In Robert Harris’s bestselling novel, The Ghost, later filmed with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, the ghostwriter hero leaves the haggling to his agent. He does a good job. The deadline, one month, is impossibly tight, but the fee for the Blair-like ex-Prime Minister’s memoirs is a juicy $250,000.
When the American ghostwriter Tony Schwartz ‘put lipstick on a pig’ and wrote Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal for him in 1987, the deal he struck for himself was for the same amount, $250,000, plus a half share of the royalties.
Not much for a soul, you might say, but a lot for a book.
These days, the market is a lot tougher. There is just one top man in London, a good friend of United Ghostwriters, but not one of our little group, who can afford to start the bidding at £100,000. For the rest of us, ghosting is not the path to riches.
We don’t do it for the money. We do it because we can, because we like the work, because it subsidises the books we write in our own names, and because it’s a job that puts you in touch with some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet.
By ghosting maybe two or three books a year, we can make the sort of income that pays a mortgage but doesn’t buy a penthouse. We get to work with business leaders and entrepreneurs, academics and musicians, politicians, comics and actors. We learn secrets that can never be revealed and tell stories that would never otherwise be heard. Time and time again, we are able to play a part in launching campaigns and raising issues that find a place on the national agenda.
So when the phone rings, out of the blue, or a query comes in via the website, we snap to attention.
Every serious enquiry probably means a half-hour conversation, and only one in 30 will lead to a contract, but that’s no hardship. Apart from the odd eccentric who’s convinced his book will be snapped up by Hollywood, ‘so I thought you could just do it and we’d split the royalties’, most people we talk to are realistic, friendly and eager to pick our brains. It’s good to hear from them, and it makes you realise just how many potentially brilliant books there are out there, waiting to be written.
Ian Shircore is the author of Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin and a dozen other books he owns up to.