A comment one often hears about a famous person’s biography, especially if they are a celebrity not particularly famous for academic prowess, is that the book was ‘really’ written by either a journalist or specialist ghostwriter under cloak of anonymity. The default belief of how ghosting works is that the celeb records his or her story into some recording equipment, hands it over to the journo, then returns to do their singing/football/baking a cake on TV or whatever, and a few months later a polished biog surfaces.
Maybe some are indeed penned in this way, but by no means all, and this pattern may actually be rare. My experience has been that there is a huge grey area between editing and full ghosting. That’s where much of my work lies. It’s a close collaboration rather than a complete outsourcing.
In a decade of ghosting various reports, articles and books, only two projects represent near ‘full’ ghosting, where I wrote all or nearly all the words – and even in those two, I worked closely in partnership, with frequent meetings and phone conversations. More common, at least for me, is that someone has made a decent start with their book, but has become stuck on the structure or aspects of the phrasing. Often, their time is more highly paid than mine (sad, but true; I’m working on it), so it makes sense for them to do their executive coaching or consulting or whatever to earn the cash to pay me to finish their tome. Provided we work closely, I can quite accurately find their voice, and represent them.
To take a comparison with the music industry, the common perception is that a ghost is like a professional singer dubbed over the moving lips of the celebrity, as when Marni Nixon sang most of the songs for My Fair Lady and Audrey Hepburn did an accurate lip-synch. But in much of my work I’m more like the record producer – encouraging the client to express their story honestly, and helping them reach an audience. I might alter the tone or suggest different phrasing, but the voice is theirs.
In this we come up with something of a prejudice surrounding the craft of writing a book; the notion that it is, and should be, a solo activity. Why? We accept a partnership approach in songwriting and screenplays, why not writing books? If you read the Acknowledgements pages of pretty much any author, there is a list of credits to editors, friends and agents who helped with drafts one, two, three and sometimes more. Why not?
- Philip Whiteley is an experienced author, journalist and ghostwriter. He writes fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. More information at: pjwhiteley.com