in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: September 26, 2021

So You Want My Job: Ghostwriter

Dean Zatkowsky ghostwriter posing while wearing cowboy's hat.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

It may come as a surprise to some, but people like Andre Agassi, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Hillary Clinton, don’t write their own books. Celebrities, politicians, business executives and the like are often too busy, not confident in their abilities, or just not inclined to spend the time writing a book (or even a tweet). That’s where ghostwriters like Dean Zatkowsky come in. When he’s not rattling chains and turning lights off and on, Mr. Zatkowsky writes books, articles, and blog posts for his clients. More about Dean can be found on his website.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I live in a little California community called Ojai, about 90 miles northwest of LA and 30 miles southeast of Santa Barbara. I’m 51 years old, and I write blogs, newspaper columns, press releases, marketing materials and books for a number of individuals, companies and non-profit organizations. Some work is freelance writing, some is copywriting, and some is ghostwriting. Most of my ghosting clients are business executives who lack the time or inclination to write their own books and articles.

I’m an accidental ghostwriter. It began in college, when I helped other students edit their term papers. Sometimes the “edit” turned into a complete rewrite.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly good writer, but I’m a very effective writer. I’m good at identifying key message points and mimicking the client’s voice while using language familiar to the target audience.

My professional writing career began when I joined Kinko’s as an advertising copywriter in 1986. Remember those ads that said, “Copies 5¢”? I wrote those! I also wrote brochures, radio and television ads, direct mail pieces, and internal newsletter articles.

Company founder Paul Orfalea liked my style and asked me to write his newsletter articles. Prior to my arrival, chipper young women in the marketing department had been writing for Paul, which explains why his articles always made him sound like a chipper young woman. Had they been handwritten, each “i” would have been dotted with a daisy.

Those articles for Paul were the beginning of a beautiful relationship. We still work together. Because of his dyslexia, he doesn’t mind sharing the fact that others write for him, so I am allowed to reveal him as a client. I chuckle when he introduces me as his ghostwriter. It reminds me of that old one-liner: “Wanna see something invisible?” He is the only client I will name, which might make the rest of this interview a little clunky, but to be a ghost you have to be a ghost.

For most of the past twenty-three years, I’ve moonlighted as a ghostwriter while working as a marketing executive. In addition to a long career at Kinko’s, I was VP of Marketing for a direct mail company, then VP of Marketing for a wealth management firm. Two years ago, I launched Dizzy One Ventures LLC to work full time on writing projects. The bulk of my business consists of content generation for client blogs and newspaper columns. In addition to those annuity assignments, I get a lot of ad hoc press releases and articles, and I try to produce one to two book projects per year.

2. Why did you want to become a ghostwriter? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I wouldn’t say ghostwriting is what I want to do, although there is much to recommend it, especially if you like privacy, solitude, and anonymity. Ghosting presents the opportunity to write and get paid for it, but without carrying the entire marketing load. The people who hire me have an audience and a platform already, so I’m usually blessed with a “just add words” environment. I get to do what I like to do, and I charge a fair price for my time and talent. I don’t make the big bucks, but I don’t take many big risks, either.

In the corporate world, one frequently sees two glaring weaknesses: poor writing and poor public speaking. Over the years, I recognized these weaknesses as opportunities, and offered to write articles and speeches whenever possible. I’d rather be writing novels and screenplays, but I’m more committed to my family’s security than to my “art.” For undiscovered writers, regardless of talent, novels and screenplays are lottery tickets. Ghostwriting and copywriting are jobs. I still write screenplays and stories, but for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

3. Why are ghostwriters hired? What kinds of projects and books are you asked to work on?

People like Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway are rare, because most doers cannot sit still long enough to be chroniclers too. My clients tend to be people of manic energy – spending half an hour to craft one clear sentence might cause their heads to explode. Many people of exceptional achievement cannot or will not take time for the craft of writing. I’m grateful that TR and Papa did, and grateful that my clients don’t.

Even if manic achievers possess the patience and craftsmanship to pen their own stories, I’d wager that 99% of all celebrity, business and political works are ghostwritten for the simple economic reality that these people’s time is better spent doing their regular work.

Illiterates also hire ghostwriters, but I say “illiterate” in a literal rather than pejorative sense. Your readers, being readers, might be surprised at the number of successful people who cannot read well and cannot write at all. Many owe their success to learning disabilities that forced them to find creative solutions to problems the rest of us don’t even notice. Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea is one of the most intelligent people you’re likely to meet, but between his dyslexia and his ADHD, there’s no way he’s going to produce a 1600-word book foreword on his own.

Other clients feel they have a story to tell, but don’t know how to tell it, or they don’t know the mechanical steps to get from idea to outline to rough draft to final.

Lately, blogs make up the bulk of my work. A client can voicemail, text, or email an idea at any time and have a reasonably entertaining and literate blog entry posted within hours (depending on our agreed-upon approval process). Writing blogs for business celebrities requires a marketing executive’s dedication to branding. I have to work fast, but I also have to protect my client and keep their long-term goals in mind, even when they haven’t.

4. How much of a book or article are ghostwriters responsible for? To what extent do they collaborate with the “author” of the book?

Each project is unique. One person wants a book based on a one-sentence idea. The next gives me thirty pages of notes for a 600-word newspaper column. A few prospective clients had already written good books but lacked confidence. All they really needed was an editor, and I’m not a great editor. Heck, I need a great editor most of the time. (I suppose this interview proves it).

I bill myself as a guerrilla writer because I prefer to work independently. I don’t even get topics from my regular column and blog clients anymore. I know their business goals and their philosophy, and I know what current events might inspire comment. So I just churn the stuff out. Before publication, I insist that the client review each article. I don’t want any surprises when it’s too late to revise.

Obviously, a ghost working on someone’s autobiography will need a lot of time and cooperation from the subject, but I haven’t taken on any projects like that. Ann Marsh spent many months conducting interviews with Paul and his associates before co-writing his autobiography. In cases like that, the client tends to be very involved.

4. Why be a ghostwriter as opposed to an ordinary author?

I’m sure many do both, and I’m excited to have my own book coming out this year (E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People).

The easy answer is income. A person who is already well known, or who has adequate resources to become well-known, is going to sell a lot more books than an unheard-of former marketing executive. I’ve got a family to support, and that’s the primary reason for ghosting rather than pitching my own brand. But ghosting also fits my personality.

Ghostwriting makes me a professional dilettante. I get to learn a little bit about a topic, then write a paper and move on to the next topic. It’s what I most enjoyed about school, plus a paycheck. Many bloggers know this joy, except for the paycheck part.

Each day, I scan my to-do list and say out loud, “Who am I this morning?” Before breakfast, I might research new developments in early childhood education to write a press release for a non-profit foundation. After lunch, I get to study Iran’s gasoline import policies for a hedge fund manager’s newsletter. Later, out on the back deck with a cigar and a beautiful sunset, I may be working on a book about how scientific research on ADHD can improve everyone’s focus and productivity in the workplace. I enjoy both the research and the art of mimicry as I figure out how to express the new information in someone else’s voice.

Certainly I’ve developed some expertise on a handful of subjects, but I find energy in the variety, and writing for a living requires a lot of energy.

5. How is a ghostwriter remunerated for their work?

I’ve seen a wide variety of fee schedules on the web. THIS ghostwriter charges new clients by the hour and established clients by the word, or through a retainer agreement. At this point in my career, I try to average about $150 per hour. I charge new clients for time because learning a new business and voice takes a while, but produces little product in the short term. However, the upfront investment (of my time and their money) ensures I can work quickly and efficiently for them in the future.

I offer several options for book projects, ranging from a huge flat fee with no royalties to a small flat fee with ALL of the royalties. My last book project with Paul Orfalea (Two Billion Dollars in Nickels: Reflections on the Entrepreneurial Life) was handled differently. I received no advance fee, but we published the book as partners and share sales revenues.

6. Are ghostwriters typically given credit for their work? If not, is it difficult to see someone get all the credit for your handiwork?

Usually, I am a complete ghost, and I take pride in providing words my clients would have been proud to write themselves. It is marvelous to see someone get credit for my work, and it is horrifying to see someone lambasted for my error or lack of clarity.

Sometimes ghostwriters are credited as a co-author (by Paul Orfalea and Dean Zatkowsky), as an associate (by Paul Orfalea with Ann Marsh), and of course, “as told to…”

I have to admit, the first time I saw my turn of phrase attributed to someone else in the Wall Street Journal, I felt a pang of jealousy. But when I really thought about it, it wasn’t my turn of phrase, per se. I would not have been thinking about the subject at all unless the client led me there. I recognize this work as a partnership, where I am the silent partner. When my ego needs stroking, I fancy myself as the man behind the great man, whispering in his ear…

7. How do you find work as a ghostwriter? Do publishers and authors seek you out or do you have to try and seek them out? If the latter, how do you go about finding jobs?

My business grew organically through word-of-mouth and relationships I made during my marketing career. My website and co-author credits have attracted some calls, and that is how I learned that I charge quite a bit more than ghostwriters you can find through Google.

I must digress here for a minute. Some of the people shocked by my rates labored under the serious misconception that they would make money by “writing” a book. The average book sells less than 2,000 copies in its lifetime, and that average includes titles by J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, so most books do not sell many copies at all. And most books never generate profits. By writing my own books and self-publishing through a print-on-demand model, I can generate profits after selling as few as one hundred copies. The books also serve as marketing tools for my workshops (E Pluribus Success: Building Engagement, Creativity and Initiative through Organizational Democracy) and my writing services.

If I had to pay a ghostwriter, pay a publisher (don’t kid yourself, most of the big publishing houses are now thinly disguised vanity presses, hedging their costs by getting well-heeled authors to buy a significant portion of the first print run), do my own promotion and marketing (surely you don’t think a publisher is going to promote YOUR book), etc., I’d need to sell a hell of a lot of books to make any money at all. I’ve had prospective clients offer me a share of royalties in lieu of payment, but until one of them is a former President of the United States or a scandal-prone celebrity, I’ll take mine up front, thank you.

For the most part, my business clients aren’t interested in selling books – they’re interested in buying prestigious marketing tools. Individuals want work that defines and defends their legacy. They don’t care about sales – they just want to have their say.

8. What is the best part of your job?

Differentiating the job from the work, I’d say that working from home and managing my own schedule are the best parts of the job. As a Marketing VP, I rarely got to take a long walk in the middle of the day to think about a problem. I should have, but I didn’t. When my father had some medical issues recently, I was able to spend three days with him without missing a day of work.

Continuous education is the best part of the work. I get paid to learn new things and explain them clearly to others. When I do it well, it’s quite a rush.

9. What is the worst part of your job?

Like any service provider, I occasionally encounter difficult clients. One in particular comes to mind, for he possesses two challenging traits: 1) He cannot articulate what he wants, but knows what he doesn’t want as soon as he sees it. 2) He believes a final publication deadline is when he can begin to think about possibly reviewing the work I turned in two weeks early. And of course, no matter how long he takes to respond to a question or review a draft, he expects my revisions immediately. On the plus side, he’s a very smart guy and although he often obsesses over irrelevant details, he also manages to catch errors that no one else notices.

Worse than that is the client who insists on talking down to his audience, projecting his own lack of erudition onto the masses. When I use a word my best clients don’t know, they ask, “What does that mean?” When I use a word my worst client doesn’t know, I hear from his secretary: “He doesn’t know that word. Get rid of it!” The best clients want to learn and grow and help their readers do the same. The worst clients generalize from their own arrogance.

But difficult clients are only the second worst part of the job. The worst part is when I have to write well about something despicable. I kid you not: I’ve been asked to deliver sixteen hundred words on “How to Profit from Food Shortages.” After you’ve done a good job on an article like that, it helps to know a bartender with a liberal wrist.

10. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

When I was a marketing executive at Kinko’s, I traveled every week. My kids were little, and while I loved my work, I often hated my job.

Working from home and managing my own schedule allows more of a partnership ethos at home. I can provide transportation for my teenage daughter, and spend time with my son when he visits from college. And I can be here when unreliable contractors or appliance repairmen think they might possibly show up.

Best of all, my wife is a compulsive reader and a very good editor, so we get to work together when we feel like it, and we always have new subjects to talk about.

The downside, as any home worker knows, is that the work is always there, either teasing or scolding. I need more discipline to take care of myself (getting some exercise or watching a movie) than to take care of business.

11. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

I’ve been shocked by the number of people that have no idea what a ghostwriter does. The most common reaction: excitement that one can make a living writing ghost stories. But generally, ghostwriters and copywriters suffer no misconceptions because no one ever thinks about us in the first place.

12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

On Voice: I always try to collect recordings of my clients, because I want to recreate their tone, diction and cadence in print. I listen to the recordings and mimic them out loud until I can do a passable impression. Later, when I’m writing, it helps if I can read passages aloud in the client’s voice.

On Discipline: Ernest Hemingway offered two bits of advice that have improved my productivity since I was fifteen years old. He recommended quitting each day before you were finished – right in the middle of a sentence if necessary – so you know exactly where to start the next day. Brilliant. And of course, when you do get stuck and find yourself staring at the page/screen, just write one true sentence. The truest sentence you know.

On Inspiration: Ray Bradbury offered some advice that always helps me get started on a new project: “Leap off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” Come to think of it, that pretty well describes my career as a ghostwriter.

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