A Ghostwriting Contract: The Essential Elements

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Make sure to have a good ghostwriting contractIt’s vital to have a good ghostwriting contract before you hire a writer to begin a book project. An oral agreement should never replace a written one

This nugget of advice is something I’ve heard from almost every successful professional. No matter what industry you are in, always be sure to have a good contract that spells out all the important details; that way there can be no room for misunderstandings later.

A few years ago, I spoke to a renowned serial entrepreneur who confessed to jotting down a partnership agreement on the back of a cocktail napkin in a bar. The two were friends and thought it would all work out. Well, the agreement (and friendship) blew up after a few years. It took time and the help of a couple of lawyers, but eventually the two found a middle ground and were able to sort out their differences and continue. They were lucky as it could have ended up much worse.

I’ve been a ghostwriter for two decades. I learned long ago to have a good, clear ghostwriting contract. That way you and your client know what to expect, and there can’t be misunderstandings down the line. Trust me, if you make agreements over the phone, it can be hard to remember exactly what was said months later.

Note to professional writers

If you’re a professional writer, I highly recommend you hire a lawyer to create your contract for you. When I first started, I used a very poor template as a base, one that I received from a fellow ghost. Now I was grateful that he shared his contract with me, but I would have been much better off hiring an attorney from the get-go. His contract was ambiguous which caused problems early on in my career.

When you approach a lawyer to help you, ask them to create a good basic template. That way you can adjust it depending on the parameters of a particular project. It’s well worth the cost to make sure your contract says what you think it says.

Some projects are so small that they don’t require a full-blown contract. In those cases, I would suggest you summarize the oral agreement in an email and send it to the client. That would give them the chance to confirm that you are both on the same page.

What to include in a ghostwriting contract

My ghostwriting contract is six pages long. I know, this is quite extensive, but I wanted to be thorough. The contract should protect the ghostwriter and the client equally.

If you’re just starting out as a ghostwriter and you wish to construct your own contract (or if you’re a client looking to learn what a good ghostwriting contract should contain), let me save you some time. As you put together your contract template, here are a few basic components to consider:

Dates

Deadlines for a ghostwriter writing a bookThe first paragraph of my contract includes my company name and the name of the client, as well as the effective date of the contract. Later, I include the four major milestones, along with their deadlines.

The four milestones I use in my ghostwriting contract are the:

  • Completion of the outline.
  • First half of the first draft.
  • Completion of the first draft.
  • Final manuscript.

This milestone approach is something I developed after nearly two decades of experience as a ghostwriter. I tried many different methods when I first began. I found that billing the client monthly really didn’t work out. Often either I would get ahead of the project or the client would fall behind. Both scenarios made me uncomfortable. With the milestone approach, I’m paid for a specific delivery. Both parties know precisely what to expect. This is the best approach when it comes to ghostwriting a book for a client.

Price

The price of a ghostwriter; a ghostwriter's feeBecause I use four milestones, I like to break up the payments into four parts. My policy is to be paid ahead of the work, which is the standard for the industry.

I bid on the project as a whole, based on the total estimated word count. I charge one dollar per word unless the client requires an accelerated deadline in which case I’d charge $1.50 – $2.00 per word.

My contract always includes the total price as well as the payments required for each segment. For instance, if the total price is $60,000, the compensation for each milestone would be $15,000. The first payment would be due upon the signing of the contract.

To learn more about the details regarding the cost to hire a ghostwriter, please review my article on the subject.

Expected Length

Most ghostwriters charge on a per-word basis, so the contract should specify how many words the author should expect to receive. The average length of a book is 200 – 300 pages (or 50,000 – 75,000 words).

Over the years, I’ve noticed that most clients think in terms of pages when they consider writing a book. This isn’t as precise for the purposes of a contract. Keep in mind that the number of words per page really depends on the font style and size chosen. It can vary tremendously. I like to include the agreed-upon word count along with a rough page estimate for clarity.

It’s a good rule of thumb to consider that there are 250 words per page, so a 100-page manuscript should run about 25,000 words. This would be a short book.

A Description of the Project

If possible, you might wish to include the genre or a rough description of the book in the contract, along with a working title. This description doesn’t need to be long. An example might be, “The life story of Mary Smith” or “A science fiction novel.”

Ghostwriter Services

It’s important to mention the specifics of the service you will provide in your ghostwriting contract. For instance, as a ghostwriter, I don’t have anything to do with the publishing process. Although I try to advise my clients in this area, I can’t promise that the book will be picked up by a traditional publisher. I also can’t promise that a self-publishing author will turn a profit. It is a good idea to state your limitations within your contract. For instance, I don’t create the cover design or work on the layout, nor do I provide illustrations or photographs. These are specialized skills performed by other professionals.

My job as a ghostwriter is to create a well-written manuscript that is as free of typos as possible. I often work with an outside editor to produce an as near-perfect product as possible. I think it’s important to have an extra set of eyes reviewing the final document before turning it over to the client. However, I also stipulate that I can’t guarantee that the manuscript will be completely error-free and I also state that directly in my contract.

Copyrights

As a ghostwriter, I never claim rights to the manuscript in my contract. I am paid well to write for my client. They own all the rights to their book.

Your ghostwriting contract must make it clear that the client will own all the rights to the final work and any derivatives of that book (like a movie adaptation, artwork inspired by the work, etc.). It’s important to remember that the book belongs to the client.

If you’re looking for a client and read anything contrary to this sentiment with their contract, walk away.

Revisions

Most ghostwriters have a writing process similar to mine. They start with an outline and once that is nailed down, the book’s contents are determined. Then it is time to begin writing the first draft.

Once I start writing, I fully expect my clients to have notes for me. These revision requests are par for the course and an important part of the process. After all, the author and ghostwriter are partners. A ghost can’t pen a book for a client without their input.

However, if the number of revision requests isn’t specified, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Back and forth, back and forth can ruin a book and triple the time required to complete the project.

Personally, I usually allow the client one set of minor revisions per milestone. Since we always work off of a detailed outline, there usually isn’t a need for any drastic changes during the revision process. However, if the client were to change their mind about a major plot point, I would need to charge them for the time to make the adjustment. In my twenty years as a ghostwriter, this has only come up once or twice, but I was thankful this was covered in the ghostwriting contract!

Confidentiality

When you become a ghostwriter you must keep the secretTypically my clients require confidentiality because of the nature of the project. The reasons for this request are numerous. For some authors, their ideas are unique and cutting-edge. However most simply don’t want anyone to know they had help writing their book. They want to be the author. Period.

Things That Could Go Wrong

Most likely everything will go smoothly throughout the process, but it’s always good to put in a clause covering what happens if one party wants to terminate the agreement prematurely.

In addition, consider limiting the damages and agreeing to arbitration to resolve all disputes.

A ghostwriting contract is something you’ll need for any large project. It shouldn’t be taken lightly as it could save you from unnecessary headaches in the future. If you have any questions or concerns, please consult a lawyer. It’s worth the investment!

If you’re serious about writing and publishing a book, and wish to hire a ghostwriter, please contact me. Once we determine that I’m a good candidate for your project, I’d be happy to send you a copy of my contract to review in detail.

Additional articles you might find helpful:

It’s Good Business to Write a Book

How Much Does It Cost To Hire A Ghostwriter?

How to Hire a Ghostwriter

A Ghostwriter’s Fee: How Do They Charge?

Your Guide to Hiring a Ghostwriter

Learn to Become a Ghostwriter

How to Effectively Work with a Ghostwriter

 

39 Comments

  1. Nina Smedley

    Dear Laura, I am interested in finding a local ghostwriter and I choose to pay a small up fee and give the ghostwriter a percentage of my sales not exceeding 25% of sales; however, I need to know if the book does not sale well, then will I suffer a double loss?

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi, Nina!
      Ghostwriters are always paid upfront. You would pay in installments, but complete the payments prior to final delivery. We can’t work on a deferred payment basis, just as an internet marketing professional couldn’t wait to see if the business started to get leads before getting paid. Hope that helps a bit!

      Reply
  2. Barbie Horger

    Only wanna admit that this is extremely helpful, Thanks for taking your time to write this.

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Thank you so much for your kind words!

      Reply
  3. pamela

    Very interesting blog….you sound like a really lovely person…really personable , approachable, non judgemental, and a pleasure to read. Thank you

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Dear Pamela, Thank you so much for your kind words! I am very touched.

      Reply
  4. Tracy

    Do you have any publishing companies you would recommend for a ghost writer just starting out in the romance department? I have one book published, another will be in a week, and a third one in the process for a portfolio.
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! Sorry I don’t have any connections to publishing companies. I wish you success with your budding career!

      Reply
  5. Paola

    Hi! I want to publish my own book. But I will need someone to write it for me.. I want to write about discovering about adoption after the age of 30 .. do you think you can help me?

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hello! I’d love to help you with this project as I can see how many could benefit from this knowledge. Please write me privately and share your budget and deadline. I’ll do my best to assist you!

      Reply
  6. Lesley King

    Hi Laura, Thank you for these helpful posts. I am embarking on my first ghostwriting project and you have helped me more than any other source. You are a gem!

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I am pleased that I could be of help. Good luck with your exciting new project!

      Reply
  7. Joleene Moody

    Well, THIS is a handy blog! Glad I found you! Great post.
    I have been approached to write a memoir for someone.
    And while I’ve written my own books, blogs, ghost blogs, articles, blah, blah, blah, this will my first BIG ghostwriting project.
    I wrote a self-help ebook for someone recently. That was so much fun!)
    ANYWHOOO — I have a few questions, please:

    1) I intend on offering one free revision for every two chapters I write. (I’ll write, two, submit, write two more, submit, etc.) If the revision is outside the scope of “reasonable,” what do you do then? Do you charge them for something? What do you consider reasonable?

    2) She is asking me if I can write a 60,000 word non-fiction memoir in 3 to 4 months. I told her I would prefer 6-7. What are your personal thoughts?

    3) How does it work if the client isn’t at all satisfied with the work? Do you return a portion of the money, or all the money?

    Thanks so much. You are a breath of fresh air. 🙂

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed my blog!

      First of all, congratulations on your first large ghostwriting project. Whoo hoo!

      Here are some answers to your questions:

      1) The first step is to create a detailed outline that the client approves. Once you have that there shouldn’t be major revisions. If the client changes his or her mind about the story, you should charge. If you didn’t quite get their intention, I would not charge extra.

      2) Personally, I usually take on a few projects and ask for eight months, sometimes a year. Three to four months is VERY quick.

      3) If the client isn’t satisfied, I do everything I can to make sure they are. If they aren’t in the end, your contract should be clear that you won’t refund their money. Again, I really always try to make sure my clients are 100% happy.

      Hope that helps!

      Laura

      Reply
  8. Lori Riley

    Hi Laura,
    Wow, you are so helpful. Thanks!
    I didn’t see my question elsewhere on your site, so I apologize if you have to repeat yourself.

    I’ve been asked by a former boss (who became a friend) to help him write a book about his experiences in business. He’s had many interesting situations that might be good reading for folks wanting to start their own small businesses.

    I’ve been reading various sites about how to charge for ghostwriting, and I’m still not sure what I’ll propose to him. I’ve done tons of writing over the years, and in fact, handled many writing projects for this guy. My questions for you are actually not about how much to charge, but other aspects of the job itself.

    First, how long does it take you to write a 150-page book for someone? I’m trying to gauge my timeframe and I have no idea how to look at this project. I can talk all day about how long it takes to do a story for a magazine or a series of pages for a website, but I’m kind of baffled by this.

    The other question: When my friend started to work on the book, he found himself paralyzed because he couldn’t take the stories from conversations to typed documents. He said he could easily tell the stories, but as soon as he started to type them, he froze and nothing came out right. As writers, we all know what this feels like, of course! But he’s not a writer! So I suggested that he record his stories and I can use them as the basis for chapters.

    Now, I’m wondering if I should charge him for transcribing the stories, or if I should suggest that he pay a transcribing service to get the “words on paper.” He thought it would be hard to do lots and lots of phone interviews, so he liked my idea of simply recording his stories.

    He emailed an introduction to me, as well as his ideas for chapters. He’s definitely put a lot of work into it already, but clearly, i have a big job ahead.

    Can you address these two issues? I am so grateful! Thank you so much, Laura!

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! Thank you for writing! It was good to correspond with you regarding your project. I hope all is going well now!

      Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you have found my blog helpful. Although I responded privately to you, I thought I’d also take the time to answer your questions here.

      It’s very hard to predict how long it will take to write a 150-page book. 200-300 hours is a good guess through.

      And as far as interviewing goes, it is much more effective to interview live. You’ll get more out of it!

      Good luck and please let me know how it goes!

      Reply
  9. roddy

    i have a idea and started to put it down on paper but what i would like is to tell someone the story and let them put it in works that might make it funnier i m not a writer but i do think my stories are funny maybe u can push me the right way thanks u

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! Thanks for writing. I hope that we can help you!

      Reply
  10. j c lewis

    Hi Laura
    I read your article on fees for ghostwriting. I have been approached by a family member to do a book for them.
    Would you change anything in the fee structure considering the following:
    1) my only completed work is a Master’s thesis
    2)the family member who wants me to write his book is my Pastor
    3) is there another resource I can direct him to so that he can further investigate ghostwriter fees?

    on another question: Ihave 3 cchildren’s books I have written but I don’t know any illustrators. I don’t sraw…what would you recommend? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Thanks for writing! I wrote to you privately, but thought I’d also answer your quesitons here. Since this is your first time ghostwriting a book and your client is a family member, it would make sense to charge much less than the going rate. The plus point is that you’ll gain valuable experience and can charge more next time! Regarding your children’s books, I am not an illustrator, but know a few. They can be pricey, so when you have a budget together I can ask around to see who might be available.

      I wish you luck and success with your projects!

      Reply
  11. flota khatun

    Hi
    This is Flora I would like to write a book about my life and my kids. But I am not a good writer. If I do just wondering how much money I will have to spend. Because this story of my life is very important to me.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! I will write to you privately and do my best to help!

      Reply
  12. Lew

    Hi Laura, thanks for this post and for your site — very helpful. I’m a writer/editor who is helping a friend write and edit a book. She has proposed paying me a good hourly wage up to a set amount to complete a solid proposal — a few chapters plus outline etc. If the book is bought, I’m paid the same rate to work with her to complete the book. Then there’s a wrinkle: We would split any additional proceeds — from the advance, royalties, etc — based on the ratio of hours each of us has put in on the project. So if she has put in 750 and I’ve put in 250, we split all additional monies 75-25. The thing is, I am not quite sure that ranking our respective contributions by time is the right way to value the work. I’m thinking I should simply ask for a set percentage of the total, even if it turned out to be lower than my share of the hours. Do you have any experience with an agreement like this, or any thoughts on a ballpark percentage for me? If it helps, she has a great idea for a book, but is not a writer. I am helping her shape the concept and am editing some chapters, and writing others from her notes. Many thanks.

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! It was good to email back and forth with you. I am interested to hear how this project goes for you. Please keep me informed! Thanks! Laura

      Reply
  13. Christian Weiss

    Hello Laura,

    I am a freelance writer with not much experience, about to ghostwrite my first full length self help book. I wanted to know, do you have a copy of a contract you used? Or do you know how much a lawyer in this regards may cost? I want to be fair yet protected and am willing to employ a contract lawyer. Any information will be very helpful.

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! I don’t like to offer copies of my contract for use, but did outline the basic components in this article in an effort to help. I would highly suggest that you hire a lawyer and do a little more research to uncover the points you think should be included. Lawyers vary greatly in cost, so you could spend hundreds or thousands, depending on the lawyer you choose. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  14. Alexis

    I have a friend with some writing experience that will ghost write a story based on something that happened in my life. We are trying to figure out her compensation. I am hesitant to just pay up front without any guarantee that the book will get published. I am willing to just split the proceeds from book sales 50/50. Does that seem reasonable? Would it make more sense to pay her a smaller amount to do the writing and then give her less of a percentage of sales? I appreciate any advice you can give me.

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Dear Alexis,

      Thank you for writing! I do think it is important that you pay her something upfront. It will take hundreds of hours of work on her part. If you don’t pay her, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to work on it in a timely manner, as it will need to be written in her spare time. If this is her first book, you can pay her much less than the going rate and give her a fifty percent of the sales. She will gain experience, so that’s part of the pay. If she has written a few books, you’ll need to pay her more upfront. Hope that helps!

      Good luck!
      Laura

      Reply
  15. J

    HI Laura,

    Thank you for the post. If someone is being paid by the word, how would you approach making revisions requested by the client? No discussion or contract has covered how revisions would be approached and payment for the chapters has already been made.

    Now I have been asked to make some revisions and additions to chapters. To me additional words should be compensated with the agreed price per word, but do you have any insights about the suggested revisions? Is the cost of making them swallowed up by in the price per word or should sentence revisions be compensated?

    Thank you!
    J

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! It’s a good idea to cover revisions ahead of time. In my standard contract I allow for one round of revisions. It really is part of the price and should be anticipate (and welcomed). However, additions to the chapter might not be included in that price. It’s hard to tell without the specific data. If you forgot to include something you agreed to during the outlining phase (or initial discussions), then you should include that without charging. However, if the client came up with new information to include (which wasn’t part of the original outline), they should pay for the added words. Ultimately though, I always strive to keep the client happy, so if I’ll sometimes gift them with additional revisions if it isn’t too time consuming and if I agree it is important. If I disagree with the revisions, I will let them know and explain why (but make them if they insist). I hope that helps! Thanks for writing!

      Reply
      • J

        Thanks! Very helpful! Much appreciated!

        Reply
        • Laura Sherman

          You are very welcome!

          Reply
  16. Angela

    Hi Laura, Thank you so much for your informative posts on ghost writing. I’ve written and published several books on my own, but have recently been approached to ghost write a memoir. I’m quite intrigued about gaining a new experience, though it is a bit overwhelming. I was wondering if you had a template for the contracts you generally use? The interested client also has questions about slander liability and privacy issues. How do you handle that?

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Dear Angela,

      Thank you for writing! Congratulations on your new project. I think you will have fun! I don’t have a template for a contract. Personally, I decided to hire a lawyer to help me create one that suited my needs. This blog post gives you some of my thoughts about what should go inside, but you might consider hiring someone to draft a good contract for you to use. On the slander issues, your client will need to hire a lawyer to check into the specifics. It can be tricky. For privacy, I usually change the name of the people in the book, sometimes changing the gender to better hide the identity. However, you can’t do that with relatives, as Susie’s brother is clearly Susie’s brother. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  17. chris

    Do you write childrens books? If so, how would the cost differ from a full length book.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! Yes, I do write children’s books. I love the genre as I have three young children. 🙂 I charge a dollar per word, and have a $2000 minimum. Thanks for asking!

      Reply
  18. RICTHIE OLIVER

    hy it my dream to write a book and i need a ghost writer.i have good story to tel

    Reply
    • Laura Sherman

      Hi! I wrote to you privately and look forward to hearing back!

      Reply

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