Admit it: You’ve read at least one book written by a celebrity, politician, or business tycoon in the past year, if not the past month. You’re no fool, though. You know that people like Keith Richards, Snooki, and Donald Trump often have help writing their memoirs. But what exactly does ghostwriting a book for someone else entail? How much of the book does the ghostwriter write and how much does the “author” contribute? What’s the ghostwriter-author relationship really like? We tapped a handful of professional ghostwriters to find out.
1. COACHING THE AUTHOR IS A BIG PART OF THE GIG.
Researching, outlining, writing, and revising are only part of what ghostwriters do. The job also entails a certain amount of handholding, especially when working with a first-time author who may not know how labor-intensive book writing is.
“Just because they can tell a story at the bar, doesn’t mean it’s going to look good on the page,” says Mike Edison, a New York‑based author, editor, and ghostwriter who’s worked on a number of food and music memoirs. “Some people think that sex and drugs are what’s really going to sell the book, and they push too hard on that.”
On the flip side, some authors are more circumspect, requiring the ghostwriter to draw them out lest they have no material to work with. “Some people are brash in the public light but get skittish when the writing starts,” Edison says. He’s repeatedly seen larger-than-life rock stars clam up upon realizing that their spouse and family will probably read their book.
“They might freak out about their girlfriend if they’re talking about having sex with someone who’s not their girlfriend, even if happened 25 years ago,” Edison says. Here’s where that hand-holding comes in: “When you’re writing a memoir, honesty is the currency you trade in,” Edison reminds his clients. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”
2. GAINING ACCESS TO AUTHORS CAN SUCK UP A LOT OF TIME.
It may sound counterintuitive that a public figure who’s hot to “write” a book would disappear the moment they get a publishing contract, but it happens a lot. This means ghostwriters can spend a decent chunk of their time trying to get on the schedule of the authors who’ve hired them.
“I know one writer who builds a certain number of author-access hours into each contract,” says Judy McGuire, a New York‑based author and ghostwriter. “It’s an excellent idea because your publisher doesn’t care if your author is too busy on Broadway or fulfilling her Real Housewife obligations—they still want the book on schedule.”
3. GHOSTWRITERS GET TO KNOW THEIR AUTHORS REALLY WELL.
Being a people person is a must for ghostwriters, who can spend several weeks, months, or years working with an author on their book. “People have to feel comfortable with you and they have to like you,” says Stephanie Krikorian, a New York‑based journalist and New York Times best-selling celebrity ghostwriter. “They’re trusting you with their life story or their life’s work. And most people only get one book, so I take that responsibility very seriously.”
McGuire agrees. “You get so close to someone,” she says. “You hear all their dirt. You’re like their shrink. It’s a very one-sided relationship, but it can be very intense. And then it’s over. That can be good (if they’re annoying) or a little sad.”
4. THE AUTHOR GETS THE FINAL SAY, NOT THE GHOSTWRITER.
“A lot of times when people read back their words, they say, ‘Oh, I would never say that,’ or, ‘That doesn’t sound like me,’” Krikorian says of her authors. This happens despite Krikorian recording and transcribing each conversation she has with them.
But if an author doesn’t like a turn of phrase, they don’t like a turn of phrase, and Krikorian will make a tweak. “Every author I work with signs off on every single word in their book, so I’m not putting words in anybody’s mouth,” she explains. “They’ve read it five times before it goes into print.”
5. THE PAY VARIES WILDLY.
A book’s length, complexity, and deadline all factor into the fee the ghostwriter negotiates. Ghostwriters can get paid anything from $15,000 to $150,000, even hundreds of thousands if the author is a household-name celebrity. In addition to their flat fee, some negotiate a percentage of royalties.
Take Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter behind The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump’s 1987 New York Times best-selling memoir. Schwartz earned half of Trump’s $500,000 book advance for his efforts, along with half the book’s royalties on the back end, eventually netting him millions of dollars.
6. GHOSTWRITERS TURN DOWN FAR MORE WORK THAN THEY ACCEPT.
Almost everyone has a book idea in them. Many people, upon meeting a ghostwriter at a party, will share their idea in hopes that the ghostwriter will provide feedback or even take on their project for a cut-rate fee. (“I’ll pay you on the back end if the book makes any money.”) This is not how professional ghostwriters work. Most carefully vet the books they take on, based on budget, the viability of the project, and whether they’re the right wordsmith for it. Often the projects they accept have been vetted by a literary agent, publishing company, or mutual contact first.
“Most people do have a book in them,” Krikorian says. “But the economics of publishing don’t allow for all those people to hire a writer to do their book.”
7. GHOSTWRITING IS ONE OF PUBLISHING’S WORST-KEPT SECRETS.
Many ghostwriters will tell you—sometimes even on the record—that at least 60 percent of celebrity books are ghostwritten. The most obviously ghosted books bear both the author and ghostwriter names on the cover. Sometimes the ghostwriter or “collaborator” credit is a bit more subtle: on the back cover, inside the back flap of the book, or in the acknowledgments.
Take Edison. “The books that I’ve worked on, it’s generally an open secret that I’ve worked with the authors,” he says.
8. SOME AUTHORS GHOST THEIR GHOSTWRITER POST-PUBLICATION.
Despite how close ghostwriters can get to their authors, the relationship is primarily transactional—the ghostwriter is merely a service provider easily dismissed once the transaction ends.
“Most of my clients have been generous and easy, but I know some authors won't acknowledge that they had any kind of help—it's a struggle just to get listed on the acknowledgments page—because they've built this fiction that they have actually written the book themselves,” McGuire says.
She recalls one ghostwriting project where she never met or had direct contact with the author: “He never emailed, never called—all he contributed was having his assistant send one academic journal article per chapter. These weren't even necessarily journal articles he'd written. It was very strange, but a contractor handled the whole thing. I doubt he'd even read the book before he went on 20/20 to discuss it. But as long as the check clears, who cares? You need to be ego-less in this profession. Or at least a little thick-skinned.”
9. THEY'RE OFTEN SWORN TO SECRECY.
Tony Schwartz, who shared a cover credit with Donald Trump for The Art of the Deal, infamously told The New Yorker last year how much he regrets ghostwriting the president’s book. But many ghostwriters wouldn’t dream of spilling the beans on an author or project. Plus, some are legally bound to take the secret of having written someone else’s book to their grave, no matter how well the project goes and how good their relationship is with the author.
Krikorian’s friends and family know not to ask what author she’s working with at any given moment. Instead they just ask if she has work, end of story. “I really strongly believe that my job is to keep the secret,” Krikorian says. “There’s a reason it’s called ‘ghost.’”
All photos via iStock.