How does ghostwriting work?

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June 7 2006 6:22 PM

How To Succeed as a Ghostwriter

Will anyone ever know your name?

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Alan Greenspan has selected noted ghostwriter Peter Petre to help him with his memoirs, after months of interviews with potential writing partners. Aren't ghostwriters supposed to be secret?

Not always. Some ghostwriters never have their names associated with a work, and they have to sign nondisclosure agreements with the publishers, agents, or authors who hire them. The journalism professor who took $120,000 from Simon & Schuster to help Hillary Clinton with It Takes a Village was bound by such a deal. But others—sometimes called "collaborators" rather than ghostwriters—get their names on the cover.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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There's a lot of territory between anonymous ghostwriting and full-on collaboration. Many authors thank their ghostwriters in the acknowledgements. James Carville admits his own unwillingness to share the spotlight: "If I were the kind of person who put justice before ego, Lowell [Weiss]'s name would be on the cover of this book with mine." Pamela Anderson's is the only name to appear on the cover of her novel, but she has her ghostwriter by her side in a photo on the back flap. The text above the picture describes them as "very proud of Star, their first work together." (The growing visibility of literary collaborators led the New York Times Magazine's Jack Hitt to call the term "ghostwriter" a "pure anachronism" back in 1997.)

Not all authors choose a ghostwriter through the extensive vetting process ascribed to Alan Greenspan. You might go to a ghostwriting company instead, which narrows the choice down to a few authors from its stable. (The Web site for one firm suggests that you look for someone with "excellent grammar and spelling skills" and that you check their references and clips.) Your publisher might have someone particular in mind or refer to a literary agent who specializes in ghostwriters.

Once you've picked a collaborator, you'll probably meet them to hand over your notes and to record interviews. (Some ghostwriters conduct their business entirely by phone and e-mail.) A ghostwriter may be involved at the very beginning of the process before the book proposal has been written, or he may show up later to write the manuscript or clean up a messy draft.

Financial arrangements vary widely. Bylined collaborators most often get half of the advance and half of the royalties. An author may fork over the entire advance to the ghostwriter, especially if he thinks publishing a book will help his career. Other deals are negotiated on a flat-fee basis: A ghostwriter might take $20,000 for a standard manuscript or 20 times that for a high-quality celebrity job.

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Explainer thanks Sarah Wernick.