Ghostwriters

Feature

Friday, January 13, 2012

The best-seller list is dominated by memoirs and self-help books written by celebrities and politicians. Or “written” by celebrities and politicians. “On the non-fiction best-seller list, 12 out of the 15 books listed probably have been ghostwritten,” reveals literary agent Madeleine Morel.

“You’re a therapist, you’re a brother, you’re a father, you’re a priest, you’re a confessor,” explains veteran ghostwriter Gene Stone. But one thing you’re not, says former ghost Barbara Feinman Todd, is a reporter: “As a journalist I’m trained to use everything that’s good. As a ghostwriter you get the access that journalists can only dream of but you don’t have the control over the story.”

"I don’t think that writing with somebody is necessarily milquetoast," says writer David Rensin. "I really want the human being to come through."

“If I’m doing a good job,” says Stone, “that person’s friend says, ‘What did you need a ghostwriter for? It’s just you!’” So how do you know who really wrote the book? Check the acknowledgements. “The more menial a task somebody is thanked for in a book the greater chance it is they actually wrote the entire book,” says Feinman Todd. “If I get thanked for my good cheer one more time, I’m going to go postal. I am not full of good cheer and I should not be thanked for it.”

    Music Playlist
  1. Matchmaker
    Composer: Jerry Bock
  2. Ghostwriter
    Artist: RJD2
    Album: Dead Ringer
    Label: RJ's Electrical Connections
    Purchase: Amazon

Contributors:

Eric Molinsky

Comments [17]

Elayne

On the subject of ghostwriting, I DO care who writes an "autobiography;" if it's a ghost writer, that would make it a biography so it should be identified as such.

Feb. 18 2012 11:03 PM
Kenn Marash from Harford Mills, NY

I have the utmost respect for ghostwriters and have done some myself. One internationally renowned scientist even insisted my name follow his as coauthor. That said, I believe the ethical line is crossed when the "author" actively hides the fact a ghostwriter was used and claims credit for writing the book, even to the point of outright lies, "I wrote it in between changing diapers and reading scripts." Acting as if something is true when it is not or presenting something as your own work when it is not is nothing more than fraud and misrepresentation. There is a big difference between "This is my life" and "This is my authorship." There's no shame is admitting who wrote the book about you. I see great shame in claiming credit for what is not yours. Commonly accepted by the consuming, celebrity-worshipping public or not, it is still misrepresentation.

Jan. 16 2012 02:49 PM

My favorite celebrity autobiography? I shudder to think I would read such pap.

But I rather enjoyed "A Whole Different Ball Game: the Sport and Business of Baseball" by Marvin Miller, the first MLB Player's Association Executive Director (1966-1982). It was written "with the help of Allen Barra," a magazine writer.

I've also read at least parts of each from Ben Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mohatma Gandhi, Eldridge Cleaver, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. Works of that ilk are common and accessible enough, are politically useful, and are usually rather engaging.

Could anyone write their stories - including Miller's - without first-hand insight to the emotional turmoil and political hand-wringing they negotiated to accomplish their goals? Anyone who could deserves an explicit mention on the back flap or the title page.

Jan. 16 2012 11:29 AM
Melissa Cook from Murfreesboro, TN

I was listening to this story on the way to work and wasn't quiet sure how I'd felt about it. I see the books that spring up during political times and I'm fairly certain that an intelligent book buying person would know that they probably didn't write all of it themselves. How can you reasonably expect a politician to find the time to write a book while on campaign or doing their job. On the other hand if you're going to get an award for it like Kennedy's book did then the person who did most of the writing should have gotten credit.
Steve Martin has all ready been mentioned and I picked up An Object of Beauty from the library. If I had found out he had his books ghost written I'd be insulted because I all ready know he can write.
I liked William Shatner's Up Till Now which says 'Autobiography William Shatner' in larger letters but underneath that it has 'with David Fisher.' Good for him on giving credit where it's due.

Jan. 15 2012 09:30 PM

To Mary Jo from Pittsburgh -- the difference with singing is that the songwriter's name is on the sheet music. Frank Sinatra was recognized for his singing, but was never credited with ever having written a melodic word. I agree with Mike Folie about helping an author make the most of their voice and ideas, and I sell my services on the basis of making an author's words as effective as possible. In my opinion, that's editing. However, ghostwriting does perpetuate the fantasy that vacuous celebrities and high-rollers not only got the looks, the fame and all the money, but writing talent and depth, as well.

Jan. 15 2012 07:53 PM
Michael & Jill Donahue

Great piece!. We both believe ghost writers should be given credit for co-authoring the book. Very few people can write a book worth reading. It is deceitful and dishonest for the "author" who did not do the writing to take credit for the work. However, with political figures, what is the definition of "dishonest" today?

Jan. 15 2012 06:31 PM
Ashley Milne-Tyte

Great piece Eric. I attended a ghostwriting panel last week and was about to pitch a ghostwriting story myself. It was really interesting to hear what your sources had to say and compare their comments to those of the ghostwriter featured on the panel - there was a lot of overlap, and some advice for journalists about having to bury your ego while you're in service to the author in question.

Jan. 15 2012 05:58 PM
Piper Robinson

A dear friend sent me the link to listen to your segment on ghostwriting. As she said, "I always find it interesting when people talk about what I
do - their views and opinions, basically, about my life." Having ghostwritten more than 100 memoirs by now, I found it so interesting to listen to those who were part of the show. I remember a gentleman's response to my answer to his question: "What do you do?" I told him I was a ghostwriter, and he asked, "What possible satisfaction could there be in that?" If you can't find any satisfaction in ghostwriting, you shouldn't be a ghostwriter. Mike Folie's comment is brilliant. If you don't get it, you shouldn't do it. I love what I do. That's the satisfaction. And that was my answer to the gentleman's question.

Jan. 15 2012 05:43 PM
Mark Edward Croy from Charlottesville

Hilariously informative...I was disappointed to find out "Profiles in Courage" was not JFK! However, my middle-aged optimism has not burst.

Jan. 15 2012 12:10 PM
ivories888 from Manhattan

Offered to help a friend edit her book and ended up ghostwriting because the writing was so awful. We wanted to keep the book in her voice;it's z wonderful voice and the essence of her story) but doing it became a riddle inside a conundrum. About 1/3 through, I threw in the towel.

Jan. 15 2012 11:35 AM
Mark Meirowitz from nyc

I enjoyed the segment on Ghostwriters. As for Profiles in Courage, I love that book -and use it in history classes that I teach. When I teach American History using the book, I tell students that JFK may have had help with the book, At the end of the day, it is a wonderful and inspiring book -- and I especially love the chapter about Senator Ross whose vote prevented the conviction of President Andrew Johnson.

Jan. 15 2012 11:29 AM
Mike Folie from Congers, NY

As a long-time speech and ghostwriter (magazine articles and policy papers, mostly, but I've worked on a couple of books), I don't understand why some people think it is somehow cheating to have a professional writer's help when a person who is not a writer has a story to tell. Writing is a difficult craft to master and do well; people who spend their lives becoming successful in business, government or the entertainment field do not have the time to spend Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" becoming a good writer, too. The story and the ideas my clients want to get across are theirs. I simply sell them my expertise in organizing the material and putting one word next to another for maximum effect. The fact is I could not write the piece without their input, while they probably could write it without mine -- although perhaps not as effectively.

Jan. 15 2012 11:03 AM
Mary Jo from Pittsburgh

I didn't like the idea of ghostwriters until I thought of it this way....What if ghostwriters were ghostSINGERS instead. What if you wanted to get your story across clearly and in an entertaining way, so that people would listen, but you had no musical talent? If you sang your story yourself, people would laugh.

Jan. 15 2012 10:39 AM
David Rensin from Los Angeles

Enjoyed being part of the show. For more about co-authoring, collaborating, and ghostwriting, read my column on the topic ... Geishas with a Pen.

http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2010/09/geishas_with_a_pen.php

Jan. 14 2012 06:33 PM
Brian Blackburn

Best celebrity autbio ever- Joan Crawford's "MY Way of Life" (emphasis mine). The unintentionally hilarious control freak on display exactly matches the characterisation in "Mommie Dearest." Read it out loud at a dinner party for maximum effect.

Jan. 14 2012 04:30 PM
Toothy McButtface

No mention that terrorist Bill Ayers ghostwrote Obama's 'Dreams From my Father?'

http://www.cashill.com/natl_general/did_bill_ayers_write_1.htm
http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/298382-1
http://www.amazon.com/Deconstructing-Obama-Americas-Postmodern-President/dp/B0055X55HK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1326569717&sr=8-1

Jan. 14 2012 02:35 PM

I haven't read many celebrity autobiographies, but my favorite was Joe Jackson's book, "A Cure For Gravity." He's erudite and coherent enough to avoid using a ghostwriter. Same with Steve MArtin's and his memoir, "Born Standing Up."

Jan. 13 2012 04:02 PM

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