Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows

From Publishers Weekly:

When Penguin Random House announced in July that it would be publishing a memoir by Prince Harry, there was one name that was, conspicuously and appropriately, left off the press release. The man channeling the Duke of Sussex’s voice for the book, J.R. Moehringer, was nowhere to be found among the details the publisher released. But those in the industry know that Moehringer, one of the highest-profile ghostwriters working, will be an essential component in the royal’s book—even if his name never appears on the final product.

Ghostwriting, or “collaborating” as it’s now called, is nothing new. For as long as celebrities have been writing books, others have quietly helped them do it. It’s highly specialized work that requires a blend of skills; industry sources say the best collaborators are equal parts editor, reporter, writer, mimic, and shrink. And in today’s industry, where publishers are more and more reliant on nonfiction projects by authors with significant platforms, good collaborators are in higher demand than ever. It’s also the kind of work, very handsomely paid at the high end, which is appealing to a growing population: writers, journalists, and editors.

Madeleine Morel, a literary agent who’s spent her career representing ghostwriters (they’re the only clients at her company 2M Communications Ltd., which is over 20 years old), said that, in the past, “talking about ghostwriting was a bit like sheepishly admitting you’d done internet dating.” No longer.

The growing demand for celebrity books (coupled with the increasing presence in publishing of Hollywood-backed talent firms like Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, and United Talent Agency), has created a greater need for high-level ghostwriters. Morel believes this has led to a turning point: “I always say it’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the best because there’s more collaborative work out there than ever, and it’s the worst because there are more collaborators out there than ever.” She cited a number of writers who have, in the past five to 10 years, turned to ghostwriting as other avenues have dried up—former midlist authors, former long-form journalists whose newspapers or magazines have closed, and former editors who’ve lost jobs to consolidation.

So how many high-level ghostwriters are there? When asked about collaborators like Moehringer, who’s rumored to command seven figures per project (and who’s written two critically acclaimed nonfiction books of his own and has a couple of Pulitzers for reporting), Morel noted they are “few and far between.” Insiders cited a handful of other authors with well-established literary pedigrees like Moehringer who occasionally moonlight as ghostwriters.

. . . .

Below the top tier of collaborators, there are a handful of well-regarded writers who make a very handsome living as ghosts. Morel estimated that the “best of the best”—meaning ghostwriters with a number of bestselling books by high-profile figures on their résumés—includes 20–30 people, “maybe up to 50.” One high-level industry professional, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that good ghosts can make anywhere between $100,000 and $300,000 per year. Morel said the average ghostwriting project for her clients pays $75,000–$100,000 and usually takes about six months. While projects differ, most ghostwriters tend to get paid a flat fee. (Some can, and do, demand a percentage of the advance, and/or books sales, but sources said this is less common.)

Gail Ross, a veteran literary agent at the Washington, D.C.–based Ross Yoon Agency, who estimated that half of the books she sells require a collaborator, wouldn’t endorse the notion that ghostwriters have necessarily grown in influence or stature in recent years. She claimed they’ve always been “very, very important.” But it is true, she went on, “that back in the day no one wanted to say they used a collaborator or ghostwriter, and now it’s totally respected. It’s also acknowledged by most people [who use collaborators] that it’s the only way they could get their book done.”

Will Lippincott, a senior agent at Aevitas Creative Management, said that in the past three years he’s done more business with “collaborative agents and their writers than in the prior 10.” Estimating that 25%–30% of his projects have “a collaborator attached at some point,” Lippincott said these specialists are either brought in at the proposal stage (and help the author craft that) or after the book is sold. He believes the work they do is “being valued at a higher level” than ever.

The rise of the term collaborator within publishing speaks to the respect ghostwriters command from others working behind the scenes. As one industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, the term ghostwriter “implies subterfuge,” which they called “problematic.” The work is, they went on, totally “above board” and there’s “no reason to hide it.”

“I love ghostwriters,” said Anthony Mattero, an agent at CAA. Estimating that there are 50–100 top ghostwriters who do two-to-three books per year and “always work with the biggest names,” he said he believes the change in nomenclature speaks to a shift in understanding about what ghostwriters actually do. “In the past it was, ‘You talk and I’ll write.’ Now I think [collaborators] have more engagement with the process.” He added that, as an agent, he knows he needs great collaborators who are fully invested in order for projects to work. “We want them to like the idea and be invested in the creative process.”

. . . .

Morel said she often has to insist on a clause that allows her ghostwriters to be able to put their projects on their résumés. Because ghostwriters are often privy to private details about the lives of their famous subjects, NDA-style agreements are standard parts of their contracts. In short, it’s a bit like Fight Club—ghostwriters can rarely say whom they’ve worked with, much less what they’ve discussed with those people.

For many, though not all, ghostwriters, this is as it should be. One who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed a desire to have their work more out in the open. “I’ll generally ask for a ‘with’ credit and often get turned down,” they said. “I’d love to be on the cover of all of them. It would be easier for me to talk about the books and be out there promoting them.”

Hilary Liftin, a long-time ghostwriter who has 13 bestsellers to her name, said that when she started, it was assumed things written by ghostwriters “were somehow subpar or hackey.” While this has unquestionably changed within the industry, it may not be true for the general public.

Liftin prefers not to be mentioned on her book covers, but would like to see any negative perceptions about collaboration dispelled. “I don’t want to be on the jacket for aesthetic reasons and because I’m not trying to be a famous ghostwriter,” she said. “I say ghost because I like the word, but I do think as a professional you want to be visible, so I’m usually, but not always, on the title page.”

Another bestselling ghostwriter, Joni Rodgers, said she sometimes feels that everyone knows about her career but no one wants to talk about it. Her comparison? “You know your parents are having sex,” she said, “but you don’t want to hear about it.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

10 thoughts on “Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows”

  1. I’m on my third ghostwriting full-length book project. I highly recommend the cents-per-word model. On my second project, the author suggested he’d provide half the word count. He wrote maybe 600 words. The cents-per-word ensured he paid me for the eventual 65,000 words I wrote.

      • More to the point, how about your copyright interest? Just saying “it’s work-made-for-hire” doesn’t make it so; there are specific requirements in the Copyright Act restricting eligibility to either:

        (i) statutory employees within the scope of their duties (and that means paying benefits, withholding Social Security and Medicare, etc., etc., etc. — and let’s not get started on California/Dynamix as it relates to freelance authors); or

        (ii) a written commission signed by both parties for a work in one of nine specific categories.

        (This toward the end of 17 U.S.C. § 101, the “definitions” section — which includes nowhere near all of the definitions unique to the Copyright Act. The Copyright Act is one of the worst-written parts of the U.S. Code, especially among those adopted in a single legislative action and then later amended; and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition. I’ll pause while you ponder the irony.)

          • Further clarification: If we’re in (ii), those nine specific categories are:

            a contribution to a collective work
            a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
            a translation
            a supplementary work
            a compilation
            an instructional text
            a test
            answer material for a test
            an atlas

            and if it’s not one of those, it’s not eligible to be treated as work made for hire — unless the work is done by a statutory employee in scope of that employee’s duties, that is category (i).

            Notice that “ghostwritten celebrity memoir” (to choose one of many, many obvious examples) doesn’t fit in any of those nine categories. Which have been in effect since 01 Jan 1978. (A collaborative work is not a collective work, also defined elsewhere in the same title as including discrete individual contributed works as part of a “collective whole” published “such as a periodical issue, anthology, or encyclopedia”… implying, but not explicitly stating, that each contribution must have an explicit and accurate attribution of authorship.)

            The less said about media fiction and claims that book-length works of fiction fit in there, the better… and the less likely it will be that my phone rings off the hook with screaming from certain old-fogey lawyers at certain media-conglomerate publishers. Again.

            Finally, for those who claim “well, the parties contracted around a statutory term because it made sense for them to do so,” it’s well established that you can’t contract around an eligibility requirement.

      • I certainly made mistakes.

        On my first ghostwritten book, I’m a co-author based on a handshake deal with an old friend. (insert PG eye roll here).

        #2, I had a proper contract but failed to ensure the author would add my name. He wanted to but the hybrid publisher talked him out of it.

        #3 Proper contract with my name and share of royalties.

    • Most people badly underestimate the amount of work it takes to ‘write a book,’ especially a ‘decent book.’ They think that because they have all the information, and speak the language, it will be a breeze.

      Most people are not really interested in learning how, or in doing that work. The pay is usually low, the hours long, the obstacles formidable – and the final quality could still be crappy.

      But they like to pretend they could if they wanted to. And celebrities often have the money to pretend with, and set the terms to protect that pretension. The world isn’t fair, but most adults know perfectly well they didn’t write the books their names appear on the covers of.

  2. There used to be a practice – particularly prevalent among sports autobiographies – of listing the ghostwriter under “as told to.” Thus you might see the listing

    My Life On The Court
    by Joe Jumpshot
    as told to Ralph Sportswriter

    What this meant of course was that Joe Jumpshot sat down for several hours of taped interviews with Ralph Sportswriter, who then fashioned a first-person narrative that hopefully captured something of Joe’s voice. For whatever reason this method of crediting the ghostwriter petered out in the 1970s and I haven’t seen an example in a long time.

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