I’ve been writing commercially for about nine months now. Just recently, I finished a science fiction LitRPG, the first time that I was ghostwriting fiction. I find all my work exclusively through Upwork, where I see that there are lots of Kindlepreneurs—entrepreneurs who are looking to satisfy niche demands through careful research of the Kindle Desktop Publishing platform. Looking back, I asked myself some questions. Was it worth the time? What would I have done differently, and better?
I really enjoyed writing the LitRPG. It’s about a virtual reality training system called VERITAS, developed for the military. The KDP publisher was kind enough to be flexible with the requirements of the book. Even so, it took longer than I thought it would. A lot of it had to do with the fact that it was my first LitRPG, and the fact that I was kind of winging it. So here are 4 tips on ghostwriting fiction for money.
Budget for more time than you expect
I took on the SciFi LitRPG gig at 8,000–10,000 words, thinking I’d knock it out in a day’s work. In my head, I thought, “I’m ghostwriting fiction, how hard could it be? I’m making it all up!”
I was dead wrong.
The first 3,000 words were a breeze. I set up the reality of the situation, introduced the main character, and started building his world. It was fun to set everything up because I already had a decent idea of the world I needed to help the reader enter.
I only got to 4,000 words before I ran dry. That’s because all I planned for were the beginning and the end. It took me time to research the topic and come up with more ideas for the middle. And, being that it’s a LitRPG, I actually needed to also come up with the RPG system itself—how many experience points (XP) it would take to reach a certain level, how many hit points (HP) it would take to kill a certain enemy, things like that. All of this brings me to my next tip.
Write a Detailed Outline
First of all, I personally find that a detailed outline is very important. I find that no matter the topic, I can write about 5,000 words rather quickly without issue. But beyond that, writing becomes a struggle because I just don’t even know what I want to say or where I’m going. For that reason, I highly recommend making not just a basic outline (like I already made), but a detailed outline. In the beginning, I drew on my beginnings in writing screenplays and mapped out the key plot points. But I didn’t fill in enough of the gaps. That’s why from now on, I’m going to ask myself a number of key questions of each plot point.
- Where does this take place?
- Why are they in the situation?
- What’s at stake? What do the characters stand to gain? Lose?
- Who can help them move towards the gain? Who/what is a threat that can prevent them from getting there? What can
- How do they get out?
It’s not so different from an action plan. This is a great self-management tool, and I can’t believe I didn’t use it before I started work.
Negotiate better conditions for yourself
Make sure that you have a thorough chat with the KDP publisher before you take on the gig. Just like any other job you get paid to do, you want to find out as much as you can about the publisher’s expectations. I typically ask my prospective clients some standard questions, such as:
- When do you need this completed?
- Do you have any samples of what you like? Anything that you dislike?
Remember that, as entrepreneurs, KDP publishers are taking a risk. They place small bets by commissioning books and marketing them on Amazon, checking the results as measured by sales and reviews. Most of these small publishers have a tiny budget and they can’t really afford to take chances on a relatively unknown ghostwriter. After all, would you put down two to four hundred dollars of your own hard earned cash without any idea whether or not you’d get it back? Didn’t think so. But I’ve personally written a book that made $1,500 in sales on its first day, so that tells you how much a book can be worth. (Granted, the publisher has a great niche and that wasn’t his first book, and he had some very fortuitous timing.)
As a ghostwriter, you’re selling your intellectual property. And if you’re any good, those ideas are probably worth more than the bit of cash that small KDP publishers offer. It’s typically a hard constraint, so negotiate for something else that matters to you. You might open up the discussion to profit sharing. Or perhaps a mention in the credits might be worthwhile. If you can swing it, see if you can list yourself as the author and frame the proposition as you selling the rights to publish your work, but not the rights of authorship and recognition. (This does get into some sticky lawyerly territory, yes. But truth be told, the amount of money on the table just doesn’t justify legal representation. I work on a gentleman’s agreement and trust the people I work with to do the right thing; at the end of the day, use your own best judgment). Or buy yourself more time so that you can just work on it in your spare time. Which leads to the next question.
Make it worth your time
We may not always get the gigs we want, the ones that excite us and pay well. The truth is that, in the beginning, ghostwriting isn’t going to pay very well (at least, that’s the way it plays out for me). So if it doesn’t pay off in terms of money, make it pay off in other ways.
If I remember correctly, Steven Spielberg made a living at the same time that he made art (as did Jim Henson, whose career is dissected in the book below).
Spielberg was able to entertain the audience, which earned him the right to sneak in his own messages. Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street, was able to balance turning a profit and making art through his Muppets. In my case, I took some liberties with my science fiction LitRPG and snuck in some of my disdain for the modern workplace as well as my interest in industrial engineering. They’re just minor additions that are well-integrated into the story (no talking heads here), but I had fun writing it. In that sense, I’m getting paid to put my ideas out into the world.
You can make it worth your time in a monetary sense too. Treat the relationship as a long-term business relationship. Think of it like this. If you write a great first book, and it starts to sell well, don’t you think the KDP publisher will want more of those books from you? In that case, you can negotiate for more money at that time, for future books. Of course, you should probably interview your prospective publisher and get some information about whether they’re committed to making a profit in that niche.
Anyway, those are my recommendations. I was invited to apply to a gig that paid a whopping $5,000 for a series of 5 romance novels. For me, that’s a decent amount of money, anywhere from three to five months of living expenses. Sadly, it had to be set in a setting that I hadn’t the slightest idea about. But with time, I aim to ghostwrite a Kindle book that can justify a $1,000 price tag. Heck, with a 90,000-word minimum, it might even teach me a little something about finishing a novel, even if it’s not a grand piece of literature.