By Robert Bruce Woodcox
When I started ghostwriting 27 years ago after selling my advertising agency of 25 years, I remember how nervous I was negotiating my fee with a first “potential” client. I had only written one book, so I had what I called, “light credentials,” and a very thin resume (with the exception of my advertising background). However, that book had been a Los Angeles Times bestseller the previous year, so I did at least have that going for me.
Before meeting with this man, a 92-year-old hero of WWII, I asked my publisher, Jim, how much I should charge for my first ghostwriting job. He responded quickly with a slightly dismissive smile, “Robert, since you only have one book, and no experience as a ghostwriter, if I were you, I’d ask for $10,000—and settle for $7,500.”
I explained to my publisher, Jim, that the man was what people were then calling part of, “The Brokaw Generation,” after newscaster, Tom Brokaw’s bestselling book about the Baby Boomers and war heroes. This client wanted to tell his story so his three daughters could finally know how their father served in the invasion of Normandy, in addition to how he grew up on an Iowa farm beginning in 1901 (he almost lived in three centuries—that alone fascinated me)!
In 1997, $10,000 was a lot of money for an untested ghost. But, I knew the top tier ghostwriters of the time, the ones who wrote for celebrities, politicians, etc., were getting well over $100,000 and sometimes much more. Even so, $7,500 seemed a lot to me—I was unemployed.
A few days later, while meeting with this potential client and after several hours of talking, Tom took me from his kitchen table to his elaborate home office filled with nearly floor to ceiling leather bound books. His massive dark oak desk and heavy leather chairs bespoke money and wisdom to me. I was nervous. I knew this was where the rubber was going to meet the road, where he would ask me, “Robert, what is all this going to cost me?”
I blurted, without hesitation, “Ten-thousand dollars sir,” and then waited with a confident smile and crossed fingers.
He, just as confidently and quickly answered, “I’ll give you seventy-five hundred.”
“I’ll take it!” I said and like that I had my first ghostwriting job. It was pure coincidence that Jim had guessed what the final number would be.
I won’t go into the details of what it was like to sit for hours upon hours next to a chain smoking 92-year-old man with a sketchy memory trying to sort through the very boring life he’d lived (his war time memories were however, as incredible as I thought they would be).
When that book was written, I vowed I would never take on another memoir for anything less than $15,000, which in the next couple of years grew to $25,000, then to $40,000 and so on and so forth until about 15 years ago, I raised my rates to over $100,000 for a memoir or novel; slightly less for a business book. To date, I’ve ghostwritten 47 books.
My points in telling you this story are:
- Don’t ever sell yourself short, even if you only have one book under your belt—or none. You are a good writer—you know you are—and you deserve to be paid well (probably far more than you are currently getting). After all, you’re smart enough to join the AOG to learn more about your craft and to raise the bar on your fees.
- When I got that first job, I knew absolutely nothing about interviewing a client, or about the “process” of “collaborating” with someone to obtain and write his or her story.
- There is an old adage that applies here: Fake it till you make it. All you need is the confidence and the drive to want to make a great living writing for other people. The money will follow.
- Use a contract. There are a hundred different ways to miscommunicate, leave out important points, or leave out essential legal clauses. (Two of them are: divide your fee into three payments to make it more palatable for your prospective client and then bill each stage in advance of doing any writing or interviewing. Base your fee on a per word cost; mine is a dollar a word. That way, you’ll have a clear mutually agreed to goal and there will be no misunderstandings when you get to stage two of the project and that payment is due. If your client has agreed to a dollar a word, or any other number, when you are a third of the way through the manuscript, it is time to ask for the next check).
Ghostwriting is like no other profession on earth, in my opinion.
Robert Bruce Woodcox