90%. 

Thanks, largely to the rise of self-publishing platforms and smaller, indie publishers, ghostwriting is now big business. And while it used to be a dirty word, the secrecy surrounding the industry is dissipating.

Celebrities — from athletes actors and politicians to pop stars — are now much less shy about the fact they work with ghostwriters. I mean, everyone knows who penned Prince Harry’s Spare, along with the six-figure fee he got paid for it, right?

Do ghostwriters get credit?

Ghostwriters don’t typically get credit. Although times are changing, it’s still uncommon for authors to admit they’ve used a ghostwriter. Sometimes they might thank them in the Foreword or Acknowledgements. But it’ll often be for their ‘help with research’ or ‘editorial input’ instead.

What do ghostwriters write?

Ghostwriters don’t just write books. You can hire a ghostwriter to provide content for pretty much anything involving words. The following list isn’t exhaustive but it’ll give you an idea of what ghosts can turn their pens to:

  • Articles
  • Autobiographies
  • Blog posts
  • Book proposals
  • Business books
  • Emails
  • Family histories
  • Fiction
  • Letters
  • Lyrics
  • Memoirs
  • Novels
  • Non-fiction
  • Reports
  • Scripts
  • Screenplays
  • Self-help books
  • Short stories
  • Speeches
  • Social media posts
  • Website content
  • White papers.

Even music can be ghostwritten. Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor was commissioned by Count Von Franz Walsegg. When it was delivered to the Count in 1792, he passed it off as his own work

In fact, despite working on little else for the last few months of his life, Mozart had only finessed the first 8 bars before he died in 1791. One of his students, Franz Saver Sussmayr finished it.

Why do authors use ghostwriters?

Ghostwriters save authors time. When you’re a bestseller, churning out two or more books a year just may not be feasible. Using a ghostwriter guarantees you’ll meet your publisher’s demands and won’t burn out. 

You’d be surprised how many well-known authors used ghostwriters. Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen, Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum to name a few. Why? Because publishers want volume from their most popular authors. Using ghostwriters means they can increase the number of books produced in a year. And up their profits. 

It’s most common in fiction – particularly in crime, mystery and young adult genres. But publishers also use ghostwriters to produce new books in an established series published by under a pseudonym. 

‘Carolyn Keene’, the supposed author of the Nancy Drew mysteries, for example, was a pen name. The books were written by various ghostwriters including Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the original 30 novels for $125 a book.

When it comes to non-fiction, it’s still about sales. Having a celebrity’s or politician’s name on the cover will sell the book. However, they may not have the skill or time to write the book themselves. Enter the ghostwriter. 

A ghost may write the book from scratch or just edit or polish it. With self-help and business books, you’ll likely find they’ve written the entire book based on notes, interviews and a rough outline. 

Are ghostwriters illegal?

Ghostwriting is not illegal unless it’s for academic purposes. Since 28 April 2022, it’s against UK law to use paid-for essay writing services. It’s considered cheating. For anything else (from books, articles and emails to speeches and songs) using a ghostwriter is legal.

That’s because it’s a willing agreement between the author and ghostwriter. You enter into a contract together which states that the ghostwriter is providing you a service for which you’ll pay an agreed fee. And because UK law assumes whoever pays for the service owns the material produced, once you’ve paid a ghostwriter’s fees in full, the copyright belongs to you. 

How much do you pay a ghostwriter?

What you’ll pay for a ghostwriter’s services varies. It depends on the ghostwriter’s experience, the scope of your project and how much time it will take. Expect to pay anything from £5,000 to £70,000 for a novel-length book. 

Top ghostwriters command six figures. J.R. Moehringer reportedly earned $1 million (around £820,000) for Spare.

Just remember that with ghostwriting, like anything else, you get what you pay for. Be wary of anyone charging less than £12,000 for a full-length book. They’re either an industry newbie or an agency. And while there are some reputable agencies out there, unfortunately, there are lots of scammers too.

Do ghostwriters get royalties?

Ghostwriters don’t usually get royalties. If a manuscript they’ve penned is published, royalties — a percentage of the book’s sale price — go to the author. A ghostwriter’s income is earned from their fees. Not from potential sales of your book.  

You may think your book’s going to be a bestseller but unfortunately, there are no guarantees in publishing. That’s why few ghostwriters will agree to write your book on the promise of a share of the royalties. 

Researching and writing a book can take six months to a year. In the meantime, ghosts have to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. They have bills to pay like everyone else. 

How are ghostwriters paid?

Most ghostwriters are paid a flat fee. Some ask for the entire fee upfront. Others expect half up front and the remaining half on completion of the work. Most ask for a deposit and a schedule of payments due when certain deadlines are met. For example, on delivery of:

  • An outline
  • Rough first draft 
  • Revised, completed manuscript.

Or when they hit a certain number of words.

Whatever you and your ghostwriter agree, the payment terms should be clearly set out in the contract between you. It’s for your protection as well as your ghost’s. 

Avoid working with ghostwriters who charge by the hour or word. An hourly rate gives less incentive to get the job done. Charging by the word could result in an unnecessarily long-winded, wordy book. 

How long does it take a ghostwriter to write a book?

Ghostwriting a book can take anything from 6 -18 months. It will depend on your ghostwriter’s workload, the manuscript’s length and how quickly they can gather your material. It helps speed up the process if you can make yourself readily available for interviews at the outset. And if you’re quick to provide edits and feedback. 

Good ghostwriters are often booked up months— and sometimes years — in advance. So if you’re working to a tight deadline, it’s worth bearing that in mind.

How does the ghostwriting process work?

The ghostwriting process can vary a little from ghost to ghost. To write a book from scratch, it typically breaks down into several stages.


First, they’ll need to gather the material for your book. Whatever material you already have will be useful. But they will also need to interview you and do independent research too.


Next, they’ll use this material to craft a narrative. Some ghostwriters will provide you with an outline or structure first. Others just get on with writing.

Reviewing and editing

The third part of the process is the reviewing and editing stage. This is where you come in. Some ghosts send you chunks of the draft manuscript to review as they write it. Others supply the manuscript only when it’s complete. 

Final manuscript

Ta-da! Once your edits have been agreed and made, you’ll be presented with the final, polished manuscript.

It’s important to remember that the ghostwriting process is collaborative. You both play a vital role. And because the process takes time, it’s crucial you click. So on that first call or meeting, you should both be assessing each other. Is this someone you could work with for six months to a year? Or perhaps even longer?

How to find a ghostwriter

Do you want the bad news? Reputable ghostwriters are hard to find. It can take time and you’ll need to do your research. LinkedIn is a good place to start, just remember a search only reveals writers who say they offer ghostwriting services on their profile. Lots of freelancers ghostwrite, they just don’t advertise the fact.

Freelancer platforms like Reedsy are worth a try and there’s also the American Association of Ghostwriters. This doesn’t just cover the States. You’ll find ghostwriters listed in its member directory who work globally.

The good news is, you’ve already found one! I’m a professional ghostwriter. While I specialise in creative non-fiction (true stories, well told) I can turn my pen to pretty much anything — from business and self-help books to memoirs, articles, blog posts, novels and scripts. 

For more information, head to my ghostwriting services page. Or if you have a project or an idea you’d like to talk through, please get in touch.

What is a ghostwriter?
Article Name
What is a ghostwriter?
Professional ghostwriter Charlotte Peacock answers some of the most common questions surrounding the industry. Including what ghostwriters do, why authors use them and if it's legal.
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Charlotte Peacock Limited
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