Ghostwriting comes with a load of baggage. I can predict the questions that come at me when people learn that I’m a professional ghostwriter.
Occasionally the questions come out of genuine curiosity, but more often than not I pick up a certain judgment, as if the practice was deceptive.
Most people have a very personal relationship with reading and the idea of a ghostwriter does not easily fit into the picture they have sometimes constructed. Most readers develop an idealized relationship with the author, or the person they think is the author, so who am I, this interloper, and what am I doing in the middle of their fantasy?
I get it. Writing is an intimate act. The craft of ghostwriting presents certain ethical difficulties. But no more than any other profession. Here are some of the most common questions I get and my responses.
So what does a ghostwriter do?
Think of me as a catalyst. A catalyst is an agent without which a reaction or a process is impossible. I help the authors find their voice, identify the unified vision their subject requires, and to varying degrees help them with the editorial process. I encourage my clients to think of me as an writing partner. Every ghostwriting assignment is unique. Sometimes the author writes the first draft and I edit. And sometimes it’s the reverse: I write the first draft based on recorded transcripts of what they told me and they edit. Sometimes we start at the beginning and sometimes we start at the end. Sometimes I start with an outline. In every case, the author has the last word.
Isn’t it deceptive for someone to put their name on a book they didn’t write?
But the author did write it, in every way that’s important. The subject was the author’s, the content came from the author, the stories flowed out of the author’s life, the author is responsible–morally and legally–for every word. The author gets to promote the book and reap the benefit of every sale, feel the sting of every criticism, and experience the pain of every book that bookstores return because readers don’t want them. In the all-important relationships–good and bad–between the author and readers, the ghostwriter is rightly irrelevant.
How can you trust what you’re reading if it was written by the credited author? Ultimately, the content of the book has to merit your trust. Yes, the credibility of the author is important, but what do you really know about the author anyway?
But is it fair that your client gets all the credit? Don’t you want some acknowledgement?
As to the first question, it’s perfectly fair. It’s his or her book. If there’s credit to be had, I’m totally okay with my client running with it to the bank. The more successful the book, the better for everyone, including me. As for acknowledgements, I don’t require anything more than my fee. The reality is that most authors are generous with credit in the acknowledgements and recommendations to other people who are looking for editorial assistance. Finally, anytime I want a book credit, I can write my own book.
Why would you write a book for someone else when you can write a book under your own name?
Economics. It’s hard for authors to support a family on book royalties (the author’s share of book sales). I’m a writer of nonfiction books. I can think of only a couple of nonfiction authors who can do so. Jim Collins (“Good to Great”) may be one. Certainly there are wonderfully successful writers such as Tom Peters or Seth Godin who probably do okay, but they write their books as thought leadership ancillary to the businesses where they make their real income, typically consulting, speaking, or training. From a business standpoint, ghostwriting at my level pays very well and it’s predictable. Some of my books sell well, but others don’t, and there’s no way to know. The only thing for sure when I write a book is that I get paid only when people buy my books. That’s a hard way to support a family.
What percentage of nonfiction books involve ghostwriters?
A majority. Virtually one hundred percent of celebrity books and business books written by CEOs involve ghostwriters. The former typically don’t have the discipline; the latter don’t have the time.
Have you ever turned down a ghostwriting assignment?
Plenty of times. These days I decline more opportunities than I accept. Sometimes the subject doesn’t interest me or the chemistry between me and author isn’t right. While I think that every author deserves a chance to be published, I don’t necessarily have to be involved. If I can’t learn something new from the book or the author, I’ll generally pass.
Is there anything about ghostwriting you are skeptical about?
I’m not totally comfortable with fiction writers using ghostwriters. Yes, it’s more common than you want to think about.