Ghostwriters emerge from the shadows

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Ghostwriters emerge from the shadows
Daniel Paiser, a ghostwriter, in New York on Jan. 22, 2024, who has collaborated on books with Serena Williams, John Kasich and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Practitioners of the solitary and highly secretive profession got together to compare notes and celebrate their work. (Sinna Nasseri/The New York Times)

by Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter

NEW YORK, NY.- Ghostwriting is a secretive profession. It’s long been maintained that a good ghost writer, like a well-behaved child in the old proverb, should be neither seen nor heard.

So it was unusual for a group of around 140 ghostwriters to gather, as they did in Manhattan on Monday, to schmooze and celebrate their work with awards, panel discussions and keynote speeches. The one-day conference, called the Gathering of the Ghosts, took place at a moment when ghostwriting is in high demand and gaining recognition as an art form of its own, after years of operating largely in the shadows.

“There’s great value in building this community because of the nature of what we do,” said Daniel Paisner, who hosts a podcast about ghostwriting called “As Told To” and has collaborated on 17 New York Times bestsellers. “We do it in a vacuum, sitting alone in our underwear in our offices. We don’t get out much. So I think it’s helpful to be able to compare notes.”

Held at the New York Academy of Medicine, in a room lined with old, leather-bound medical books overlooking a snowy Central Park, the event included panels about finding the right publisher for a project, whether artificial intelligence might render ghostwriters irrelevant and conversations about how much a ghostwriter can charge (the consensus: more). The profession has a history of being undervalued, and one panelist advised everyone in the audience to double their rates and add 20%.

“Is it good to be a ghostwriter?” Madeleine Morel, an agent who specializes in matchmaking book projects with ghostwriters, said at the event. “I’ll paraphrase Dickens: It’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the best of times because there’s never been so much work out there. It’s the worst of times because it’s become so competitive.”

Jodi Lipper, who has ghostwritten 25 books, including a collaboration with shoe designer Steve Madden, said she was gratified to see awards that recognize ghostwriters for their talents. “There has been this misconception for a long time that ghostwriters are people who couldn't write their own book, that they are these hacks,” she said.

Lipper and other ghostwriters argue that their job requires not only literary chops but a host of other skills, including wrangling talent and drawing out illustrative stories from their subjects. The writer must also effectively channel the subject’s voice, so readers feel like they’re hearing directly from the person whose face is on the cover.

“I have a whole process — like for every client, I have a different scent,” said Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts. For one project she might put lavender essential oils in her diffuser, she explained, and for another, she might use lemon. This helps her slip into her subject’s voices, she said.

Lewis-Giggetts received an award at the conference Monday for the book “Sisterhood Heals,” although the name on the cover is Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D. (Her scent for that book was lemongrass.) She also writes under her own name, and her essay collection, “Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration,” won an NAACP Image Award last year.

“I have my own work, but I’m still doing a lot of ghosting,” she said. “Quite frankly, because it pays the bills.”

While many celebrities and politicians maintain the pretense that they are writing their own books, it’s becoming more common to acknowledge one’s ghostwriter and the occupation has gained more visibility. Collaborators for celebrity memoirs — which can be enormously lucrative for publishers — are in increasingly high demand, with some making six figures for their work.

The genres that many ghostwriters work in — memoirs by actors and musicians, athletes, CEOs and self-help gurus — are the types of books that publishers are pouring money into, because a well-known author with an established following can potentially sell millions of copies. Some of last year’s top-selling nonfiction books were ghostwritten memoirs — Britney Spears’ “The Woman in Me” and Prince Harry’s “Spare.”

The field’s growth has been good for writers, too. Often, professionals want a book to their name: Books can spruce up a resume, or help land keynote speeches or consulting gigs. Those authors also need ghostwriters.

Dan Gerstein, the CEO of Gotham Ghostwriters, an agency that co-hosted Monday’s conference, said the field is flooded with former journalists, for example.

“Ghostwriting is the best thing that’s happened to a lot of writers, because without ghostwriting I don’t know what they’d be doing,” said Morel, the agent, who noted that she has orchestrated ghostwriter matches for more than 60 New York Times bestsellers. “Former editors, former journalists, former mid-list writers — they’d probably be working at Starbucks.”

Top-tier ghostwriters are also being lauded for their literary skills, with some publishers even touting their participation in a project as a hint to readers and booksellers that a memoir will be juicy and artfully written. Actress Demi Moore gave ample credit to her ghostwriter, New Yorker writer Ariel Levy, for working on Moore’s memoir, “Inside Out.”

In a sign of how much more open ghostwriters have become about their work, J.R. Moehringer, an in-demand and widely acclaimed ghostwriter who has worked with tennis star Andre Agassi and Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, wrote in The New Yorker about the challenges of working on Prince Harry’s memoir.

Moehringer revealed debates that he and Harry had over particular scenes, and described how he would talk himself down when they clashed: “For the thousandth time in my ghostwriting career, I reminded myself: It’s not your effing book.”

Still, some stigma remains around the profession, and organizers and attendees of the ghost gathering hoped the event would help to clear misconceptions.

“There’s so much onus on your own work, on your own voice, on your own story,” said Holly Gleason, who was nominated for an award for a book she wrote with country musician Miranda Lambert. “But the truth is, telling a story really well is important.”

But some delicacy lingers around revealing a ghostwriter’s participation in a work. To be eligible for awards, both the official authors and their paid collaborators had to co-submit for consideration and agree to share the award.

Years ago, Paisner said, he was invited to a dinner party at the apartment of former Mayor Ed Koch, where Paisner introduced himself as the person who helped Koch write his book. Later that evening, Koch asked for a word. “He said, ‘I would prefer if you never say that again,’” Paisner recalled.

For a long time, Paisner said, people seemed to believe that these books were written by having a person of renown speak into a tape recorder and then bringing in a ghostwriter to transcribe those thoughts.

“It is not that, and I think readers are slowly coming around to accept that it is not that,” Paisner said. “That these are not the musing of the rich and famous as dictated to the lowly ghostwriter.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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