As far as the writing goes, there’s no difference, really. But in your association with your client, there’s a world of difference.
Whether you’re the ghostwriter or co-author of a book, your job is to work with your client to get her messages across. It’s a collaboration. You may take her input and write the entire book yourself, if you’re given this degree of freedom. Or it may end up a back and forth process: she gives you a rough draft, which you modify and send back. She makes changes and additions and returns it. You edit her changes and add new material. And so it continues, each of you taking a turn until the final draft is done and both of you are satisfied with the end result. As a co-author or ghostwriter, you follow this process. Or you develop whatever writing and revising process works best for you and your client.
Where the difference comes in is how your client regards you. If you are the invisible, unknown writer behind the scenes, you’re technically a ghostwriter. If you are a publicly known collaborator with the author, then you’re considered a co-author.
The biggest distinction between the two roles involves a not so trivial matter called confidentiality. Some authors who hire professional writers don’t want others to know they’re getting help. It’s a matter of image or perception. For any number of reasons, there’s a genuine need to be perceived as the sole creator of the book. These authors will seek out ghostwriters who know how to be discreet. For other authors, confidentiality isn’t an issue, so having a visible co-author is perfectly acceptable.
A ghostwriter, then, must be adept at working behind the scenes. He must take confidentiality seriously, which means he can’t tell people who he’s writing for – he’s not allowed to disclose the name of his client or the specifics of the project. When the book is published, he can’t claim any ownership or association. On his resume he can state generalities such as, “Ghostwrote a book about new gardening techniques.” But he can’t divulge the title of the book or the name of the author.
With a co-author, secrecy is not required. Since the co-author’s name is listed on the cover right next to the author’s name, there’s no need to hide the collaboration. On her resume, the co-author is free to list the book title and author.
Before you embark on a book collaboration with a new client, find out what the confidentiality expectations are. Can you talk openly about the project, or does your client fully expect you to keep things under wraps – forever? Knowing these conditions beforehand will keep you from putting your foot in your mouth and ruining your reputation. As a professional writer, it’s your job to work out all terms, including confidentiality and whether you’re considered a ghostwriter or a co-author, before you start writing.