life as a ghostwriter

Reader J.E. writes:

I’m a brand-new PhD thinking of leaving academia for ghostwriting. Most of my professional experience is in technical writing, but I’d like to get into fiction, maybe erotic fiction. My primary interest is in your read on the probabilities of earning a financially comfortable living. As you see things, are the chances for making a living and choosing the city you live in worse in ghostwriting than in academia? (It’s not so hard to make a living in academia; it’s hard to make a living in the city of your choice.)

Dear J.E.:

I wrote a piece sometime last year about being a freelance writer. For the most part, I’ve found that it’s really, really hard to make money off of writing, because 1) everyone already thinks they can write, so why would they want to hire someone to do it for them?, and, 2) people don’t care about the quality of content as much as the quantity these days, so why would anyone pay someone a decent amount of money to write well anyway?, and, 3) thanks to the Interwebz, most content is free, so why would anyone pay someone to write anything at all if they can’t make money off it?

Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Some columnists get paid the dollars to write content; some authors get paid to write books; some copywriters get paid some amount of money to fill in Websites… albeit none of these professionals is paid as much as, say, a graphic designer, a Web designer, or a photographer. And let it be known that there are probably as many starving writers out there as there are starving actors. Most of the writers I know hold down day jobs and do their writing on the side, often without any payment whatsoever. (This blog, btw, makes me absolutely no money whatsoever. It’s just writing practice so I can “keep my hand in”.)

Fiction is a very hard realm to break into, even of the erotic sort. Getting paid to write fiction is one part utter determination, one part luck, one part who you know, and one very, very small part actual talent. Where you live does not necessarily factor into your success at all, thanks again to the Interwebz, although it is easier to meet with an editor or agent if you’re living in New York or L.A. than if you’re in, say, Albuquerque.

Ghostwriting is a different matter than freelancing, although they stem from the same family tree. It depends on the sort of ghostwriting you’re looking to do, of course, as well as what you’re willing to do. There are types of ghostwriting that are perfectly honest — helping a politician write a book about his/her life, or writing one of those self-help books that don’t really publicize who wrote the book (The X For Dummies series, for instance). There are other ghostwriting opportunities that are similarly lucrative, but a bit more shady in the zone of ethics, like writing peoples’ academic papers for them (something you are completely qualified to do, given your PhD).

Having said all that, I should come back to the issue of geography.


I can't believe this yo-yo makes us write our content by hand first. Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are many old school people who don’t understand the World Wide Web who want all their copywriters and content creators to be completely local, and many of them happen to reside in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, and other large cities around the U.S. They have absolutely no problem finding underpaid writers in their area codes to write their content for them, and there will always be more underpaid writers to do so after those writers have thrown in the towel and moved away. Furthermore, there will always be more writing jobs in the larger cities, and by not living in those cities, you may be restricting your opportunities to write for the aforementioned Web-illiterate employers.

At the same time, you should be able to find Web savvy people who don’t care where you’re located and will hire you for your skills rather than your locale. These are people who understand Skype and Gmail, and probably have highly successful Web pages. There is hope!

For more hope: There are also many writers who don’t live in the major metropolitan areas and are doing quite well for themselves. A few examples: George R. R. Martin lives in New Mexico, and he’s making a ton of money on his novels; Stephen King (maybe you’ve heard of him?) is based in Maine; I have met writers here in New Mexico who write “X for Dummies” books and continue to live in this neck of the woods; I myself have been able to write for Websites based out of New Zealand and New Jersey without getting on a plane. I will make one distinction here, though: George R. R. Martin, Stephen King, and the other writers living in obscure areas may have been highly successful before they moved away from the urban centers defined above; I am not highly or wildly successful in writing. I’m not sure if the ability to choose where you work comes after the success, or if the success comes regardless of where you choose to work.

I will finish with this final word of hope: Given your credentials (a PhD ain’t nothing to scoff at!), I would assume you can write from wherever you please. Especially if you’re already published (beyond your dissertation) and/or have a portfolio to back you up. Plus, I’m sure you know people who know other people who need books ghostwritten for them. I say go for it. Don’t let the Ivory Tower’s immovability keep you from living where you want to live.



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