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Romantica Ghostwriting Mills and How They’re Hurting Indie Romance Authors

Underpaid. Overworked. In virtual slavery to a corrupt, greedy employer. Chances are, if you picture a mill or sweatshop, you’re thinking of a dingy warehouse. Maybe you see sweaty, drab women in early twentieth century clothing, squinting down at their task in poor lighting, or a huddle of scared, barely clothed children, eyeing their overseer fearfully. The products they pump out are flimsy and cheap, but they still manage to undercut the market.

You’re thinking knock-offs, cheap garments, “Made in China”–but I’m thinking about the Amazon Kindle e-bookstore. Now, scary sweatshops of the type that first comes to mind are, sadly, still a problem, especially in impoverished countries. But there’s a nefarious side of the romantica (and e-book in general) market that looks a whole lot different but behaves very similarly.

In the romantica mill, we’re also hungry and desperate. But we’re sitting at home behind a laptop, wearing our pajamas and wondering if we can scrape up enough money to buy a plain coffee and sit at Starbucks as we write. Sure, it’s very much a ‘first world’ incarnation of this problem, but it still sucks. It sucks hard–and it’s hurting you even if you aren’t caught up in it.

I started writing because I love it. When I first set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, it was because there were characters thumping at the door of my brain, begging to get out, or a little snippet of a scene that was going to play on repeat until I set it free. But then I graduated college and discovered nobody was looking to pay my student loans, my rent, or my grocery bill for me.

I published my novella, Nothing Wagered, Nothing Gained, with the same hope that any first-time writer has. “It’s good!” I told my boyfriend. “I read some of the other stuff out there, and mine’s better–and cheaper! And I didn’t even format it in that manipulative three-part cliffhanger way.” I waited for sales to come pouring in, for grateful readers to notice I wasn’t trying to wring extra money out of them, but of course they didn’t.

Desperate to make the rent, I stumbled across a freelance website, Elance.com. I remember thinking, “People pay for freelance creative writing? For what kind of jobs?” The first posting I saw was someone seeking a ghostwriter for a romance novel. Naively, I thought I had chanced across a rare opportunity particularly suited to my skill-set. I envisioned ghostwriting as the sort of thing that happens for memoirs, where a person has a whole story they want to tell but lacks the writing skill to make it flow.

The Realities of Ghostwriting

That first listing held up. The employer sent me a detailed storyline, character names and plot included, and I polished it into a well-written short story. It felt like helping, and best of all, it paid for some groceries.

‘Invitations’ for romance and erotica ghostwriting jobs started to trickle in, but to my dismay, the market was a lot nastier than I had envisioned. These people have no creative vision. They don’t care if your writing is good, only if it’s passable. Their rates ranged from barely tolerable (around $75 for a 7,000 word story) to absurd ($10 for a novella). I quickly discovered that I wasn’t even dealing with one person, but rather, the front of some sort of ‘company’ that contracts hundreds of underpaid writers.

Listings look like this:

“We are looking for multiple ghostwriters to create three (3) short stories of around 2,000 words each. Stories DO NOT have to be related. The Works should focus on multiple scenes of strong intimacy, sexual situations, and lovemaking. They are intended for mature audiences.” Fixed price: $30 total

“I am looking for a ghostwriter who can do about 10-15k novella in the Romance niche. I am open to any suggestions, including Romance/Crime, Romance/Suspense ect. Please only native writers in the US or Canada. Ongoing if work is good.” Fixed price: $60 per story

Each of them gets between 30 and 50 applicants, normally.

The clients work as unofficial publishers, setting up a myriad of pen-names, contracting cover artists and formatters and authors and underpaying them all. They use their collected resources to market more aggressively and effectively than you or I can while we juggle writing and marketing, and they supersaturate the ebook market with their titles, knowing they only need a few sales off each listing to return a profit. (The total expenditure of my employer on Elance is around $12,000, which correlates by my estimate to somewhere around 100 short stories and novellas.) Worst of all, they give the entire marketplace a reputation for manipulative pricing and mediocrity, because they have no passion or investment in their stories.

My Walk on the Dark Side

I was hired by a woman known only to me as Ann.

She contracted me and two other writers. When I asked what storylines I had in mind, she linked me to a list of “Top Ten Female Fantasies” and told me to take my pick.  The first three stories just seemed like paying the rent, but I started to wonder what was happening to the works. Was Ann publishing them under her name? How many successful titles on Amazon were ghostwritten? Was I ghostwriting for my own competition?

I asked if she needed final edits, and was told “Our team will handle editing and formatting.” Who was “our team”? Next, she asked me to design an outline for a potential novella. My heart said no, knowing this had to be undercutting my own market, but my head told me rent was due soon and I hadn’t got any interviews from other jobs I’d applied for. I spent an hour writing up an outline and felt invested in the characters by the end.

Her response? “Let’s spice this up a little.” She went on to essentially tell me that, instead of a unique storyline with realistic characters, she was thinking something along the lines of almost the exact storyline of 50 Shades of Grey, but rapier.

At this point, my moral conscience starting protesting alongside my business-sense–but these people would give me money for my writing. The Kindle customers sure weren’t doing that, and a constant cry in the back of my head was chanting “Rent! Food! Rent! Food!”

I started writing. Mid-story, she asked if I “did rewrites?” What the hell are rewrites? I thought. “Sure,” I said. “Let me know the length and I can give you a quote.” I was picturing something with terrible grammar but a good plotline, but she sent me a fully-functional (if dull) novella.

“It can’t be recognizable, because we’ve already used this one, but I’d like the keep the same dynamic between the characters.” (A housewife and a very racist-ly depicted landscaper, if you’re interested.) My suspicions grew even stronger, and I was determined to identify the mysterious “we.”

I had a title and character names, so I set off to Google. There were not one, but two listings of the book on the Kindle ebook store. One used the title I’d been given, while the other had a different title but was identical. (It was also being sold chapter by chapter at 0.99 apiece–not a strategy I recommend.) Each listed author had published only that work. I was no closer to finding “we,” but I realized I was dead in the middle of some kind of plagiarism.

But my compunctions couldn’t matter. It was irrelevant that I was doing something I was morally opposed to, that I was draining my creative impetus dry every day doing work I didn’t care about. It didn’t matter that I was not only bored, but actively frustrated and rolling my eyes while writing scenes that were supposed to be breath-taking and erotic. I had to make rent.

Even if my own ebooks sell successfully, that income doesn’t come in a lump sum. It doesn’t have a schedule, and it doesn’t care about when rent is due or when the fridge is empty. So until those much dreamed of sales start pouring in, I’ll be sitting here eating ramen and writing crappy unoriginal smut–and I’ll be undercutting not only your sales but my own as well. I’ll also be wishing, perversely, that my writing won’t sell, because I don’t want those bastards making any profit off me.

 

Update: So only a few days after this, the depressing turned to the almost-hilariously-absurd. I’m midway through the fifty shades ripoff. Ann contacted me, telling me they’d “decided to change directions” and that I should “continue with the novella and current storyline, but make it shifter [aka werewolf] centered.” My creative muses are having hysterical breakdowns.

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20 thoughts on “Romantica Ghostwriting Mills and How They’re Hurting Indie Romance Authors”

  1. Hello, I am so pleased I found this as I am a ghostwriter and have been working on similar jobs through Elance. The clients I’ve worked for have been very pleasant but the fees were frustratingly low and like you, I was curious at what they were doing with the content I was producing. I had a feeling I was being exploited but couldn’t work out how these guys were making a profit off my work. Thank you again for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I’m in the same boat as you. I wondered what they did with the finished stuff…crazy. I know I’ve done a couple stories in the past I can’t find evidence of, so maybe they don’t even publish everything – at $10/pop, they’ve gotta be sitting on some serious piles of stories.

    My ultimate question is, how much do they make off one story? I just wonder how badly we’re getting ripped off…

    1. Amy, I wonder too! Part of me hopes that someday a real journalist will do an undercover expose or something like that, but I think the sad truth is that the only people who care are those of us who are writing for them.

  3. I feel all of your pain, my friend. Every single last excruciating bit of it. I’m a student attempting to save money for university rent – I’ve only just started freelancing, but I’ve gotten one ghostwriting job already, and managed to find the Amazon page. Depressing doesn’t begin to cover it, especially since the reviews were pretty good.

  4. I’m fairly new to freelancing (I’m a student attempting to save up for future university rent) but I’ve had one job in the erotica/romance/sci-fi market, and yup, it was definitely the most depressing slice of my existence so far. It’s like the one part of your moral integrity that you actually hold dear (I mean, come on, it’s WRITING, people!) is being ripped to shreds. I also fail to see what they’re getting out of it. Those that pay above $10 per 20000 words can’t be making much profit if they only sell a handful of books? There’s no pride in it. It’s just sad.

    1. most depressing slice of my existence so far

      I couldn’t have put it any better myself! In fact, I have an angsty and probably terrible poem somewhere that I wrote in the middle of having that moral integrity ripped to shreds. I don’t think I’ll post that here, though… ASnd yes, I do still wonder about the profit! I have yet to really understand what they’re doing.

  5. I am a “client”. Some thoughts.

    1. How are we “ripping you off” or “exploiting you” when we set a price we will pay for a piece of work and YOU apply to the job and YOU accept the contract?

    2. Prices – if ghostwriters decide to undercut everyone else and so the cycle continues all the way down to $10 per 2000 words, this is not the CLIENTs fault. Why would a client pay more money for the same work? Should I go and buy a new Audi A3 and instead of paying £50k for a fully specced one, hand over £500k instead because otherwise I am ripping off Audi or exploiting them?

    3. “Jess said $10 per 20,000 words”? WHERE. I wish!

    4. This is not the only related blog post. But it is very funny from our client POV that people are quick to complain about being paid too little on a job that they offered to do for so little…yet they don’t have a problem taking the money. A lot of ghostwriters even use their “moral obligation” as an excuse to deliver copied work or not even deliver any work at all and demand the payment anyway “why should I do any work, you didn’t pay me enough, but I want the $10 anyway” you have NO IDEA how many “ghostwriters” one has to deal with who are scamming the clients.

    But no one ever mentions that on these blogs.

    Now I am an ethical person, I generally pay a very small amount of money and if the work is good I tip well and I pay more. I would be bankrupt if I paid $1+ per word from the get-go and the ghostwriter was crap.

    My email name etc is fake for obvious reasons.

    1. Hi, thanks very much for being willing to share your side of the story!

      A few thoughts in response: When I wrote this, I was actually thinking specifically of the ghostwriting corporation fronts that I have encountered in the ‘biz,’ rather than individual clients. I am very understanding that when we are talking about just one person, choosing the lowest bidder becomes an affordability factor. Most importantly, my post is intended to be more of an overview of the harm the whole cycle (both writer and client) is perpetuating, rather than targeting out clients for blame. You’ll notice I take blame myself at the end for undercutting my own market. It takes two to tango, etc., and I will freely admit to that.

      You’ll also note I didn’t use the phrases ripped off or exploited myself. When I accept an offer, it’s because I’m okay with the rate. I also understand that it would take me far more work hours to sell the same crappy writing myself because I don’t have the same ability to market saturate and dedicate all attention to marketing. A single person self-publishing and writing their own material can’t compete (which is why it’s a vicious cycle–one perpetuated by, make no mistake about it, the writers.)

      I was less-than-clear on the pricing in the interests of concision, so I see where you’re coming from with the Audi metaphor. In reality, I dislike both client and writers for pricing down to that level, because it guarantees supersaturation of the market with terrible work (most often from those who come from somewhere with a far lower cost of living and generally don’t even speak English as a first language.) I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with scammy ghostwriters. To be clear, they are the worst of the bunch if you want to talk about placing blame. I don’t mean to say that their actions, bad writing, and undercutting of the market are the fault of the clients by any means. I know I’m repeating myself a lot, but again, this is about the ENTIRE “mill” or cycle–client and writer both.

      My complaint is not actually about the offered payment on the low-priced jobs. Rather, it’s that the low payment leads to bad writing, and the client corporations and their mass production lead to supersaturation of the market. Thus, the romance and erotica sections of the Kindle store are like digging through a pile of compost hoping that one fresh vegetable has sprung to life in the middle. It makes it impossible to sell anything because the customers have come to expect an incredibly low baseline of standards.

      The only thing I would present as even close to an attack on the clients is those that are agencies existing solely for the sake of profit. (I’d direct this same attack at writers who pump out their own drivel in bulk, again solely for the sake of profit.) As a lifelong writer, I have the somewhat snooty perception of writing as closer to art than to commodity. (Ironically, I still have to pay the bills, as I fess up to myself in the post.) Ghostwriting mills are the Frankenstein’s monster of ghostwritten manuscripts. In my eyes, the profession was originally about helping people tell stories they were invested in but lacked writing skills to share. Now it’s about padding the pockets of a middle man who doesn’t even care what you’re writing as long as someone will buy it. My morals–and muses–object to this quite strongly. But I do think that puts me in the minority.

  6. I’ve found nearly all my stories on Amazon. Including an erotica ala fifty shades of grey that I didn’t feel comfortable doing in the first place (but…rent…food…you know). It turns out, the editor added a whole bunch of stuff in without my knowledge. Including a full blown rape scene! I was angry but not angry enough to stop writing for forty dollars a pop. I guess it’s my choice. But, still…I feel your pain!

  7. You know, I’ve always wanted to know where the stories go myself. I found a client through Freelancer.com back in 2012 and have been ghostwriting romance/erotica for her since then. From what I’ve been able to establish about her there is a ‘company’ and they have an editor and they design book covers and do their marketing. But apparently they have something like an exclusive readership that pays a monthly fee to get stories that are only published by them and no one outside of this group reads the stories. I’ve always wondered whether or not that’s true as I’ve never found a membership or subscription like that when I do a search.

    On the other hand, though, she started me out at $75/5000 words and I renegotiated later on to $125/5000 words and I get about $2000 of work a month, so I really can’t complain because I’ve actually got a pretty decent deal.

    1. Thanks for sharing! That’s really interesting. I’ve definitely picked up the same “company” vibes pretty much across the board in job listings. The exclusive readership thing is new to me though. Maybe someone else will know more!

  8. What will the traditional publishers pay you for writing books on assignment? Nothing. So these gigs do, at least, pay upfront money. Which is why writers take them on. As long as we’re willing to work for low pay, we will continue to get that low pay.

    I have done these gigs too and, sadly, I’ve made more from them than from my own books in the genre. In earlier days, I earned advances and royalties that streamed in for years. This is no longer the case. The playing field is unrecognizable.

    Why bother to care what they do with your work? You sign the NDA, they pay you, your job is done. But if you despise being a slave, don’t take the lowest paying gigs. You have a resume full of ghostwritten books now. Use those to find the better paying publishers. They’re out there. I’ve worked for them.

  9. I’m an erotic romance writer. I can tell you guys there is money to be made, you just have to educate yourself on how things work. There are even groups of writers who join together and publish together. Why in the world you give your work away for pennies like this? If you are a half decent writer you can make a KILLING on kindle and keep all the profits yourself.

    Here are some places where you can learn and network with other writers:

    (Dirty Discourse Forums) http://forum.dirtydiscourse.com/

    (Kindle Boards – Writers Cafe) http://www.kboards.com

    I just hate the idea of writers giving away work for pennies, when they could keep that money for themselves. Yes there’s a lot you have learn, like how to market on Facebook.

    But the reason these guys are paying you – is that they are making a killing. Easily 10k a month and up. That money could be yours instead.

    Also this blog post by Mike Shreeve is what lit a fire under me:
    http://www.mikeshreeve.com/sell-978-fiction-ebooks-per-day-complete-guide/

    Write for yourselves guys… its more work but so worth it in the long run.

  10. As I sit here Ghostwriting a full length Texan Modern Romance and try not to cry over my beautiful WIP/horror story fetus that I haven’t got time for, I was really grateful to read that I’m not alone… and better, to feel that I’m not wrong for hating it.

    It’s terrifying for me to think of what would happen to my children if I quit so I could be a real writer, and I’m tired of people telling me I’m too good to be doing what I am doing. Thank you for this post. It is enough to bolster me up as I get back to work. Praying that soon, I will simply not have to do this anymore.

  11. I just used a ghostwriter at https://goo.gl/YZREGL for your book. I paid $500 for the full book of about 80,000 words. Do you think it is a fair deal.

    yes, I love the final product, and will like to hire thesame writer again, but want to be sure about the price.

  12. Wow! Thanks for sharing this. I’m in a position where freelance writing is looking like the best option for me. While I want to be a writer that only sells novel, the reality of it is that freelance writing is going to be the bread and butter. Ghost writing is something that I’ve been wanting to know more about, and ghost romance writing seems to be most sought after. Your experience has really given me something to think about. I really appreciate it.

  13. This reminded me of the story about a famous writer. He was asked who inspired him most in his writing. He said his landlady. She came every month for the rent.

  14. This also reminds me of a class I took in screenwriting. They said that often your original screenplay is unrecognizable after they finish with it. I said good. I’d just give it a different title and submit it someplace else. Of course, I do have a degree in marketing, so that’s just a natural response.

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