On the boom in ghost-writing

It’s hip, it’s profitable, and it reduces words and writing to minor functions in the publishing process. Who could be surprised that ghostwritten books are the must-have adornment for all major lists this year? As publishing increasingly learns its values from the PR industry, any minor embarrassment connected to publishing books that are not written, and sometimes not even read, by their “authors” has faded. Many believe that the sheer logical simplicity of the ghosting process, which separates the public aspect of being an author from the actual writing, is the way that the book business should be going.

But the trend raises difficult professional questions. Should the glamour model Jordan, as a successful non-writing author, be eligible to join the Society? Where does hands-on editing end and ghosting begin? Now that Wayne Rooney has landed a £5 million deal, does his hired writing hand Hunter Davies risk becoming that publishing contradiction, a visible ghost? Will a celebrity ghost end up having a ghost to ghost his own story? And what future, if any, awaits those poor old-fashioned types who have actually written the book which appears under their name?

Endpaper has been investigating this boom area and talking to those who know it best.

The celebrity
Not being funny, I still can’t totally get my head round the idea that I’m really really famous in my own right. I’m like, oh my God, was it really me who over 3.2 million people voted for just because they saw me on a reality show on telly? So when someone at my manager’s starts going on about me writing a book and stuff, I’m going, er, excuse me, I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t read – I’ve read several
t-shirts and quite a few tattoos – but to be honest I’m not that into words when they’re what I call written down. But my manager’s going, Who’s talking about writing it down? He says all I have to do is like this humungous interview and then someone else makes it into a book. I’m like, yeah, I’ll have some of that. In fact, to be honest, I’m seriously considering doing a novel or whatever. Just so long as I don’t have to write anything, I’m not bothered.

The publisher
Brand recognition. That’s the name of the game and it always has been. Graham Greene had it, Virginia Woolf had it too. When a punter went into the bookshop, they saw the brand and knew what they’re getting – Catholic guilt in a hot country, someone warbling on about waves, etc etc. But we’ve moved on since then. We’re in a post-words world. Frankly a middle-aged guy who couldn’t pronounce his “r’s” or a horse-faced depressive is not going to hack it media-wise in the digital age.

So, thinking outside the box, publishers have started at the back end of the process. They get the name, the image, the promotional campaign, the cover package and the production schedule. Then, when that’s all in place, they start thinking about the words to fill the space between the covers. It’s so obvious I can’t think why we didn’t do it before.

The awards organizer
The ghosting boom has been great news for the awards industry. In the old days, we had this huge problem – there were just too many authors winning writing prizes. Modern publishers like mindless glamour as much as anyone. If they are faced with the choice of sitting next to an eminent novelist droning on about ideas or a blonde reality star talking about this famous footballer she’s dating, the result is what we in the literary world call a “no-brainer”.

The great thing about ghosted books is that they give awards evenings an obvious and visible hierarchy. The ordinary civilians – publishers, agents, writing writers, ghosts – wear dinner-jackets and evening dresses while the celebrities turn up in whatever they feel like. On these occasions, the scruffier you look, the more important you’re likely to be.

The agent
It’s a dreary but unavoidable fact that talent and neurosis co-exist in most authors, but not in equal measure. Often it is the least profitable author who is the most emotionally dysfunctional. Dividing the functions of an author into the promotional (name and photo on cover, interviews with Richard and Judy on publication) and the practical (writing it) makes the agenting process more streamlined. These days we need to worry less about hysterical creatives. The “authors” can be difficult but, since they are not actually writing, that holds nothing up. And when the real writers kick up, we can simply sack them and hire another ghost.

The ghost
I’m a novelist really. I was working on a novel when I had the opportunity to make a bit of extra money by helping a 19 year-old soap star write her autobiography. That was seven years ago and since then I haven’t been myself as a writer. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and have to think quite hard whether I’m an ageing actress, a controversial midfielder, the victim of childhood abuse at an Irish convent or an entire boy band.

I can kick the habit any time. There’s no way that the real author that is me has been replaced by this invisible wraith that hangs around famous and sub-literate noting down their words in return for wads of cash. One day, I’ll go back and finish that novel of mine. Excuse me, that’s the phone.

Summer 2006