Credit should be given where it’s due, as the saying goes, but such is not the case for an immeasurable, invisible army of people willingly working their butts off without a shred of it. Spies, for example, or high-level bureaucrats, body doubles, or white-label product designers. And then there are those unspoken professionals whose words are attributed to anyone from the tween-age members of The Baby-Sitters Club to Hillary Clinton. They’re ghostwriters – and there are more of them silently scribbling away than you might think.
“Literary agents estimate that up to 50 per cent of the books you see for sale in your local bookstore were ghostwritten,” writes US author T.R Locke of yourghostwriteronline.com, and that figure climbs to 80 per cent and beyond in the non-fiction section, where you’ll find Nell Scovell leaning in with Sheryl Sandberg, Keith Richards sharing his Life with James Fox, and Sydney writer, ghostwriter and biographer Libby Harkness storytelling on behalf of many an inspiring individual.
“About 18 years ago, I was asked to write a Sydney woman’s story about her brush with breast cancer, My Left Breast, after her first ghostwriter bowed out,” says Libby, who has numerous titles, mostly in the medical field, published under her own name. “I had been a journalist and writer all my life, but I had never heard the term ‘ghostwriter’ before.”
Partaking in the largely unknown, yet age-old vocation (young Mozart ghostwrote music for other composers – and there’s even speculation that Shakespeare called in a secret scribe), ghostwriters are shrouded in invisibility. They’re completely unseen all the way from the ‘thought-gatherer’ process through to being collaborators and co-authors with most ghostwriters seeming to stumble into the calling on their way into the industry or, for those already established, by way of an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Libby describes her role of ghostwriter as working with the “author” (Libby is know as the “writer”) in order to “capture the essence of their life in an engaging and readable way.” She’ll interview the titular subject, transcribe, set out a structure and get to writing – a process she finds similar to writing under her own name, “except they get to do the publicity and experience the worry around sales. I’ve already been paid, so my job is done.”
A ghostwriter’s name mightn’t be on the cover, but it is on the paycheck – and this isn’t the only benefit that can come from going undercover. If you need to research an unfamiliar topic or area for a project, you can get educated, for free (Demian Farnworth scored himself an accelerated MBA in new media marketing while he was ghostwriting), and some writers find creative liberation in shedding their byline.
“I love the process of crafting a good piece of work in someone else’s voice; I love looking inside other people’s lives,” says Libby. So does UK writer Andrew Crofts – a wildly successful ghost who came as clean as he contractually could in his own Confessions of a Ghostwriter. “Behind the title of ghostwriter, I could converse with kings and billionaires as easily as whores and the homeless, go backstage with rockstars and actors,” he said. “I could stick my nose into everyone else’s business and ask all the impertinent questions I wanted to. At the same time, I could also live the pleasant life of a writer.”
And while entry-level writers might be namelessly toiling away in SEO copywriting (hang in there, guys) once they’ve done their time in the dark, a ghostwriter can come to share a cover with its “author”, depending on the contract.
If this sounds up your alley, Libby’s advice is this: “Make sure you have some life experience under your belt. Do not judge other people’s lives. Be a good listener – hear their voice. Empathy is important but don’t let the story take over your life. Do not let the client tell you how to write – you are the writer even though it’s not your story. Leave your ego at the door.”