Friday, March 30, 2012

Some Famous Ghosted Books

Inspired by the recent New York Times scandal-ette involving cookbook ghostwriting, Flavorpill stepped up today to share "10 Famous Ghostwriting Collaborations."

Few (although surely some) will be shocked by the revelations that Francine Pascal (Sweet Valley High), R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), and Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew) had an awful lot of help churning out their myriad books.

Ghostwriting—it's definitely not new, and it's definitely here to stay.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ghostwriting—The Food, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last week the New York Times got the usually tight-wrapped tongues in our writer-for-hire community wagging with a fairly caustic tell-all article, “I Was a Cookbook Ghostwriter.” After penning the piece—which delivered a considerable amount of dish on several prominent chefs, both named and hinted at—Julia Moskin's career as a ghost might be cooked. Which may be for the best, because it seemed like the clearest message in her article was that she was in the wrong line of work in the first place.

That was the clear conclusion drawn by the experienced ghosting pros in our network of more than 600 writers whom we surveyed over the last few days. They were shocked by Moskin’s initial naïveté and eventual cynicism, disappointed by her characterization of their craft, and amazed that she’d managed to get herself into such disadvantageous situations time and again. (You’ll forgive us for not using their last names when we quote them herein—these ghosts are quite content to remain out of the spotlight.)

Two of Moskin’s points struck a particularly discordant note. First: “Although each project begins as a love affair, it rarely ends that way; disillusion is part of the job.” And second: “When a ghosted book is successful, watching someone else get credit for your work is demoralizing.” These seem like resounding red flags that Moskin should never have gotten into ghostwriting. Says our ghost Emma: “It is not the expectation of a ghostwriter to accept credit; hence the term 'ghost'—i.e., being invisible. Getting credited in a book is an honor, not an expectation.” Adds Melanie, “It takes a special personality to be a ghostwriter. You have to be okay with letting someone else take the spotlight. The satisfaction comes from helping others fulfill their dreams.” And Sheila puts it even more bluntly: “As for credit, the only important place for your name is on the check.”

On the subject of compensation, Michael says, “Don't be a hungry idiot, as the article suggests. Be a smart businessperson.” Ellen confirms that view: “The recipe for a happy ghostwriter? Take one part talent and two parts business sense. Never work without a contract! If you negotiate upfront for a piece of the action, you can feel a lot better about your author’s success. And when a chef pulls a stunt like taking your name off the cover to save his wife’s feelings, ask him how her feelings will be impacted when you sue him.”

These servings of tough love were often leavened with dashes of sympathy. Moskin seems to have had some truly grueling experiences, like being held under armed guard in a compound in Bogotá, or having the culinary star who promised to cater her wedding after she wrote his book disappear without a trace when the time came to do so. But difficult clients come with the territory, and it’s up to the ghostwriter to manage relations and expectations. Says James, “The jobs she’s complaining about show how the relationship can be broken when a ghostwriter does not fully understand how the relationship should work.”

The good news, our ghosts report, is that those execrable clients are the exception to the gruel. And when a ghostwriting partnership does work, it’s a terrific, mutually beneficial collaboration. Bernie, an executive speechwriter, is regularly flown around in corporate jets. Leslie wrote of the deep relationships she develops with her clients, who become her friends. Allen has worked with authors who are “remarkably respectful of my time and talents.”

Ghostwriting, while not new, is gaining popularity and exposure these days, due to the shifting nature of the publishing industry. This is a highly specialized skill in an industry filled with specialized skills, and it’s certainly not for everyone. Says Emma, “Ghosts can be very well paid, and have the privilege of working with some very interesting clients. The reason there aren’t that many ghosts around is because there are very few people who possess the talent, dedication, and ability to do one of the hardest jobs on the planet.”


P.S.: It seems we’re not the only ones to have gotten heartburn from Moskin’s piece. According to Eater, Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachel Ray have both made statements denying that they’ve ever used ghosts to write their books.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Babble Bubble Trouble

One of our favorite word-nerd articles of the year was the recent New York Magazine cover story about what was cutely referred to as the “babble bubble”—the explosion of big-think, TED-like conferences and the mass speechifying they have spawned. What was most interesting to us was the big-think questions the piece spawned: Is this bubble likely to pop relatively soon, as writer Benjamin Wallace suggests, a fad to soon fade away? Or are these fabulous confabs looking like an enduring fixture?

To get some expert perspective, we asked some of our speechwriting pros about the implications for our industry, and unsurprisingly, their opinions led in many different directions.

James Buchanan, a business journalist, writer, and editor, is in favor of anything that encourages intellectual rigor and affords us the time to contemplate new ideas. “In the modern digital world, communication and data/information sharing happens so fast that we barely have time to think about the implications of what we hear. TED and others provide a moment of time and clarity where we can hear what others think, they can explain their insights and the implications of those insights, and we can develop our own opinions. As a writer, this can only be of help. Ideas spark books, which spark ideas, which spark books, and on and on.”

On the other hand, Michael Gural-Maiello, an accomplished business writer who writes regularly for Forbes, comes in on the other side of the fence. “The undoing of these people is their unapologetic elitism; look at the pathetic complaints about all of the ‘betas’ being let into the room. I think the saddest observation [in the article] was that the TED Talk has replaced the book as the ultimate ambition for somebody who wants to express themselves. That's certainly evidence that we've lost site of the breadth and scope of human experience. Or maybe it's just easier to talk for 18 minutes than it is to write 300 coherent pages.”

In the middle we have Assaf Kedem, an award-winning speechwriter and communications strategist, who takes a historical view of these conferences. “Confabs have been around for longer than one may realize. Their modern-day version, in some respects, is a reincarnation of the historical town meetings that date back to previous centuries. Today’s ‘fabulous confab’ is more exclusive, glamorous, and intellectually specialized. But whatever form it takes, the essential confab is here to stay so long as there is a marketplace of ideas to be exchanged.”

As the Millions noted yesterday, it’s suddenly fashionable to hate on TED. But hating is still discussing, and as long as we’re doing that, we don’t think the reign of the “babble bubble” is likely to wind down anytime soon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Guest Post: Everything You Wanted to Know about Publishing (But Were Afraid to Ask)


This article originally ran on IndieReader

For most of the history of the printed book, there were two ways for an author to get her work in front of readers: traditional publishing and vanity press publishing.

That kind of limited choice is so last decade.

Traditional publishing still dominates the book business. After years of acquisitions and consolidation, traditional publishing now consists of only six very large publishing houses, each of which controls numerous imprints (in-house brands): Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

The way these publishers operate hasn’t changed much in a long time. Here’s a basic outline of how a trad pub deal typically works (for fiction):

  • Author writes a novel
  • Author finds a literary agent willing to represent the work.
  • Literary agent puts the work on submission to specific acquisitions editors at specific publishers.
  • Editor falls in love with the work and convinces other people at the publishing house that the publisher can make money selling this work.
  • Author gets paid an advance against royalties; agent keeps a percentage as a fee; publisher turns the author’s manuscript into a saleable book. This includes editing, layout, cover design, publicity, distribution, and more.
  • The book is published, first in hardcover, then in paperback one year later. Ebook publication and pricing varies.

Until recently, a novelist’s only option outside the trad pub system was to take the manuscript to a vanity publisher. The name itself suggests the contempt people in the business had for such companies. A vanity press would publish books “not good enough” for a real publisher, doing so only to satisfy the author’s “vanity.”

Unlike traditional publishing, the costs of vanity publishing are paid upfront by the author in cash; the author is the publisher’s customer. In traditional publishing, the costs are paid by the publisher and are recovered from the profits of selling books. Booksellers and readers are the publisher’s customers.

For most writers, vanity publishing was a costly indulgence. At great expense, they got to hold a paper copy of their book in their hands. But few, if any, other people heard about the book or read it.

Not vain, independent

Old-fashioned vanity publishing has been revolutionized by ebooks and print-on-demand technology. In fact, you hardly hear the term “vanity publishing” anymore. It’s been replaced by “indie publishing,” a label that encompasses an incredible variety of nontraditional publishing options.


This is an industry buzzword, but what does it mean? I find that many people are using the term “self-published” to broadly describe any book in any format that does not have the imprimatur of a Big Six publisher. But this fails to account for the various degrees of self-publishing and also the new nontraditional, professional indie publishing options out there. So let’s begin by breaking down what I consider to be types of self-publishing:

1. 100% pure self-pub: Writer handles every aspect of book production, possibly setting up her own small press. Writer is responsible for editing (probably the biggest handicap relative to trad pub), cover design, layout, and distribution.

Advantages of pure self-publishing:

  • Total control of content, design, pricing
  • Can do ebook only, print only, or both
  • All profits (after retailer commission) go to author
  • Fast, once you know how to do it. Write something today, publish it tomorrow.
  • In dollar cost (not time cost), the cheapest way to self-publish

Disadvantages of pure self-publishing:

  • To produce a professional product the first time requires an enormous investment of time and effort by the writer.
  • If writer wants to hire help, finding trustworthy, competent editors, graphic artists, book printers, etc. is a challenge. And hiring help requires cash up front.
  • Tough to sell the final product. Need a platform, and/or a really good publicist, and/or hundreds of hours of time to spend on promotion.

2. Assisted self-publishing: Writer hires a “general contractor” to manage many of the non-writing tasks. Assisted self-pub includes pay-up-front models (subsidy publishing) and royalty-sharing models.

2A: Subsidy publisher: Writer pays a company for a complete package of services to produce the manuscript as a paper and/or digital book. This is closest to what used to be called vanity publishing. Unlike old vanity publishing, subsidy publishing today is widely available, widely used, and has many competing companies providing services. Whereas a “vain” writer in the past had to cough up some serious dough to physically print some copies of his book, writers now can choose to publish in digital formats only, or to print copies of their books only after a sale has been made (print on demand). This makes it possible to “publish” paperbacks and sell them online without actually paying for the printing of a single copy out of pocket. Amazon’s inventory of such books is virtual. A copy is manufactured only when a customer buys the book. POD keeps authors’ upfront costs lower, though it makes their books more expensive for customers because the per-copy cost of producing a few books is higher than the cost in a large print run.

The big players in this market are CreateSpace (Amazon), AuthorHouse (which includes Xlibris and iUniverse), and Lulu. For ebook-only self-publishing, other influential players are Scribd, BookBaby, Smashwords, PubIt, and Kindle Direct. There are many, many smaller, independent outfits now providing packages of self-publishing services to authors for a fee. The big guys are not selective at all; they’ll print whatever words are given to them (barring anything that might get one of their executives arrested). Some of the smaller companies pick and choose their clients or screen the work. At times there is little distinction between these companies and small independent presses.

In my hometown of Sacramento, we now have a new self-publishing option courtesy of our public library. The I Street Press is an entire self-pub operation built around an Espresso machine, a kind of Xerox machine for books. You give it a formatted digital file of your book, and in about four minutes it spits out a fully formed, bound paperback book just like one you’d find in a store. At a cost of roughly $9 per copy (plus set-up fees), it’s comparably priced with other small-print-run publishing options.

2B: Assisted self-publishing: Royalty-sharing

Recently, several literary agencies and agents have started offering themselves as general contractors to get their clients’ work “self-published.” Typically the agents describe themselves as “consultants” but definitely not “publishers,” because a firestorm of controversy has flared around the potential conflicts of interest inherent in agents becoming publishers.

Literary agents are indeed well-placed to assemble teams of skilled editors and book designers in order to independently publish their clients’ backlist books, pieces too short for a traditional publisher, experimental works, or books rejected by the Big Six. Dystel & Goderich, Andrea Brown, and BookEnds are early leaders in this type of venture. The financing arrangements aren’t fixed, but generally the agents are not charging upfront fees. Instead they claim a perpetual commission from sales, just as they do with books sold to a traditional publisher.

2C: Assisted self-publishing: Boutique services

I predict we’ll soon see a number of insiders from the traditional publishing industry create teams to sell packages of professional-quality services directly to authors without becoming “publishers” per se. There is a market for this niche. A writer who wants to avoid the subsidy publisher minefield could put up the money to get a professional-quality book edit and design without having to find and hire each expert on his own. This luxury boutique approach to subsidy publishing would be attractive to any self-publishing writer with enough cash on hand—especially those who are leaving traditional publishing to go it alone. For one classy example, check out Verbitrage, a nontraditional publisher launched by industry insider (and author) J. E. Fishman. (Read Folio #5 of Fishman’s “Publishing Primacy” blog series for more details.)

3. Not self-pub: Small presses

The next level closer to a traditional publishing arrangement is publishing with a small press (any press that is not owned by the Big Six). University presses, regional presses, niche publishers, and many others fit in this category. It’s not uncommon for such companies to only publish a few titles per year. The key distinction that makes this “not self-pub” is that the publisher, not the author, pays the costs of getting the book out there.

Because the publisher is investing its own money in developing the book, small or indie presses accept titles with an eye on the bottom line. That means that unlike self-publishing, the author must provide a manuscript that is commercially viable. You can self-publish the alphabet written backwards, but you won’t get a small press to foot the bill. This gatekeeper role is common to all publishing models that put the publisher’s money at risk (as opposed to the author’s money), and it remains a defining distinction between self-pub and all other publishing models, indie or not.

It is also at the heart of the prestige question. If self-pub works get less respect, it’s because no objective third party has evaluated the works and decided that they are “worth” publishing. Gatekeeping can keep trash out of the publishing pipeline, but it also can sift too finely. Publishing value is determined not so much by the quality of the book as by its marketability. Celebrity-endorsed drivel will get published because it will sell, not because it’s good, and hundreds of quality first novels will get rejected because the publisher knows readers buy books by authors they’ve already heard of.

4. Digital-only full-service publishers

This category didn’t exist until a few years ago and it remains under the radar. Digital-only publishers operate like small presses but only release their titles in e-book formats. This keeps their costs lower and allows them to take on riskier projects—such as first novels—that may not sell enough copies to catch the attention of a Big Six imprint. My own publisher, Diversion Books, is a leader in this category. Diversion is selective and prefers agented manuscripts. Diversion provides all the services you’d expect from a small press. If a title breaks out, they can work with the author to produce paper books. If not, the author retains all rights to self-publish in paper. This creates an interesting situation. My science thriller Petroplague is currently on sale with two different covers and two different publishers. One cover is for the professional ebook released by Diversion and one is for the paper books I produced at my own expense with a subsidy publisher.

Indies Rule
This diversity of paths to publication is making indie publishing more accessible than ever. The challenge for writers today isn’t getting their book published, it’s choosing the right publishing process. Deciding which path to take demands that authors acknowledge their strengths (and weaknesses), assess their goals, check their bank balance, and calculate how much time they have. With this information, they can pursue the publishing option that’s best for them. There isn’t a right way or wrong way for everyone, as long as all ways lead to the same goal: getting our books in front of readers.

Amy Rogers is a Harvard-educated scientist who writes science-themed thrillers. Her debut novel Petroplague is about oil-eating bacteria contaminating the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyzing the city. She is a member of International Thrillers Writers Debut Class (2011–2012). At her website Science Thrillers, Amy reviews books that combine real science with entertainment. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ScienceThriller or on her Facebook fan page.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Publishing Trendsetters Spotlights GG

Recognition for our firm continues to grow, as Publishing Trendsetters featured GG Director of Operations Oriana Leckert in their series "Book Jobs Not By the Book" this week. In the interview, Oriana discusses the benefits of collaborating with a ghostwriter, and how ghostwriting may be crucial to a healthy publishing industry. "Working with a ghostwriter increases an author’s ability to tell his or her story well and to get it into the hands of people who want to read it," she says, "and isn’t that the point of writing it in the first place?"

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Guest post: Furious George


This article originally appeared on the Atlantic website

"I never saw myself being like my Dad," Mitt Romney told The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn in 2007. "Now that I'm older, I see a tape of myself giving a speech, I say, 'Holy cow, I'm turning in to my Dad.' I look like him a lot. I talk like him a lot. The things I value are very much the things he valued."

It's a nice sentiment for a son to have.

Described by a reporter for Detroit magazine in 1968 as "a man who says in private what he says in public—and in much the same way," George Romney's pronouncements were as memorable as his son's are forgettable, a fact dramatized by a sampling of some of the old man's early speeches, housed in the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

In the 1950s and 1960s, at the very height of American automobile dominance, and at a moment when when his American Motors Corporation teetered on the edge of insolvency, Romney was calling out the Big Three automakers for a lack of engineering innovation—"most present-day automobiles are the lineal descendents of the ox-cart," he said—and for pandering to consumers' egos.

"Cars 19 feet long, weighing two tons, are used to run a 118-pound housewife three blocks to the drug store for a two-ounce package of bobby pins and lipstick," Romney told the Motor City Traffic Club of Detroit in a 1955 speech titled, "The Dinosaur in the Driveway."

He showed cartoon illustrations of huge cars bulging through garages comically redesigned, with elastic walls and "bustle style" doors, to contain them.
Then he challenged the audience directly.

"Do you have an inferiority complex that makes you buy much more car and bulk than you need just to make you look successful? Pierre Martineau, research expert of the Chicago Tribune, says the desire to look successful is a top car buying motive. Of course it's true. But why not have others think you're smart as well as successful? And certainly smart car buyers buy today what others are going to think is smart tomorrow.... Satisfying inferiority complexes through buying oversize, overweight cars is becoming obvious and therefore pointless."

Now try to imagine Mitt Romney delivering a message like that to a hostile crowd.

By 1959 the elder Romney, in the midst of pulling off a great turnaround at AMC, was being celebrated with a cover article in Time and many other articles and awards. He was being drafted to work on important committees in Detroit and statewide. And there were lots of high-profile speaking opportunities, where Romney switched from salesman to provocative statesman. In a speaking style described by his 1960 biographer as having "a certain awkward quality of innocent, unsophisticated sincerity that strikes a friendly chord with listeners," Romney championed candor as a virtue of democracy.

"As far as I am concerned, one of the greatest deficiencies we have in this country is the unwillingness of people to say what they think," he said in his first speech of that busy year, to the Executives Club of Chicago. "Too many people limit their expressions to those things that they think their groups think they ought to say. I believe this is one of the real problems in America. We are too concerned about what it will do to our business, what it will do to us socially or politically, and we are mouthing things we don't really believe, or not saying them at all."

Not George.

"We have corporate executives and white-collar employees," he told a crowd of that very makeup in Chicago, "who have become political eunuchs and who have substituted corporate citizenship and hope of economic advancement for their priceless heritage of independent political action."

In this speech, Romney claimed that the nation was in only the "early stages" of the American Revolution: "We have been too proud of our partially established political freedom. Political freedom for all was not established except as a concept and a goal when our country was founded. Indeed, the idea that the country should be governed by those who owned it was the basis of voter qualification in early elections. It took decades to broaden the right of political consent to include males without property. It took until 1920 to establish voting rights for women. Millions of American citizens are still denied their God-given political rights because of race."

He declared the biggest problem in the United States was too much concentration of power—in government, in unions, and in corporations alike.

"By the labor people I'm considered anti-union; by the big corporations I'm considered anti-big business. That's because any time you raise the question of power in this country, the immediate answer they give to knock you down is that 'you're against bigness and we've got to have bigness because only through bigness can you get efficiency and get all these goods.' That's the stock answer and that seems to satisfy everybody," he said.

"The hard facts are that any power, if it is excessive, is dangerous because somebody is going to abuse that power, sooner or later...."

Romney called for the abolition of cross-industry coalitions of unions and he called for the breakups of some big companies, to reach some minimum number of companies required for each industry to be truly competitive.

"It is all very well to speak smugly of the virtues of competition and assume that all you have to do is applaud it and be in favor of it," he told the business executives at the Economic Club of Chicago. "If we believe in competition, we must give it more than lip-service, and actively seek to keep it vigorous and fight the forces that restrain it."

Romney harped in 1959—and for the rest of his life—on the need to expand what he called "voluntary cooperation," or independent citizens gathering to solve problems. "I believe that participation in politics by unions and corporations as organizations is morally, politically, and economically wrong," Romney said. "We need to create a means by which people can express their concerns about these problems as citizens and consumers ...."

Romney concluded his last speech of 1959 by predicting that the "sixties will be a decade of basic decision" and challenging his listeners to be better human beings: "In the world, we need to decide just how deeply we believe in human brotherhood, and just how much of our comfort and time we are willing to give up in its behalf to help others help themselves, and how much energy and courage we want to put into that effort. I believe America is assigned the great world mission in brotherhood and that its pursuit can gain for us as a people inexpressibly more happiness than the materialism that is threatening to possess our hearts."

Again: It's hard to imagine Mitt making such an appeal.

Of course the father and son, no matter how close and how mutually admiring, had divergent upbringings. The comparatively hardscrabble, farm-raised, self-made father and the prep-schooled auto-industry scion were bound to be two different men. And maybe George was destined to be the more vivid.

But what is a safety-minded son to do?

"Every time I go to a debate, I write my dad's name at the top of the piece of paper on the stand," he said recently, "just reminding myself of his great character, his integrity, the vision he had for America."

Maybe he should take more than George Romney's name to the stage. Maybe he should take a whole speech.

David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly collection of the best speeches in the world. He also blogs about the writing life at Writing Boots.