Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows
By Rachel Deahl | Nov 12, 2021 | article courtesy of Publishers Weekly
When Penguin Random House announced in July that it would be publishing a memoir by Prince Harry, there was one name that was, conspicuously and appropriately, left off the press release. The man channelling the Duke of Sussex’s voice for the book, J.R. Moehringer, was nowhere to be found among the details the publisher released. But those in the industry know that Moehringer, one of the highest-profile ghostwriters working, will be an essential component in the royal’s book—even if his name never appears on the final product.
Ghostwriting, or “collaborating” as it’s now called, is nothing new. For as long as celebrities have been writing books, others have quietly helped them do it. It’s highly specialized work that requires a blend of skills; industry sources say the best collaborators are equal parts editor, reporter, writer, mimic, and shrink. And in today’s industry, where publishers are more and more reliant on nonfiction projects by authors with significant platforms, good collaborators are in higher demand than ever. It’s also the kind of work, very handsomely paid at the high end, which is appealing to a growing population: writers, journalists, and editors.
Madeleine Morel, a literary agent who’s spent her career representing ghostwriters (they’re the only clients at her company 2M Communications Ltd., which is over 20 years old), said that, in the past, “talking about ghostwriting was a bit like sheepishly admitting you’d done internet dating.” No longer.
The growing demand for celebrity books (coupled with the increasing presence in publishing of Hollywood-backed talent firms like Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, and United Talent Agency), has created a greater need for high-level ghostwriters. Morel believes this has led to a turning point: “I always say it’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the best because there’s more collaborative work out there than ever, and it’s the worst because there are more collaborators out there than ever.” She cited a number of writers who have, in the past five to 10 years, turned to ghostwriting as other avenues have dried up—former midlist authors, former long-form journalists whose newspapers or magazines have closed, and former editors who’ve lost jobs to consolidation.
So how many high-level ghostwriters are there? When asked about collaborators like Moehringer, who’s rumoured to command seven figures per project (and who’s written two critically acclaimed nonfiction books of his own and has a couple of Pulitzers for reporting), Morel noted they are “few and far between.” Insiders cited a handful of other authors with well-established literary pedigrees like Moehringer who occasionally moonlight as ghostwriters.
There’s Ariel Levy (who collaborated on Demi Moore’s 2019 memoir, Inside Out) and Buzz Bissinger (who collaborated on Caitlin Jenner’s 2017 memoir, The Secrets of My Life). In these cases the collaborators were not mentioned anywhere on the books themselves, though their work was documented in a handful of postpublication feature stories. Moore was reportedly given Levy’s 2017 memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, by her publisher. Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights and other bestsellers, had done a cover profile of Jenner for Vanity Fair, which led to his involvement in her book.
Below the top tier of collaborators, there are a handful of well-regarded writers who make a very handsome living as ghosts. Morel estimated that the “best of the best”—meaning ghostwriters with a number of bestselling books by high-profile figures on their résumés—includes 20–30 people, “maybe up to 50.” One high-level industry professional, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that good ghosts can make anywhere between $100,000 and $300,000 per year. Morel said the average ghostwriting project for her clients pays $75,000–$100,000 and usually takes about six months. While projects differ, most ghostwriters tend to get paid a flat fee. (Some can, and do, demand a percentage of the advance, and/or books sales, but sources said this is less common.)
Gail Ross, a veteran literary agent at the Washington, D.C.–based Ross Yoon Agency, who estimated that half of the books she sells require a collaborator, wouldn’t endorse the notion that ghostwriters have necessarily grown in influence or stature in recent years. She claimed they’ve always been “very, very important.” But it is true, she went on, “that back in the day no one wanted to say they used a collaborator or ghostwriter, and now it’s totally respected. It’s also acknowledged by most people [who use collaborators] that it’s the only way they could get their book done.”
Will Lippincott, a senior agent at Aevitas Creative Management, said that in the past three years he’s done more business with “collaborative agents and their writers than in the prior 10.” Estimating that 25%–30% of his projects have “a collaborator attached at some point,” Lippincott said these specialists are either brought in at the proposal stage (and help the author craft that) or after the book is sold. He believes the work they do is “being valued at a higher level” than ever.
The rise of the term collaborator within publishing speaks to the respect ghostwriters command from others working behind the scenes. As one industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, the term ghostwriter “implies subterfuge,” which they called “problematic.” The work is, they went on, totally “above board” and there’s “no reason to hide it.”
“I love ghostwriters,” said Anthony Mattero, an agent at CAA. Estimating that there are 50–100 top ghostwriters who do two-to-three books per year and “always work with the biggest names,” he said he believes the change in nomenclature speaks to a shift in understanding about what ghostwriters actually do. “In the past it was, ‘You talk and I’ll write.’ Now I think [collaborators] have more engagement with the process.” He added that, as an agent, he knows he needs great collaborators who are fully invested in order for projects to work. “We want them to like the idea and be invested in the creative process.”
And yet, as important and respected as these writers may be, their work remains largely hidden from the public. Few get what are known as “with” credits (when their names appear on the covers of their books, preceded by the phrase “writing with”), and it can sometimes be a battle to get a ghostwriter’s name on the title page, as opposed to simply in the acknowledgements.
Morel said she often has to insist on a clause that allows her ghostwriters to be able to put their projects on their résumés. Because ghostwriters are often privy to private details about the lives of their famous subjects, NDA-style agreements are standard parts of their contracts. In short, it’s a bit like Fight Club—ghostwriters can rarely say whom they’ve worked with, much less what they’ve discussed with those people.
For many, though not all, ghostwriters, this is as it should be. One who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed a desire to have their work more out in the open. “I’ll generally ask for a ‘with’ credit and often get turned down,” they said. “I’d love to be on the cover of all of them. It would be easier for me to talk about the books and be out there promoting them.”
Hilary Liftin, a long-time ghostwriter who has 13 bestsellers to her name, said that when she started, it was assumed things written by ghostwriters “were somehow subpar or hackey.” While this has unquestionably changed within the industry, it may not be true for the general public.
Liftin prefers not to be mentioned on her book covers, but would like to see any negative perceptions about collaboration dispelled. “I don’t want to be on the jacket for aesthetic reasons and because I’m not trying to be a famous ghostwriter,” she said. “I say ghost because I like the word, but I do think as a professional you want to be visible, so I’m usually, but not always, on the title page.”
Another bestselling ghostwriter, Joni Rodgers, said she sometimes feels that everyone knows about her career but no one wants to talk about it. Her comparison? “You know your parents are having sex,” she said, “but you don’t want to hear about it.”
Rodgers, who’s worked on more than 30 books, said she wished “the business model allowed for someone to include that credit on the cover without feeling like they were conceding something.” For ghostwriters coming up, she added, she advocates for cover credits to be standard.
Colin Dickerman, Grand Central’s editorial director of nonfiction, said in the past 20 years he’s seen the rise of celebrity ghostwriters like Michelle Burford, who was profiled in the New York Times earlier this year (“that would have been unheard of five years ago”), and the trend of authors like Moehringer and Bissinger taking ghostwriting jobs. He feels Andre Agassi’s 2009 memoir, Open, the first book Moehringer ghostwrote, marked something of a turning point. It showed people, he explained, how much a ghostwriter could bring to a project. The memoir proved “that you could combine a celebrity with a first-rate literary talent and end up with a book that was truly extraordinary.” Suddenly, he added, people in the business realized a book “could be a literary event, as well as a celebrity event.”
When asked why, then, if ghostwriters are so important, they remain pushed to the fringes, Dickerman said it’s about maintaining a kind of romantic ideal. “I’m not saying it’s right,” he noted, “but there’s this romance of reading someone’s story who you think you know, but who you don’t. It requires intimacy. The fear is that putting the ghostwriter on the cover might disrupt that.”
For ghostwriters, though, maybe a little disruption wouldn’t be so bad. As the writer who spoke anonymously explained, there are still infuriating moments in the profession. “My wife was in line to get on a plane and there was a guy reading Andre Agassi’s memoir,” they recalled. “The guy said, ‘It doesn’t seem fair that Agassi is such a great tennis player and such a great writer.’ I just wish more people understood that, yes, people have help doing their books. Why does that have to be a secret no one should know about?”
A version of this article appeared in the 11/15/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows.