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.’”

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