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Secrets of An Invisible Man
A Working Ghostwriter Tells [Almost] All
By Richard N. Côté
An address made to the Bay Area Editors' Forum
San Francisco, California, September 23, 1997
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. There is no group of people I would rather be with than my fellow writers, and no place I'd rather visit than San Francisco. This is my sixth trip to the Bay Area in the last five years. My friends in beautiful, historic Charleston ask me why I come out here so often, and why I love the area so much. My answer is simple: for balance and completeness, one needs both the yin and yang. I need both the quiet of Charleston, and the inspiration of places like this, to bring balance to my life as a writer.
Tonight I'm going to give you a look inside of one of the least-understood areas of the writer's trade: the world of the literary collaborator, or, to use the popular term, the ghostwriter. I'm going to cover eight areas of the ghostwriter's work: the ghost's roles and duties; clients, the subjects they typically write about; the personal and professional habits which suit them for their calling; the advantages and challenges of being a ghostwriter, how they ensure that they get paid well -- and on time, and some of the ethical choices he faces.
This is by no means an unbiased presentation, for I must tell you in advance that I absolutely love my job as a literary collaborator, and other than writing my own books (for which there's never enough time!) there's nothing I'd rather do than help other people write theirs. I'll be happy to answer your questions at the end of my talk.
THE COLLABORATOR'S ROLE
The terms, "literary collaborator" and "ghostwriter" are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. A literary collaborator uses his or her research, writing, editing and promotional skills to develop a client's ideas or experiences into the most interesting, lucid, compelling, and saleable book or screenplay possible and give the client the best chance to see his work published or produced. The collaborator's contribution may include helping to conceptualize the book, as well as outlining, interviewing, researching, writing, rewriting and editing the final text. It also may also include finding a literary or dramatic agent for the property and finding a publisher or producer.
A ghostwriter is a literary collaborator who takes a vow of silence and does not receive published credit for his contribution. Either a collaborator or a ghostwriter may do 1% or 100% of the actual writing. For all practical purposes, the only difference between the two terms is whether or not the collaborator gets public credit for the work.
THE GHOSTWRITER'S CLIENTS
The ghostwriter's clients are largely first-time authors -- and there are lots of them. A recent article in the New York Times noted that "On any given week, up to a half of any nonfiction best-seller list is written by someone other than the name on the book. Add those authors who feel enough latent uneasiness to bury the writer's name in the acknowledgments and the percentage, according to one agent, reaches as high as 80. And ghostwriters are increasingly working the other side of the street - on the fiction list."
Each ghostwriter must decide what type of clients he or she is going to serve, and then tailor his or her services appropriately. In my case, I decided that I only wanted to ghostwrite books, as opposed to speeches or articles. My other specialty is that I am multi-lingual, mobile, and willing to travel anywhere in the world my client needs me. Although I live on the East coast, 50% of my clients live on the Pacific coast. (I never figured out how that came about!) Another 25% of them live abroad. Regardless where the clients live, they seek out a ghostwriter for one or more of the following reasons: 1. They have interesting, valuable or controversial ideas they want to see published; 2. They have a powerful, inspiring or unique experience to share; 3. They want to ensure the book is written to the highest professional standards, has the best possible chance to be published and make a profit for them; but 4. They lack the time or specialized skills to do the necessary research, writing and editing and push their manuscript through the bewildering maze of literary agents, publishers, film and television and producers.
THE GHOST'S SUBJECTS AND GENRES
There are few subjects the ghostwriter doesn't get asked to write about. Some of my recent ghostwriting requests have been for biographies, autobiographies and memoirs; books on espionage, HMO negligence, cathartic crying, Skinhead violence, race relations, helping men express their feelings (something my poor wife wishes I would do considerably less of!), corporate management, the 1988 hostage crisis in Lebanon, and novels about gold smuggling on the Arab Gulf, human freezing and cloning, and running for president. The one about freezing and cloning was the most interesting of all, because the client required me to travel with him to England and Rio de Janeiro for the research! In the business world, ghostwriters routinely write policy papers, op-ed pieces, and speeches for corporate executives. For better or worse, I did not hire a ghostwriter to write this speech. Then again, maybe I should have. But then, by assigning myself to the job, I guess you could say this was a ghostwritten speech after all! Trade non-fiction is the biggest market for ghostwritten books. Virtually every celebrity autobiography and memoir is ghosted, as are the overwhelming majority of books on any subject by a celebrity. However, for every celebrity bio, there are a hundred other ghostwriting assignments which often go unnoticed. For the working writer, the prime fields for ghostly plows include history, biography, autobiography, memoirs, how-to books, politics, religion, popular psychology, relationships, conspiracy theories, New Age, true life stories, and true crime. Until three years ago I had never heard of the idea of ghostwritten fiction. The idea seemed so preposterous to me that I turned away the first two requests I received. After several additional requests, I thought to myself, "How is ghosting fiction different than ghosting non-fiction?" I quickly came to the conclusion that storytelling is storytelling. Now I'm in the middle of ghosting my third novel for a client -- and I love it.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD GHOST
First of all, the ghostwriter must be a literary jack-of-all trades. He or she must be knowledgeable about the mechanics of interviewing, research, writing and editing, and also of agenting and publishing. He must read widely and stay familiar with what's going on in as many fields as he can.
The ghostwriter must have a confident attitude. He or she ghostwriter must be comfortable taking complete charge of the writing project and telling the client all he needs to know, when he needs to know it.
The ghostwriter must be a catalyst and facilitator of ideas. She must be able to draw people out and help them tell their story. Then, when the client's information and skills run out, the ghostwriter must supply whatever is missing. If he's lucky, that will be minimal. But in some cases, it will be much more. In a recent book I was working on, the client had promised the publisher a 70,000-word manuscript. The only problem was that he ran dry of information and ideas at the 30,000-word mark. The ghostwriter must be ready for anything.
In the ghostwriter-author relationship, the ghostwriter is the writing expert and the author is the information source. The ghostwriter must be willing to educate the client -- and tell him when he's wrong.
The ghostwriter must inform the client when he has unrealistic expectations, such as the notion that he'll be able to find a good agent in two weeks or sell his book to a publisher in two more for a million-dollar advance. These things might happen -- but they're not likely.
The ghostwriter must tell the client when he is about to do things which will put the kiss of death on his manuscript. Cardinal examples include cluttering the manuscript with political, religious or ideological diatribes or excessive autobiographical material.
My rule of thumb is this: I will tell a client twice -- but not three times -- that he is about to slit his own throat. After two warnings, I will then do whatever the client wants. After all is said and done, the ghostwriter is hired help, and the content and ultimate success of the book is the responsibility of the author, not the ghostwriter. It is the ghostwriter's job to aid and guide the author, but it is not his job to talk a client out of his dreams, even if they seem unrealistic or unattainable. After all, it takes a combination of skill, patience, and small miracles before some great works get published, and few ghosts can know with certainty which books will make it and which will fail.
The rewards for ghostwriting a piece of work are the feeling of accomplishment for a job well done, the adventure and experience you get from the job, and the money you are paid. When you are ghostwriting, there is no room for ego conflict with your client. According the copyright law of the United States, when a book is "made for hire," the man or woman who writes the paycheck is the author of the work. The ghostwriter must be willing to do her work with the knowledge that he will never receive public credit for what he did. For many writers, this proves to be too big a pill to swallow. These would probably not be happy as ghosts.
Ghostwriting is an incredibly attractive branch of professional writing for both men and women. It's an especially friendly field for women, because there are no attificial gender bars or glass ceilings.
If you like variety in your writing assignments, ghostwriting is the place to be. The working ghostwriter never knows who will be on the other end of the next phone call or e-mail.
Being the writing partner to someone who has extraordinary knowledge or an amazing experience to share is a fabulous experience. There are some incredibly interesting and knowledgeable people in this world, and the more interesting they are, the more likely they're eventually going to need a ghostwriter. In this regard, ghosts have a definite advantage over reporters and magazine writers. Journalists usually get to work with their subject for a few hours at best. Ghostwriters normally get to work with their clients over an extended period of time.
Travel has always been a very attractive part of the ghostwriting experience for me. The key is to solicit business in places you'd like to visit. Then, when the client calls, you will be obligated to travel to those very places where you want to go in the first place. However, to be a ghostly Frequent Flyer, you must have a lifestyle which will permit you to take off for Timbuktu whenever your client needs you. And although you can get glamorous trips, be assured that for every assignment to London, Tahiti, or San Francisco, there will be one or two in Smogport, New Jersey or Dust Flats, Texas.
Talented, hard-working ghosts can earn a very good living if they develop strong listening, writing and promotional skills and stay on top of the market. The "Top Guns" of the spirit world generally earn $100,000 and up per book plus a percentage of future earnings. There are about fifty of them in the country. They usually write their own best-selling books and also ghostwrite for celebrities, politicians, and business and professional leaders. Assignments generally come by referral from major publishers or from top-name literary and theatrical agents. Examples of the ghostly superstars include Ralph Schoenstein, who ghosts Bill Cosby's books, and William Novak, who wrote books for Lee Iacocca, Sydney Biddle Barrows and Magic Johnson, and Camile Marchetta, who reportedly earned $350,000 for writing Ivana Trump's novel, Katrina.
One level below the superstars is the legion of literary collaborators who turn out the bulk of the nation's ghostwritten books. They typically write two to four books a year and earn $25,000 to $50,000 per book plus a percentage of future earnings. At this level of the ghostly major leagues, you will get most of your assignments through leads you develop through paid advertising and direct promotion.
Aspiring and fledgling ghosts typically earn anywhere from nothing to $10,000 per book or undertake 50/50 speculation jobs in their bid to launch careers as ghostwriters. My ticket out of the ghostly ghetto was writing Safe House, the memoir of Edward Lee Howard, the only American CIA agent ever to accept political asylum in Russia.
Ten years ago, I was just making the transition from scholarly to commercial writer when my agent called me with a fascinating offer. National Press Books was desperate to have a ghostwriter fly to Moscow and save a manuscript which had arrived in Washington Dead On Arrival. They needed a book doctor do emergency surgery on the original manuscript, which was then unusable and almost a year behind schedule. I soon found out that I would have to put in 18-hour workdays for six weeks to do what was needed: scrap two thirds of the original manuscript, write that part from scratch and rewrite what was left.
The catch was this: the budget for the book was already blown, and they had almost no money left for the rewrite. But I realized immediately that the book could be a career-maker for me. I accepted their offer of $2,000 plus travel expenses, and got on an Air France plane to Moscow. It was the best career decision I ever made. The book put me on the map as an international ghost with a trade publishing track record.
There are challenges to any career path, and ghostwriting is no exception. Along with those great assignments comes the immutable reality that the ghostwriter's labors will forever go unheralded. As a collaborator, you usually get title page credit. As a ghost, you do not. Ghostly work -- even if you are responsible for writing 99% of the book -- isn't "yours." The client gets all the credit.
The flip side of opportunity is insecurity. The ghostwriter is first and foremost an independent writer, with all the related financial insecurities of any other independent writer. The freedom that the ghostwriter has to pick and choose his projects is also his chief liability. Nobody promises the ghostwriter -- or any other independent writer -- a living. Virtually all of the ghostwriter's work is a series of one-shot jobs. The ghostwriter's clients will have little or nothing in common with each other -- except their need for a ghostwriter. Except at the highest levels, ghosts get very few jobs as referrals from satisfied clients -- for the simple reason that a ghost's happy client rarely wants to admit that he hired a ghostwriter in the first place.
As a ghostwriter, you will chiefly be dealing with clients who have no idea about how a book is written, edited, published or produced. Educating the client and patiently leading him through the process from concept to publication is an extremely time-consuming task which not all writers find rewarding. I minimize this challenge by giving each of my clients a copy of Judith Applebaum's How to Get Happily Published. It gives them a good basic understanding of the writing and publishing process.
The prospect of large royalty advances, book tours, and the lure of Hollywood can mesmerize clients like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Giving the client reasonable perspectives and helping define attainable goals are part and parcel of the ghostwriters job. If the ghostwriter fails to do so, he or she can become the hapless victim of the client's wrath when the book can't be finished in two months, doesn't find an agent overnight, doesn't get a half-million-dollar advance, takes four years to get published by a small press, and never becomes a movie-of-the-week.
There is a pervasive belief throughout the country that everyone has lived a life so interesting that if only a professional writer would write it down, the story would sell a million books, turn into a feature film, and make both the client and the ghostwriter rich. In return, the prospective client will frequently offer to share all the work and up to 50% of the future profits with the ghostwriter. There are many reasons why it rarely makes any sense for a ghostwriter to work on speculation.
Most ghostwriters have mortgages to pay. Speculative projects produce no income for the writer. This tends to lead to mortgages not being paid, and, if carried on too long, to homeless ghostwriters.
On a speculative collaboration project, the ghostwriter normally gets to do all the work and receives half the profits -- if any. The "if any" part comes because there is no assurance that the book will find an agent, a publisher, or make a profit and generate royalties for the author and ghostwriter to split. And even if it does, those royalties will probably be two, three or four years down the road.
My perspective on speculation is that is if a writer is going to speculate on anybody's book, he or she should speculate on their own books. There, the writer will do all the work, but will also get all the satisfaction, acclaim, and profit.
Ghostwriters have to learn how to carefully choose their projects. Mostly, they will have to learn which jobs to avoid. These include cases where the client is impossible to work with, cannot pay your writing fee, or has a story to tell which is vague, lacks originality or is severely depressing.
People with emotional problems, such as severe depression, often want to use writing the book as therapy. A number of my clients have reported that the process of writing their true life story or true crime book was cathartic -- but in those cases, the catharsis was a spontaneous byproduct of the project, not the goal.
Often, prospective clients will come to the ghost with rambling, stream-of-consciousness tales which have no discernable start, middle, end, or message. A rule of thumb I use is this: if I can't identify and understand the client's premise after an hour of careful listening and questioning, it's probably not a concept I could develop into a successful book.
Lack of originality is a common problem. Unfortunately, many stories-- even gripping ones -- have already been told, often many or even hundreds of times over. In evaluating a project, the writer must ask, "what is it that will set this story above and apart from all the other stories like it?"
Every week I get calls from people whose lives have been filled with incredible physical and emotional tragedy. They honestly believe that their lives are so awful that people would stand in line at bookstores to buy books about their misery. My heart always goes out to these unfortunate people, but writing and publishing trade books is a business done chiefly for profit.
Only a tiny percentage of book buyers are so masochistic that they are going to plunk down $25 for a book which makes them feel more depressed than they already are. To be successfully published, any book about a tragic subject must have strong redeeming virtues -- a happy ending, or a triumph over tragedy, for example -- or it probably won't not sell. This is a very hard concept to explain to these people, many of whom also bear the hope that the large, instant profits from their book will permit them to rehabilitate their health, lost marriages, careers, and dreams. The ghostwriter must be gentle, but also honest and forthright with these people, and spare them any needless delusion that writing a book will be likely to turn their lives around.
Whether you, as writers and editors, agree or not, most people think of writing as an arcane art, practiced by unusual people in ways not comprehensible to mere mortals. As a result, some clients have strange reactions to what it is that writers do.
One of the ghostwriter's chief requirements is to mimic and reproduce the author's unique voice and writing presence. In addition, the ghostwriter is also supposed to enhance the author's words and polish them till they shine. The promise is like that of the Clairol commercial: "You, only better."
In a recent book, I went to great pains to preserve the unique voice and perspective of a working-class woman whose family had been through a terrible ordeal. When I proudly handed them the first draft, they read it -- and were shocked. "I thought you were a professional writer," they said. "This sounds just like Mom!"
Another client had quite a different reaction. He had commissioned me to write a book for him, and I conducted the interviews. After we reviewed his written material, we immediately saw that half of his concepts were out of date and had to be scrapped. He had a huge pile of more recent examples -- all from trade publication clippings, not from his own authorship. In addition, most of what he had written on his own was unusable hype. Ultimately, I had to research, outline and write the book largely from scratch, relying almost solely from secondary source material, as the author found himself too busy to contribute his own insights and examples. When the first draft was finished, the author voiced his extreme disappointment. "It doesn't sound like me," he said. He was right, of course. Ultimately, the client grudgingly accepted that what I had done was all that could be done, but he was never thrilled. The fact that the book he imagined wasn't possible never fully registered with him.
I mention these examples not to complain, but to illustrate. These are average, ordinary, normal events in the ghostwriter's life. If, as a writer, these situations would make you uncomfortable, then ghostwriting might not be the right choice for you.
GETTING PAID WELL -- AND ON TIME
There are many ways any independent writer can use to make a better living at her or his calling. Here are some effective business concepts I use.
Find a niche and fill it. If you live in Seattle and there are 100 advertising copywriters already, you will face stiff competition if you plan to be the 101st. It's also likely that you may feel it necessary to undercut the going rate for writing services in order to get a piece of the action. Better you should find a location, a niche, or a market which isn't as crowded. There you will be able to do your best work, write your own contracts, and get your best rates.
Charge by the job, not by the hour. The reason is simple. If you charge by the job and work efficiently, you are rewarded for your efficiency. If you charge by the hour and work efficiently, you are penalized for your efficiency.
Get paid by the month. Writers -- and everyone else in the civilized world -- have to pay their bills by the month. There is no reason on earth why an independent writer can't get paid by the month. God did not give Moses an 11th commandment which says, "Writers shall be paid half up front and half on completion." Set up a specific monthly production schedule with your client which calls for your work and your pay to be delivered in specific monthly installments. It is the most logical way in the world to get paid, and not once has any client suggested to me that he had a more logical way to pay me for my work.
Use good, simple contracts. You should never enter into a writing assignment for more than $100 without first signing a writing contract. At a minimum, the contract should specify the subject to be covered; the size of the finished piece; the total writing fee; how and when it is to be paid; and how, when and in what form the work is to be delivered. The ghostwriter should be the one to prepare the writing contract, not the client, for the writer is the one who best knows the ins and outs of producing a piece of written work. Most successful writers create, use, and refine a standard contract of their own, which they modify to fit the job at hand, and into which they can quickly plug the facts and figures for a given project.
Never hang onto a reluctant client. It is completely fruitless to try to hang onto a client who, for whatever reason, no longer wants to work with you. You are much better off to cut your losses and find another project that to try to turn around an impossible situation. My writing contract provides that if for any reason the client is unhappy with my work, he can cancel the contract with thirty days notice and pull out. There's no arbitration clause. Of course, all funds due at the time of contract cancellation must be paid before the client's source materials and the semi-finished manuscript are released. Having said this, I must also say that in twenty years as a professional writer, only once has any client ever invoked the termination clause, and then it was because domestic difficulties prevented the client from completing the book.
The ghostwriter has several sets of ethical considerations to weigh. They boil down to variations on three themes:
#1. For whom are you willing to ghostwrite, and under what conditions? Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber? A convicted murderer of an abortion doctor? The incendiary promoter of hate crimes? A Republican if you're a Democrat? A Democrat if you're a Republican? You have to choose.
#2. What kind of client will you accept? Many potential clients will pay almost anything to get their book out. That's the emotional trough where the vanity presses feed. Should the ghostwriter take on a client with a marginal book idea? I think it's my job to help the client decide whether or not the book stands a good chance of being profitably published. Then I let them make the decision. Ultimately, the client must bear all the risks. It is solely the author's responsibility to prepare a publishable manuscript. If that requires calling in professional help, it's the responsibility of the author to do so -- and pay for it. The ghost's responsibility: advise them and let them choose. If they say go, pull out all the stops and give them the best manuscript money can buy.
#3. Revealing your role as ghost. I don't think there's any wiggle room here. I feel that if a writer accepts a contract to ghostwrite a piece, his lips must remain sealed forever. Except for court orders or matters of life and death, I don't believe that there should be any exceptions to the ghostwriter's vow of secrecy. In my view, any ghostwriter who would reveal the identity of his client is committing a breach of professional faith. And a client's lawyer might well view it as a breach of contract, thereby subjecting the ghostwriter to the threat of a lawsuit.
So: after all is said and done, what is the ghostwriting business all about? Ultimately, it's about a writer using his or her talents and skills to help people achieve their dreams of literary expression.
The ghostwriter owes his client every bit of expertise, every ounce of effort, and every possible encouragement he can muster.
In return for his labors and his silence, the the ghostwriter deserves all the satisfaction, fun and fortune he can obtain for his or her literary midwifery.
My last eight years as a literary collaborator and ghostwriter have been a delightful and interesting addition to my life as a writer. And if I hadn't become a ghost, you might never have invited me her to speak with you today. It has been an honor and a pleasure to have the chance to share some of the ghostwriter's daily realities with you. Thank you very much.
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