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.


Jilly said...

Great article. I'm wondering why so much hoopla about Rachael Ray and Paltrow denying using ghostwriters. After all, we work like ghosts - hidden. So why should any author of record be obliged to admit they used a ghostwriter?

Seems contradictory to me.


Alice G said...

Excellent response to a very one-sided article. I couldn't help but wonder when I read the original article if the author were just trying to discourage other writers from entering the field!

Alice G said...

Very nicely put. Personally, I couldn't help but wonder when I read the original article whether the author could possibly mean everything she said, or if she was just trying to discourage competitors! Otherwise, why is she still ghosting? As they say, if you can't take the heat...