LS How did you come to specialize in ghost writing?
MM I’ve been an agent for years, and every 10 years or so I changed my focus. For the first 10 years, I specialized in pop culture—I used to say that if they could croak out a song they could crank out a book. Then I became an expert in the African-American field. In those days I had a partner; I helped create a whole backlist of books for African-Americans, basically taking what was already there and giving it a black spin. That was very successful, and publishers were throwing immense advances at us—this was in the days when everybody was falling over themselves to be PC—but none of the books came close to earning out their advances, because the money that was paid out was so off the charts. When that market disappeared—and it did—I realized that what I had been doing all my life was packaging book ideas and finding people to write those books.
LS Is it common for literary agents to specialize like this?
MM No. The reason I managed to stay in business is not because I’m brilliant—and certainly not because I’m good at selling, because I’m not; I hate it—but I’ve always managed to anticipate the next trend, to be just ahead of the curve. The same thing happened with ghostwriting. I realized that more and more books on the bestseller list were written by what we call platform authors—personalities who can bring a pre-existing audience to a book but who aren’t writers themselves, and who need somebody to write their books for them.
And since publishing has become more and more dominated by the major corporations, it’s all about the bottom line; publishers are less interested in works of literary merit and more interested in books that are going to sell a huge amount of copies. Consequently, there’s an awful lot of crap that comes out nowadays. Publishing is getting like Hollywood and television. So when I started noticing how many books were being ghostwritten, I decided that one day I was going to stop selling books altogether. I would say farewell to the authors I was representing, and I would just hang out a shingle saying that all I was going to do was represent ghostwriters. I was going to provide a service to other agents and editors in the field.
LS And does anyone else do that?
MM No, I’m the only person who does it to the exclusion of everything else. So what I have now is a talent agency. I have hundreds of different writers to whom I have access, but I would say that at any given time I have 100 to 150 writers who I’m in touch with on a semi-regular basis. So when anybody’s looking for a writer, I always give them four to six different writers to choose from, all of whom have been published multiple times by the major houses and many of whom have put books on the bestseller list. They all specialize in particular areas: sport, politics, popular culture, health and fitness and diet. Whatever you see on the bestseller list is what I do.
LS Is there a profile of a ghostwriter?
MM They fall into three rubrics: former magazine writers; former book editors who couldn’t stand the corporate life any longer, or who were laid off; and what we used to call in the old days mid-list writers—that is, writers who wrote perfectly nice books and got advances of $5,000 to $15,000. But those books can’t be sold any longer, because they don’t have a platform. So they started writing for other people.
LS How do you match a ghostwriter to a subject?
MM As I said I match writers according to what they’ve written. More and more, everything is becoming specialized, more finely defined—so you might have someone who specializes in business memoirs, and someone else who does business how-to books.
LS Does that mean you can only write a book about something you’ve done before?
MM Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. It happens because there are so many writers out there, and because agents and editors mainly take the tack that if you’ve done it before in this field, you can do it again. If you haven’t done it before, you’re an unknown quantity; but also, if, for instance, you’re doing a health-related book, a health writer already knows a lot of stuff about the subject, so you’re not starting from scratch. A memoirist really knows how to capture someone’s voice, how to create a narrative, how to ask the right questions, that sort of stuff. Someone who writes on politics, maybe they graduated in political science, so they understand the area to some extent.
This weekend, for instance, a woman came to me. She’s a professor of education with a very interesting background, and she wanted to do a memoir. She’d found someone on the internet to write the book for her. The writer who’d done the job was actually someone who’d come to me years ago. She writes decorating books. Now she was supposed to write a memoir—and it was a total and utter disaster, because that’s not her field. So the education professor has already laid out $15,000 for stuff that’s good for firewood. She’ll never get that back, so now she’ll have to start over from scratch.
LS So how do you find writers?
MM Nowadays, almost everybody finds me. I really have become writer central, as it were, because I’ve done this for so long and I’m the only person doing it. You see, I’ve created a different business model. Agenting is primarily a monogamous business—every writer has one agent—but because a lot of ghostwriters come from the industry and know people in publishing already, many of them don’t bother to have an agent, or they have loose arrangements with their agents. So I don’t represent anyone exclusively. They’re free to go off and do something else. I don’t go to bed at night with a stomach ache thinking, “Oh, God, I’ve got to find so-and-so a job or I’m going to lose another client.” And I can legitimately recommend six different writers and let them compete against each other, so it’s a win-win situation all round. The writers get increased exposure; they may not get one particular job, but then somebody will come back and say, I remember that writer, or I was interested in them, or what have you. I’ve become increasingly fussy about who I take on—writers who have been published many times by the big guys. I’m sure wannabe writers are great, terrific, but I don’t need it. There’s no money in it, and a small book is just as much work as a big one.
LS So how does the relationship work? Someone’s agent calls you.
MM Initially, I find out if the person cares whether it’s a man or a woman, or if they have to be located anywhere in particular. Once we get those basic parameters out of the way, I send a selection of half a dozen writers who specialize in whatever field is involved. In the email I would normally include a thumbnail description of each writer and their major achievements along with a detailed CV. The agent or editor comes back to me and says they’re interested in X, Y or Z, asking to set up a phoner or meet with them. Very occasionally, someone is asked to produce a little bit of sample manuscript.
A lot of it comes down to chemistry. Ghostwriting a book is a bit like a marriage. It’s a very close, intimate relationship. Ghostwriting isn’t a secret, it’s just shorthand for co-author, book doctoring, editing—something where you’re helping someone else write a book.
LS But don’t some people want to pull off the impression they wrote it themselves?
MM Oh, yes, lots of people. I don’t know if you read Julia Moskin’s hilarious New York Times piece, “Confessions of a Cookbook Ghostwriter.” God, it had everybody up in arms, telling all these secrets. She said Gwyneth Paltrow had a ghostwriter, and immediately Gwyneth was twittering all over the world about how “I didn’t have a ghostwriter, I may have had somebody look at my editing.” Rubbish. Of course they all have ghostwriters.
LS So part of the deal might be that I don’t want it disclosed then I didn’t write it?
MM Yes—confidentiality clauses. But I always try to put it in a writer’s contract that they can include the book on their publishing CV. A lot of people don’t mind, they’re happy to share the cover credit. I always insist on a generous acknowledement so that at least they get their names mentioned somewhere. But a lot of ghostwriters couldn’t care less whether they have their name on a book or not, for them it’s just a job. Sometimes they don’t want their name on it at all, if it’s a book they may be embarrassed about. And from my point of view it’s a good bargaining chip: Okay, my writer will take his or name off the book, but it’s going to cost more.
LS And who owns the copyright?
MM The author. They always work for hire. All these agreements and all these relationships are work for hire. It’s the author’s story. They signed the publisher’s contract. Ghostwriters don’t sign the publisher’s contract; they have a side agreement with the author. I always try to ensure that the writer will have access to the publisher and editor. You’d be amazed at how many people try to limit that, which is ridiculous.
LS Is there a proposal before the book is written?
MM If an agent comes to me, they always require a proposal and a sample chapter. The author pays for that. Once that’s been approved by all parties, the author’s agent will shop the book. If an editor comes to me, it’s just about writing the manuscript.
LS So when the book is finished, and it goes for copy editing—and there’s normally a lot of back and forth—it doesn’t then go to the author, it goes straight to the writer, for questions and so forth?
MM Exactly. There are famous instances of people not having read their own books, and basically admitting as much on television.
LS Have you ever had to coax people into ghostwriting?
MM No. Because ghostwriting takes a certain type of individual. You have to have basically no ego. You have to be able to put up with people who have extreme egos, or are extremely lazy, or basically regard you as being a glorified secretary, an amanuensis. Other authors are terrific, they pitch in, they help you as much as possible, but you’re also dealing with somebody who doesn’t really understand what publishing is about, so they’re a little insecure in that regard. So it’s very much up to the writer to help guide the process and focus the book. Authors may have one idea that’s completely wrong, and they have to be gently steered towards another idea. A lot of them are very paranoid; they don’t want to give away anything. And, you know, there’s no book if they don’t want to give anything away.
LS And what happens if it all goes wrong?
MM That happens periodically. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t. If it all goes wrong, I’m often brought in to rewrite manuscripts that have gone wrong. Well, not me—one of my writers. There have been incidents when one of my writers has screwed up, for one reason or another. And if it goes wrong, then traditionally the writer keeps what they’ve already been paid, and hopefully there’s still enough in the pot for somebody else to pick up the pieces.
LS What’s the most unusual person you’ve ever found a ghostwriter for? Is there anybody who’s been a surprise to you?
MM Well, I can’t name them—it’s somebody well known. Egregious behavior. A celebrity author, a lot of bestsellers. His last three books were written by one of my writers. And he was one of these people who insist adamantly that the writer can have no communication whatsoever with the editor. So if the writer ever needed to communicate with the editor, it had to go through me, and there was all this subversive stuff going on. It was completely ridiculous; if the writer hadn’t had access to the editor, the books would never have been finished. So when we were negotiating the contract for the fourth book, I suddenly noticed there was a clause in the contract that said if the writer breached the confidentiality agreement, the writer could be sued for up to a million dollars—and that included speaking to the publishing editor. At which point we walked.
LS This was a writer who was asking for a ghostwriter?
MM Well, it was an author who was asking for a ghostwriter. Authors—they’re the platform people, and writers are the ghostwriters. This was a personality. I mean, unbelievable.
LS You were saying that you picked location and gender?
MM It often doesn’t matter, but I just like to know upfront so I can focus. For instance, if a book is by a woman who’s been sexually abused or raped or what have you, chances are I’m going to choose a woman writer. Some things are quite obvious.
LS You talked about the characteristics of a good ghostwriter—having no ego—but are there other things too?
MM They have to be able to work fast, because all these books are fast-tracked. Most books written by ghostwriters are tied in to some event, be it political, be it on television, be it a movie. So they have to be able to work really fast. They have to be able to put up with a fair amount of shit. Again, when it gets too bad, I have to call the personality’s agent and say, you know, you’re going to have to speak to your author, because— And, yes, they have to be available night and day, more or less. They have to sort of step into the skin of the person, who sometimes is really nice to them and really appreciates them and works with them, and other times, you know…
LS And get their voice?
MM Yes, very important. That’s paramount.
LS So nationality matters?
MM I don’t think so. I have quite a few writers here who are English, and they seem to manage to pull off American stories without any trouble. I think most Brits who live in New York are probably New Yorkers.
I would say now that looking at the bestseller list—the hardcover list, and the advice/how-to—about 70 percent of all books that hit the bestseller list are probably ghostwritten. It’s huge. Huge. People may say “Ew, ghostwritten,” but I tell you, ghostwriting has been a godsend for most writers, because it has provided a whole other field of writing. And a lot of these writers do very well, because they’re very adept at what they do, and a lot of them can do three or four books a year. They do just fine. They don’t have much of a life, those people, but that’s how they choose to work.
LS And is it always nonfiction?
MM Mostly. There are some. Yes, for instance, Kim Kardashian did a novel recently. Star Jones did a novel recently. Snooki did a novel. But most ghostwritten fiction tanks. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t seem to work the same way as nonfiction.
LS Does this mean you’ve got to know an awful lot about pop culture?
MM No, thank God. I should, but I don’t. People call me and say, I want to do a book with so-and-so, and I say huh? And I’m googling, and saying, Oh, of course! And thinking, who the hell is this?
LS Can you name some books you’ve done?
MM Behind you is a bunch of books I’ve been involved with. I don’t know that I can talk about all of them. I can certainly talk about some of them. I got into this through doing three or four books with Dr. Phil. That was my big break. I think that’s been written about before.
LS Was it the same ghostwriter who did all of them?
MM Those three, yes. Now, Mob Daughter, by Karen Gravano with Lisa Pulitzer, that has been a huge seller. She’s the daughter of Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, you know, who ratted out John Gotti. She’s on this hideous television show, Mob Wives—have you ever seen it? It’s all these mob women from Staten Island who are endlessly fighting and screeching at each other.
And this is another one that Lisa did, Stolen Innocence, which was a big, big bestseller. That was a case where the publisher came to us. This little girl, Elissa Wall, she was the person who was forced into marriage underage by Warren Jeffs, the crazy fundamentalist Mormon.
The Biggest Loser, that was another big book again, written by one of my ghostwriters. That came out quite a while ago. Since I’ve been doing this I’ve put almost 20 books on the bestseller list. Just shy of 20. The 17-Day Diet, for which I provided the ghostwriter—that was the all-time bestselling diet book of last year.
LS Why, because 17 days doesn’t seem like a lot?
MM No. It was promoted on television a lot.
LS And Mike Moreno is a famous person on TV?
MM Well, he is now, yeah. But he was promoted on this show The Doctors, and by Phil McGraw.
LS So he’s a nutritionist who just…
MM He’s a doctor. There was a big piece about him in Newsweek magazine. It was actually packaged by Phil McGraw’s son, Jay McGraw, who’s become a very successful publisher in his own right. And this book, because of the television coverage, sold almost a million copies.
LS And that’s a health ghostwriter.
MM The fatter America gets, the more health books get put out. It’s quite unbelievable. I think right now, I have at least four or five health/fitness books that I’m working on. At any one time I would say I’m working on about 50 different projects, from sending out names as potential candidates, to chasing up delivery and acceptance payments.
LS Do you get involved at all, when it’s crossing your desk? You obviously read it and think, oh, wait a minute.
MM Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. It depends on the agent. If the agent wants my opinion, I’m happy to give it. If they don’t want my opinion, then, frankly, I’m delighted not to have to read a proposal. Different agents feel differently. And then in terms of monies—
LS Yes, can you say what…
MM I would say that the average fee now that my writers get to write a book is between, say, $40,000 and $70,000.
LS I had no idea. I thought you were going to say $5,000 to $10,000.
MM Oh, good God, no. If that were the case I’d be standing on the corner!
LS Amazing. Can you say what you take out?
MM A 15 percent commission, which is agency standard. And then—the money used to be more. It used to be more like $60,000 to $100,000, but, then, you know, publishing came back big-time. And then in terms of royalties, that’s negotiable—I would say more books don’t pay royalties to the ghosts than do, but as most books don’t earn out anyway, I think most of the writers I’m interested in take the money and run.
LS Who sets the word count?
MM The publisher. It’s to do with the size of the book. A bigger book doesn’t necessarily mean a better book.
LS What about things like pictures and captions?
MM The ghostwriter is responsible for captions, but not for getting the pictures. And expenses like transcription get paid too.
LS And what about the title?
MM Sometimes the authority has a title; sometimes the title comes to the writer and the author while they’re writing the book; sometimes the editor comes up with it.
LS Are there particular publishers that you like to work with?
MM There are only six publishers out there anyway, and I’ve worked with them all on one level or another. They all have a lot of different imprints within the company, of course.
LS And do you have much interaction with publishers?
MM I mostly deal with the agents. A much smaller percentage of books I do come through the publishers. In most cases publishers buy their books from the agents. Agents will always try to keep something in-house if they can. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, because if you’re representing both parties and they have a falling out, then you as the agent have to try to be Solomonic in resolving the situation, and who do you hang out to dry, as it were? Is it the writer—who is maybe a terrific writer you’ve used a lot—because you don’t want to lose your author if there’s some really big-name author whose book is going to make you a ton of money. So I think it makes much more sense to use someone like myself, because I only commission what I get from my writers. The commissioning agent still gets his or her money off the top. So that obviates that possible conflict of interests. And now I’m getting into the whole self-publishing thing. I’ve started an adjunct business called Venture Press.
LS How does that work? Is it nothing to do with ghostwriting?
MM Well, it is. I have a partner, Amy Edelman, who has a website, indiereader.com, and she knows all about independent publishing. It’s the leading indie publishing site; they give out prizes for the best independent self-published books. My contention has always been that I don’t know how many people are out there who are wealthy and want to do a book but who don’t have the kind of life or platform that would make a publisher want to publish the book. I’m only interested in doing this with high-net-worth individuals—people who feel they have a legacy they want to share with their families or who want to promote their businesses when they schlep around the country. But they can self-publish now. Self-publishing is to publishing what online dating has become to the old-fashioned form of dating: it’s losing that stigma, but a lot of these people want the very best writers in the business to write their books so they can create a legacy of which they will be proud. So that’s the next thing I’m doing—offering this service to people in the banking world, or worlds where they’ve done extremely well and want to have a book published.
LS So this is a much higher price?
MM Yes. $70,000 to $100,000. And for that they’ll get the best writers in the business. I’ll just deal with the writing side and Amy will deal with production: do they want print-on-demand? Offset? E-books? Promotion, all that kind of stuff. It’s an adjunct to what I already do. I don’t want it to become a full-time thing, because I like working within publishing. I’m dealing with my peers, we all talk the same language, we understand each other. There’s a tremendous amount of terrific people out there who want to publish books.