10 Secrets of Ghostwriting in India

Ghostwriting
Did you know 50%-90% of the non-fiction books in the bestsellers list have been ghostwritten? (Source: How Common are Ghostwriters? | Professional Ghost)

Ghostwriting is one of the literary world’s worst-kept secrets. Everyone knows it. Many dabble in it. Some have opted for it. But almost no one wants to talk about it. As a business option, it can be lucrative. In some cases, the money involved is huge, which is the reason many writers moonlight as ghostwriters.

It is an open secret that a lot of famous authors, businessmen, and prominent celebrities hire a ghostwriter to write their biographies/ memoirs. Let’s try to decipher what is ghostwriting and know more about it.

What is Ghostwriting?

Ghostwriting is paying someone to write in your name. The writer writes on behalf of someone else. The “someone else” is usually wealthy, busy or both, and is unable to write, yet wants to publish a book. We call that person the client. The client hires a writer and pays the writer to write.  The hired writer who does the actual writing is called a Ghost Writer.

A ghostwriter is hired to write literary or journalistic works, speeches, or other texts that are officially credited to another person as the author. Celebrities, executives, participants in timely news stories, and political leaders often hire ghostwriters to draft or edit autobiographies, memoirs, magazine articles, or other written material.  (Source: Ghostwriter - Wikipedia)

Ghostwriting is a popular concept across industries. Academic, literary, journalism, movies, music, digital reporting, etc.  All are known to work with ghostwriters in some form or other. 

In the literary world, it is not uncommon to opt for Ghost Writing.

American writer H. P. Lovecraft was a ghostwriter for a lot of writers during his time. One of the many famous names in his clientele was that of Harry Houdini. Star Wars - the novel was written by Alan Dean Foster though officially it was credited to George Lucas.

Is Ghostwriting Illegal?

No. It is perfectly legal.

Is Ghostwriting plagiarism?

Definitely not! They are two different things. 

Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. [Source] While ghostwriting is hiring someone else to work on your ideas and pay them for their services. 

Is Ghostwriting Unethical? 

Now, that’s a trickier question. It depends upon who you are. 

If you’re a purist, you could say it is a form of deception. Take the example of Sachin Tendulkar’s authorized autobiography “Playing it my way”. The Amazon listing says  The author is Sachin Tendulkar himself. The Wikipedia Page, on the other hand, mentions a co-author, Boria Majumdar. But that name is not mentioned anywhere on the Amazon page, implying Sachin wrote it himself. Confusing. Truth is, a celebrity doesn't become an author overnight.

If you are into academics, then as per the university rules, having your thesis or papers ghostwritten is unethical. 

On the other hand, Ghostwriting is a widely accepted practice, and many people earn their living from it. People who ghostwrite do so willingly and are not coerced or forced into doing this work. So one can say there isn’t really anything unethical about it. 

As Rajroshan Poojari, Partner at Writers Guild Hyderabad says, "Ghostwriting industry is still at an amateur stage. But it definitely has a lot of scope to grow, improve and offer in terms of opportunities. Going forward, I see publishing houses officially giving the writer credit in the book. It is a much needed step and the only thing that comes to my mind is - Why not! It is high time we acknowledge the real efforts behind the book."

Our take is simple. When someone writes something, they should get at least some credit for it - even if they’re being paid. So even if the client is putting a book out in their own name, some acknowledgment for the actual writers is only fair. And honest. Deceiving people into thinking that a celebrity actually wrote a book is not. It is deceptive, unfair to the writer, and one is consciously misleading the reader. 

This makes one wonder if Priyanka Chopra really wrote that Priyanka Chopra book “Unfinished”. Hmm.

A better way is how Ken Robinson (we’re big fans) does it, where the big name on the book was his, but the smaller name is his co-author Lou Aronica,  who may have done much of the writing.

Ghostwriting

We at HWR also hire people to write some of our blogs and pay them. Instead of putting each blog in the name of the founders, we give credit where it is due. But then we’ve often been accused of too much idealism. This article explains how it works in the real world.

Which Ghostwriting Services are available for hire?

You can hire a ghostwriter for writing any of the following things:

  • Content Writing (Website/ Social Media platforms/ Blogs)

  • Novel(Romance/ Drama/Thriller)

  • Biography / Memoir

  • Business book

  • Political book

  • Thesis Writing

  • Academic Writing

Why opt for Ghost Writing?

The reasons can be many.

For starters, publishing houses recommend ghostwriting when they want to churn out more books in a particular period of time for a famous writer. Memoirs are written by ghostwriters because the subject of the memoir may not be a great writer. For e.g. an actor, a business leader, a chef, etc. (like the examples above).

Institutions want to capture their history in a book and hire a ghostwriter to do so. Many well-known writers also work with ghostwriters to create their first drafts which later on can be polished and eventually published. 

Ghostwriting can also be a solution to writer’s block, especially when you are on a tight deadline.

However, because a writer has hired a ghostwriter does not always mean that they have little or no contribution to the final project. Many writers do so to meet their deadlines while some do so to keep their legacy intact. 

For e.g. American novelist Tom Clancy. 

Ghostwriting

He is a reputed name to date despite having passed away in 2013. In the last few years before his death, he ensured a lot of other writers worked on his ideas while the cover page always had his name in big bold letters with the writers credited in small fonts beneath the main title.

Closer home, publishing houses like Half Baked Beans have come up with a concept known as a co-authored project where the idea is given by the publishing house and the writer writes the whole book. The book is credited to both upon release. 

Ghostwriting

Writers opt for ghostwriting projects as a quick way to earn money. It’s a badly kept secret that book royalty doesn’t offer much of a living.

Kavya (name changed on request) was a prominent blogger in 2012 and had many blogging awards in her kitty. She narrates her experiences of working as a ghostwriter.

“There was a phase where I had won a series of awards in a span of a few months. All were for love stories written by me and of course, as it always is, I started making news. It was during that time that I was offered to write a romance novel for someone I cannot name due to legal reasons, but I can definitely say he was/is among the top 5 bestselling authors of India to date. 

The pay offered was INR 40000/- for a 45000 words novel. I had the liberty of using my own story. If I wanted he could also give me an outline that I could work on but then the pay would be less than INR40k. I refused. For a simple reason- If I was writing the whole book with my own idea, I might as well get the credit. INR 40k was a huge amount. But so was the temptation to make a name as an author.” 

It was in 2014 when Kavya finally took the plunge and started ghostwriting because the offers were too good to refuse. But she stuck with non-fiction books and so far has ghostwritten 12 nonfiction books. All of her projects are international as she feels Indians still are grappling to understand how ghostwriting works. 

Aspiring writer and practicing Chartered Accountant Ramanjaneya Sharaph is currently working on his first commissioned project. He has been lucky enough to get credit for the book apart from being paid for it. Not all ghostwriters get such offers. In fact, they’re rare.

He states, “ For full-time writers who are not established, this is a great way to monetize your writing abilities. You get hands-on experience of the whole process – editing, working with a publisher, cover design, etc., at the expense of the person for who you are writing it. Moreover, it also trains you on how to work with timelines, give a definite beginning and end to the project. The best thing is it helps hone your writing skills, gives you unbiased and professional feedback.”

Editor, translator, and writer Geeta Sahai also emphasizes on the learning one gets while ghostwriting. 

However, there is a flip side to it too. As Geeta shares,

“It is quite time-consuming. I have ghostwritten two memoirs and one novel. One has to have long sittings with the ‘author’ whose name would go on the cover. One has to take notes, create content, be it fiction or nonfiction, keeping in mind the voice that reflects the voice whose name is going on the cover. You cannot put your writing style and texture to the content. It is like walking on a tightrope. One has to be careful not to slip into one’s original style of writing. It is quite challenging. The most discouraging aspect as a ghostwriter is that one works very hard but in the end, what one gets— nothing, except monetary satisfaction. No brand created, no tag of expert, no name and confidence to run the show. One is at the mercy of the referrals. “

How does Ghostwriting work?

Ghostwriting is consensual. Both the parties involved are in agreement with all the terms and conditions. Some of the basic terms and conditions one should consider while agreeing to a ghostwriting project are:

Total number of words

Depending on the genre of the book, always agree upon the total number of words to be written for that book before you commence working on it.

Research

The cost of ghostwriting varies if it includes research at the ghostwriter’s end. If the research is already written and handed over to the ghost-writer the cost can come down considerably.

Editing

Does the ghostwriter also need to edit the book or a separate editor will be hired for this?

If the ghostwriter is doing the editing also then the number of editing rounds needs to be specified in the agreement because irrespective of the industry we are in, It is difficult to please a client to perfection.

Approvals

When you are ghostwriting a book, it needs approval from the client at every stage. It could be chapter-wise, section-wise, portion-wise, or any other such pre-agreed upon segments.

Always decide on the approvals in terms of when, how, and how many will need to be taken to avoid duplication of efforts. Remember, you are not the master of this project and hence need to tread carefully. 

Time Frame/ Duration

Writing a book is not easy. More so if it involves research, approval, editing, etc. Hence it is always a good idea to have a time frame or duration by when the client wants the book to be ready. 

If it is an urgent project with a really short deadline, then the ghostwriter can charge higher than their usual rates to deliver it within that time frame. 

Cost

The cost of ghostwriting depends on various factors:

  • Experience of the ghostwriter

  • Research needed

  • Word count

  • Involves travel / conducting interviews of people

Ramanjaneya tells us,'' There is no standard price one can consider as a base. A reputed/established ghostwriter might charge as high as Rs 1,000 – Rs 2,000 per page. The cost varies depending on whether the ghostwriter is required to do research, develop the story, or is the storyline/plot line given, etc., A share in the royalty is very rare.``

If you were to hire a ghostwriter from Upwork, the lowest price quoted is $15 / hour and the highest is $150/ hour. 

Payment structure

Always have the payment structure pre-decided. Money is the main guiding force for ghostwriting.

“Most full-time writers are always struggling financially. Ghostwriters do it for money and only money. Otherwise, why would they not create their book under their name and establish their brand!” says Geeta Sahai.

Payment terms can vary: they can be on a per hour basis (like on Upwork),  chapter-wise, section-wise, weekly, monthly. You can also request an advance before the project starts.

Copyright

Who does the final copyright belong to? The ghostwriter or the person credited with the book in public. This is an important point to be considered as the book can further be translated, released in audio formats, or can be adapted to screen. This is where copyright makes a difference.

A ghostwriter works on creating the material which includes interviews and research material but it depends on the client who holds the copyright.

Kavya worked on 3 books based on case studies of real life incidents of a nationalised bank in a foreign country. She signed an NDA (Nondisclosure Agreement) which does not allow her to talk about it openly. But as per her contract she holds the copyright to the charts, diagrams, graphs and other illustrations she created based on her research for the book. Though technically without the back story these would make no sense to anyone. Still, this is how the copyright act works for ghostwriters in some cases. 

For a lot of memoirs and biographies, the person who has actually commissioned the book and will be called the author is public holds the copyright because it is the story of their life. There is practically no research involved. It is more about listening to their story and writing it in your words.

Poojari confirms this, "That is one of the reasons why the cost is low for ghostwriting biographies and memoirs. While for pure nonfiction books which includes technical books, on finance or other such expertise the cost is higher. The latter definitely involves a lot of research and development to be done from the writer's end."

Ghostwriting

Credit

Are ghostwriters credited? Is an often asked question when it comes to ghostwriting.

Getting credit for the work can be in different ways. One is of course on the cover of the book. Second is being mentioned in the acknowledgments section of the book as people who have been helpful in shaping the book.

This is a very delicate subject and one that is prone to a lot of discussions (good and bad both!)

Blogger turned writer, Kavya adds, “Three years ago I worked with a publishing house on a non-fiction book where I was supposed to interview 15 prominent people and transcribe their interviews. Further, these interviews were to be used in writing chapters based on their stories for a motivational book.

During the interviews itself, things went wrong between the concerned parties and the publishing house. From 15 it was reduced to 12 now. And when it was agreed upon to give the credit they suddenly changed their mind at the last minute as some of the people I was interviewing were not happy with the idea. They wanted prominent names only to be associated with.”

As it was a renowned publishing house, Kavya had not insisted on an agreement. Later when she expressed her concern, insisting on revising the pay as now the credit was not in the picture they stopped responding to her. Months later, the book was released, with the content written by Kavya but there was little she could do about it. 

This credit is also important as it helps you showcase the project in your portfolio. Otherwise, most of the ghostwriting projects have a Non-Disclosure Clause where you are prohibited from talking about the book under any circumstances.

Written Agreement

However closely you know the person who has approached you for ghostwriting, always insist on an agreement. It is safe for you and the client. It also ensures mental peace to focus on the writing rather than keep worrying about if and when the next payment will be and how to approach this etc. 

You can consider having all of the above points in the agreement. 

Sharing a format of the contract/ agreement with you for reference. Please note, this is not a standard format and is liable to change based on the client’s and ghostwriter’s requirements. 

Ghostwriting

Page 1 of Ghostwriting Agreement

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Page 2 of GhostWriting Agreement

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Annexure 1 of Ghostwriting Agreement

What is the cost of Ghostwriting?

The cost entirely depends on the content. It could range anywhere from INR 10k to 5 lakhs. The amount of research, writing, editing support, graphics, images or charts, and many other factors determine the final cost of ghostwriting a book.

Also, the profile of the ghostwriter is also a huge factor in determining the price. A bestselling writer ghostwriting a book will definitely cost you more than a content writer ghostwriting it.

However, do note, a bestselling writer ghostwriting your book does not mean it will be a bestseller. A lot goes behind a bestseller and while writing is a big part of it, it’s not everything.

Do check out the Nielsen HWR Bestsellers List to know what is India reading and how are bestsellers defined.

How to hire a Ghostwriter?

  • Develop an idea

  • Create an outline

  • Make a list of deliverables

  • Always seek a sample

  • Emphasize on an agreement

We asked a few writers to share some tips for writers who want to opt for ghostwriting.

“Understand very clearly what is expected of you, what is required, what you will and will not do, and the process. Sign an agreement. Establishing a good process is very important. All this avoids misunderstandings, rework, etc., If possible, choose a topic that is generic (say romantic novel) or a topic you are familiar with (e.g., if you are a lawyer, writing a crime thriller might be easier).

Some of the things that you should agree on upfront:

  • Research: will you do or will they feed in / fill in the technical stuff?
  • Plotline/storyline: will it be given to you or will you have to develop it?
  • Writing – feedback – edit process: it is best to send every chunk of related chapters, wait for feedback, edit, and only then proceed with the next chapters. Also agree on the number of rewrites or edits that you will do. Also agree on clear timelines – both for yourself and for the feedback to come in.
  • Overall targets for the work: # of words, timelines.” Ramanjaneya Sharaph said.

Geeta simply insisted on having patience, loads of it to work on ghostwritten projects.

In the end…

Writing is writing. Opting for ghostwriting is not unethical but as a writer, it is upon you to set it up in your favour. It allows you to earn money through writing while continuing to hone your  skills. It is a great way to learn about writing, editing, research, and all other things that go behind making a book.  

And who knows, someday you might just be able to rub off the thin line of demarcation between ghostwriting and writing to just WRITE, with your name. 

Note: This post talks about ghostwriting at large, however if you are interested in hiring ghostwriters please check our list of 22 Ghostwriters in India.

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