Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ghost Writing is Legal, for Pete’s Sake!

A guest post today, from Karen Cole, an American writer and editor who specializes in ghost writing. You can find Karen’s ‘spooky’ website at

That’s the most common thing I get when I tell people I’m a ghost writer: ‘Hey, isn’t that illegal and doesn’t it violate copyrights laws?’ Nah, it doesn’t. It’s completely street legal, functions under ‘work for hire’ clauses in each state of the USA and also in other countries, and the clients usually get to keep full rights and copyrights to all of the material you ghostwrite for them.

However, it can be hard to talk about, as it’s kind of ‘hush-hush’ stuff. When I work with famous people, they generally want all the credit for their work, so I can’t really discuss their names with other people. Recently, however, I have worked with a Holocaust survivor of ten different internment camps, who is going on a national book tour to sell his book, and the daughter of the FBI agent who caught Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray.

One of the FBI figures in that book was possibly the infamous Blonde Man of Dealey Plaza, who picked up one of the bullets that killed President Kennedy – he was also the agent who arrested Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas movie theater. That agent, however, refuses to admit that he was the Blonde Man, although he was in Dallas at the time. I’ve worked on projects involving the Mafia, which I can’t go on about at length, and the CIA – involving murders. And I worked on a book project concerning the infamous murder case where Amber Frey testified against the killer.

So I have dealt with some interesting people, such as a real life Nazi from the original party, some film stars (Nicholas Cage, Prince, Fabio) several makers of motion pictures, some famous book authors, and lots of publishers and literary agents, as well as music industry moguls and top recording executives. But I can’t talk a lot about any of these people – I’m supposed to be purely a background figure, and I’m not to release a lot of information about my clients or even about my business contacts – just enough about them to let the public know that I deal with them.

Anyway, I only work on commission for select book authors and screenwriters. They have to have a publisher literally all lined up, or a movie studio or producer ready to film their project for me to work only on commission. Our usual practice is to take upfront payments during the course of completion of the book or script project. Sometimes, however, I run a deal when I think a book is likely to be published or a script is likely to be produced, where we take 5-15% of net sales as well as a substantial upfront payment during the completion of the project.

We don’t usually write articles unless it’s part of an overall greater project. And we never do academic writing for students, only editing and proofreading. We also always write and ask for permission for usage of other’s work, and we never plagiarize. As for how it feels not owning all of my hard work, well, nowadays I mostly send out the incoming projects to other ghost writers on our team, and I only do some of the editing work that comes in. But in the past, I guess I have no real regrets. I’ve been paid well enough, and I’ve not had to deal with any of the problems or infamy that a book on a tender subject might bring.

As to advice for would-be ghost writers: write, write and write some more, practise your editing of spelling, grammar and syntax, and become as expert as you can at ‘Show not Tell’ writing and developmental or content editing. You will find that as a ghost writer, you will need thorough editing and rewriting skills. Get some of your own work with your name on it published, so that you can show it to clients, and build up a decent portfolio of your published work. You can get articles published on various sites on the Internet. Sometimes you even get paid for them!

Once you’re ready, you can begin to take on those ‘interesting’ clients for some terrific pay. But don’t be afraid to take on ‘first time’ author ghost writing clients, if they are willing to pay you decently for your services. You don’t always have to work for famous people to get your name recognized (if that’s what you want) or to make a decent living.

1 comment:

  1. Good article! I am wondering, how did you get into ghost writing?

    Sarah P