Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Mysterious World of ... Ghostwriting

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! No, silly. There's nothing scary about ghostwriting, unless you consider the lack of recognition many of the "real" authors receive.

Let's play a little game, shall we. Can you tell me which one of the following five books has been written by someone other than the name slapped on the front cover?

  1. Ronald Reagan:  An American Life
  2. Ecstasy and Me:  My Life as a Woman
  3. Tennis as I Play It
  4. Under the Pyramids
  5. The Hardy Boys:  The Secret of Wildcat Swamp
Unless you cheated and looked at the links above, then you might not know that all of them have been ghostwritten. (Here's a link to "The Top 50 Ghostwritten Books" if you'd like to see more.) Perhaps you're thinking about taking on the role of ghostwriter, or maybe you're searching for the perfect ghostwriter to write your self-help book, series, or memoir. If this sounds like you, there are a few things you'll need to know.

What is a ghostwriter?

According to Toni Robino's essay,* "Secrets of Ghostwriting and Collaboration Success," this is what ghostwriting boils down to:
❝...a ghostwriter gathers the author's original materials and research and turns them into a book, based on the author's specifications (if the book will be self-published) or the publisher's specifications (if the book has been sold through the proposal process.) Theoretically, although ghostwriters do conduct interviews and undertake additional research, they do not contribute their own thoughts or ideas to the content of the book.❞
Robino later goes on to say:
❝Do not overstep your boundaries as a ghostwriter by adding your own thoughts to a book, unless the author specifically asks you to do this.❞
Book Series:  Rainbow Magic fairy books are
all by Daisy Meadows, who is really
four women.
While researching the topic of ghostwriting I learned that the majority of what's ghostwritten can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Book Series -- In this category, you'll see books from longstanding series such as The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. A more current example would be the Rainbow Magic series for grade school-aged girls. All of them are written by Daisy Meadows, but according to goodreads, "Daisy Meadows is the pseudonym used for the four writers of the Rainbow Magic children's series: Narinder Dhami, Sue Bentley, Linda Chapman, and Sue Mongredien."
  2. Celebrity "Autobiographies" and "Memoirs" -- Ronald Reagan's life story would fall into this category as would just about any other celebrity autobiography out there (grant it, there are a few who write their own life stories). A well written memoir or autobiography needs the proper writing skills behind it, and this is why many celebrities turn to ghostwriters. I found a little humor in a Wall Street Journal article -- "Fascinating Story, but Who Wrote It?" -- "Earlier this month, the Borders bookstore at Time Warner Center hosted a reading of 'Fall to Pieces,' a memoir by Mary Forsberg Weiland, the former wife of rocker Scott Weiland. As photographers snapped pictures of the author, another woman stepped up to the podium. 'Hi,' she said. 'I'm Larkin Warren, and I was Mary's midwife on the project." I think the role of midwife is an appropriate way of describing the work of ghostwriters.
  3. One of the biggest questions
    plaguing the free world today:
    Did Ronald Reagan really write
    his own autobiography?
  4. Writers under a popular author's name or author's novel series -- In this category you'll find long-time authors doling out rights to other authors who want to continue a series under the original author's name. A couple of recent examples are The Race by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott and Locked On by Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney. In both instances, Scott and Greaney would be considered the main authors, but in order for the books to sell they are written in a popular series (like Clancy's Jack Ryan series) and titled under the bold lettering of Cussler's and Clancy's names.
Can you see Mark Greaney's
name in teeny tiny blue?
Then there are those who ghostwrite just about anything else, from self-help books to short stories to cookbooks. But how do you know if you could succeed at being a professional ghostwriter? Robino says you need to treat writing as a business and the more you learn about running a business, the better off you'll be. Here are ten things Robino says you need to learn before going into operation:
  1. Assess Your Writing Skills -- The more published you are the better your odds are at landing a deal.
  2. Make Your First List -- Who are the experts you know and are they pioneers in their fields? Resist the urge to contact these individuals until you are professionally prepared for your meeting.
  3. Prepare a Professional Package -- This should include your resume, bio, services you offer, writing samples, and different styles and topics.
  4. Set Your Rates -- Know how fast you can write a final copy, and remember the chapter isn't finished until you've edited, polished, and proofread it. Also, be aware of what first time ghostwriters make -- anywhere from $1,000 - $8,000.
  5. Polish Your Interpersonal Skills -- Practice listening closely to what the client wants without interrupting.
  6. Know When to Run -- Not every book will be a good match.
  7. Close the Deal -- Make sure you sign that contract and don't be afraid to ask questions.
  8. Capture the Author's Voice -- I good way to get a sense of the author's voice is through taped interviews.
  9. Create and Keep Deadlines -- Stay accountable to the deadline.
  10. Ask for Referrals -- The best way to market yourself is through word of mouth marketing from clients who are satisfied with your work.
If you're still wondering if ghostwriting is a good fit for you, then I encourage you to read up on the subject. Toni Robino's essay is quite insightful on the matter and there is plenty of info out there on the web for you to devour. If you do decide to jump into the mysterious world of ghostwriting -- Best of Luck to You!

Are you interested in ghostwriting or have you ever done similar work? If so, what was your experience like? Would you encourage other writers to become ghostwriters?

*"Secrets of Ghostwriting and Collaboration Success" by Toni Robino can be found in the 2010 version of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents.

"Fascinating Story, but Who Wrote It?" by Joanne Kaufman was published in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 1, 2009.


  1. Thank you Sister Mary, Mary for all this data. I didn´t know about the series gostwriting or the "Umbrella author".
    Ghostwriting seems like a legitimate job, and by now we all now who writes and who hires the ghost. But why the subterfuge? Why is it more sellable to write an phony auto-biography that everyone knows couldn’t be written by its subject? What’s wrong with biographies?
    I don´t think I would like to ghostwrite. Call me vain, but I like my work to bear my signature.

  2. This is a such a great post. I haven't read much about ghostwriting, so I've learned a lot here. I was actually asked to ghostwrite a non-fiction book for a friend, but I declined. I don't think I have a great non-fiction voice and think he can find someone much better than me.

  3. Very interesting subject, Sister Mary!

    Book series' ghostwriting reminds me of sitcoms and drama series, where any writer can send a TV script and sell it to the producers of the show (I wish someone would have ghostwritten the final episode of Seinfeld!)

    About autobiographies, Violante, I imagine it's a question of money. The actor/model/singer/whoever wants his biography written, probably wants part of the book's earnings. Or maybe they have an interest in writing but haven't developed the skill or don't have the patience to write the whole thing by themselves?

    Another "fan fiction ghostwriter" is Mark Winegardner, who wrote "The Godfather Returns" after Mario Puzo's novels.

  4. I don't think I would be a good ghostwriter. For me, the fun of writing is discovering my own voice.

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  6. I didn't know there fanfiction ghostwriters. I didn't know there was published fanfiction.

  7. Violante - Fan fiction is published, but not in large quantities (Harry Potter seems to be a big one) and doesn't sell as hotly as original works. There are novel sequels that are written according to the estates that own the rights -- The sequels to "Gone with the Wind" are common examples. These aren't considered ghostwritten works, since the authors' names, and only their names, appear on the covers (meaning Margaret Mitchell isn't listed as the author of these books).

    As to Cussler's and Clancy's novels, those aren't really a collaboration (Patterson tends to do collaborations). From what I understand, the secondary authors are given a guideline and plot and are required to follow it. But as you can see, they get tiny recognition.

    Lorena - Yes, most celebrities don't know how to really write, so they pay a ghostwriter. I would think they'd get paid more considering all the effort that goes into writing someone else's story.

    Jennifer and Missed Periods - I prefer writing my own work, too, and developing my own voice. I think writing too many other people's stories would drive me a little nuts!

  8. I've not ghostwrited anything, but I think it would be an interesting exercise. I certainly wouldn't turn it down if the opportunity ever came up.

  9. When I first looked at your list, I thought, 'Reagan, for sure.' But then the second title made me think, 'That M&M! I'll bet they're all ghostwritten.' :)

  10. What an informative post, Mary Mary! I'll respond in more depth when we're back from vacay and I've got a proper keyboard. :)

  11. I took on a job as a sort of ghostwriter when I was in my 20s. This woman I knew ran a program to help recently incarcerated women rebuild their lives after release. The program was so successful she decided to write a book laying out the elements and market it as a general self-help book. She hired me to do the actual writing (and the design: I was also a graphic designer at the time). I was paid as we went along, with some stipulation about getting paid more later, based on sales. The book never did find a publisher, which was a shame, because it was truly a good book. I'm glad for the experience, though.

  12. Linda, I agree in not passing up a writing opportunity when it comes along!

    Suze, I'm glad you figured out how tricky I was being!

    Stephanie, That is too bad that the book you helped write didn't find a publisher. Thank you for sharing your experience!


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