Friday, February 26, 2010

2010 Cicero Speechwriting Award Winners

Congratulations to all of the winners of the 2010 Cicero Speechwriting Awards, which were announced this week. We would like to give a special shout out to Gotham friend Dana Rubin, who served as one of the four judges for the Cicero Awards this year, along with several Gotham friends who were honored:

Jeffrey Porro, Commencement Speech by Anne Lynam Goddard

P. Michael Field, Patriotism, Valor, Fidelity and Ability and Beyond Wisdom: Business Dimensions of an Aging America

John A. Barnes, A Road Map for America's Energy Future

Erick Dittus,  Healthcare Reform: Getting it Right

Fletcher Dean, The Path Forward on Climate Change

Brian Jenner, Award Ceremony for the Queen's Award for Enterprise -- Introduction and Reply to Lord Crathorne

You can find a full listing of the award winners and the text of their works here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ghosts and the corporate gurus

Thought you would all be interested in this article from Financial Times on the importance of ghostwriters in today's publishing climate.

Ghosts and the corporate gurus
By Rhymer Rigby

For an activity that usually sticks to the shadows, ghostwriting has been enjoying (or enduring) a rare moment in the limelight with Roman Polanski’s film, The Ghostwriter, winning the Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin Film Festival this past weekend. The film, based on Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost, follows the titular amanuensis as he works on the memoirs of a former British prime minister and becomes drawn into a web of intrigue around his author.

While Mr Harris’s account is fictional, ghostwriters have long been a staple of the publishing industry. And in the world of business books, this is more true than in many other sectors. Authors as varied as Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Jack Welch, former head of General Electric, Sir Richard Branson and self-help guru Steven Covey have all called on the services of a collaborator when writing books. Sometimes, it is obvious. If a book’s cover reads “Household name with X”, then it is usually X who sat at the keyboard. More often, though, X will be thanked in the acknowledgements.

The rise of the ghost, says Madeleine Morel, a New York literary agent who represents ghostwriters only, has been largely driven by celebrity culture and the publishing industry’s transition from a literary endeavour to a nakedly commercial business. “Most non-fiction agents,” she says, “have been forced into the position of seeking authors who have a ‘platform’. This means either household names or people such as motivational speakers who bring the market to the book. The problem is that most of these authors aren’t writers. Books aren’t books any more. They’re products and this has been very good news for ghostwriters.”

Asking the difficult questions

Everyone is different, says Catherine Fredman, who collaborated with Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel on Only The Paranoid Survive and with Michael Dell on Direct from Dell. “With Andy, he talked, I typed – it was almost like a professor delivering a lecture, and I’d ask the questions afterwards.”

But, she says, sometimes you have to ask what appear to be dumb questions. “After we finished the chapter about the Pentium crisis, he talked about a $475m write-off and I had to ask: ‘Is that a lot or a little?’ There was a pause and he said: ‘It’s [an] enormous amount of money.’” In another instance, when collaborating on a magazine article about Mr Grove’s prostate cancer, she says: “I asked: ‘Incontinence or impotence? That’s what everybody wants to know.’ He gave me what I needed.”
Asking questions such as these and playing the role of an ordinary reader, she says, was part of the job. “Michael Dell used to answer ‘that’s obvious’ to a lot of questions. But I had to say: ‘It’s not obvious to an ordinary reader.’

“These guys are very smart but they all want bestsellers. You need to remind them of this sometimes. If you want a book to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, it needs to be accessible.”

According to John Moseley, a publisher at Headline Business Plus: “Business books have become increasingly commercial, especially in the US. Ten years ago, they were mostly written by academics and consultants who did their own writing. Now it tends to be big names. When books are personality-led, [having a ghost] can work very well.”

Jo Monroe is a ghost who has worked with Duncan Bannatyne and James Caan, both of whom appear on the UK version of the Dragons’ Den television show, on books published by Headline. “Trust is the key,” she says. “Once you’ve got that, it becomes better and better. You spend a lot of time with the author. You also speak to people’s managing directors, their wives and so on. It’s pretty intense and you go into a lot of detail, especially with early deals.”

Every ghosting project is different, says Stuart Crainer, a UK writer who has collaborated with numerous businesspeople to produce books. “A lot of people we work with do not speak English as a first language,” he says. (Mr Crainer and his partner Des Dearlove worked on the best-selling Funky Business by the Swedish duo Kjell Nordstrom and Jonas Ridderstrale.) “Some people come to us with no more than a subject – and others will have a great deal of material.”

It is not just the book, says Kristin Loberg, a Los Angeles-based ghostwriter who specialises in business and health. “I do a lot of proposals too – it’s the concept that gets sold – so often I’ll work on that, then write the book,” she says. “Sometimes the proposal can take 18 months and the book six weeks – I had one proposal sell for $1m (€734,000, £646,000).”

Ms Loberg says her fee varies – there are proposal writing fees, book writing fees and there may be royalties, but it depends on the individual deal. Similarly, the working relationship can vary. “Many of the people I work with I’ve never met – and it’s all over [the] phone. But sometimes, you work closely with huge gurus and a lot of memoirists find that they become therapists.”

Catherine Fredman, who has worked with Michael Dell and Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel (see box), says the one-to-one time can be huge: “With Andy, it was six hours every weekend for four months.”

If you are writing someone’s biography, says Simon Benham, a London-based literary agent, “it’s a very interesting dynamic. Ghosts have to be able to stand up to people and tease the story out.”

Mr Moseley takes a similar line. “You don’t just want to identify successes – they have to be able to describe where they overcame difficulties too. With business books, people are looking for inspiration and lessons, and there is often more to be learnt from failure than success,” he says. Ms Fredman agrees, saying one of the strongest parts of Mr Grove’s Only The Paranoid Survive, the book she worked with him on, came during a 12-hour revision session. “I said: ‘You have to tell me how you felt during this time when the company was under duress.’ He looked at me across the table and started talking. I didn’t take my eyes off him the whole time – and that’s [chapter 7], one of the strongest parts of the book.”

In many cases, having a book ghosted still carries a whiff of opprobrium in the popular imagination. But this may be misplaced and a little naive. For while sportspeople and television stars may not have the ability to write books, chief executives, business gurus and politicians rarely have the time. Writing a 100,000-word book is a huge undertaking, especially for those who have never done it before – and, if you use a ghost, it is likely to be delivered on time and the manuscript will require far less work.

Moreover, not everyone writes a book because they have a burning passion about their subject – often, and especially in business, a book can be part of a marketing strategy, a profile-raising exercise or a way of reaching a new audience. In the case of well-known chief executives, they are often approached by publishers or agents who will then give them a list of ghosts to choose from.

Still, there are a very few who go ghostless. Bill George, former chief executive of Medtronic, the medical technology company, states in his bestseller True North: “I decided to write this book entirely myself and without the benefit of a ghostwriter.”

A book needs to be a certain “size” in terms of sales too. “To get a good ghost costs between £10,000 and £20,0000,” says Mr Moseley. “With smaller books, the economics aren’t there.” The fee in the US, where the market is far larger, is about three times this. A star ghostwriter, such as sports writer Hunter Davies, can command about £80,000, says Mr Benham.

But the ghosting business is facing uncertain times. In the US in particular, says Ms Morel, the general distaste that Main Street has for Wall Street has affected financial titles. Book deals are not what they were, the bar is higher and the tough climate in the US media means that the competition to ghost from laid-off journalists and writers is much fiercer.

The result is that authors and publishers can be far pickier. Ms Morel says: “People often say to me: ‘I only want a ghostwriter who’s had a book on The New York Times bestseller list.’”

Finding the Time to Write

For many of us, the hardest part of writing is not the writing itself, but setting aside the time to leave all else behind and hit the keyboard running.  This week on Mediabistro's blog, writer and teacher Sahag Gureghian shares his tips for getting down to business -- among other things, say no to happy hour drinks, tote a notebook, and don't forget the ice cream.  What helps you to focus?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Latest Gerstein Forbes Column

In his weekly political column for out today, Gotham President Dan Gerstein offers a strategic cure for President Obama and his party heading into Thursday's health care summit meeting at the White House.
If Democrats can cross the psychic barrier of accepting that universal coverage is just not viable now, they'll see there's a much safer, surer and politically beneficial course wide open for them: Just call the Republicans' bluff about starting over. I'm not talking about the process, but the product. Quickly put together a fresh plan that includes the much-vaunted 80% of reforms that both sides say they agree on (pre-existing conditions, portability, lifetime caps, cross-state purchasing, etc.) and that throws in a few bones for Republicans (like the medical malpractice fixes proposed). Make that the core bill you bring to the floor in both the House and Senate, with no limits on debate. Then offer your universal coverage provisions and pay-fors as amendments right before the final vote.
You can read the full column here.

Plagiarism in Publishing

With Gerald Posner at The Daily Beast  and Zachery Kouwe at The New York Times both out of jobs because of their plagiarism, we can't help but wonder -- why?  Why are high-powered, big-name journalists committing the cardinal sin of plagiarism? Is the pressure to produce fresh content outweighing the commitment to honesty -- or do you think, like 17 year old german novelist Helene Hegemann argues, that it's not stealing if you put it in your "own unique context?" 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Speech Coaching 101 from "Coach Mike"

Speaking coach and Gotham friend Mike Landrum talks to Ragan about what tends to trip speakers up most.  His two biggest tips? Swap self-consciousness for self-awareness, and avoid the distraction of PowerPoint.  What do you think is the trick to public speaking?

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Ghost Writer" Politics

By Dan Gerstein

This weekend's opening of "The Ghost Writer," Roman Polanski's new thriller about a British speechwriter, presents our tribe of scribes with a delicate dilemma.  Here you have a rare major film, touted on the front pages of the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, dedicated to our anonymous craft.  But it just so happens to be directed by a man who committed a heinous crime a generation ago —and who continues to deeply offend many men and women alike.  What's a good ghost to do?   See the film for what it is?  Or stay away because of whom it profits?

These questions hit particularly close to home for me and our firm over the last few days.  We had decided to organize an outing for the New York-based writers in our network —most of whom are as invisible to each other as they are to the outside world —to see the film.  We thought it would a good way for them to get to know each other and to share their reactions about how our profession was being portrayed on the big screen.  So we sent out a brief heads up to our email list that an outing was in the works.  Several writers thought it was a great idea.  But a few questioned our judgment, suggesting we were wrong to be promoting the work of a pedophile (in the words of one).

That forced me to confront how I really felt about this case and the complicated issues that arise from such a jarring collision between art, commerce and morality.

I was certainly sensitive to the concerns.  I found Polanski's original crime despicable.  The same is true for his lack of accountability for it.  And in the wake of his recent arrest, I was disgusted by the way so many big-named Hollywood apologists have dismissed or excused Polanski for drugging and raping a teenage girl. 

So I understand as well as anyone why some people would boycott this new movie (or any Polanski product) out of principle — and why they would want others to do the same.  His actions over time and his lack of repentance are so outrageous, they argue, that he should be shunned.

But much as I can appreciate that argument and the moral imperative behind it, I landed with a different point of view, both in general and as it relates to this case. 

Broadly speaking, I think there is a critical difference between consuming and discussing the work of an important and morally suspect artist or public figure, on the one hand, and purposely celebrating the work, profiting from it, or glorifying the creator, on the other.  

One telling example of that is Richard Nixon.  To me, his crimes were even more offensive and damaging than what Polanski did, because of the impact on the entire nation and the public trust.  But after his presidency, he remained a highly relevant and influential public thinker, and I read his books and bought magazines with his essays.  I did not believe I was "supporting" him in doing so; I was trying to stay informed and current.

In the case of Polanski, irrespective of his personal conduct, he is widely regarded as a significant director, and he has made a film that shines a very public light on our very hidden profession.  Our reason for organizing an outing was not to validate him or his art, but merely to see how our professional community is being injected into the zeitgeist, and then to have an opportunity to meditate on it together among our peers.

But clearly reasonable people can and will disagree about where to draw the line in cases like this and tradeoffs involved.  I am curious to hear where others in the ghostwriting community come down.  Is it possible to consume the art without sanctioning its creator?  Are Polanski's actions so offensive that there is no justification for buying a ticket to his film?

Let us know what you think.  Feel free to send us a post of your own if you have something meaty to say.  Or simply add a comment below.  It's an important debate, and we welcome your input.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

10 Pathways to Inspired Blog Writing

Keeping a blog can become a job, and when the pressure to create content outweighs the inspiration we all rely on as writers -- well, that can create problems.  Over at Copyblogger, Matthew Cheuvront shares a few concrete tips on how and where to revive your blogging chops -- from swapping the computer screen for a book, itunes for an album, and your sleepy living room for the local coffee shop -- to help guide bloggers back to the basics.

Latest Gerstein Forbes Column

In his weekly political column for out today, Gotham President Dan Gerstein offers his take on Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh's surprise announcement that he was retiring from the Senate. 

The hubbub around Bayh's departure, Gerstein writes, "provided one of those vintage don't-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry moments that are a Washington specialty--and that crystallizes why the place is warped beyond all hope and change. The centrist Democrat from Indiana stood up and gave his peers the Beltway equivalent of a bitch-slap, telling them essentially that Congress has become so unrelentingly stupid and partisan that even someone with his ambition could not take it any more. And how did the political class respond? With precisely the kind of blind stupidity and partisanship that proves Bayh's point--and shows just how deep Washington's reflexive tribalism runs."

You can read the full column here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

TED's Keynote Dread

The take home message of this year's TED conference? How NOT to pick a keynote speaker.

Known as the ultimate conference of technology, business, and arts innovation, TED's choice of notably out-there comedienne Sarah Silverman seems a desperate ploy at hipness, and a wrong fit if we've ever seen one.  Gawker recaps the universal befuddlement at her talk, spurring even TED curator Chris Anderson to admit his gaffe.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to Find an Agent for Your Non-Fiction Book

Galleycat has an interesting post today about the inventive method that one first-time author (Forbes reporter David Randall) used to choose the right agent for his book, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange World of Sleep.  

"I collected a bunch of books that I liked that had the same sensibility of the book I'm working on, and searched through the acknowledgments section to see who represented and edited them," explained Randall.

The rest of the interview with Randall is well worth reading.  You can find it here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Featured Writer: John Avlon

For all you political junkies, be on the lookout for a provocative new book out this week by Gotham friend and former Giuliani speechwriter John Avlon called Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America.
John is one of the most astute political observers around (you may have seen him on CNN, where he is a regular analyst).  His last book, the nationally-acclaimed Independent Nation, pre-saged the amazing growth of the unaligned voter and to some extent the Tea Party movement.

With Wingnuts, John takes an unsparing look at the outbreak of extremism in the opening of the Obama administration – from the unprecedented government spending that spurred the Tea Party protests to the onset of Obama Derangement Syndrome.  It explains how hate-fueled rumors take hold (one section is called “How Obama Became Hitler, a Communist and the Antichrist”), examines the ‘hunt for heretics’ that is taking place inside both parties, looks at the growth of the “Hatriot” movement and details the rise of increasingly hyper-partisan media.

The book will be officially out in bookstores next week.  But it is already available on Amazon.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Latest Gerstein Forbes Column

In his weekly political column out today, Gotham President Dan Gerstein dissects last weekend's first ever National Tea Party Convention.  He calls it "hands down the political event of the season, and not just because of Sarah Palin's primetime palm-o-prompter speech."  To find out why, read the full column here.

The Elements of (Blog Writing) Style

Blogging guru Marko Saric adapts Strunk & White for the Net, offering 10 elements of style for bloggers to follow.  So forget the abbreviations and fancy words, get specific, and don't be afraid of a little revision.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Making Corporate Writing Stand Out

Corporate writing can often be lackluster, with annual reports or letters from the CEO inciting little more than an eye glaze.  Ragan offers some easy tips -- such as avoiding jargon and opting for the active over passive voice -- that will help cut through the media overload and rope in your reader.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Knucklerap Corner: Where a Red Hand is the Mark of an Improved Mind

By Lauren Weiner

Rap sheet #3 begins with an older item. Our philosophy is that it’s never to late to learn to write better.

Doctorow in Need of Prose Doctor

The Nation, August 7, 2000. E.L. Doctorow: “We may ask those who speak of this corrupt and corrupting system as a kind of speech that mustn’t be tampered with, if to privilege the free speech of corporations with vast treasuries on those grounds is not undeniably to squelch the speech of others who don’t have the same resources.”

This sentence about campaign-finance law is hard to understand. First of all, we are asked to look upon a system as a kind of speech. That’s odd. Also problematic is the allusion to corporations’ wealth. “Vast treasuries” is fine as an image but it seems to have led Mr. Doctorow to think he needed the correspondingly plural “those grounds.” There aren’t plural reasons to “privilege the free speech of corporations.” What he is trying to say is that there is one reason, wealth.

# # #, October 12, 2009. Josh Rogin: “The scene of Haqqani celebrating the F-16 deal, a long-awaited accomplishment of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, amid the backdrop of the rumors of his sacking, show the complicated dynamic surrounding him.” 

We have a scene amid a backdrop where somebody is being surrounded by something. Heavy layers there. Not to mention, the preposition that goes with “the backdrop” is “against” not “amid.” And notice the noun-verb agreement error: “the scene show the dynamic” when really the scene shows the dynamic.

Washington Post, January 21, 2010. Spencer S. Hsu and Jennifer Agiesta: “A senior Obama aide closely involved in the administration review said in an interview that FBI authorities in Detroit have deep experience investigating al-Qaeda cases, and that they gained both valuable intelligence and preserved a criminal prosecution.”

Syntax error. “Both” should come earlier. The authorities both gained intelligence and preserved a prosecution. Better yet, delete it – it’s  superfluous., October 16, 2009. Mark Salter: “And yet now, in Newsweek, on the front pages of major newspapers and on nightly television newscasts we are regularly belabored with assurances that he is single-handily forcing the administration to reconsider its commitment to winning ‘the war of necessity’ with an adequately resourced counterinsurgency that proved its efficacy in Iraq as well as the unreliability of the Vice President’s advice.”

We are not here to rap Mr. Salter for a typo (“single-handily”). Rather, we simply don’t get the meaning of this run-on-sentence.

Weekly Standard, November 2, 2009. Scrapbook: “Both rely on a pair of quarter-notes for periodic emphasis – memorably rendered by snapping fingers in Addams – and both employ unsung phrases to drive home the surreal quality of their subjects.”

“Unsung” is an odd word choice, usually used for something or someone ignored or unfairly undervalued. More precisely, Scrapbook meant spoken rather than sung. (The reference is to passages in the theme songs of the television shows “Green Acres” and “The Addams Family.”), September 23, 2009. Caryn James: “But just as Minx isn’t what a glib description of a cross-dresser suggests, Rage only sounds as if it’s about fashion; there’s not an eye-catching dress in sight.”

She meant Minx isn’t your usual cross-dresser and “Rage” isn’t your usual movie about the fashion industry. The equation would have been easier to grasp if its first half weren’t so verbose.

First Things, January, 2010. Lauren Weiner: “The straight-laced Davis was loath to join him on ‘Candy Man’ before an audience – eventually Van Ronk caught on that the song he’d been performing was about a pimp.”

“Straight-laced” is in the dictionary. Still, the better choice would have been “straitlaced,” as in narrowly or tightly bound. That would have better captured the Reverend Gary Davis’ strictness. (Thanks to alert reader Mark Halpern for pointing this out.)

# # #

Helping Helprin – Again!

Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2009. Mark Helprin: “When necessary, you can liquidate your holdings with neither legal fees nor court supervision.”

This sentence appears in a piece about piracy off the coast of Africa. Taking a satirical approach, the writer treats the pirates as if they were businessmen – and lucky ones since they operate free of normal business constraints. The conceit is that the constraints are absent. As in, not there. Yet instead of putting it in terms of absence – for which the word “without” comes in handy – Mr. Helprin uses “with” followed by negatives. Not a natural way of putting it.

Knucklerap archive:
August 2009
May 2009

Weiner, a Gotham team member, is a speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Featured Writer: Jeffrey Porro

Gotham friend Jeffrey Porro urges President Obama to take a cue from successful CEOs and ditch the laundry list in favor of "the vision thing." Delivering a dazzling presentation -- like Steve Jobs did with the tablet -- may just be the only option in today's tough environment.     
Jobs might have an easier product to sell than Obama -- a "magic" tool versus serious reform -- but the point remains: Leaders, whether in politics or business, must communicate a vision that sticks.  For the CEO, this means effectively reaching the groups most important to the survival of the CEO's company -- employees, analysts, stockholders, customers, regulators, and the press.
Read more at The Washington Post.

Copy Editors Beware

Even trained writers and copy editors fall prey to mixing up possessives, apostrophes, and contractions. Ragan lends a helping hand by identifying these proofers' land mines and sparing editors everywhere the screw up.

Alan Mutter: No Thanks for Nothing

Internet entrepreneur and longtime journalist Alan Mutter issues a provocative call to arms to reporters and other freelances: stop cooperating in your own exploitation by working for free.  Journalists need to be paid, he argues, not exposed. 

Monday, February 1, 2010

Gotham Ghostwriters in the News

The State of the Union may be a time to listen, but that doesn't mean we can't respond.  Erica America weighs in on the SOTU's relationship with social media, using our State of the Union dialogue as an example.  Is it possible to tweet and follow the president's message? You decide.

Featured Writer: Greg Bailey

Greg Bailey, a Gotham friend and the St. Louis correspondent for The Economist, takes a look back at the unsolved mystery of Joseph White.  His piece for Failure Magazine, entitled What Happened to Joseph White? takes a look back at the history and possible psychology behind the last American soldier to defect to North Korea.