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Secrets of the ghostwriting fraternity

3 December 2007

Ghostwriting has been very much in the news recently, with the host of celebrity memoirs fuelled by the public desire to read the inside story of the lives of the rich and famous. In October last year the Bookseller reckoned that five of the ten bestselling hardback non-fiction titles in the UK to 9th September were written by someone other than the named author, and that they had sold 533,485 copies altogether.

Ghostwriting is a term penned by Irishman Christy Walsh, who set up the Christy Walsh Syndicate as long ago as 1921 to control the literary output of American sportsmen. Publishers have found it a useful practice as many celebrities, whether from the sports or show business arena, cannot write, but the books need to written in the first person to have the full impact of a personal story.

You've probably never heard of the most successful ghostwriters - and you never will. Discretion is everything. The ghostwriter needs to be absolutely trustworthy and has signed up not to go and blab to the papers about the salacious details they couldn't put in the book.

At the top end of the scale Mark McCrum, who ghosted Robbie Williams' Somebody Someday got £200,000. Ghostwriting the first part of British footballer Wayne Rooney's autobiography earned British writer Hunter Davis £80,000. Andrew Croft, author of more than 50 books, and most visible of the ghost-writers - if not necessarily the most successful - says: 'As with every other type of writing, there are books that earn millions in royalties and others that earn nothing. If you ghost enough books, the big earners will compensate for the labours of love and the more speculative ventures.'

Crofts' view is that: 'The job of the ghostwriter is to write the book that the author would produce if they had the time, inclination and ability... The publishing industry uses ghosts for projects where there is a marketing advantage to having a 'named' author, such as a celebrity book or an autobiography, but a requirement for someone else to do the writing.'

In case ghostwriting is a role you aspire to, it's worth bearing in mind that there are downsides. Obviously the first of these is that the celebrity in question may be appalling to deal with, or totally boring, or may not remember anything. (There's a probably apocryphal story in publishing circles that Mick Jagger had to return the huge advance he'd received for his autobiography because he couldn't remember anything. Pity the poor ghost!)

And then there's the problem of envy. British writer David Baddiel's advice is: 'Don't be a ghostwriter, or even a biographer, unless you are absolutely convinced that the person you are writing about hasn't lived a life that will make yours look shite by comparision.'

Andrew Crofts' website

New York ghostwriter service