David Nicholson is a freelance journalist and ghostwriter whose most recent project was an 80,000-word biography of a technology entrepreneur turned politician. He also runs a team of writers contributing to publications and websites on freelancejournalist.co.uk
Ghostwriting is booming across the UK and internationally, fuelled by fears of mortality, as individuals hire writers to tell their life stories, while corporate PRs pay journalists to voice the thoughts of executives too busy or illiterate to write for themselves.
Both movements pre-date covid-19 but have accelerated since March 2020. Online democratisation and access to distribution means a flourishing market for memoirs: since 2014 one agency alone - StoryTerrace - has published 2,000 biographies, almost all ghostwritten. It now has 500 projects on the go, delivered by a stable of 600 writers.
"We have everything from people over 100 years old telling their life stories to people in their 20s and 30s who see a memoir as a marketing tool," says Suna Yokes at StoryTerrace. Clients seek writers who understand African culture, they want writers for their pets, to produce real-life crime stories or misery memoirs. Demand rose by 400 per cent in 2020, compared with 2019, according to Yokes.
Ghostwriting as a profession dates back centuries: Greek and Roman orators employed writers to make them sound more eloquent. In our own time, the fashion for celebrity memoirs ensures a steady living for writers conjuring the words of Victoria Beckham, Katie Price, Wayne Rooney or Keith Richards. In the US, ghostwriters for politicians such as Hillary Clinton can earn half a million dollars for a single book.
For journalists, the opportunities can be lucrative and abundant. While publications have shed writers in recent years, with minimal budgets for freelancers, they still need content. In response, PR agencies increasingly hire journalists to ghost opinion pieces or features for their corporate clients, paying as much if not more than the original employers.
"Payment from publications is now in the form of publicity," says Helen Croydon of Thought Leadership PR. A former journalist and author, she 'jumped ship' in 2018 and now helps executives get their bylines into print, with the help of a team of journalists.
"Most executives aren't equipped to write and they haven't the time. They don't understand what editors or readers want." She prefers journalists to copywriters, because the latter produces content that is too market-focused. "They use very ‘messagey’ sentences, saying things like 'we are passionate about…' or too many adjectives."
By contrast, journalists can skim multiple sources of information and cut to the chase, says Croydon. She gets a better product, more quickly, as journalists use their investigative or interrogative skills to tease out a newsworthy story, succinctly expressed.
"Writing books is just journalism on a bigger scale, isn’t it?" says American ghostwriter Steve Eggleston. Now aged 64 and based in Somerset, UK, he fell into the industry in 2016 after his novel 'Conflicted' came to the attention of ex-football player Dr Ken Polke. After writing Polke's memoirs - 'Conquering Your Adversities' - a stream of commissions ensued.
Eggleston now employs a dozen writers working on 27 books, covering – among other things - food, cyber technology, family histories and crime. With commercial swagger, he is regularly struck by flashes of imagination and ambition. He plans movie adaptations, commercial tie-ins, digital innovations. "I develop wonderful relationships with the subject authors," he says from his home in Shepton Mallet.
Alongside his team, Eggleston guides clients through the industry maze, whether into self-publishing, hiring a publishing house, or (rarely) approaching traditional publishers. Just like any good entrepreneur, he has a sharp eye for marketing opportunities, whether through Google, Upwork, LinkedIn or word of mouth.
"Five years ago, it was just me. Now I have 12 people working for me. That's because these authors don't do the marketing,” says Eggleston. He reckons the number of ghostwriters for hire has tripled in the past couple of years, as more individuals and corporates have switched on to the possibilities.
What does it pay?
At the lowest level, where writers worldwide advertise their services on PeoplePerHour for example, you can hire someone to produce thousands of words for a few pounds.
At a more professional level, StoryTerrace charges clients between £200 and £250 per 1,000 words for the whole publishing package, so writers will receive some fraction of this (the company does not publish its rates for writers).
The real opportunities for corporate ghostwriting lie above this threshold, where PR agencies – or companies themselves - will pay anything from around £200 to £600 for a 1,000 word feature, pro-rata for shorter pieces.
Beyond that, there are commissions from well-known or wealthy individuals or businesses involving months of work and paid in the tens of thousands of pounds.
Pros and cons
Advantages of ghostwriting:
• It is a booming market with multiple new opportunities
• The pay is as good or better than conventional journalism
• The potential to work closely with senior business people or well-known figures
• You are typically producing publicity, marketing, or someone else's personal project, rather than journalism
• You seldom receive any byline or public acknowledgement, reducing your ability to build a brand or gain new work through recommendation
• Some writers may baulk at ghostwriting on ethical grounds: are you happy for other people to pass off your work as their own?
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