What are fiction ghostwriters and why are they so crucial?

Ghost writers, known as ghost writers, are increasingly in demand in the literary world. Why?

When Penguin Random House announced in July that it would publish Prince Harry’s memoir, one name was left out of the press release. The man who channeled the voice of the Duke of Sussex for the book, JR Boehringer, was not among the details the publisher released. But those in the industry know that Boehringer, one of the most high-profile ghost writers, will be an essential component in the royal book, even if his name never appears in the final product.

Ghost writers, or “contributors” as they are now called, are nothing new. While the famous have been writing books, others have helped them from the shadows to do so. It’s a highly specialized job that requires a very specific combination of skills: the best type of contributor is equal parts editor, reporter, writer, impersonator, and psychiatrist. 

In short, Ghost writers are writers who listen to what the author wants to tell, and transmit it in the best possible literary prose until it becomes a book. As long as you are famous or have something interesting to tell, you no longer need to know how to write, that’s what they are for. 

In today’s industry, where publishers are increasingly reliant on big-platform celebrity nonfiction projects, good contributors are more in demand than ever. It’s also the kind of job, highly paid at the highest level that attracts a growing population: writers, journalists, and editors.

The highest paid Ghost Writers can earn up to 7 figures on a project.

Madeleine Morel, a literary agent who has spent her career representing Ghost Writers (they are the only clients of her company, 2M Communications Ltd., which is more than 20 years old), said that, in the past, “talking about ghostwriting services it was like admitting with some shame that you had been dating on the Internet. Now, that no longer happens. 

The increasing demand for celebrity books has created a greater need for Ghost writers than ever before. Morel believes that this has led to a turning point: “I always say that it is the best and the worst moment. It is the best because there is more collaborative work than ever, and it is the worst because there are more collaborators than ever. 

So how many high levels ghost writers are there? When asked about collaborators like Boehringer, who is rumored to earn seven figures per project (and who has written two critically acclaimed nonfiction books and has a pair of Pulitzers), Morel noted that they are “few and far between.” each”.

Ghost Writers Tend

There’s Ariel Levy (who contributed to Demi Moore’s 2019 memoir Inside Out) and Buzz Bassinger (who contributed to Caitlin Jenner’s 2017 memoir The Secrets of My Life). In these cases, the contributors were not mentioned anywhere in the books, although their work was documented in several post-publication reports. 

Below the highest-level contributors are other well-regarded writers who make a very good living as Ghost writers. Morel estimated that “the best of the best,” that is, fiction ghostwriters with many books sold, include 20 to 30 people, “maybe as many as 50.” A senior industry professional, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that good ghosts can earn between $100,000 and $300,000 per year. Morel said that the average Ghost Writer’s project for his clients earns between $75,000 and $100,000 and it usually takes him about six months to write the book. 

While the projects differ, most Ghost writers tend to charge a flat fee. (Some can and do require a percentage of the advance and/or book sales, but that’s less common.)

The change of mentality: from Ghost writer to collaborator.

Gail Ross, a veteran literary agent for the Washington, DC-based Ross Yoon Agency, estimated that half the books she sells require a contributor. She stated that ghost writers have always been “very, very important.” But it’s true, she continued, “in the past, nobody wanted to say they were using a collaborator or a fiction ghostwriters, and now it’s fully respected. Most people [who use collaborators] also recognize that it’s the only way they can finish their book.”

Will Lippincott, a senior agent at Alevites Creative Management, said that he has done more business with Ghost writers in the last three years than in the previous ten? Estimating that 25-30% of his projects have “a contributor attached to them at some point,” Lippincott said these specialists are usually brought in at the proposal stage and help the author craft the book from the ground up.

“I love ghost writers,” said Anthony Matter, a CAA agent. Estimating that there are between 50 and 100 fiction ghostwriters doing two to three books a year and “always working with the biggest personalities,” he said he thinks the change in nomenclature – from ghost writer to contributor – speaks to a change in the understanding of what ghostwriters really do. « In the past, it was, ‘You talk and I’ll write.’ Now I think [employees] have more input into the process.” He added that, as an agent, he knows that he needs great collaborators who are fully committed to making projects work. “We want them to like the idea and get involved in the creative process.”

If they are so important, why are they hardly talked about?

And yet, as important and respected as these writers are, their work remains largely hidden from the public. Very few get what are known as ‘ Next to’ credits (when their names appear on book covers, preceded by the phrase ‘written next to’), it can sometimes be a battle to get a ghostwriter’s name out to appear on the front page, and not just in ‘acknowledgments’.

Morel said he often has to insist on a clause that allows his fiction ghostwriters to include his projects on their resumes. Because ghostwriters are often privy to private details about the lives of celebrities, NDA-style agreements are standard parts of her contracts. In short, it’s a bit like Fight Club: fiction ghostwriters can rarely tell who they’ve worked with, let alone what they’ve discussed with that person.

Hilary Liftin, fiction ghostwriters who has 13 bestsellers to her name, said that when she started working, it was assumed that things written by ghostwriters “were subpar or tricky.” While this has changed within the industry, it may not be true for the general public.

Liftin prefers not to be mentioned on the covers of her books, but she would like to see that negative perception of contributors removed. “I don’t want to be on the cover for cosmetic reasons and because I’m not trying to be a famous ghostwriter,” she said. “I say ghost because I like the word, but I think as a professional you want to be visible, so I’m usually, but not always, on the title page.”

Rodgers, who has worked on more than 30 books, said he wanted “the business model would allow someone to put that credit on the cover without feeling like they were conceding something.” For future Ghost writers, she added, she advocates making cover credits the standard.

Memoir Demonstrated

Colin Vickerman, editorial director of nonfiction at Grand Central, feels that Andre Agassi’s 2009 memoir Open, the first book Boehringer ghostwritten, marked something of a turning point. He explained that he taught people how much a Ghostwriter could bring to a project. The memoir demonstrated “that you can combine a celebrity with first-rate literary talent and end up with a book that is extraordinary.” Suddenly, he added, people in the business realized that a book “could be a literary event, as well as a celebrity event.”

When asked why, then, if ghost writers are so important, they remain sidelined, Vickerman said it’s about maintaining a kind of romantic ideal. “I’m not saying it’s correct,” he noted, “but there’s this romance of reading the story of a celebrity you want to know more about. It requires privacy. The fear is that putting the ghostwriter on the cover might upset that.” However, for Ghost Writers, a little more open appreciation of their work wouldn’t be so bad.

As one writer speaking anonymously explained, there are still maddening moments in the profession. “My wife was in line to get on a plane and there was a man reading Andre Agassi’s memoirs,” he recalled. “The man said: ‘I don’t think it’s fair that Agassi is a great tennis player and a great writer.’ I just wish more people understood that, yes, people do hire help to write his books. Why does it have to be a secret that no one can know?

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