Do you believe in ghosts? Of course not. Ghosts don’t exist. I can say this with some authority, because I’m a ghost myself, and I am paid to keep out of sight. The most professional ghosts keep a very low profile. A ghostwriter is supposed to remain invisible. This is to sustain the illusion that the famous person credited on the dust jacket as “the Author”—who might be a supermodel, or a television personality, or a sports star—has written the book himself (or herself, as the case may be).
It’s a suspension of disbelief. People like the idea that they are getting the inside story. They may realize that the celebrity “author” hasn’t written it (some of them don’t even read the books that appear under their names), but nonetheless they want the illusion to be preserved. Publishers know that a celebrity autobiography will usually sell much better than a biography, provided it’s well enough written. An important consideration is that, as the author rather than the subject, the celebrity will be available to promote the book. Many of the copies sold will be signed for the buyer in stores.
Psychologists may be able to explain why the public is willing to fool itself in this way. Maybe the purchase of a celebrity autobiography is like pressing the flesh, offering the buyer a brief moment of contact with those whom they admire. It’s the real thing—only, of course, it’s not. It’s ghostwritten. Somebody like me has been paid to write the book and keep out of sight. It’s publishing’s dirty little secret.
Secrets and lies
Publishers are surprisingly coy about this subject. Some are prepared to tell bare-faced lies to maintain the fiction that the celebrities have written the books themselves. They will deny outright that books are ghostwritten, while simultaneously employing ghosts to write them. What’s in it for the ghostwriter is money. There is no kudos in ghosting a book, because no one—at least, no one outside the publishing house—will know that you have written it. But top ghostwriters can earn large sums, often much more than if they were publishing books under their own names. I am an award-winning and, I believe, a respected writer, yet I earned more for a ghostwritten book that took me five months to write than I did for a book under my own name that took me five years.
Sometimes the celebrity has begun to write the book unaided, and a ghost has been introduced because the attempt has failed; but usually the ghost is involved from the start. The ghostwriter is part of the package sold to the publishers, a guarantee that the book is going to be a good read. Often a ghost will write the outline on which the book is sold, setting out how much the “Author” is willing to tell.
The usual process is for the ghost to interview the celebrity, in sessions that typically last two or three hours each, for a minimum of 40 hours in total. These encounters usually take place in the family home, so the ghost becomes a guest, sharing meals with the subject and sometimes staying the night. A skilled ghostwriter will be a good listener, knowing which questions to ask and how to get subjects to open up; in many cases it may be the first time they have opened up to anyone. This is an intimate process, which may involve tears, sulks, raised voices, and thumping of tables. There is an element of psychotherapy in ghostwriting. A ghost needs to be able to judge when to give way and when to stand up to the famous “Author,” to tell celebrities when they are fudging their stories and not giving the publishers what they need. Sometimes the ghost needs to thump the table too.
The disappearing ghost
In all ghostwritten books the aim is to give the reader the sense that the celebrities have written their books themselves, so the skill of the ghostwriter is in capturing the authentic “voice” of the subject—which may be very different from the way he or she speaks, let alone writes (assuming the celebrity writes at all, which is not always the case). Celebrity authors often delude themselves that they could have written the books without help if only they had the time, and that the ghost is little more than a glorified secretary. A professional ghostwriter won’t mind this. Part of the ghost’s job is to convince subjects that they have indeed written it themselves; this enables them to talk about it convincingly when publicizing the book.
Not the least of our skills is the ability to disappear.
The author of this article prefers not to identify himself. He confesses to having ghosted several bestselling “autobiographies.”