Ghostwriting 101: Can Clients Control Their Stories?

Recently, a number of potential clients have made the same impossible request of me.

“Can you help me write a book so that readers will know who I am? I want to be seen in a certain way.”

The answer to the first part of the question is yes.

The answer to the second part is no. Authors don’t get to control how their stories will be perceived. That’s for readers alone to decide.

It’s tempting for a hungry ghostwriter to say whatever the client wants to hear. But it’s no bargain to work with a client who is fixated on presenting himself (it’s always a him) in a certain way. The project will quickly fall apart because the client is really not interested in telling a story. He is interested only in winning an argument with history.

While everyone is entitled to argue with history, it’s a losing battle and I don’t want any part of it.

Vanity Fair recently published the fascinating account of ghostwriter Rich Cohen working with the celebrated and wealthy investor Theodore Forstmann. It’s a beautifully-written and candid account of a ghostwriting partnership gone awry. There was no possibility that a book would have ever emerged from an  engagement so founded in pretense.

Cohen admits to the reader that he had money problems and that’s why he was considering a ghostwriting gig. But in his desperation to get the account, he ignored a critical warning sign:

He [Forstmann] asked why I wanted to work on the project, or, as he put it, “What
do you see of value in my story?”

Cohen continues:

I got a chill from this question. It suggested pathos: he needed me to tell him
that his own life had significance, was worth recording. I once dated a girl
who made me tell her why I liked her. It reminded me a little of that. I said I
was interested in his story because it was a great one, as grand as a scenario
by Trollope . . .  In other words, I behaved like a whore, mouthing pretty words while my real motivation was
self-evident. Hey, you want me to say you’re the biggest and the best and the
most amazing and that I’m in this joint because I find you irresistible? Fine,
as long as it ends with me getting paid.

The  Truth
Cohen should have simply acknowledged the truth: “I’m not sure yet. I’ll need to get to know you better.”

This way, there was a one in ten chance that the assignment would go well.

As it was, Cohen bought himself a lot of frustration, confusion, and heartache that probably set his writing career back. So it goes with ghostwriters who fail to acknowledge, as Cohen does only at the very end, that we are merely mirrors that reflect something that isn’t quite formed yet.

Leave a Comment