Thursday, June 01, 2006

Ghostwriting for beginners

If I was forty years younger, still in my twenties, and if I was afflicted by that absurd ambition to write books for a living, I hope I would have enough good sense to realise that the only practical way forward would be to become a ghostwriter.

And, since this post is headed Ghostwriting for beginners, let me explain that a ghostwriter is someone who writes a book which has someone else's name on the cover -- usually someone who is already well known to the public. Such books are normally but not exclusively non-fiction.

Ghostwriting goes back a long way, chiefly in terms of autobiography. Many and many a celebrity has written their life story through the simple expedient of spending three days in a hotel with a writer and a tape recorder. The writer then goes off and puts the book together, and the celebrity does the chat shows and the interviews.

In America it is sometimes the case that these books carry a formal acknowledgement of the ghost's work. So Joan Rivers's first-person Still Talking says that it was written 'with Richard Meryman' (who did a terrific job of capturing Joan's voice, by the way). But in the UK we tend not to do that: so Geri Halliwell's If Only does not give any clue that it was actually written by Michael Robotham. After doing some fourteeen high-profile autobiographies, Robotham later wrote a novel, The Suspect, under his own name.

Even in fiction, ghosting goes back a long way. One piece of entirely useless information which sticks in my mind is the fact that stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-string Murders (1941) was actually written for her by Craig Rice. Craig has fans of her own, one of whom has told the story. She also ghosted a novel for the actor George Sanders: Crime on My Hands (1944).

Other ghosted novels from past decades include the Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt mystery series; this phenomenon was fully and usefully discussed in 2002, by Jon Breen, in the Weekly Standard, where the morality of it was questioned.

I've been meaning to write about the process of ghosting for quite some time, and this may not be my last word on the subject. But for today I am prompted to comment by an article in Publishers Weekly (link from Galleycat).

The PW article makes it clear that the contemporary ghosting business is booming, and is here to stay. Unless you are a complete beginner in the book world, you cannot fail to have noticed that the current business is celebrity orientated. The industry lives and dies on publicity, and celebrities love that stuff. If they last any length of time they also get to be damn good at it. The only trouble is, many of them have difficulty signing their name, let alone writing anything longer. Hence the need for ghosts.

We now discover, courtesty of PW, that Madeleine Morel, an English expat based in New York, has set up a literary agency which handles ghost writers and naught else. Between them, Morel's clients have written seven New York Times non-fiction bestsellers in the past two years, three of which have reached number one. They have also produced scores of other books which haven't done quite so well but which have generated a very reasonable income.

Before you rush off to offer your services, you do need to remember that, to be successful, a ghost writer needs a remarkable range of skills.

First, you need to be able to write -- which is not a common accomplishment, though the belief that one has the talent is widespread indeed.

Next, you need to be able to work fast. And I mean fast. MFA princesses who spend the whole morning worrying over where to put a comma need not apply.

Third, you need to be able to adapt to the, shall we say, idiosyncratic ways of the average celebrity.

You need to be able to make some fine judgement calls as to how much you can embellish and expect to get away with, without generating a James Frey-type scandal.

You have to be genuinely and entirely satisfied with taking the money and none of the fame. You have to be willing to sit there calmly while Nicole Richie swears on a stack of bibles that she actually did write every word of her novel.

And finally, when things go wrong, you must expect to be blamed for everything. For example, Roy Keane, then captain of the Manchester United football team, 'wrote' an autobiography in which he described how he got his own back on another player who had earlier displeased him. Keane tackled the man with the deliberate intention of injuring him. In fact, when you watch the film of the incident, you might be forgiven for thinking that Keane intended to put the man into a wheelchair for life.

In the autobiography, Keane described his intentions thus: 'I'd waited almost 180 minutes for Alfie... I'd waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there, I think. Take that, you cunt.'

The autobiographical description of this infamous tackle generated a good deal of comment, and it became the subject of a formal inquiry by the Football Association. At that inquiry, the ghost writer claimed that he had made up all these direct quotations. Keane, for his part, said that he had never read the book. To the FA, however, and to everyone else, the ghosted description of the tackle sounded all too much like the authentic voice of Roy Keane, and they fined him £150,000. In my opinion, Keane was lucky not to face criminal charges.

Before we finish this short review of ghostwriting, for the present at least, let me say that I see no convincing objection to the arrangement, at least in principle, and at least in the field of non-fiction. There are plenty of people who have huge experience in certain fields, and who have a great deal of useful knowledge to impart, but who are either incapable of putting it down on paper themselves, or lack the time. The ghost writer therefore undertakes a valuable service.

The situation is less clear cut in fiction, and there are certainly those who consider it immoral for someone to pose as the author of a book which is not entirely theirs. However, provided the celebrity makes a contribution to the novel (and I emphasise that bit), I myself am in favour of it.

Why? Because I consider that all fiction is purely and simply a source of entertainment -- even the highbrow bits. Fiction, at its best, can make you laugh and make you cry. But that's it. It is not a good source of information on how to fry eggs or run a business. It does not offer a good guide on how to live your life, and those turning to it for philosophical or religious enlightenment are in the wrong place.

If you want an example of how fiction collaboration might work in practice, consider the case of Stella Rimington. Dame Stella, a former head of MI5, has massive experience of world affairs in general and of espionage in particular. What she doesn't have is any experience in writing a novel. Somewhere along the line, after her retirement, she either dreamed up the idea of writing a novel herself, or was talked into it by an agent. This led to the publication of a thriller called At Risk, in which she acknowledged the help of Luke Jennings, who is a thriller writer himself. In interviews Dame Stella described how their collaboration worked.

If you read the linked interview, you will see that Dame Stella claimed that she did the first drafting herself. But I can well imagine that, in other collaborations, the named author's input would mainly take the form of oral information about technical matters, anecdotes about incidents and characters, and general background colour. The celebrity and the professional writer would then agree on a plot outline, and the pro would do the actual writing. And in practice there would be many variations on the basic model.

Given the present state of big-time publishing, with its capitalist aim of generating profits (to which I do not object), such a division of labour seems to me to be logical. And those who consider that the person whose name is on the cover should write every word of the text might bear in mind that any printed book, even the most literary, is already a joint effort.

Writers do not, by and large, do their own cover design or typesetting: certainly not when published by the big firms, anyway; and both of those factors play a part in a book's success. Neither do the named authors drive the van that delivers the book to Waterstone's. So what's the big deal about using a celebrity to front the thing? In today's world it makes perfect sense.

Personally I have no problems with it, and I just wish I were young enough to give it a go. But I dare say there are those who take a different view. All I can say about the moral arguments is that the deception -- if deception there be -- is a very trivial one compared with, for example, the sins of food labelling. Or those adverts outside theatres which say 'Amazing -- Daily Express', when actually what the Express said was 'It is amazing that such a lousy play should ever have been put on.'

One could write a whole book about ghostwriting, and several people have. Type the word into the amazon search facility, and take your pick.

Online there is a variety of information, as suggested above, but for additional stuff you could start with Sarah Weinman's valuable case study from 2004: The Ballad of Michael Gruber.

Should you ever be offered a ghostwriting contract, remember that the small print here is even more vital than usual. But of that, perhaps, more another day.

44 comments:

JodyTresidder said...

For a gorgeously funny novel about ghostwriting - (especially for GOB because its humor has a cousinly resemblance to Marina Lewycka's GOB-endorsed "A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian") please, please grab "Cooking with Fernet Branca" by James Hamilton-Paterson.

Finished "Cooking With..." only yesterday. Michael Dibdin, J. G. Ballard and Barry Humphries all adored it (2004 Man Booker nominee). It will just make you beam.

Dave Hill said...

Some years ago I was approached by the agent of football manager and TV pundit Terry Venables to ghost his autobiography. I was pleased to be asked even though Pete Davies had already turned him down. I soon worked out why. Venables's agent was an oily little twerp who 'interviewed' me from the far side of half a mile of polished desk top to ascertain if my character was suitable. Then we went to El Tel's Kensington drinking club to meet The Man. I found Venables as charming as most people do until, in some cases, they get to know him better. But as his agent took me through the absurdly complex financial arrangements to which I would have been required to subject myself it bugged me more and more that they wouldn't say how much the publisher has already given Venables. This meant I couldn't know how much of his pie I would be getting. I had, in any case, a moral objection to the customary ghosting arrangement whereby the star gets most of the money and the ghost - who does all the work - gets a lot less. Anyway, they wouldn't tell me what they'd been paid and I was also getting the feeling that Venables's main reason for wanting to do the book was to shaft Alan Sugar, with whom he'd fallen out during their time together at Tottenham. So I baled out and another writer was hired as ghost. When the book came out it swiftly (as I recall) attracted a writ from Sugar and disappeared from bookshop shelves, never to return. I think I did the right thing, though I suppose there might have been a book in it.

crabbycows said...

I am currently considering doing a ghost novel for someone. It is a hard decision.

I do think though, that my answer will be no. Forever holding my peace does not sit well.

#1.

roger said...

I'd do it. So on the off-chance Jordan reads your blog, GOB, I'm offering my services via this comment.

Jpatrick said...

I'd like to know who the ghostwriter(s) a(we)re for William Shatner's books. Surely Bill Shatner didn't write those himself.

Susan Abraham said...

And on another note, Mr. Allen, I remember being to quite a few celebrity signings in London last year. Some were enormously gracious while a few unexpected ones threw their weight around. I remember a really elderly American star in particular, who was decked in jewels and demanded to be worshipped even as you approached her with the autobiography in question. I do of course, get it that they take all the credit. At times like, the ghostwriter has to choose another haunt.
regards

Anonymous said...

If I caught the misuse of "was" in the beginning of the article...remember subjunctives???
would I make a good ghostwriter?

Shalanna Collins said...

Jpatrick, Ron Goulart is commonly believed to be Shatner's ghostwriter.

I wish I could get into the biz. I can crank out the pages quickly, but nobody wants to read the kinds of stories I write. I wouldn't object to froofing up some airheaded celeb's life.

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Julie-Ann Amos said...

I and my team do provide ghostwriting services, at a far more modest scale than people usually believe this "industry" commands. Celebrity books that have been ghostwritten are few and far between compared to the thousands comissioned with companies like mine every day by unknown or little known names.

I've become infuriated with all the talk of huge sums of money for celebrity books being called "the ghostwriting industry". That's like calling the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost "the automotive industry". So yes, I've published my own book on ghostwriting, "The Secret World of Ghostwriters - and how to work with one". To some extent it was to make a point.

That ANYONE can, nowadays write a book and get it to print. It's self created in toto. Including cartoons drawn in house (and copyright credited), the cover designed, and the book typset, laid out, formatted and made print ready in house. The manuscript was proofread in house and we even wrote out own press release and released it online. It's online at Amazon and my own website only.

If any rich celebrities would like us to work with them, provided they accept being treated just the same as every other client that trusts us with their work, sadly we'll even "drive the van to Waterstones for them" (or at least my Alfa estate) - for a fee. But sadly, the REAL world of ghostwritng just isn't that glamorous. It's just a job like any other. Ask any office worker writing drafts or reports, research papers etc...

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jones said...

Thank you. How does one begin the process of becoming a ghost writer?

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wine production said...

I can well imagine that, in other collaborations, the named author's input would mainly take the form of oral information about technical matters, anecdotes about incidents and characters, and general background colour.

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I've been meaning to write about the process of ghosting for quite some time, and this may not be my last word on the subject

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Anonymous said...

Love this article. Resonate with every word. I transitioned to ghostwriting six years ago (oh freedom!) and have 22 fine books under my belt so far with many more lined up. Some people paid me $100,000, others half that. It is, after all, "let's make a deal" time. But this is such a wonderful profession, I cant begin to tell you...well actually I can! There are also other revenue stream...al my authors also paid me another $5000 or so a month for major national public relations.
Why" Because writing the book is just half the equation. Marketing your book is the other half, which few people adequately prepare for, as they should.

Of course even working together my writing partner, even as the multiple NYT best-selling author that he is, can't keep up with the demand, since a book is the ultimate marieting tool and everyone wants in. To match would-be authors and those who want to help them birth their books I formed www.ghostbooksters.com, which juat went live. If anyone is interested, I have written quite a few "Ghost Posts" that I believe would be instructive, whether you are a prospective author who needs book collaboration or a writer he or she might want to work with.

I added this site to my favorites...hope you will do the same for mine. Kudos to all in this field. We are the champions!

Judy Katz...judy@ghostbooksters.com

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Corey Michael Blake said...

When it comes to non fiction ghost-writing, I highly recommend you consider another approach, that of editorial guide vs. ghost writer. See my 8 reasons NOT to hire a ghost writer at www.writersoftheroundtable.com.

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I'd like to know who the ghostwriter(s) a(we)re for William Shatner's books. Surely Bill Shatner didn't write those himself.

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Alisia said...

Great post! But I still think that ghostwriting services are not very good. Writing is meant to discover your inner part or to test your knowledge of something (foreign language, the ability to analyze, the knowledge of grammar and lexis etc.) Buying pieces of writing from a ghostwriter you cheat on yourself. You cannot clearly evaluate yourself your abilities.

mike said...

Replying to previous comment. The most valuable resource nowadays is time and we should save time whenever it is possible. I agree that ghostwriting is not always for the good but it really helps. For example to save time for master’s project when a ghostwriter does some minor tasks. In blogging it is inevitable. When you lead a well read blog you cannot let yourself post too seldom but you don’t have time for that for some reason (baby, study, illness) so hiring a ghostwriter is the only way out.

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