Which famous authors use ghostwriters?

The year 2021 marks the time when one of publishing’s best-kept secrets was revealed to the wider world; the majority of bestselling nonfiction is actually written by a ghostwriter.

The trigger for the revelation was, of course, the headline news that Prince Harry has a $20 million advance for his hotly awaited memoir to be published by Penguin Random House. The obvious angle for the acres of newsprint speculation that followed was: what would the ‘first-hand account of my life that’s accurate and truthful’ actually say? Yet, there has already been millions of words devoted to Harry and Meghan and speculation about just this. Therefore, the news cycle turned to the ghostwriter who had been commissioned to coax these potential bombshell stories out of the royal and onto the printed page.

JR Moehringer is that ghost. The Pulitzer prize-winning writer and former Los Angeles Times journalist has already penned books for Andre Agassi and Nike co-founder Phil Knight. My fellow ghost, the esteemed Andrew Croft, wrote a piece in The Sunday Times about ghostwriting and what Prince Harry might expect. His much-quoted view was that Moehringer would need to use all of his ghostly skills to steer the royal away from sounding bitter and settling scores.

After more than fifteen years as a ghostwriter, this was the first time I had seen ghostwriting discussed so openly and so widely. I know from experience that very little is known about our profession and that is obviously the point. We’re supposed to stay in the shadows. However, I do sense a window of opportunity to raise a hand and wave ‘hello’. Let’s celebrate the wonderful writers that lurk in the background and contribute to more than 60% of the non-fiction bestsellers lists. Let’s shout it out loud that a whole bunch of talented authors turn to the professionals when they want to write the best-possible story about their life.

Who are the famous authors who use ghostwriters?

One of the reasons ghostwriting has been firmly in the background for so long is named authors are famously coy about their collaborations. This is changing though. I have noticed a lot more authors give us credit these days. Even if they don’t though, look carefully in any book’s acknowledgements section and the clues are all there.

‘My thanks to Joe Bloggs for his assistance in writing this memoir.’

Or, the reference may be more vague, calling Joe an ‘advisor’, or ‘editor’, ‘collaborator’ or someone who ‘helped jog my memory’. My own personal favourite was being cited as the person who helped an author ‘type my memoires’. Occasionally though, the collaboration is very obvious, since the author will place a prominent ‘with Joe Bloggs’ on the front page.

Armed with this ghost-hunting knowledge, dig out some of your favourite non-fiction and take a look in the acknowledgments. If you have a decent library of business books, you will see that Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was written with Ken Shelton. Richard Branson acknowledges Edward Whitley in Losing My Virginity.The bestselling book by Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz, Onward: How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul, was in collaboration with Joanne Gordon. Sheryl Sandberg credits Nell Scovell as her writing partner on Lean In, the best-selling manifesto about women in the workplace.

The world of politics has long been a lucrative area for ghostwriters, although some politicians are loathe to admit it. John F Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1957 biography Profiles In Courage, but was famously tight-lipped about whether he had any help. Many suspected that Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter, had a big hand in the process, but for years this was denied. Even Sorensen’s 2008 biography only conceded to helping ‘choose the words’ of many sentences. The ghost did, however, come clean before his death admitting he was the main author. Barbara Feinman Todd, the Georgetown University lecturer and writer who worked with Hilary Clinton for her 1996 bestseller It Takes a Village was also not credited. At least some politicians are not so coy. Ronald Reagan, when asked by a reporter about his autobiography An American Life, said; ‘I hear it is a great book! I mean to read it one day.’ On this side of the pond, Margaret Thatcher credited Robin Harris, her long-term speechwriter and ghostwriter, as her ‘indispensable Sherpa’.

Perhaps the most predictable use of ghostwriters comes from the world of celebrity, either from TV, film or sport. This is understandable, especially while big names are still in the day job. They don’t have a spare six months or so to sit down and pen their memoirs. It just doesn’t make financial sense. Plus, with the greatest of respect to, say, Wayne Rooney’s football skills, it is a bit of a stretch to believe he has the ability to write his own biographies. (Spoiler: he didn’t. Collaborators include Hunter Davies and Chris Hunt). Whatever their skills, or interest in the printed word, there is a long list of famous people who have turned to a collaborator, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham, Lance Armstrong, Katie Price, Robbie Williams and Sharon Osborne. I could go on.

The point of highlighting the previously mostly unsung work of ghostwriters is this: they play a vital role in the success of each of the books highlighted here and many, many more. They use their expertise to craft a great story, capturing the author’s voice to keep the narrative fresh and true. Do we secretly wish we had our names in lights? Absolutely not. It is the celebrity/businessperson/politician that has the skills and talent to propel them into the spotlight. Ghostwriters never think of it as ‘their’ book. Speaking for myself, I like to get a nod somewhere in the acknowledgements, but I would never demand it. We are in a privileged position of being the confident of someone who is at the top of their game.

It’s been great to see our professional talked about so widely for a short time. Now though, I am quite happy to disappear back into the shadows and go back to doing what I do best: writing.