Ghostwriting has become big business with the recent boom in self-publishing. While often hired for works of non-fiction, ghostwriters are increasingly being sought for fiction.
Colorado author DeAnna Knippling has been ghostwriting novels for nearly a decade and has more than 20 full-length books under her belt. I recently spoke with her about this highly secretive occupation.
Check out the interview here below.
Geeks of Doom: How did you get into ghostwriting?
DeAnna Knippling: I got into ghostwriting about 2008, mainly with writing…dun dun dun…murder mystery party games. I wrote for a number of companies that shall not be named, then gravitated to Freeform Games in the U.K. (All their games are great, hint hint, and are easily played from the U.S. as everything can be printed out. They have a GREAT editing process and are run by a bunch of total gamer geeks, in the best possible ways.) From there, I worked on several short projects for a variety of ghostwriting clients, then in 2009 did Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse, which was a great book that kind of fell through some cracks. I was also getting into self-publishing at the time, which actually ties in: the big rush in self-publishing brought with it a Gold Rush level of authors digging through the new turf, but also a secondary Gold Rush of people offering those authors services — like the general store owners, bartenders, etc. who set up in towns supporting the miners — and entrepreneurial types who hired authors to ghostwrite for them.
Suddenly, some indie work was selling really well, and a group of people went, “How can I get me some of that…without actually having to write all the books?” I was trying to break into professional short story markets and failing miserably but actually getting the work done on the indie side and building a portfolio that way; the entrepreneurial types looked at my writing and said, “Well, it’s better than I can do,” and hired me.
I’m not saying it’s the most noble beginning in the world, but I’ve always said to myself that the most important thing that I can do as a writer is get more words under my belt. I consider ghostwriting my paid internship. Of course I’d rather have all the fame and fortune under my own name (as well as own all the rights). But I’m okay with ghosting as a part of the process of getting there.
Geeks of Doom: How does the process work?
DeAnna Knippling: For me, each client is different. I think part of that is the ebook revolution being so new; “best practices” is kind of a running experiment and not a solid idea yet. Also, I’ve been running a lot of numbers lately and determining which clients are worth the time, and which ones eat up profit with all the side tasks and lack of organizational skills, so my client base has changed somewhat.
That being said, what tends to happen on a new book (not from an existing series) is that I get a genre that the client wants the work to be in. Thriller, adventure, cozy, horror — whatever. A number of scenarios will get pitched back and forth; lately, there has been more discussion on how the book might be used to set up a series. I approve of that; it means I have more work coming up. But also it seems like it’s far easier to promote a series; the ones that I’ve done that sell the best for my clients have been in a series. I’m starting to change what I, personally, plan to write because of my observations there.
The books that are being written in existing series are more constrained; there tends to be more of a plot for the upcoming book already established, although I’ve never had a client outright tell me that my feedback isn’t wanted. How much feedback often depends on the client. (And genre — I think I’m learning to expect the unexpected when it comes to trying to plot cozies.) A lot of the time what happens with books from an existing series is that I’ll go over the previous books and make a file of notes with character and place names and details; I tend to struggle with those. I’ll sometimes type in sections of the books to try to get closer to the style the client’s looking for. I may do short outlines of each book if I think I’m going to forget timelines.
It’s important to agree on plot before you start. I’ve had clients decide to massively try to change drafts…without paying any extra for it. With an outline in place, you can say, “This isn’t in the approved outline. You’ll need to pay for rewrites.”
Once the work is in progress, I try to budget about 20K words per week. I generally write one major draft (receiving feedback at the end of each week). At the end of the first draft, I stop and wait for approval and/or edits; after the edits are in, I do a cleanup draft where I fix infelicities, bad grammar, and typos, and punch up characters if they come across as flat
— an extra day or two of solid work, maybe.
I’ve noticed the process tends to produce books that aren’t epic or daring or challenging or rule-breaking or subversive. I’m not being asked to write game-changing literary masterpieces. Mostly just series books that fit their genres and tell a good story.
Geeks of Doom: How many books have you ghostwritten? Are they mostly fiction? What genre are they in?
DeAnna Knippling: Buhhhh…I’ll have to go look. Okay. Since 2013 (when I started keeping better records), I’ve completed 21 novel-length projects, two novelettes, and five short stories. There are other projects that I’m not counting because things went belly-up before I could finish. I’m not counting non-fiction articles; I’ve written some, but it’s not my happy place (except the ones I write for a particular librarian, which are always an ADVENTURE). I tried my hand at a couple of non-fiction books before 2013 and hated doing it. I also hate writing short stories for clients; where I don’t feel that personally attached to novels, I completely freak out about yielding my short stories to clients. So I stopped doing that.
Genres: horror, sci-fi, middle grade, suspense, cozy mystery, and adventure. The word count is 1.6 million ghosted words and counting.
Geeks of Doom: Who hires a ghostwriter for a novel?
DeAnna Knippling: There are the big-scale ghostwritten novels that often get “also-by” credits or editorial credits for the ghostwriter. I don’t write those yet. I’m still at the smaller end of the scale, where it’s indies all the way down. The people who hire me fall into two groups: 1) writers who have hit a sweet spot in the market and want to have someone to chase down more books in that niche ASAP (whether it’s in the same series or not), and 2) entrepreneurial types who see a market niche and want to exploit it. The second group are not necessarily writers — that is, they might have written a book or two, but tend not to have serious aspirations as writers. They primarily want to make money. There are some professional book-packaging units that sell book packages to big publishers; these would be the indie equivalent of that. They package the books they think will sell and send them directly to the market rather than through a big publisher.
I tend to have more luck with the first than the second. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who want to sell stories but don’t necessarily have a working knowledge of what a story is. That’s not to say that I haven’t had good clients who aren’t primarily writers — just that the ones who are also writers currently writing their own series and books and who just want to expand outward more quickly tend to have better luck. It turns out that understanding what makes a story, let alone a good one, is more difficult than it looks, as any acquiring editor at a big publishing house could probably tell you :)
Geeks of Doom: What are the biggest challenges facing a ghostwriter of fiction as opposed to non-fiction?
DeAnna Knippling: I feel like ghostwriters of non-fiction have more challenges than I do, because of the research involved. Even if you’re going to specialize in a given subject and therefore have most of your research done ahead of time, it’s still more work than I have to do. I spend time researching locations and a few facts here and there, but nothing like the non-fiction people have to deal with. But maybe they would say the same about what I do :)
My personal biggest challenges are learning when to say “no” on a project or to a revision (i.e., an unpaid one), and when to say, “I’m not moving forward until you answer my questions,” but that probably applies to non-fiction ghostwriters as well. The things that it seems like would be hard, like writing a lot of words per week or not having seven bajillion drafts in which to “perfect” things, tend to be non-issues. The things that tend to tear up writers working on their own work tend to be decisions that are made ahead of time. I also started out with more projects where an outline was provided to me, rather than having to make them up myself, which was another weight off my shoulders. You’ve been hired to write a book as good as the books in your portfolio (which aren’t ghosting books, by the way, just stuff that you wrote for yourself). Generally, if you’re paying attention, you’ll be a better writer than the books in your portfolio, because every book makes you a little bit better. So feeling like you’re a terrible writer isn’t even really part of the process most of the time.
When things go amuck, it’s generally in setting up the project scope, developing the outline, and being able to write in the genre in general.
Geeks of Doom: Many fiction writers, I feel, would be reluctant to give away ideas without getting credit. Is that a concern for you? For example, you wouldn’t want to end up writing the world’s greatest mystery novel and then handing it over to a client.
DeAnna Knippling: 1) I have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to write. 2) I have ideas that don’t fit my personal “brand” at this point, like cute cozy mystery things. “DeAnna Knippling” writes horror and darker science fiction and fantasy, although she’s starting to get comfortable enough with mysteries that she’s going to expand there, too. “Insert Pen Name Here” gets to try out all kinds of things. I may try my hand at some romances, just to see what happens. 3) The books that you get hired to write as a ghostwriter generally aren’t “big” or “world’s best” novels. Just as comedies rarely win Oscars, the bread-and-butter books of a genre generally don’t win awards or become famous anyway. People read them, go, “I liked that, is there anything else in that series?” and just keep reading. They’re comfort food, not haute cuisine. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
That being said, it’s usually the opposite problem. I come up with something (ahem) brilliant, and the client’s like, “This is not the book in which to bite off more than you can chew. Save it for your own work.” Although I have pulled off a few things I’ve never seen before and lamented that I’ll never be able to brag about it. No, it’s short stories that I can’t bear to ghostwrite at this point. I think I’m one of those short story writers who learns to write novels because you can’t make enough money selling short stories. Short stories are where my true loyalties are. Some subconscious voice goes, “Pfff, novels. Whatevs.”
I didn’t say it was rational. That’s just how it works for me. Also…there are some ideas that end up in the “me” file, ideas that I can’t bear to give up, that I may or may not ever write, but that at least will never grace the halls of another pen name!
Geeks of Doom: Do you find it easier to write as a ghostwriter?
DeAnna Knippling: I used to. Now, as I get better at writing novels, I find myself more and more impatient to get back to what I’m writing for myself. My best hope is that as I get better, I’ll be able to shift more of my income stream to writing that I get to keep rights over ;)
Geeks of Doom: What’s the pay range for ghostwriting a novel?
DeAnna Knippling: From “you can’t even pretend to pay your phone bill with that” to “co-writer with royalty benefits on a NYT bestseller list.” I’ve been working my way up, personally — but if you want me to be more specific than that, you gotta hire me to find out. :P
Geeks of Doom: Is ghostwriting unethical?
DeAnna Knippling: I’ve never had anyone say that. They all want to know if the people who hire me are on crack or something. “Good for you, but…how do they EVEN make any MONEY???!!!???”
If I did have a non-writer who said ghostwriting was unethical, I’d probably just ask them where they work. Because if you’re going to go, “But contributing your work to someone else for money is unethical!” then probably you’re the kind of crazy that’s interesting to talk to for like 15 minutes. If a writer said that, well, I probably wouldn’t stick around to talk to them. Because some writers have a whole lotta ugly for people who have any kind of success and will come up with all kinds of gobbledygook to try to “prove” you don’t deserve your success, for whatever reason, and they should have had it instead.
It’s ethical to make money doing creative work for other people who hire you to do so, just like any other job; if it’s unethical for other people to take credit for the successes generated by their employees under their brand…well, have fun explaining that to Walt Disney’s lawyers sometime.
There’s a fine line between ghost writing and co-writing; see Gwendy’s Button Box. And pseudonymous writing gets even more complex; Carolyn Keene of Nancy Drew fame was mostly written by Mildred Wirt Benson, from 1930-1948, setting the tone and scope for the Nancy Drew mysteries (at $125 a pop), but there were over a dozen other writers as well.
The really important thing here, I think, is to understand copyright and what you’re giving up as a writer if you choose to ghostwrite, and the murky gray area of what you give up vs. retain as a co-writer. People who are interested in making a living off writing should, no joke, read Nolo Press’s The Copyright Handbook. (As a side note, when I was getting setup as a freelancer, I referred to several of their books; I recommend them overall if anyone wants to a) get into freelancing, or b) is already freelancing and is living in constant, nightmarish fear that they’ve screwed something up and have accidentally summoned the IRS.)
Geeks of Doom: Enough about ghostwriting, what projects of your own are you working on?
DeAnna Knippling: I’m working on an ’80s-style horror series featuring the fae. (Who doesn’t love homicidal interdimensional travelers?) The series is called “A Fairy’s Tale” and currently features By Dawn’s Bloody Light, a serial killer novella, and One Dark Summer Night, a you-done-pissed-off-the-monsters-now novel. Coming up are Under Twilight’s Spreading Blight, a monsters-in-the-basement novel, and Of Noon’s Harsh Birthright, a bloody-stupid-secret-military-base novel.
James Aquilone is a writer from Staten Island, New York. His first novel, Dead Jack and the Pandemonium, has been optioned for film and TV. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAquilone.