Manuscript Deadlines: Should Ghostwriting Projects Have Them?

Manuscript Deadlines: Should Ghostwriting Projects Have Them?

Clients walking away from book projects is not unheard of. Here’s what some firms are doing to protect themselves from loss.

I think we can all agree that deadlines are a good thing, even a necessity, for both client and ghostwriter. Deadlines help ghostwriters plan their workloads and set appropriate client expectations regarding when they’ll see deliverables. A deadline helps both parties stay on track.

What Happens When a Deadline is Missed?

Now, when the ghostwriter fails to meet an agreed-upon deadline, the client can choose to end the project and turn it over to someone else, or give them additional time to finish it up. Since ghostwriters are typically paid on completion of certain tasks, they are incentivized to get the work done efficiently.

That is, when a ghostwriter stops working, they stop being paid.

A similar issue arises for the ghostwriter when the client disappears. When, for whatever reason, the client becomes unavailable to work on a book, this becomes a problem for the ghostwriter, who can only generate income when they are writing. They’ve committed to the project, maybe even turned down other work to make time for it, and when a client disappears, suddenly their income source has disappeared.

Sometimes the client surfaces days or weeks later, and sometimes they don’t. Ever.

A Client Gone AWOL

This happened to me about five years ago. We had drafted all of the chapters in a client’s business book except for one, which he had left until the end because it was the most important one – the one where he laid out in detail his success strategy. From my perspective, it was what made his book different and appealing. But after finishing all the other chapters, he suddenly considered leaving this chapter out. I explained why I thought that was a bad idea and he said he would think about it and get back to me.

I never heard from him again.

In addition to not being able to finish the manuscript, I was also unable to bill for the last milestone payment worth several thousand dollars, which hinged on completing that last chapter. Despite regular follow-up, I never heard what had happened. And I was never paid for that work because I hadn’t completed 100% of the manuscript, as the agreement required me to do in order to qualify for the payment.

Preventive Measures                                                           

After this happened a second time, within the last year, I’m now seriously considering attaching a time limit for completion. Turns out, I’m not alone.

Tara Richter, president of Richter Publishing, an independent publishing house based in Tampa, FL, promises clients that their book will be written, edited, and published within a year if they meet all their deadlines. The agreement both parties sign makes it official.

At the year mark, if the book is not completed because the client was pulled in another direction, the project is concluded. Any money already paid is non-refundable.

Richter emails the client what has been finished to that point, she says, which is usually a half-written book. “They can then do whatever they want with it,” she explains. Or, “If they finally reach back out, we sign a new contract with more money paid and we continue and another one-year limit is set.”

Other publishing firms have been debating this step, too.

Carrie Jones, director of production at Greenleaf Book Group in Austin, TX, says, “I’ve gone back and forth on putting a deadline on projects that are in the creative stage, such as ghostwriting. Although it seems like it would help authors commit to devoting the time needed to develop the manuscript, it could backfire.”

She explains, “If the author misses the date, then they may be so discouraged that they give up the entire book project, which would not benefit either of us. I think putting a deadline on this can have short-term gains but long-term losses.”

Jenkins Group, in Traverse City, MI, has taken a slightly different tack to ensure the firm and its ghostwriter are paid in full if the client changes his or her mind once underway. Leah Nicholson, production and editorial director at Jenkins, says, “We have recently started billing on time instead of milestones achieved.”

With this approach, the client makes a down payment and then partial payments at 60 days and another at 120, says Nicholson, with the goal of getting paid in advance while they are active and engaged in the project. Then if the client decides to bail, at least all the vendors have been paid.

Jenkins also has a project expiration date at nine months, or six months with no movement, says Nicholson. The goal is to keep projects on schedule and clients involved in the process.

This is a relatively new policy for the firm, which previously billed at production milestones and, Nicholson says, “Fewer people have squawked about it than we thought. Now, when projects take much longer or the client gets delayed, they don’t want to make payments so fast. But we keep after them. It’s the contract they signed.”

Have you ever had a client disappear before the book manuscript was finished?

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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. Karen Cioffi on November 8, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    It’s happened to me four times so far. The first, the client bailed, never to be heard from again, after I sent the full manuscript. So, I never got final payment.

    With the others, each was gone two-three months, then came back. I resumed the work and got paid in full.

    Two of the three had good reasons for their absence. The other was a series client, but a little flaky.

    After the first client went AWOL, I revised my agreement to include that final payment is due before the full draft is sent. For some clients this doesn’t workout, but the majority are fine with it.

    • Marcia Layton Turner on November 8, 2017 at 8:50 pm

      Oh no, Karen! You’re so smart to be paid in full up front.

  2. Jeff Knoblett on March 3, 2019 at 2:05 pm

    I have received a proposal from a ghost writer to help me write a memoir. If a ghost writer misses a deadline, what remedy does the author have? I would also like to know at what point a manuscript shown to literary agents. From a financial perspective, the ghost writer takes no risk whatsoever in assisting with the writing process. Does it make sense for the author to agree to spend tens of thousands of dollars having a book written without knowing if it is viable?

    • Marcia Layton Turner on March 3, 2019 at 4:56 pm

      All good questions, Jeff. Let me try and answer them, or at least share my opinion.

      When an author and ghostwriter agree to work together to produce a book, there is often a schedule established for chapter delivery. As chapters are written, the ghostwriter is paid. If a ghostwriter misses a deadline without an acceptable explanation, I suspect you have every reason to end the contract. That would depend on your agreement, of course, but if you haven’t seen signs that the ghostwriter is working on your manuscript, you should be able to find someone else to assist you. If you’ve paid in advance for work you never received, I would think you’d be entitled to a refund. However, I’m not a lawyer so this is not legal advice, just common sense.

      You ask at what point a manuscript should be shown to an agent. An agent likely wants to see a book proposal, not a manuscript. That’s the sales tool they need to try and interest publishers. If you get a contract based on your proposal, then you go ahead and write the manuscript, at least in the nonfiction world. In the fiction world, I believe you may need to write the whole manuscript first.

      A ghostwriter is a professional hired to help you write a book. They’re committing their time and talent, which they could be investing in other projects, in your book. Can they guarantee you’ll sell your book? No, because they’re not publishers, just as an attorney can’t guarantee you’ll win a lawsuit. They’re not judges or juries.

      That said, a ghostwriter should be able to give you their opinion regarding whether your book is viable. An agent should also be able to weigh in, to let you know if they think they can sell it.

      Since most ghostwriters are paid at milestones in the book-writing process, you don’t have to put tens of thousands of dollars down in advance to have your book written. So the risk is not as large as you’re imagining, I think. And by the same token, a ghostwriter could very well turn down other lucrative projects in order to work on yours. If you decide halfway through to stop work, they’ve just lost money, too. So there’s risk on both sides.

      Right now, it’s difficult for first-time authors to get publishing contracts and when they do, the advance against royalties is generally small, such as under $10,000. So the larger your author platform – the degree to which you have an audience – the better your odds of interesting a publisher. The ghostwriter has no control over how well-known you are, which is why they can’t take responsibility for selling your book.

      So as you start this process, I would recommend carefully evaluating the ghostwriters you’re considering working with. Make sure they’re experienced and ask for their frank assessment of your book. Ask which agents they work with and if you can have a conversation with theirs, to get the agent’s opinion of your book. Is it something they might want to represent? Then, as you start working together, have a production schedule tied to payment milestones, to allay your concerns about overpaying, and make sure you’re available when you need to be to give the ghostwriter the information they need.

      A ghostwriting relationship is a collaboration designed to help you produce a book. But, ultimately, you’re the client and the ghostwriter is the vendor, just as you hire other professionals, such as accountants, graphic designers, and executive coaches. They’re not business partners, so you shouldn’t be looking them to share the risk.

      • Jeff Knoblett on March 3, 2019 at 5:15 pm

        I may have confused terms, since I am not a writer by trade. What does a book proposal entail? I assume that a book proposal is more than a short outline of the book. The proposal I have is from an experienced ghost writer who works with a literary agent. What I would like to do is get feedback on the concept of the book from a literary agent before committing to having a collaboration with a ghost writer at a price of tens of thousands of dollars. I am not suggesting the ghost writer share in the financial risk. What I am suggesting is that before agreeing to working with a ghost writer, the author should get frank feedback on the proposed book. Would you be willing to risk tens of thousands of dollars without knowing if the book has a viable market? I would rather get that feedback from a literary agent rather than the ghost writer.

        • Marcia Layton Turner on March 3, 2019 at 5:32 pm

          Yes, a book proposal is a very in-depth outline, with several paragraphs of description of each proposed chapter, a section on competing titles, who the author is, a marketing plan, an overview, and then 1-2 sample chapters. Michael Larsen’s book on the topic is very good, if you want to make sure yours fits the bill.

          I think getting feedback from agents on the proposal before proceeding is very smart and you should certainly get it before moving ahead with writing the book. I was suggesting that your (proposal) ghostwriter may have contacts they could share to help you assess your manuscript.

  3. Michael Coffino on March 4, 2019 at 2:07 am

    I am not sure this helps, but here are some thoughts from the standpoint of the writer, although I think it protects both sides. I have structured my projects with a down payment to start work, monthly installment payments thereafter for the balance save the final payment, which is due on delivery of the MS. Generally that means I get paid for the work I have done to the point of each payment. To be most clear, my agreements say each payment “is earned on receipt.” I turn over chapters and we edit them together. So the client is getting the content as payments are being made. The one risk is that in theory I could deliver the completed MS and not get the final payment. But that seems unlikely in the vast majority of cases. I don’t like firm completion deadlines because projects can be unpredictable in scope and direction and they can produce disputes. If the writer is getting paid commensurate with project progress, it seems to me there is built-in protection. If the client drops the project in midstream, while it is true the writer is denied work going forward they might have replaced with something else, i.e., a more reliable client, as far as the specific project is concerned, they are paid to date pretty much.

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