Why don’t ghostwriters write their own books?
Whenever I meet anyone new and they ask what I do for a living, I can guarantee that one of two questions will come next. They will either ask: don’t you mind not getting your name on the cover? Or, alternatively: why don’t you write your own book?
The subtext to both questions is the same. No one can really get their head around why any writer would be content to spend many months of effort creating a brilliant book, only to see it published under another name. To many people it’s inconceivable that there is no recognition or praise at the end of the process.
To my mind, the misunderstanding lies in the fact that it is not necessarily a straight choice between being an author and being a ghostwriter. Although both parties write books, they are following an entirely different career path. There are many motivations for traditional authors to write books: to entertain, to tell a story, to spread knowledge, or share their extraordinary experiences and many more reasons besides. And a ghostwriter? I’ll be blunt here: ghosts write for money. It is their job. We are writers for hire. For details of what you may earn as a ghostwriter, please see my previous blog.
None of this is to say that a ghost won’t do a brilliant job of telling their author’s story. When a ghost takes on a job, they are just as passionate about getting the true story out there. They also have the skills and experience to make sure it has the best possible chance of becoming a bestseller and being read by the widest potential audience. The point of writing any book is, after all, to get it read.
The obvious follow-up question for my interlocutor might be: so, what motivates a ghost? After all, no ghost will be lured to the profession by the promise of fame. One of the most important attributes a ghost should have (we’ll take being able to write well as a given) is to have no ego. If a ghostwriter yearns for the pleasure and delight of seeing their name on a front cover as they wander through Waterstones then they are undoubtedly in the wrong profession. A ghost needs to be invisible and most importantly, happy to stay that way. If any ghost does find that supressing the need for recognition is ever a problem, they can always remind themselves that they have huge control over the books they write. A ghost is the person who will structure a story, decide what to include and exclude and how to bring it alive. That is quite a powerful position to be in.
There are many other advantages to being a ghost, over and above commercial considerations. Ghostwriting is, without a doubt, one of the richest and varied careers there is. You get to meet some of the most extraordinary people and hear their stories first hand. There are few jobs where there is the opportunity to ask someone you admire absolutely anything, however personal, or to be in at the beginning of the breaking of an incredible tale from history. Similarly, there are few careers which offer such a rich variety of experiences. From one book to the next, a ghostwriter may find themselves being flown on a private jet to an elite private soiree, to hanging around while their subject delivers a calf before they can finish an interview, to being given carte blanche to rummage through the drawers and cupboards of a film legend. I know ghosts who have experienced all of these things.
If anything, not having a name emblazoned on the cover can actually be a plus point for a ghost. It is the perfect way to keep them one step removed from the process, so they can take a dispassionate and objective view of the story and present it in the best, most entertaining light.
Certainly, the anonymity comes into its own at the end of the process. It may be just my personality type, but I am quite happy to walk away once a book is complete. I am not the sort of person who enjoys being in the spotlight. I am more than happy to hand-over to the named author who will then play their part in earning their advance. This means them getting involved in an endless and gruelling round of marketing, PR appearances and promotional opportunities. It is, after all, the author’s book, both in their own eyes and in those of their readers.
To anyone still scratching their head over what’s in it for a ghost, something that is probably worth mentioning is the fact that traditional authors are increasingly eyeing the profession as an opportunity. Although established writers might once have been slightly sneering about ghosts, the potential fees on offer for ghosting have caught their attention. Literary agents have reported a rise in authors who have already published under their own name seeking ghosting collaborations. With advances for literary novels becoming increasingly meagre, it is an obvious choice for anyone struggling to make a living from a writing career.
Also, while the title ghost implies a desire for secrecy, anonymity and invisibility, and ghosts are happy to stay in the background, the profession has seen a subtle shift in recent times. Today they are recognised an essential part of the publishing mix. Some publishers even market the signing of an established ghost as a coup for a particular writer. Having a good ghost is a mark of prestige and proof a book will be a decent quality. Indeed, this acceptance of the reality of ghosts is signalled by the gradual re-naming of the profession. Ghosts are more frequently referred to as collaborators, or co-authors and even occasionally grace the front page credits, rather than haunting the depths of the acknowledgement section.
But, if we don’t get credit, do we mind? Are we still hankering after glory? Absolutely not. The pleasure comes from doing a job we love and getting paid for it. Add to that the fact we get the opportunity to meet a long line of extraordinary people and to ask them anything we fancy and you can see the arrangement is pretty good for everyone.