Boo! Ghostwriting Grows in Age of ‘Book as Badge’

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The craft of ghostwriting is a dark art of sorts, replete with secrecy and scandal. But lately, it’s also becoming a booming business.

Ghostwriters, once the preserve of politicians and celebrities, are in demand by a swelling rank of lesser knowns who crave the prestige of a book but don’t have the time or talent to write one.

According to Dan Gerstein, a speechwriter and political consultant, ghostwriting lies at an intersection between publishing and public relations but has never been fully embraced by either industry.

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To fill this gap, Gerstein launched Gotham Ghostwriters in 2008 as a one-stop shop for executives, consultants and others looking for a book to burnish their reputation.

“The bar for being judged a thought leader has been to have a book,” Gerstein explained. “What they’re really looking for is a book as a badge — it’s getting your ticket punched to the thought leader game.”

To help clients punch that ticket, Gerstein has assembled a network of more than 700 freelance writers with expertise in fields like finance, energy or health care. He says having a large roster of prescreened, professional writers “treats [ghostwriting] like the premium service it should be.”

The results are modest but growing. In 2011, Gotham Ghostwriters took in $700,000 of gross revenue on 11 book projects and seven separate book proposals. The company is on pace to more than double that this year.

Unsurprisingly, Gerstein said he can’t identify his clients. But he did disclose that they include senior executives and “self-styled experts” looking to break into TV and the speaking circuit.

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History of a Hidden Art

These fresh fields for ghostwriting are the latest turn for a craft that dates to the Old Testament and Homer. Along the way, history’s anonymous writers have helped kick up their share of scandal and intrigue.

Ghostwriting has at times been a synonym for plagiarism and dishonesty. Recent medical controversies, for instance, have turned on whether prominent physicians who supply ghostwritten articles to industry should be liable for misinformation.

The role of ghostwriters has also raised questions about the intellectual pedigree of famous works like John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage.

This month, the political perils of ghostwriting turned up again when Republican candidate Rick Santorum was confronted with a “radical feminists” passage from his own book. (Santorum said it was “a new quote for me” and then suggested his wife had written the line.)

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The burden of ghostwriting has also produced tragedy for writers. The young ghostwriter behind Shake Hands with the Devil took her life after the book, which recounted a Canadian general’s 1994 experience in Rwanda, was published.

To Be a Ghost

Ghostwriting offers noncelebrities the opportunity to bypass industry gatekeepers and still publish a quality book in a short period of time.

But what of the writers? On the business side, Gotham Ghostwriters collects a 15% commission on each contract. The company also helps the writer establish an “asking price” and a “walk-away price.”

On the personal side, Gerstein says it “takes a certain type of writer” to be able to pen an entire book without a credit or even an acknowledgement, but that many enjoy working without the emotional baggage that goes with writing.

“A number of writers find it liberating,” he says.

Republished with permission from paidContent, which writes about the transformation of the media-and-entertainment industries in the digital era, with a focus on emerging-business models and technologies.

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