September 18, 2013

Ghostwriters on weed, love, cash, and vampires


Ewan knows the perils of the trade.

Ghostwriters are the black sheep — but the highly envied black sheep — of the literary world: though the mere presence of them destroys the lovely fantasy of the words on the page being the author’s direct and authentic expression of their inner soul, they’re an acknowledged element of the publishing ecosystem and in recent years have increasingly had their names up front on covers and title pages. And the money they make for such jobs is no chump change.

And now, they even have agents: Madeleine Morel, head of 2M Communications, an agency that exclusively represents ghostwriters, was interviewed by Lucy Sisman for WWWord recently and revealed many details about the world of ghostwriting (but not all! after all, it’s still sort of secret — on their website, 2M calls the books “confidentially written titles”).

It’s an interesting set of people turning out your NYT bestsellers, for one thing. Morel says that ghostwriters are generally of three types:

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.

This new class of writers has a certain set of skills, which is equal parts professional (how to write a book that respects an author’s voice, and fast, because ghostwritten books are usually on tight schedules) and psychological (how to gain the author’s confidence so that they’re happy with the final product).  Also, they have to have no ego and infinite tact:

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.

But the rewards for this high-level handholding can be sizeable: ghostwriters can get between $40,000 and $70,000 per book, and Morel has had seventeen of the titles she’s supplied ghostwriters for on the New York Times bestseller list, four of them in the No. 1 spot.

Morel usually matches ghostwriters with specific areas of expertise to specific projects. But there’s also, of course, the series side of ghostwriting, either for a big-name author like Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum, or for series-heavy categories like YA fiction. Ryan Nerz, who ghostwrote for the Sweet Valley High series while he was in his 20s, described how he managed the demands of the job in a Hairpin interview with Grace Bello last year:

How did you get into the mindset of writing for a teen girl? Did you just try to match the style? Did you do research?

I had to smoke a lot of weed. I’m kind of kidding, kind of not. The first thing you have to do is read them, which is really funny for a 23-year-old guy in New York City. You’re going to a local Starbucks and hiding your Sweet Valley High books behind a Rolling Stone magazine. But, yeah, you have to read them. That’s the only way.

Basically, what you’re trying to do is emulate a consistent tone throughout the series. It’s not very conducive to finding your own voice, because the whole point is to find their voices. You have to read the specific series, but in general, once you read those kinds of books — the serial teen books — you find they’re almost like TV scripts. Very short scenes.

And Suzanne Mozes’s New York Magazine article about James Frey’s fiction factory, Full Fathom Five, is undoubtedly still rattling MFA parties a couple years on — you will remember that this is the one where Frey predicted that “aliens were the next vampires” and offered young would-be ghostwriters book contracts for $250, a percentage of revenue, no copyright, no control over how or whether their name was used on the project, and a potential $50,000 fee if word got out to the public that the writer was working for the company. With such terms, it’s mildly surprising that Frey didn’t just put up a big picture of himself with fangs and a cape and attempt to sell the movie rights for six figures — vampiric they certainly are.

But my favorite account of ghostwriting in recent years has got to be Jennie Erdal’s memoir, Ghosting, where she tells the story of the years she spent writing first letters and articles, and then, finally, erotically charged literary novels for Naim Attallah, the larger-than-life publisher of Quartet Books.

What’s especially great about the book is Erdal’s frankness about the messy emotional terrain of ghostwriting, particularly for a person like Attallah (called “Tiger” throughout) who firmly maintains the fiction that the work is truly a collaboration, while saying nothing of the kind in public; Tiger comes up with preposterous book ideas, hands them over to Erdal (whose ghostwritten books were the first published books of her career) to somehow sort out the writing, and then happily accepts congratulations at celebratory cocktail parties when the book comes out, introducing Erdal to everyone as his editor. The relationship between the two can, in the end, probably best be described in the immortal words of Pink and Lily Rose Cooper: “At the same time I wanna hug you/I wanna wrap my hands around your neck…. It must be true love.”


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.