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Ghostwriting - Is it For You?

Can't sell your own writing? Maybe you can sell someone else's.

Have nothing to say? Maybe you can work for a client who does.

Like to gamble for a big payoff but have no cash? You can risk something even more valuable - your professional time.

Ghostwriting has all this and more for the young (or not-so-young) writer or editor with the right personality, professional skills and appetite for variety and adventure.

But it's not for everyone. You can make money, have fun, learn new things and meet interesting people. You can also get horribly ripped off unless you know your value and how to use it. If you put someone else's name on your work or push someone else's favorite cause or ideas, do it so you come out a winner. Below are a few suggestions and observations gleaned the hard way.

Know Who The Real Client Is. Tomorrow you may be approached by an expert in some field, such as a popular computer program, to write an article under his byline for a big-name computer magazine. In return, the expert offers to pay you the magazine's $500 article fee when they pay him.

What's wrong with this picture? The expert wants to treat you as if you work for the magazine. No, no. The magazine doesn't know you, has no agreement with you, and particularly no obligation to pay you. Your client, the one gaining from your professional service, is the expert. He's the one who must pay you, no matter what happens to the article.

And Pay Well. No Money, No Work. Most people, especially self-funding individuals and sole proprietors like the computer expert, are not committed until they pay out real money. Then they get very committed, to you and their project. Which is what you want. I'm not a cynic or a misanthrope, but it makes sense to give people an incentive to treat you fairly.

Get Enough Up Front So They'll Take You, And Your Work, Seriously. One-third to one-half is standard. Real business people, and sole proprietors with their hearts in the right place, will understand and agree. The rest are poison as clients.

For book projects, where the billing can be thousands of dollars over months or years, I do 5 to 10 hours work for an agreed hourly fee in advance, so we can both get acquainted and not too committed too soon. Clients seem to appreciate this way of preventing big, unpleasant surprises down the road.

Have the Clearest Possible Agreement. All clients, and most writers, do not know what writing really is. I don't mean how hard it is. I mean what it is.

When someone says, "Write me an article," (or even worse, "a book") they focus on the end product not the work. Make sure everyone agrees to exactly what your job is and when it will be finished. (Not that much precision in advance is possible, but it helps to have goals to aim for.) If you don't put some limit on the time expended going in, you could wind up with a months-long part-time job at $2 per hour. No joke. Plenty of hungry writers, and professionals who should know better, end up exploited this way.

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