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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Why Invisible Authors Can Make More Money

Writers Digest publisher Jane Friedman recently tweeted an eye-catching stat from Book Expo America, or BEA. According to a recent Publishers Weekly article, 7 percent of traditionally-published books generate 87 percent of book sales, and 93 percent of all published books sold less than 1,000 copies.

For a midlist author like me, that’s pretty scary. But here’s the thing—despite sales projections, marketing plans, big-name endorsements, a kick-butt social media presence, thousands of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, and oh yeah, a compelling book, you simply don’t know how many copies of a book you’ll sell. That’s why as an author, you should assume the advance (the money you’re paid upfront to write the book) is the only money you’re going to see for the book.

The vast majority of books (more than 80 percent) fail to “earn out,” or pay royalties. But you still want your book to sell, right? You want royalties. You want big sales. Let's admit it, you want a bestseller. So you spend months both before and after it’s published securing blurbs, getting reviews, writing articles, blogging, speaking, printing up postcards, visiting bookstores, you name it…all to help sell your book. And it may pay off—or it may not.

Because there's an essential conundrum every book author faces:

1. To sell your book, you must commit substantial time to marketing it.

2. The time you spend marketing will not make you money (unless you eventually earn out and receive royalties), forcing you to either work more to make up the difference in lost time and income or take a cut in what you're making (which most of us freelancers can't afford to do) … or both.

That's why I started ghostwriting and collaborating on books as opposed to only writing my own. As a ghostwriter or coauthor, when the book is done, I'm done. I’m not “stuck” spending my limited, precious time promoting the book and going broke in the meantime--that's my client or coauthor's responsibility.

And ghostwriting can be lucrative, even while the average advances given by traditional publishers stagnate and fall. Here’s what I've made on some recent ghosting and coauthoring projects:

$20,000 for a 60,000-word book for a nonprofit organization.

$15,000 for a 40,000-word book for a book packager (the author already had 14,000 words written).

$12,000 for a 55,000-word book; while this was a “ghost” project, I actually worked more as a developmental editor as much of the book was already written but needed expanding, editing, and rewriting for voice and flow.

$25,000 for an 80,000-word manuscript for an expert who had a contract with a major publisher; my client wrote one-third of the manuscript while I wrote the rest of it and edited her section for voice and consistency.

These numbers aren't huge advances, true. But I'm being paid for the writing of the book, not its promotion, and that more than makes it worthwhile.

What about you? Are you ghosting, or considering it? What do you want to know about this niche?

In future posts, I’ll report more on the lucrative field of ghostwriting, how to break in, and how to determine whether it’s right for you. In the meantime, for an insider’s look at ghosting, check out, an excellent blog hosted by two smart, successful ghostwriters.


  1. Very interesting--and scary--numbers on the amounts of books sold. I'm looking forward to more information on ghostwriting.

  2. Yes, ghostwriting has been my primary source of income for a while now, and it's true that I can make more ghosting than I can writing my own books (of which I have 6.) It's a shame in some respects, but I also find ghostwriting to be rewarding.

  3. Very good advice. I'll be shopping around my novel shortly, and collaborating for other books has recently crossed my mind. Also, I have ghostwhitten blogs for a couple of people, and it's a great way to bring in $ while waiting for that novel success! :o)

  4. Kelly:

    Excellent post. I have ghostwritten many articles, and I am slowly heading into book ghostwriting.


  5. Hey Kelly,

    I really love your blog; it's pretty much my new favorite blog in my reader.

    Here's a question: if you have yet to write any of your own books, would getting into ghosting be out of the question? It seems like a long shot to a freelancer like me, for example, who writes articles for magazines/websites and contributes small pieces to larger books edited by someone else. I think it sounds like a great way to earn money and do work I wouldn't totally hate, and a friend of a friend suggested it as she made her living at it for 20 years. That said, she told me it was a tough time to get into it and didn't really have pointers on where to get started.


    Thanks for the thought-provoking and helpful posts! Keep 'em coming!!

  6. Hi, Brittany--

    Thanks for the comment, first off. :) I do think it's hard to break in as a ghostwriter if you haven't yet written/published a book. There's a big jump from doing articles to books and clients are typically going to want to see that you can handle a book-length project before they hire you. Looking for a project where you would collaborate/coauthor instead (as opposed to straight ghosting) could get you over that hurdle and give you experience writing a book. Or look for ways to contribute more to book projects so that you're gradually building your book-writing experience.

  7. Thanks for the response Kelly! I agree on finding collaborators—something I'm not that good at yet :)

  8. Hi Kelly,

    I am a big fan of your book, "Six-Figure Freelancing," and am so happy to have found your wonderful blog!

    You've really sparked my interest with ghosting. Like Brittany, I don't have any book writing experience. You mentioned to her to try collaborating/coauthoring a book to start out. Can you share *how* to go about getting that kind of work? I have a couple of niches in my magazine writing work that I think would translate very well into book writing.

    Thanks so much!


  9. Hi, Denene, and thanks for posting! I'll be covering more on ghosting in the next week or so...stay tuned! :)


  10. What do you do about a stalled project? The work is written but the "author" is hem-hawing?

    1. Hem-hawing on what? Payment or reviewing chapters, etc? Let me know and I'll be happy to help. :)