Exploring ethereal authorship

Ghostwriters are the uncredited writers behind over 70 per cent of non-fiction writing today; what goes on when they touch their invisible pens to paper?

Ghostwriting has been around since the beginning of the written word; many Canadian writers throughout history have also used pseudonyms during their careers.
Ghostwriting has been around since the beginning of the written word; many Canadian writers throughout history have also used pseudonyms during their careers.

From Barack Obama to Lauren Conrad, it seems as though every celebrity is coming out with a book these days.

So what’s with the trend—how do all these stories come out so eloquently and efficiently? Don’t be fooled; they’ve probably had more help than you may think (or, well, maybe you’ve guessed).

Ghostwriters make a career out of writing, or providing a heavy helping hand, without having their names credited. And these invisible writers are a lot more present than you might realize.

Michael Collins, who lives in Australia, owns the ghostwriting service your-ghostwriter.com. He told the Journal via email that over 70 per cent of nonfiction is now ghostwritten.

“Ghostwriting today is definitely on the increase,” Collins said. “People don’t have time to write properly anymore, and yet the need for good material has been exacerbated by our dependence on online text.”

He said in his eight years of ghostwriting he’s realized that almost anything—celebrity autobiographies, guru books, self-help books and memoirs including—can be ghostwritten.

“I gravitated to it from copywriting and writing my own novels, when I discovered that writing for other people and making their dreams come true was more satisfying than plinking away in seclusion,” he said.

In terms of actually getting work, Collins said he usually meets with potential clients face-to-face, through the phone or even through Skype so that he can properly discuss with them what they’re looking for to tell their story.

In determining how much a ghostwriter gets paid, he said it depends on things like the length of the book, the amount of research, number of interviews required and travel time.

Although ghostwriters often don’t have their name publicly shown on the book, they’re still under a lot of pressure, Collins said.

“Under normal circumstances it takes nine months for the average book to be written. I produce a final draft in just over three months,” he said. “During that period I may be coaching and mentoring writers who want to do it themselves, negotiating new contracts, and helping clients through self-publishing their work.

“And, because we can’t talk about the books we’ve written, most of our referrals are word-of-mouth.”

Despite the stress of the job, it’s still very rewarding, he said.

“I meet amazing people and hear the most extraordinary stories,” he said, adding that his favourite stories he’s written so far have been about a struggle to survive and how, despite all odds, they never gave up.

As a ghostwriter, he said he also has the luxury of working from home and he doesn’t have to worry about certain aspects of a published author’s job.

“When the ‘author’ is off book signing and worrying about sales, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee with my next client—it couldn’t get better than that.”

According to Collins, ghostwriting has been around since the beginning of the written word.

However, many authors have also historically been known to write their own work under pseudonyms.

“Many Canadian writers have been using pseudonyms for a long time,” said Robert May, assistant professor (adjunct) in the department of english.

May said a famous example of pseudonym writing is the McGill Fortnightly Review, which grew out of the McGill Daily literary supplement, and was published at McGill University from 1925-27.

“There were only three or four people involved in the McGill Fortnightly Review,” he said, adding that the most important people involved included Canadian poets A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott.

“Smith and Scott had an axe to grind with the administration of McGill and larger political issues outside the University.”

May said writing under a pseudonym allowed them to freely comment on these issues without facing any possible repercussions.

“It also ... made the student body think there were more people involved in the McGill Fortnightly Review than just a handful of interested poets,” he said, adding that Smith and Scott had around four to five pseudonyms each.

There are other benefits to pseudonyms, though, May said.

“A literary fiction writer who wants to put out a science fiction book or some other genre of writing may not want that book to be associated with their serious stuff,” he said, in which case writing under a different name would be advantageous.

May said Margaret Atwood is another well-known author who didn’t always publish under her own name and had multiple pseudonyms for different types of work.

According to the book Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion by Nathalie Cooke, some of these pseudonyms included: M.E. Atwood when she was starting out and writing more serious texts; Charlatan Botchner when she illustrated her book Up in the Tree; and Bart Gerrard when she was a cartoonist for This Magazine.

“She wanted to put something out there that people wouldn’t expect of her,” May said.

Larry Scanlan, a published author in Kingston as well as a ghostwriter, has been writing for 20 years.

He said his writing career developed from his previous journalism experience.

“I worked for the Whig Standard back in the 80s,” he said, adding that he wrote a feature on Canadian show jumper Ian Miller.

“At some point, I was approached by a publisher,” he said.

The publisher wanted to do a book about Ian Miller and remembered the piece Scanlan had written in the Whig.

Scanlan said he ghostwrote the book for Miller, but this is just one way of doing things.

“There’s a fine line between ghostwriting and being a co-author.”

For instance, a book that is ghostwritten only names the ghostwriter in the acknowledgements; a book that contains phrases such as “as told to” or “with” in the by-line is considered to be co-authored.

The difference, he said, depends on how much of the text was written by the ghostwriter.

“If a lot of the ghost’s own writing has appeared, then it’s co-authored,” he said, though there is no core rule on deciding—this can be decided in a fairly subjective way.

“It’s always the same process,” he said. “[It involves] me sitting down with somebody and getting them to make sense of their lives.”

Scanlan said a good analogy to use is someone creating a quilt.

“My job is to decide which squares go where ... so that the whole quilt is pleasing to the eye.”

It’s also very important for the ghostwriter and author to have the right chemistry, he said.

“It can be an exhaustive process,” he said, adding that this process may even involve looking at old family albums, letters or talking to important people in the person’s life in order to fully understand how to write their story.

Although ghostwriting is a steadier career, Scanlan said ideally he’d just be writing his own work.

He said ghostwriters negotiate their payment on each contract, usually getting 50 per cent of book sales and sometimes a percentage of royalties.

Sometimes, he said, this can work out well, like when the book he ghostwrote for Monty Roberts became a New York Times bestseller.

“No one anticipated it was going to happen,” he said. “Because the share was so huge, it was quite a windfall for me ... the odd time you hit a home run.”

Overall, being a ghostwriter is still a rewarding aspect of his writing career, he said.

“It is very interesting to be entering these ... worlds. I believe I have a talent for this kind of work.”

Five well-known ghostwritten texts

  • It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton (and Barbara Feinman): Clinton’s bestselling non-fiction book had help from a ghostwriter.
  • Goosebumps by R.L. Stine (and various others): After the first few books were released in the series, to great success, Stine wrote the outlines for the rest of the books and gave them to other writers to complete.
  • Socratic Dialogues by Socrates (and Plato): Socrates’ student, Plato, was the main writer of this famous text.
  • Anne Frank’s Diary by Anne Frank (and Otto Frank): Although the diary was written by Anne, her father Otto organized her writings so that they were more succinct before publishers got a hold of the work.
  • Star Wars franchise by George Lucas (and various others): After the first Star Wars film (A New Hope), Lucas employed a variety of writers to write the remaining screenplays and novels in the series.
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