Prince Harry announced this week that he is writing a memoir “not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become”.
But the person drafting every certain-to-be-scrutinised word about the United Kingdom royal’s life is actually Pulitzer Prize-winner JR Moehringer, who helped pen Open, tennis champion Andre Agassi’s provocative memoir, in 2009.
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Moehringer is the second high-profile ghostwriter to make headlines recently. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger’s former ghostwriter, Barry Coleman, recently opened up to The Guardian about the “awful” experience of trying to collaborate with the rock-and-roll legend on his memoir in the early 1980s. The autobiography was never published and remains one of the most sought-after stories to this day.
That tell-all interview was a rare glimpse into the usually secret world of ghostwriting, which, full disclosure, this writer has worked in throughout her career.
It can be a jumping-off point for many mainstream writers, and the best ghostwriters can easily fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, depending on the complexity of the project.
But it can also be exploitative, filled with frustration and the feeling by some writers that they’re sacrificing their own talent in order to tell someone else’s story.
Book publishing in the United States is a $25.9bn industry, according to the Association of American Publishers, and more than 1.8 billion print books were sold by US publishers in 2018 alone.
So as summer bestseller season continues and book publishers put major dollars behind surefire hits and big names debut their memoirs, fiction or thought leadership tomes, many readers are wondering: What is the role of a ghostwriter and why do so many big names depend on them to get the job done? And why, in a media-first world where a mega-platform is just one tweet away, do A-listers still feel the need to do so?
“I think the proliferation of content platforms has actually made the book a substantially more valuable and differentiating platform for thought leaders,” Dan Gerstein, founder of Gotham Ghostwriters, a ghostwriting agency that matches thought leaders to ghostwriters, told Al Jazeera. “Millions of people can pop off on Twitter or crank out a couple of 400-word blog posts that get some fleeting attention. But it takes real insight, creativity, and effort to produce a book that will capture and hold a meaningful audience and that will add sustained reputational value to a thought leader’s profile.”
A collaborative process
The reality is that the time, effort, and skill it takes to create a 100,000-word manuscript can be daunting even for the most seasoned writer. And that’s where the ghostwriter — also known as the co-author, collaborator, or the person who comes in to “punch up” a manuscript or train of thought from a celebrity — comes in.
For some writers, a ghostwriter is someone who allows them the time to manage projects, stick to deadlines, and cultivate emerging fan bases.
James Patterson has been candid about his use of ghostwriters for his projects, explaining to The Washington Post that he creates extensive outlines — sometimes in the 80-page range — that give an overview of characters, plot, and ending of his novels. A writer will then take the outline and submit a draft, to which Patterson will apply edits.
It’s a system similar to the one used by another bestselling thriller writer, who has also taken to using ghostwriters and collaborators to mould manuscripts.
“I see it as a collaborative process,” the writer, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera, adding that he prefers not to use the term “ghostwriter”.
“It’s still my work. I create the concept and tweak everything in the manuscript. Nothing in the manuscript is there that isn’t approved by me,” he said.
This writer feels that having a collaborator elevates the work, allowing for the sharpest writing and the best ideas to make the final draft.
“Writing is such a solitary pursuit, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be,” he explained, nodding to the writers’ room model used by television shows as an example of a collaborative approach.
This writer also enjoys the mentorship angle of ghostwriting, and, while he enters into contracts with ghostwriters, wants to also be used as a resource for those who eventually wish to pursue their own work.
“I want people to enjoy the work, and enjoy working with me. I want it to be mutually beneficial,” he explained.
The name on the cover
While the anonymous thriller writer acknowledges the ghostwriter on the inside of his books, it’s his name alone on the cover.
But agreements vary across ghostwriting gigs, say people familiar with publishing industry contracts. Some contracts are work-for-hire, in which the writer is paid a flat sum regardless of how many copies the books sell. Others may include a cut of royalties. Most have ironclad nondisclosure agreements. But even so, ghostwriters may be getting more attention than they ever have in the past.
Singer Jessica Simpson was candid about working with ghostwriter Kevin Carr O’Leary during the publicity tour for her memoir, Open Book, which debuted at number one on multiple lists.
“I think there’s less stigma about using a ghostwriter. Very often now, you’ll see the ghostwriter credited on the cover or title page,” Jenna Glatzer, who has ghosted or collaborated on over 30 books that have been published by major publishing houses like Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House.
“That’s what I expect when I enter a collaboration,” Glatzer told Al Jazeera. “I still consider it ghostwriting because it’s written in the client’s voice, but I prefer when my role is not kept a secret.”
Gerstein has also noticed ghostwriting losing its stigma in the past decade — and offering advantages to the ghost, as well as the writer.
“[I’ve noticed] a number of accomplished writers and authors who are seeking out ghosting gigs to try new challenges and diversify their income streams,” Gerstein said.
And while some ghostwriters feel sidelined in the pursuit of their own book goals, other writers feel like ghostwriting is the perfect avenue for their skills.
“I realised I liked being anonymous,” Dibs Baer, a journalist and co-author of several celebrity memoirs that hit the bestseller lists, told Al Jazeera.
Baer has written a book under her own name in the past but finds that for now, she likes telling other people’s stories without the pressure of success solely on her shoulders.
But some readers find co-authorship deceptive — and potentially taking away opportunities from talented writers who don’t have a “name”.
“It drives me crazy that a model can ‘write’ a cookbook and forever identify as an ‘author,’” reader Jessica Cassity, who works as a journalist but has not ghostwritten, told Al Jazeera.
“My take is that [these celebrities] are looking for a stepping stone to being taken more seriously or regarded as an intellectual. And the fact that it’s written by someone else is even more absurd,” she added.
At the end of the day, ghostwriting has become big business — and may be good for the industry at large.
Gerstein sums it up this way: “Book publishing has finally broken free from this artificial construct of the author as auteur and joined pretty much every other creative medium in recognising that storytelling has always been based on and benefitted from collaboration and multiple voices and perspectives coming together to make something greater than the sum of the parts.”