Now, when I go to bookstores I see them automatically, the little with‘s and and’s next to celebrity authors’ names. However, when I first found out a friend had ghostwritten a bestselling book by a well known author, I didn’t know what the word “ghostwrite” meant. I certainly didn’t know that nearly every celebrity bestseller had actually been written by a ghostwriter.
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What is a Ghostwriter?
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of a ghostwriter is:
a person who writes one or numerous speeches, books, articles, etc. for another person who is named or presumed to be the author.
Okay, but what does that really mean?
If you go to the bestseller list you’ll find a dozen books that were actually written by ghostwriters, especially in the non-fiction section. Tom Clancy? He works with ghostwriters. James Patterson? Yep. How else do you think he’s able to release six books a year? When Sheryl Sandburg, the COO of Facebook, published her bestselling book Lean In, she used a ghostwriter, too.
How about President Obama, Hilary Clinton, Mariano Rivera, and Snooki? Yes, they used ghostwriters to write their books, too. Those people don’t have time to write a book! (Especially, Snooki. That makeup doesn’t do itself!)
(Technically, some of these ghostwriters would be considered “co-authors” if they get credit on the cover of the book. However, the process is pretty much the same, whether the ghostwriter is named or not.)
Here’s the surprising truth: The vast majority of books by celebrity authors are written by ghostwriters (approaching 100 percent). The question is, is it ethical? (share that on Twitter?)
Is Ghostwriting Ethical
For the last three years, ghostwriting has been my primary job. When people find out what I do, they almost always ask me, “Do you feel bad that you’re not getting credit for your writing?”
My answer: no, I don’t feel bad about being a ghostwriter at all, for two reasons:
First, it’s not my idea. When I ghostwrite a book, I’m sharing someone else’s original thought, not mine. They came up with the content. Also, most of my clients are fantastic public speakers, people who have been talking about their ideas for ten years or more. My job is just to take their life message and put it into book form. Honestly, it’s a great job, because for each book I write, I feel like I get to sit at the feet of a world class expert and soak up their knowledge.
Second, ghostwriting allows me to get paid for my writing. Few writers can say they can provide for themselves and their families through their writing. Would I prefer to live off my own books? Sure, which is why I still do my own writing at the same time. However, ghostwriting has been a great way to apprentice myself to the craft, not to mention learn from some pretty amazing people.
When Ghostwriting Gets Sketchy
Of course, there are certain situations where I don’t think ghostwriting is ethical.
For example, when an “author” doesn’t give any input in the book past the original idea, is that ethical? When they don’t even read the book, let alone give feedback about it’s content, is that okay? In my opinion, that’s not an ethical way to approach ghostwriting.
Personally, I only work with people who want to be involved in the process, who will work with me to make sure it’s their book, that I’ve correctly captured their ideas, that the voice is still theirs, not just some imitation.
How to Become a Ghostwriter
How do you become a ghostwriter?
That’s a tricky question. All the ghostwriters I know got into it accidentally, and my story is no different. I was helping a mentor edit his book. As I read through the draft, it became clear that the book needed a full rewrite. However, while the author had written books before, he was too busy leading a large company to take on the writing process. And so I offered to do it for him.
How can you become a ghostwriter, though?
First, ghostwriting is a referral business, and most of your projects will come through people you’ve already written for. The real question is how do you get your first job. Here are a few ideas:
- Network. Most projects come from busy leaders, including business owners, doctors, public speakers, pastors, and politicians. If you tell enough of these sorts of people you’re a writer, a few of them may tell you they’re working on a book. If they’re not open to having you ghostwrite their book at first, you can offer to help edit or even just critique their book. Who knows? It might turn into your first project.
- Write in multiple different genres. If you just write fiction, write a few good non-fiction pieces. Reach out to your local newspaper and ask if there’s a chance you could work on some freelance project on spec (meaning you’d only get paid if they printed the piece).
- Start a blog. Showcase your best writing in public. Your blog is your resume.
- Don’t write for free, but don’t overcharge either. You can research how much ghostwriters charge online. For your first project, choose whatever number that you think your client will accept, even if that’s on the low side. Remember, you’ll be able to charge much more for your second book.
- Consider charging hourly. Most ghostwriters charge on a per project basis, but for your first book, if your client is open to it, consider charging hourly. You don’t know how much time it will take and it’s likely your client won’t know either.
- Ask agents. Agents are often approached by people looking for ghostwriters. If you know any agents, why not ask them if they have any advice about how to get into ghostwriting. Perhaps they’ll give you an assignment, or even a chance to write a proposal for a new book, which, if accepted, you could be hired to write.
How Do You Ghostwrite a Book?
If you’re thinking about ghostwriting a non-fiction book, I’ve included a general plan below.
Note that this plan is best when you’re working with an author who already has a message, especially with authors who do public speaking. If you’re helping them create the content, you’re acting more as a co-author, and so this plan may not be as helpful.
1. What is the Book About?
Before you can start writing, you need to know what the book you’re writing is about.
The first step, then, is to collaborate with the author to create an outline of his or her book. You should also ask the author to recommend several similar titles which you can read as research. (And if they say there are no books like the one they want to write, they probably aren’t reading enough. In this case, find similar titles on your own.)
2. Collect Written and Recorded Materials
Many authors will already have recordings of speeches, lectures, sermons, or other talks. Collect as many of these recordings as you can, especially recordings that apply to your topic.
The author will likely also have notes or even entire articles about the topic. Make sure to collect these as well.
3. Record Interviews
Interviewing your author is a ghostwriter’s most important task. An hourlong interview can make up an entire chapter in a non-fiction book. The better your questions and the more you can draw out of your client about the content of their book during the interview process, the easier the actual writing will be.
Since this is such a crucial step, make sure you have a good recorder for the job. And don’t forget to have a backup recorder as well. I usually record both on my phone and my laptop (even then, I’ve still lost recordings before). If you’re interviewing your client over phone, you can call them using skype and record it using Call Recorder.
4. Transcribe your Interviews
Next, transcribe the recorded interviews from audio to text. Transcribing is a time consuming process. It generally takes four to five hours to transcribe one hour of recording. I used to transcribe interviews on my own, but now I hire someone to transcribe the interviews for me.
5. Rewrite and Edit
The transcriptions of your interviews will become the backbone of your book, which is why it’s so important to get a good interview. You will likely have to do a lot of re-writing and editing to make it fit into a book format, but as you rewrite, make sure to maintain the author’s voice.
Your job isn’t to write a perfect book. Your job is to write your client’s book.
6. Author Review
Once the initial draft is written, give it to the author for feedback. Work with the author to make sure the book sounds like them. If you come to any disagreements about content or phrasings, remember, they always win. It’s their book, not yours.
7. Copyediting, Proofreading, and Beta Reading
As with any book, it will require a lot of editing to make it ready for publication. Here’s a good guide on how to edit until your book is finished.
Ghostwriting Can be Art
There’s something powerful about helping someone share their message with the world.
Ghostwriting is a bit like being a surrogate mother. You have to do the hard work of bearing the message and bringing the book into the world. Then, when it’s finally finished, you have to say goodbye. Still, even then, there’s this lingering feeling that it’s your baby.
Ghostwriting requires sacrifice. You may have to sacrifice your creative freedom and right to credit. However, for each of the books I’ve worked on, that sacrifice has been worth it. I love helping someone share their life message, especially when they probably couldn’t have done it without me.
Besides, when people ask me what I do for work at parties, I never get tired of explaining the strange, secret world of ghostwriting!
More Ghostwriting Resources:
Ghostwriting is just writing someone else’s story and capturing their life message, someone who might not be able to write it for themselves. But you don’t need to be a ghostwriter to do that.
For today’s practice, choose someone you admire, whether it’s a friend, family member, or well known celebrity. Then, write a short story about their life from their perspective. Afterward, you may even want to share it with them!
Write for fifteen minutes.When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you share, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.
"Behind the title of ghostwriter, I could converse with kings and billionaires as easily as whores and the homeless, go backstage with rock stars and actors. I could stick my nose into everyone else's business and ask all the impertinent questions I wanted to. At the same time, I could also live the pleasant life of a writer… "
Next week, in an exceedingly rare departure from a lifetime of tight-lipped professional discretion, Andrew Crofts, one of Britain's most invisible and yet successful writers, a bestseller you will never have heard of, will step out of the shadows and lift the veil on a trade that's almost as old as that other ancient calling. With a bit of skirt-lifting, and more than a hint of saucy revelations, Confessions of a Ghostwriter will be a timely publication.
There's an old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. Today, perhaps, that conventional wisdom has rarely had more meaning. To a degree that might astonish the reading public, a significant percentage of any current bestseller list will not have been written by the authors whose names appear on the jackets.
Among the many mysteries of the British book world, none is quite so opaque as the life of the ghostwriter, the invisible man or woman who fulfils the vanity of those who want their name on the cover of a book but who, for the life of them, cannot write.
You may not know it, but literary ghosts are everywhere. In this golden age of reading, publishers desperate for copper-bottomed commercial titles in bestselling genres – misery memoir, sporting lives and celebrity autobiography – will not hesitate to sign up surrogate authors.
Behind such brand names as Sir Alex Ferguson, Jordan, Andy McNab and Victoria Beckham lurks the shy figure of the ghost. Sometimes, there is no deception. Keith Richards's Life was written by James Fox. Katie Price (aka Jordan) boasts that she does not do her own typing, and relied on Rebecca Farnworth to launch her career as a novelist with Angel. Further down the food chain, even the infuriating meerkat from the comparethemarket.com adverts has had A Simples Life put together by Val Hudson, formerly of Headline books.
The top category of ghosted titles remains the misery memoir, books such as Tell Me Why, Mummy or Please, Daddy, No, or Sharon Osbourne's Extreme: My Autobiography. At its peak, this genre accounted for almost 10% of the UK book market, closely followed by celebrity autobiographies (Russell Brand's My Booky Wook), true-crime memoirs (Dave Courtney's Stop the Ride, I Want to Get Off), sporting lives (Wayne Rooney's My Story So Far) and tales of derring-do (Bruce Parry, Bear Grylls, et al).
Ghostwriting in the English-speaking world is big business. The term was coined by an American, Christy Walsh, who set up the Christy Walsh Syndicate in 1921 to exploit the literary output of America's sporting heroes. Walsh not only commissioned his ghosts, he imposed a strict code of conduct on their pallid lives. Rule one: "Don't insult the intelligence of the public by claiming these men write their own stuff."
Walsh's code lingers. The acknowledgments page of many ghosted books will thank partners, children, even family pets, before making a discreet, sometimes grudging, nod to the invisible man or woman who quarried the angel from the marble. Alternatively, and more transparently, the book will be credited "as told to", or "written with", or "edited by".
Those innocuous phrases often mask a world of private pain: tearful interviews, angry confrontations, threats of violence, shocking revelations and interminable waiting, waiting, waiting. In France, ghosts are known as nègres, and there is a kind of slavery implicit in this transaction. The ghost's world may be one of jeopardy, but it's probably less perilous than it is depicted in Robert Harris's thriller The Ghost, a book credited by many with outing the ghost's tradecraft.
As with any book, the struggles of the ghosted book are all to do with love and money. First, there's the inevitable contract tussle. Traditionally, the ghost receives 33% of the advance (plus royalties). In recession, this has been squeezed to as little as 10%, a figure the better class of ghost will disdain.
Often, battles over the money pale into insignificance next to the titanic clash of egos involved in taking on another's voice and character.Some ghosts, who generally speak on conditions of anonymity, report that the subject they approach with utter dread is the fragile personality with pretensions to authorship.
Who, after all, is not vulnerable to the tug of amour-propre? The ghost, who starts out as a hybrid of therapist, muse and friend, enters a psychological minefield. Accordingly, the ghost is advised never to forget that, at the end of the day, he or she ranks somewhere between a valet and a cleaner.
I recall, some years ago, a female pop star attending a book trade prize-giving for which her ghosted bestselling memoir had been shortlisted. Before this honour, she boasted she hadn't even opened, still less actually read, the book that bore her name. When she duly won, she left her ghost at the table and graciously collected her prize, all smiles, modesty and gratitude, the model author. When she returned to her publisher's table, the woman who had actually written the book reached out, instinctively, to touch the trophy. Bad move. The star snatched it back, clouting her ghost across the cheek to remind her who was boss. When you pay the piper, you call the tune.
Crofts has written some 80 books, sold more than 10m copies and appeared a dozen times in UK bestseller lists. In a rare interview with the Observer, Crofts described some 40 years of ghosting. An easygoing, youthful man in his early 60s, Crofts was educated at Lancing College, but says he was "too arrogant" for university, and stumbled into ghostwriting because, he says, "I didn't want to have a permanent job".
Ghosts, notes Crofts, lead episodic lives: "It's a perfect arrangement. You get the commission, have the adventure – anywhere from a palace to a brothel – and return to the security of your own home." Crofts is a child of the 1960s who seems to have transformed a secret vagrancy into a way of life. At 17, on leaving school, he nurtured vague literary ambitions, wrote a novel ("more Robert Harris than Virginia Woolf"), suffered the inevitable rejection and began writing PR copy. With typical English self-deprecation, he describes himself as "an opportunistic hack" who would "do anything I got paid for". When pressed, however, he admits to taking pride in his craftsmanship and in having made "a good living as a writer for 40 years".
When he started, he recalls, "'ghostwriting' was a dirty word". In 1984, with the chutzpah of youth, he launched himself in business. His approach was simple and direct. He placed a three-word ad – "Ghostwriter for hire" – in The Bookseller, and waited for the phone to ring.
Crofts was lucky, with impeccable timing. Book publishing would be turned inside out by the IT revolution. Ghostwriting, similarly, was transformed by the web. "The internet made all the difference", says Crofts, who was one of the first ghosts to launch his own website. Now, he gets three or four approaches a day. "I'm writing all the time," he says.
Under his own name, and from a certain pride in his trade, he went on to publish Ghostwriting, a how-to manual. When Robert Harris read this as part of his research for The Ghost, he sought permission to quote some of Crofts's obiter dicta ("Of all the advantages that ghosting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunity to meet people of interest") as chapter-heads. The Ghost, says Crofts, was "a gift from the gods. Harris did us all a huge favour."
Since 2007, Crofts has become the ghost's ghost, the go-to spook in a now-booming market. "I charge a lot," he admits, and concedes that his fees average six figures. Crofts, who currently earns more than most professional UK writers, is sought after by overseas celebrities, politicians and stars, especially in India. He also works with Russians, Africans, Arabs, and South Americans. "Everyone loves London," he says. "This is soft power in action. London is seen as the home of publishing, a place that's kosher, where Dickens walked the streets."
His rule for accepting a new client is that they must have a good backstory. He took on Alexandra Burke (of TheX-Factor) because of her mother's career sacrifice. "She was in hospital watching her daughter on TV, living her life," he says, and confides a special interest in tales of childhood abuse. Sold, the shocking rape story of Zana Muhsen, has shifted 5m copies and, Crofts believes, created a new market for books such as Jane Elliott's The Little Prisoner. Crofts also took on Big Brother's Pete Bennett, an acute Tourette's sufferer, out of respect for "an extraordinarily attractive character", and ghosted Pete: My Story, another bestseller.
Is there anything he wouldn't do? "I have to be interested", he says, conceding that he could happily coexist with monsters. "I have a horrible feeling that if I'd got the call from Germany in the 1930s I would have hopped on that plane like a Mitford."