Eileen Neary

The Phantom World of Ghostwriters

Eileen Neary

Legions of nameless writers, churning out manuscripts behind closed doors. Books in bookstores emblazoned in bold letters with the names of literary goliaths receiving credit for works they did not pen. It sounds like a conspiracy theory. But it’s not. Ghostwriters were once invisible forces in the publishing world, but in recent years, the practice of ghostwriting is more forthright than ever.

Literary agent Madeleine Morel represents several ghostwriters through her agency 2M Communications Ltd. In her estimation, “at least 60 percent of the books [were] ghostwritten” on the nonfiction bestseller list at the time she was interviewed for NPR. She goes on to say that “10 years ago . . . you’d maybe tell your best friend on pain of death never to tell anyone else cause there was a slightly ignominious feature to it.”

These days, ghostwriters are often able to reveal whom they have written for. Ghostwriter Daniel Paisner, for example, is behind the works of Daymond John from ABC’s Shark Tank, athletes Ray Lewis and Serena Williams, actor Denzel Washington, and many other politicians and prominent figures.

In the fiction universe, best-selling author James Patterson is perhaps the most open about his use of ghostwriters. Without them, he could never have achieved the massive output that has made him one of the most prolific authors of all time. Between 2008 and 2013, Patterson revealed the process: He writes a 30- to 80-page project, a ghostwriter steps in to complete the work, and the pair check in monthly on the progress.

Author K. A. Applegate is best known for her Animorphs series, targeted for young adults. Though she started her career as a ghostwriter, fans were upset to learn during a Reddit Q&A that ghostwriters wrote dozens of the books in her series. Like Patterson, Applegate (and her husband, Michael Grant, who partnered with her on some writing projects) would come up with outlines of varying length that were used as a frame of reference for the ghostwriter’s drafting. Her reason for this practice? “It was either use ghosts or end the series. Our schedule was 14 books a year. Plus other projects.”

It’s certainly no cakewalk working as a ghostwriter. In addition to often losing out on name recognition, there is a lot that goes into trying to sound like a different author. According to NPR, ghostwriter David Fisher ”studies speech patterns, sentence structures, what jokes his subjects tell . . . and organize[s] all the bits of information into a coherent story.” And when it comes to the money? The ghostwriter receives about 30 percent of the book’s advance, plus an agreed-upon percentage of the book’s royalties.

It makes you wonder . . . will ghostwriting become further legitimized as time goes on? Or will these writers continue to hide in the shadows? Revealing the truth is fine by me. I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

Did You Know?

Baseball agent Christy Walsh penned the term ghostwriting. Walsh went on to set up the Christy Walsh Syndicate in 1921 to “exploit the literary output of America’s sporting heroes.” He and his firm went on to ghostwrite under the names of many famous athletes.

Photo: Gary Bridgman, Southside Art Gallery

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