I've been asked to write a biography - what do I charge?

Sunday, August 28, 2016
We received an email from a WOW subscriber asking for our advice on a writing project:

I am a linguist with a deep desire of writing my own biography. Recently, I was surprised when offered a job as a “writer” from this person who wants his wife’s biography to be written and published. Now, I don’t really know what I should be paid or how. I live in Australia; the couple lives in the US. All my trips will be fully paid, transport, accommodation, food. But I want to be sure I will not be working for nothing. What happens if finally he doesn’t want to publish the manuscript? Would you kindly advise me on this?  ~ Sarah

Sarah has just been offered a “ghostwriting” gig for a woman’s memoir/biography. From her email, it sounds like all her expenses will be paid by her client, which is great, but it also sounds like payment for her work will come from an advance and/or royalties of the published book, which is not so hot. While you can make an agreement to split an advance or be paid a percentage of royalties from book sales, your first priority should be getting paid as a freelance ghostwriter for the work you do.

Start with a Freelance Ghostwriting Agreement

Karen Cioffi, freelance ghostwriter and ghostwriting business instructor, suggests writers start by preparing a freelance writing agreement: “List the details of the project, including who does what and when, the compensation, and the time frame.” She also offers the following checklist of what she includes in her freelance agreements:

  • The terms (what the client is requesting and what the writer will do)
  • The relationships of the parties and ownership (the writer is usually an independent contractor and client has unrestricted ownership)
  • Compensation (fee, with a breakdown of the payment schedule and expenses, if warranted)
  • Services provided by the writer (I include the time frame, whether editing is included, and that it will be original if I’m creating the story)
  • Termination (the process if either party decides to terminate the agreement)
  • Non-disclosure (protects the client)
  • Indemnity (protects the writer)

In the list above, Karen suggests including the relationships of the parties and ownership, which is basically the copyright of the words. Since the writer is always the owner of her own words, you will have to specify that your client will own the copyright on the work, including ancillary products, notes, etc. in perpetuity. If you have made an agreement to obtain a percentage of royalties from book sales, or if you receive a byline, you can include that here as well. And if you are worried that the client may be a deadbeat, you could write into the agreement that if the client doesn’t pay, you retain copyright.

You may also want to include the length of the project (by chapters, pages or words, but word count usually works best—for example, 60,000 – 65,000 words), and how you will work together (“a series of face-to-face meetings,” or “a series of recorded phone calls” or “drafts in Microsoft Word” etc).

If you will be doing the editing or contracting someone to do it, you should factor that in. For example, you might want to hire a freelance editor to edit the book at $4 a page, so you’d add that and maybe a little more for your administrative time spent working with the editor, emailing, etc. to the total fee of the project. Also, you should think about how much research needs to be done, looking up facts, places, and verifying information, and factor in how much time will be spent.

What to Charge for Freelance Ghostwriting

Karen recommends setting up a fee and invoicing schedule, where you break up payments by milestones—such as per chapter or sections of the book—so you get paid throughout the project. “There should be an initial fee to start,” she says. “The writer may also choose to divide the payments into three: to start, midway point, and upon completion. I do this often with my picture book clients.” Since picture books are short word count projects, dividing payments into three makes sense. For longer word count projects, like a memoir or biography, you may want to break it down even more because it could take a year to complete. “I’ve ghosted two memoirs and they can take quite a while, this is another consideration—how long will the writer be tied up with the project,” Karen says.

You can choose to be paid by the hour, by the word, or by the project. According to Writer’s Digest’s "How Much Should I Charge" chart (pdf):

Hourly: according to the chart, typical ghostwriting rates range anywhere from $30 an hour to $115 an hour, depending on your experience and the type of work. If it’s an “as told to” ghostwriting project you would charge lower on the scale, depending on other factors like if you get a byline, advance or percentage of royalties. But if you’re willing to skip the byline and royalties, you can act as a work-for-hire ghostwriter and charge more on the front end.

Per word: some writers prefer to charge per word, which could be anywhere from .50 a word to $3 a word.

Per project: rates range anywhere from $5,000 - $100,000 per project.

Yes, that’s a wide range! I’ve heard higher and lower as well, depending on the experience of the ghostwriter, how much research needs to be done, the length of the project, and what the client is willing to pay. Whatever you do, don’t undercharge! Ghostwriting is not an easy task, but if you have the ability to write in the voice of your client and you’re willing to be “invisible,” it can be a fascinating way to make a living.

Here are a few sample ghostwriting agreements to help you get started:

Do you have any ghostwriting advice for Sarah and our readers? Please comment below!

Angela Mackintosh is publisher of WOW! Women On Writing and often mans (or womans) the WOW mailbox. If you have a question you'd like answered, email your letter to mailbox[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com and you may see it here!


Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I'm just starting to learn about ghostwriting and all it entails.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Angela--Thanks for the tips and links. This would be something I would enjoy doing, but haven't got the time at this point. Maybe when my life gets a bit less chaotic? (Or does that ever happen? ;)

Margo Dill said...

Figuring out what to charge is never easy. Thanks for walking us through this process. :)

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

This is good advice. You have to try to balance the time the project will take with offering an affordable price. If ghostwriting clients don't have a publishing background they may be unaware of how much work goes into writing a book - planning, craft, creating a good narrative. So in your preliminary talks, you should explain how you'll work and the expertise you offer.
I recently put together a course about ghostwriting, and this is one of the key areas that writers asked about. How much to charge - and also how to make sure the client doesn't fritter away your time so you end up out of pocket! It's a tricky balance.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Karen ~ I think you'd make a great ghostwriter since a big part of it is capturing the voice of others. You do that so well with all the characters in your novels! :)

Sioux ~ I'm there with you in the chaos! But if you ever wanted to try ghostwriting, you could start by writing articles or short stories to see if you like it. I've actually contracted a couple ghostwriters to write articles for me (hello, Margo!), and they've done an excellent job at capturing my ideas.

Roz ~ Thanks for sharing those tips! Yes, I think clients and writers alike underestimate how much time and work a project will take. It's important to understand the scope of the project, and make sure that if the client is adding work on or taking more time than expected, that you have a clause in your contract before you start out. I'm not a ghostwriter, but in my freelance work I always add flexibility in my contracts to charge for extra work and expenses. Most of the time clients understand because they see how hard I work. Congrats on your ghostwriting course, and thanks for visiting The Muffin! :)

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