a painting of a person sitting at a table with books and a candle

This article was written by Alex Mayyasi, a Priceonomics staff writer

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On January 15, 2009, geese struck and disabled the engines of US Airways Flight 1549, forcing captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to perform an emergency landing on the Hudson River. The smooth landing resulted in no casualties and remarkable pictures of the passengers and crew waiting on the plane’s wings in front of the Manhattan skyline. The “Miracle on the Hudson” received heavy media coverage that lifted Sullenberger to American hero status.

Nine months later, William Morrow published Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. Although one reviewer called the writing style “as methodical as one of Sully’s checklists,” the book received high marks

But how did an amateur writer with a full schedule as a pilot, crash investigator, and CEO of a safety management consultancy find time to write a book in under nine months?

Just as he received assistance landing Flight 1549, Sullenberger had a co-pilot working on his book. On the cover of Highest Duty, just below Sullenberger’s name, it reads “With Jeffrey Zaslow.” Zaslow, who passed away in 2012, was a journalist and author whose name also appears on the cover of the memoirs of professor Randy Pausch and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Zaslow was, in other words, the person who most likely wrote the book: the ghostwriter.

Writers like Zaslow represent an open secret in book publishing and any industry that involves content with a byline: that the title of ‘author’ is often more of an executive position rather than an indication of who wrote the words on the page. Dictionaries define an “author” as either “a person who has written something” or “a person who starts or creates something, such as a plan or idea.” Readers assume the first, while publishers understand that it’s the second.

In academia, professors come up with research ideas and analyze results, but research assistants and graduate students write the actual paper describing the outcome. Business executives drive the direction of projects but leave underlings to research and write reports that bear the executives’ names. Marketplaces called content mills allow companies to cheaply fill their websites with ghostwritten articles published under the name of a staff member. And nearly every book authored by a celebrity or politician is ghostwritten by a professional writer. 

In book publishing, ghostwriters are no longer complete secrets. Many receive a byline and the more dignified title of contributor or even co-author. Investigating how the industry works, it’s hard to tell whether ghostwriting is becoming more common or just slightly more transparent. 

Many writers have worried that publishers’ search for profits will lead them to denigrate all writers to ghostwriting status and embrace anything attached to a celebrity. But that fear seems misguided. Readers don’t seem ready to give up their romanticized view of authors anytime soon. 

Ghostwriting 101

When a nonfiction author decides to write a book, she starts hunting for a story and writes a book proposal. When a celebrity decides to pen her memoirs, she calls her agent.

The motivations for that call may differ. Many celebrities see dollar signs in book publishing. Authors receive an advance when they sign a book deal—essentially a guarantee on the expected royalties from book sales. Hillary Clinton received an $8 million advance for her memoir, while Bill Clinton inked $15 million. Agents often auction the right to publish the book or memoir of a major figure to drive up the price. A bidding war between three publishing houses over Angelina Jolie’s memoir is rumored to have driven her advance up to $50 million

But money is not the only reason famous people decide to “write” books. They can be a public relations strategy—a chance for a someone to boost her profile, tell her side of a controversy, or express a more rounded personality than the one described by the media.

“Not every celebrity gets the chance to tell [her] story in a few hundred pages. They’re usually described in soundbites,” says Joel Hochman of Arbor Books, a ghostwriting company, “It’s really about reputation repair.” 

Peter Osnos, who has edited or published the memoirs of two former presidents, explains that while money is a factor, retiring public servants “generally have a full life of experience that they want to share.” This may or may not mean justifying their actions in office.

In the case of politicians and business executives, the primary motivation for writing a book is often to demonstrate expertise. Hillary Clinton likely wrote about her time as Secretary of State in the service of her 2016 presidential run. 

a large stack of books

Once a publisher has bought the rights to a celebrity’s book or life story, the next step is to find the person who will actually write it.

Jerrold Jenkins, the president of a publishing services firm that has ghostwriters on staff, describes ghostwriters as falling along four tiers. The lowest tier are found on massive freelancing websites like Elance and earn $5,000 to $15,000 for a book. Writers at the next level have some book experience that earns them $15,000 to $30,000. These ghostwriters sign nondisclosure agreements promising to never reveal that they worked on the book. Only scrupulously honest clients thank the ghostwriter for his or her “valuable contribution” in the book’s acknowledgements. 

Excellent ghostwriters—who may have even written or ghostwritten a bestselling book—earn $30,000 to $50,000 per project. A small elite with a track record of handling multi-million dollar memoirs command from $50,000 to more than a million. They may also receive a share of the royalties and writing credit. 

William Novak, who launched his career as an elite ghostwriter with perhaps the most commercially successful memoir of all time in Iacocca, the autobiography of American car magnate Lee Iacocca, earns anywhere from 10% to 50% of the advance. Top ghostwriters like Novak are given titles like “co-author” or “collaborator” and have their name on the cover. The publisher of George Stephanopoulos’s memoir touted hiring Novak as if hiring an elite ghostwriter were a mark of prestige. 

Authors literally entrust ghostwriters with his or her life story, so the two usually meet to check for rapport before signing a contract. But with top ghostwriters, the client is also auditioning. Beyond monetary considerations, Novak cites the agreeableness of the client, his feeling that he can add value, and the book’s potential as important considerations. “Everyone thinks they have a book in them,” says Novak. “But most of us have only a chapter or two. I’ve turned down a few clients whose stories I didn’t think could fill a book.”

One surprising aspect of the industry is how fast ghostwriters can produce a book. “I had a book come together in a series of 10 interviews—one per chapter,” ghostwriter and co-writer Sally Collings says. “Each interview took an hour.” The entire project still took four months, and some ghostwritten books take a year of full-time work. But this means that ghostwriters can often write multiple books a year.

Writing someone’s autobiography can also be surprisingly impersonal. When William Novak ghostwrote his first memoir, he assumed that he would be Lee Iacocca’s “surrogate son.” He discovered that the norm is less than 50 hours of interviews. 

The process starts with the author providing written materials like speeches they have given. A series of interviews follows. Reticent authors only do phone calls and email; the feverishly busy fly the ghostwriter around the world to meet in airports or between board meetings. For major projects, ghostwriters interview as many as several dozen people who know the author. Once the ghostwriter has a draft, the two make adjustments over email and phone calls. 

There are examples of celebrities who expect the ghostwriter to come up with the entire story. (English pop culture celebrity Kerry Katona admitted to having never read her “autobiography.”) But the author usually has an intended message and knows the narrative or major arguments. “Every now and then we have an author who doesn’t have a lot of content, and we do additional research, and the ghostwriter goes above and beyond,” says Jerrold Jenkins of the Jenkins Group, a publishing services firm. “But it’s rare.”

It’s the ghostwriter’s job to ask probing questions that capture that narrative—but not to question the narrative. For most ghostwriters and publishers, part of the ghostwriter’s professionalism is understanding and accepting that she is writing someone else’s story. As William Novak tells us, “It took me awhile to understand that I am writing a book about how [the client] sees him or herself. I represent what they remember, their views.” 

Ghostwriters tend to be former journalists or nonfiction authors. Part of learning the trade means learning to adopt the client’s voice. “The first draft of Iacocca was rejected for being ‘too well written,’” says Novak. “I had to write like Iacocca was talking to you.” 

Ghostwriter Sally Collings describes the industry as very niche, with writers specializing in areas like business memoir or American history. But publishers seek out elite ghostwriters for any project. Publisher Peter Osnos has described Novak as a talented ghostwriter because he “is the equivalent of a great character actor—someone who has the ability to subsume his own character, no matter how interesting the part that he’s playing.”

As the majority of ghostwriters sign nondisclosure agreements, it’s impossible to know exactly how many books are ghostwritten each year. The president of Arbor Books, which furnishes ghostwriters, tells us, “From what I’ve seen, I’d imagine a billion dollar industry.” The president of a similar firm estimates that at least 25% of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list is ghostwritten. 

When a celebrity or politician is involved, he adds, “It’s nearly 100%.”

The Economic Logic of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriters exist for the same reason that Bill Gates doesn’t mow his own lawn: It’s just not worth his time. 

“The appeal is pretty clear,” the president of the Jenkins Group explains, “If you are an executive making $10 million a year, will you really stop working for two to three months to write a book? Or if you’re an athlete?”

Celebrities are also paying for a higher quality of writing than they could ever achieve. Every year, dozens of books are authored by celebrities, politicians, and business executives who haven’t written anything much longer than an email since college. Most publishers will push a celebrity or politician who actually wants to write his or her own book toward a ghostwriter. Books written by celebrities usually end up in the hands of an “editor” who rewrites the entire manuscript. 

From a publisher’s perspective, securing the rights to publish a celebrity’s book is the closest thing to a sure thing in book publishing. This is important because, like television executives and venture capitalists, book publishers are in the hits business. Each Harry Potter pays for many other books that don’t sell well and register a loss. 

Publishers do work with young talents in the hopes that they’ll develop into the next Stephen King or Malcolm Gladwell. But especially in nonfiction, publishers prefer authors with a “platform”: a history of successful books and recognition in their field. When an author pitches a book project to a publisher, the marketing strategy and the author’s ability to sell the book is as important as the story. Many agents even suggest that authors without a “strong platform” reconsider trying to publish a book.

Publishers want authors with name recognition and the ability to sell their own book because selling a book by a new author—even if it’s a great book—is so uncertain. Since it is difficult for people to know whether they will like a book, customers buy the same authors again and again. When J.K. Rowling released a mystery novel under a pseudonym, it failed to sell despite good reviews. When word got out that Rowling was the author, it became an instant bestseller. 

a person reading a book

In contrast, selling a book authored by a celebrity is easy. “There’s certainly a high correlation between fame or infamy and commercial success,” says Novak. “And I’ve made a living off that correlation.” 

Publishers may love the combination of a celebrity’s name and a ghostwriter’s professionalism, but writers and readers do not. One writer we contacted who collaborates on nonfiction projects described ghostwriting as “repulsive.” 

Journalist and author Jack Hitt, writing in the New York Times Magazine in 1997, lamented ghostwritten books about figures like O.J. Simpson’s former girlfriend. He sees them as representative of an industry focused solely on entertainment without a thought for education. 

Readers who found the name of a ghostwriter buried in the acknowledgements of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In asked why she didn’t follow the book’s mantra and demand credit as the real author. 

Ghostwriter Sally Collings notes that while many of her clients understand and accept the ghostwriter’s role, others do not. “One of the first books I worked on, the author said, ‘I don’t want to work with a ghostwriter. If I do, I’ll feel like model. Like I can’t string a sentence together,’” Collings says. “He was a brain surgeon.”

The practice appears especially dishonest when it comes to ghostwriting fiction. Joel Hochman of Arbor Books estimates that 35% of his publishing services business is for fiction. “It’s like a Hollywood producer with a concept putting together a team to produce something,” he says. “Their satisfaction comes from being the originator of the idea even if many changes are made.” Arbor Books lists Oscar and Emmy nominated Hollywood producers as clients. 

A number of bestselling authors, such as James Patterson and Tom Clancy, have even treated their name as a brand by passing off the concept for their next sequel to a ghostwriter. Or been kept alive in the literary world after their death by ghostwriters. 

A few readers have demanded refunds or complained about a dip in quality, but most readers buy copies obliviously. 

Which raises the question, why not replace all bylines with a celebrity or brand name?

The Death of the Author

In the early to mid 1900s, the majority of books read by American children were the product of one man.

The man was Edward Stratemeyer, and he is credited with being the first to give American children what they want: not books of moral instruction disguised as stories, but mystery novels as full of excitement and adventure as the adult dime novels that children read on the sly. 

Stratemeyer began his career by writing The Rover Boys, a series about the adventures of three prankster brothers who attend a military academy. Rather than settle into a quiet life of writing mystery novels, however, Stratemeyer sought to build a children’s book empire.

As a New Yorker article on Stratemeyer relates, he perfected the production of children’s books like Henry Ford perfected the production of automobiles. He developed more and more mystery series, including the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. He wrote under pseudonyms so that he could sell his series to different publishers without diluting his brand, and when he could no longer write all the stories himself, Stratemeyer simply hired ghostwriters. 

Stratemeyer would send off a synopsis to a ghostwriter and receive a manuscript several months later. To better manage his ghostwriters, Stratemeyer developed a clear format for each book with rules like ending each chapter with a cliffhanger. 

His formula incorporated best practices for commercial success as well as writing. As sales of The Rover Boys slowed when the characters got married, Stratemeyer decided that characters should never age. For promotion purposes, each book started with a recap of prior books and ended with a preview of the next one. Stratemeyer also learned to release the first three books of a series at the same time to test its commercial viability. 

Stratemeyer’s writing syndicate produced hundreds of books and dominated the market. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when a trial over the copyright to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books made details of the Stratemeyer Syndicate public, that Americans realized that one man was responsible for so much. 

a large ornate room with a large ceiling and a large staircase with Morgan Library & Museum in the background

The “assembly-line” model Stratemeyer developed represents the logical end point of ghostwriting—moving the writer from a position of agency to a cog in a book factory that uses a proven formula and marketing strategy. 

The model is common among children’s series, and a number of successful adult authors have done the same. Recent thrillers by Tom Clancy, for example, have the name of a “co-author” on the cover. Similarly, author James Patterson has released as many as six books a year. “The majority of his books are written by ‘co-authors,’” an Arizona Republic article reports, “who take a detailed outline and flesh it out, then turn it back to Patterson for edits.”

Another option for publishers is to simply attach a celebrity’s name to any ghostwritten book. One U.K. publisher hired a novelist to ghostwrite a fictional book that takes place in the fashion world and then cited supermodel Naomi Campbell as the author. Campbell did not collaborate with the ghostwriter, Caroline Upcher, who said of the project, “The idea was to buy the name.” The Swan by Naomi Campbell has three and a half stars on Amazon

These examples could represent a future in which publishers buy celebrity names to attach to ghostwritten books the same way the fashion industry promotes clothing (dreamed up by anonymous designers) under the name of a celebrity. Or a future in which ghostwriters toil away on formulaic concepts sold under a brand name. 

As one article on the industry notes, a children’s book ghostwritten for a famous former model has already been nominated for the British Book Awards—shortly after the model’s ghostwritten adult novel “outsold the entire Booker shortlist combined.” 

The Case for Ghostwriting

Hiring ghostwriters and drafting nondisclosure agreements can certainly feel deceitful. But there is a case to be made that people should give up their romanticized views of authorship and accept its benefits.

“I think the idea of an isolated writer drinking whiskey in a garret and not coming out until he’s finished a book is a notion that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Joel Hochman of Arbor Books. Along with several executives, he responded to our question of what is owed to the readers by putting a name on the cover by saying, “It’s a product.” 

There may be a cult of personality around authors, but in the end, people are buying a story. Who cares who wrote it?

These publishers point out that writing is always a team effort. Jay Leno does not write his own jokes, and teams of writers work on sitcom scripts. Every book author depends on the help of an editor whose impact on the book—cutting large sections, reorganizing, suggesting plot changes—can be substantial. Researchers are also a regular part of writing a book in both fiction and nonfiction. 

Ghostwriting may be an extreme case, but every book is a team effort, and few writers are responsible for every single word and idea in their books. Is it more deceitful to name someone who did none of the writing an author? Or to give so much credit to the author in the first place?

A major benefit of ghostwriting is that it allows stories to be told that would otherwise be told poorly or not at all. Few major public figures could write books themselves. Even if the existence of multiple Justin Bieber memoirs does not feel like a service to the publishing world, it at least subsidizes the publishers taking a chance on the next David Mitchell or Donna Tartt. 

It is also an open question whether ghostwriting denigrates writers or celebrates their skill. Nondisclosure agreements are not a sign of respect. But established ghostwriters are recognized as skilled professionals. And while journalists are often asked to write at below a living wage, ghostwriting can be one of the few ways to make a good salary writing full-time. 

It can also be quite enjoyable. William Novak describes himself as “spoiled” by all the “wonderful people [he’s] worked with.” Michael D’Orso, who dislikes the term ghostwriter but collaborates with major figures, has explained how “you can’t be more alive than when you’re climbing into other lives in other worlds.” Sally Collings says that ghostwriting allows her to focus on the writing and editing part that she enjoys without having to deal with the marketing aspects that she does not. 

“People often ask when I will write my own book again,” she says. “I feel like I do all the time. I have a secret sense of ownership.”

Is Ghostwriting on the Rise?

In an industry whose entire premise is secrecy, it’s hard to say whether ghostwriting is on the rise. 

Whether called ghostwriting or not, the idea is certainly not new. Mark Twain, who edited and published the memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, is said to have ghostwritten much of it as well. Hired hands have crafted busy leaders’ correspondence and public remarks for centuries. And we’d be hard pressed to say when science and engineering professors last wrote the majority of their papers. But as far as we can tell, the size of the industry is stable at the top but has surged at the bottom. 

The demand for ghostwriting has increased simply because more content is being produced. With the advent of the Internet, businesses and blogs seeking content to draw eyeballs has led to the rise of “content mills” where ghostwriters work for anywhere from $25 per short article to five cents per word. Or less.

Within book publishing, the decreasing costs of producing books—thanks to developments like “print on demand” and Amazon—has led to new entrants into publishing. Jerrold Jenkins, president of a publishing services firm, told us that since the late 1980s, the share of books published every year by smaller, independent presses and self-publishers has increased from 10% to 80%. And with this increase in production, the number of ghostwritten works has increased.

Many of these books do not intend to turn a profit. For some clients, a book is a vanity project. “Books have become a new toy,” says one industry insider. “Instead of buying a Lamborghini, you have a book produced.” 

Other people want private books written for the benefit of friends and family. In business, a book can be a marketing tool. Executives may have a book ghostwritten in order to be introduced as “the author of…” For companies, a book is essentially a sophisticated brochure. 

a person holding a tablet

Insiders in the ghostwriting industry, however, don’t believe that ghostwriting is on the rise among major publishers. Karl Weber, who has been on both the writing and editing/publishing side, says that “It’s hard to say whether more people are using ghostwriters these days or whether the practice has simply ‘come out of the closet.’”

The biggest reason why is that celebrity books are still risky. Fame helps sell books, but famous people demand larger advances. Their books can also fail if the story is bad. 

Publishing a celebrity’s book is a bit like buying a hot stock. “Fads play a role in the size of advance offered,” Karl Weber explains. “Rock memoirs were generally viewed as ho-hum until 2010 when Keith Richard’s LIFE became a critical and popular smash. And since then, memoirs by other sixties rock icons have been considered hot properties.”

Weber estimates that the royalty advances paid to celebrities and public figures is “earned out” less than half the time. Riding the wave of a celebrity’s popularity is tempting but risky. 

So while memoirs of the famous and powerful appeal to publishers as a quick way to buy a hit, they are not sure-things that will tempt the industry away from investing in professional authors. 

Because nothing is as financially rewarding as finding the next Stephen King: an author who can reliably turn out bestsellers.

The Author’s Pedestal

There just seems to be something special about how we treat books and authors. 

We praise Obama’s speeches rather than his speechwriters, and we debate how funny late night hosts even though we know that writing rooms are responsible for their jokes. But when it comes to books, we’re angry when we discover someone behind the curtain.

Some writers worry that publishing houses’ increasing demands that writers market themselves will lead to all authors either becoming celebrities or being replaced by them. But the way readers and publishing houses treat ghostwriting shows that this fear is misguided.

Ghostwriting firms we spoke with insisted that a book is just a product—and a team effort that makes images of isolated writers seem outdated. But there still are writers who refuse to own a phone and emerge with a new work unexpectedly. And they produce the most celebrated books that a formulaic approach could never produce.  

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“You stand in front of a group of author-struck fans and pretend you don’t put your pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.”

Stephen King discussing Q&A sessions with fans

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There’s also a reason ghostwriting firms consider nondisclosure agreements standard. They know that readers don’t want the illusion to be ruined. Even William Novak, who publishers brag about getting to ghostwrite a memoir, is expected to stay quietly out of the way when his books come out.

It seems fitting that the formulaic approach of ghostwritten stories developed by Edward Stratemeyer has mostly failed to spread beyond children’s books. Readers are too attached to their romanticized view of writers. 

Ghostwritten books are a well established part of the publishing industry. But don’t tell readers that.

Our next post explores a glorious period of America’s past, when lobbying was illegal. To get notified when we post it   join our email list.

An earlier version of this story was published on December 3, 2013.

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