Content marketing is full of ghostwriters, producing professionally written content under someone else’s byline. I’ve done plenty of ghostwriting assignments over the years, penning magazine columns and blog posts for CEOs and other professionals. Ghostwriting is simply a fact of life for an agency or freelance writer and I have no problem with that. Outsourcing at least some of the content production is unavoidable for many businesses.
However, I’ve also encountered a lot of confusion over how ghostwriting should work and where lines should be drawn or credit given.
I still receive a number of requests every year to ghostwrite a regular blog or column for a brand, agency, or one of their clients. Unfortunately, too many of these inquiries demonstrate just how little is understood about the writing process and the true value of the ideas behind the words.
These are merely my own observations from personal experience. If you’re a content writer, journalist or blogger you may have different ideas on how to handle ghostwriting opportunities (and if so, let me know in the comments). If you’re a business or agency, this might just give a little insight into what you’re really asking of us with your ghostwriting inquiries.
Who’s the thought leader?
Many corporate blogs and content pieces are supposedly (warning: buzzword alert) “thought leadership” tactics. By posting informative and insightful content, the brand appears experienced and authoritative. And this can be very persuasive for consumers looking for someone trustworthy to advise them on a purchase. But, if a brand hires a subject matter expert to ghost write under the brand’s byline, passing off the writer’s ideas and opinions as its own, that seems far less trustworthy.
It just seems incredibly deceptive, to me. Any authority and trust assigned to the brand as a result of that content – which is surely the intention of such thought leadership – would be terribly misplaced. It’s like a baker putting a delicious-looking store-bought cake in the window because he was either too busy to create his own display or too unskilled to match the same quality.
Case in point: a while back I was approached by a digital agency looking for a “higher-end writer with expertise in digital marketing strategies”. The email explained that the team were fans of my articles for the Content Marketing Institute, praising the insightful marketing advice and entertaining style: I would be a perfect match for one of their clients.
“Sure,” I said. “Tell me more,” I said. I explained that my rates are higher than most, but if it was me they wanted, we should chat.
The reply quickly came back. This was actually for the agency’s own blog, not a client. Extremely tight turnarounds from brief to first draft (48 hours) plus another 24-48 hours for revisions. Oh, and this would be a ghostwriting gig to boot, going out under their brand’s byline, not mine. I would do the work, they would take the credit (and benefit from the value). And then they offered me a rate that would barely cover my coffee consumption while writing the piece.
Unfortunately, I’ve experienced this sort of inquiry many times – offering basic production-line rates for what they acknowledge is premium content – and often without the benefit of credit. Speaking of which …
How much is a byline worth?
My articles for CMI’s Chief Content Officer magazine have proved to be popular, so inquiries aren’t unusual. But each of those articles takes a great deal of time and effort, including three or four drafts to dig deep into a specific topic, explore my own thinking, form an argument, research supporting information and examples, come up with an entertaining angle, scrape off the cliches, and wrestle every paragraph into submission. These columns are my showcase, combining my experience as a magazine columnist and blogger with my experience as a content marketer while allowing me an opportunity to further develop and explore my own theories and observations.
On a couple of occasions, enquirers have suggested I lower my rates or offer a discount precisely because they weren’t using my byline. The idea seems to be that my name must have some value thanks to my reputation in the industry (such as it is) and the popularity of my CMI articles. So, if they don’t exploit that reputation they shouldn’t be charged for it.
However, the reverse could also be argued. My rep is a by-product of my experience and ideas, which definitely does have a value even without my name attached. In fact, I should probably charge above my usual rate for content that uses my ideas without my byline because, by doing so, they’re effectively buying my IP. If I’m coming up with the topics, research, insights, advice, opinions and conclusions, I’ll be damned if someone else can claim the credit while paying me less for the privilege.
That’s not just 1,000 words of content, that’s me on the page! And I ain’t giving away the best of myself for pocket change.
Collaborating with your ghost writer
Thankfully, most ghostwriting gigs are not like dodgy bakers. A huge number of celebrity autobiographies use a ghost writer: After all, most autobiographies are by people whose fame doesn’t derive from skilled word-smithery. Readers understand this.
The ghost writer interviews and researches the person, takes guidance from them on what to include or leave out, collaborates on the story to be told and then applies the structure and the words that form the final book. At every stage, it is still the celebrity’s story. As UK celeb Katie Price told The Guardian, “I talk in a tape and say the stories that I want. [The ghost writer] then writes each chapter. It comes back, and I read it through.” Her manager Claire Powell sums up the process even more bluntly. “They just write it into book words.”
I’d like to think there’s a bit more to the process than that. But a ghostwriting gig should still be more of a collaboration with the writer operating as the scribe to the client. Sometimes, the writer may also be a kind of muse, prompting the right anecdotes or asking the right questions to uncover the client’s ideas and thoughts on relevant topics in sufficient detail.
This remains my approach when I take ghostwriting gigs. The content is a collaboration between me and the person whose name will take the byline. The client determines the topic for each post and should provide at least some of the key points, opinions and supporting information to be included. Some of my favourite ghostwritten pieces have started out as recorded conversations with the client on an agreed topic, before using their ideas and responses – as well as their own analogies or turns of phrase – to form the basis of one or more articles. I become the conduit for their ideas and opinions, not the source of them.
This is a skill in itself, a different writing discipline with its own complexities, particularly as I have to try to capture the client’s style, tone and ‘voice’ while reducing the giveaway fingerprints of my own distinctive writing style. It’s not a lesser or easier form of writing – it can be even more time consuming – so that I usually charge a similar rate to my other work.
Yes, I’m afraid good content writing isn’t cheap no matter how you approach it.
That’s what I think. But what about you? Are you a byline discounter or a ghost buster?