The mainstream media is but one slice of the paid writing world. The deeper you go, the murkier it gets.

In the past week, we’ve heard from dozens of writers in response to our call for stories of being ripped off by publications. All of these writers feel cheated in one way or another. But one writer’s story seemed worth breaking out on its own, as a peek into the rarely discussed bottom-feeding world of online ghostwriting companies.

As paid writing gigs go, these are some of the very worst. They are rarely cited on resumes, or trotted out as proof of journalistic experience. They are small money hustles picked up from Craigslist ads by anyone in need of cash. They are an industry of middlemen profiting off of extremely cheap labor combined with the ignorance of people who dream of having a book to their name.

Our tipster, who still works in ghostwriting who asked to remain anonymous, gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the shoestring operations that take in eye-popping sums from unsuspecting clients and then farm the work out in the most low-quality way possible.

Online Ghostwriting companies are reaping the benefits of freelance writers and journalists who respond to work through Craigslist.

The companies hire people all over the country to conduct interviews with clients in person or by phone, do video or audio recordings, do transcription of audio or video recordings, or to write a fully fleshed out document of 20K - 40K words to be published into a full book...

If you’re a freelance writer/journalist who is invited to work through Craigslist for Ghostwriting companies, you will be royally screwed. You do all the work and then send the company a document long before being paid. You wait for any sort of payment. Then, you chase a fluctuating payment that tends to decrease as they continue to take advantage of your talents to deliver. There’s a high turnover of writers because there’s no guarantee to ever be paid...

As I understand the process, the companies are paid upfront $20,000 to $25,000 or more for a 100 page to 150 page book published on Create Space through Amazon and other Kindle sites. Some clients have complained to me about paying $10K upfront and then hearing nothing from the company for six months or more.

Very little is known about these ghostwriting companies, as the “author” clients have quizzed me about the details of company. The clients have met payment requirements and handed over thousands of dollars for a published book but still have no published book on the market. The whole process is bizarre that people would pay thousands of dollars without investigating the company or ever meeting a writer or someone from the company in person. Deadlines sometimes aren’t met and freelancers change regularly as they’re cycled through Craigslist...

Essentially, it works like this: freelance writers are hired in different cities all over the country through Craigslist to do in-person or phone interviews of clients who want a published book and then the freelancer must provide the audio/video interviews, a written word-for-word transcription of the interview sessions, or a draft of entire book with a 20K - 40K word minimum depending on the page count of the project contracted.

The entire payment for the freelance writer for that 20K - 40K word document is only $200 or less when you finally are paid.

That tiny payment takes days to weeks to procure depending on when the company responds. Your only contact is through email.

The writer’s payment of $200 is only 1% of the $20K payment the company receives from the client.

They won’t pay hourly. Instead, they pay a small flat fee without promise to meet a certain amount. Then, the freelance ghostwriter can never take credit for the written work per the non-disclosure nor admit they worked for said company.

The client remains clueless about which ghostwriter has written their book as they’ve talked with different people on the phone. It’s a confusing process for the client and the writer. Freelancer writers are warned not to speak directly to the “author” client after interviewing them by phone or in person even if the client has questions, clarifications, or additional stories for the book.

At first, our tipster didn’t even know which company she was working for—she had to puzzle it out based on clues dropped in conversations with the clients. She received small online payments from the company through a third party intermittently as she turned in work. She was hired through Craigslist without an interview, based solely on her resume. After a few initial phone calls with the company, all subsequent communication came through a generic email.

Our tipster thinks that the “company” she worked for was really just two or three people, acting as middlemen. They charge clients as much as $25,000 for a book of under 200 pages created using readily available online tools; the writers who do the time-consuming work of getting the ideas from the clients and turning them into an actual text are paid an absurdly tiny amount. Sometimes, clients might get an experienced writer. Other times, they might get an inexperienced college kid just trying to make some extra cash, and end up waiting many months for their crappy finished product, for which they had already paid a huge fee up front.

Some of these author “clients” are wealthy and famous. Some are poor but are hoping to make their money back by having a best seller. None of these books will be best sellers. The independent publishing platform is crowded...

For $10 extra on Amazon, you can assign yourself an imprint. So, if I publish a book, for $10 extra I can call myself Hamilton Publications and no one knows I’m not a real publishing entity. It is quite fascinating.

What “author” clients don’t realize is that they can upload a document and publish a book themselves for free. Most of them don’t know that fact.

The truth is that some of these people should not be publishing books. They’re not authors. They have a line or a brief idea that they think should be a book. Sometimes I receive an idea of a sentence and have create a book. It ends up becoming a lot of filler and fiction to fill the 160 pages. Unless it’s memoir with an incredible story, there’s sometimes little to work with so that’s where you need talent to write a story with a beginning, middle and end. The way I approached it was that every chapter had to have a beginning, middle and end so I enhanced my projects. I also wanted to be paid for my work and they were too money hungry, unwilling to pay even 10% of their take. To pay 1% was unconscionable.

The tiny pay for the work came after a bit of a bait-and-switch. At first, our tipster was paid a respectable hourly wage to conduct an interview with a client. Once she’d transcribed the interview, the company offered her a flat fee of under $200 for a lengthy and detailed outline of a potential book. Desperate for money, our tipster continued the work, but found her pay gradually shrinking as time went on: her next interview with a client was twice as long, and she produced two book outlines rather than one, but the company offered her roughly the same measly payment.

After disputes with the company about her fee, our tipster finally left to pursue ghostwriting gigs on her own. She now gets paid more for a single chapter than she did for an entire book working for the company she found on Craigslist. Her prices for a completed book are far lower than the company charge, but her own pay is more than ten times what she was earning.

The lesson here, I guess, is that middlemen provide little value and tend to rip off both their customers and their employees. Also: if you’re going to spend thousands of dollars hiring a ghostwriter, make sure you carefully vet them first, and make sure that they’re providing you with something you can’t easily get much cheaper with a little Googling.

As our tipster says: “Behind every author’s name... buyer beware.”

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]