Fantastic ghostwriters and where to find them

For CEOs and sports stars, rock legends and politicians, hiring a ghostwriter is the ultimate public relations exercise. Horatia Harrod talks to top ghostwriters about the unwritten rules of this shadowy literary underworld

Image: Chris Burke

A few years ago, Andrew Crofts went to a grand party in Dubai. Although his hosts had flown him out specially for the lavish two-day affair, putting him up at one of the city’s seven-star hotels, he was not an honoured guest. Indeed, this affable, bespectacled 64-year-old was not a guest at all: he was, in fact, a birthday present, a gift from the children of a billionaire patriarch to their ageing father.

Crofts, you see, is a ghostwriter. For more than two decades, he has been the faithful amanuensis to a host of authors, privy to the intimate confidences of politicians, princesses, soldiers, CEOs and spiritual leaders. Crofts charges from £100,000 to £150,000 for his services, taking three to six months to write each book. “I would say, think of this as like hiring a really expensive artist to do a really nice portrait,” he says, sipping black coffee in the living room of his rambling Sussex home. “It’s a lovely thing to do, I promise you’ll enjoy the process, you’ll love the final product, but it’s going to cost you a lot of money.”

Of the hundred or so books Crofts has co-written, perhaps a quarter credit him on the cover, another quarter mention him prominently in the acknowledgements, but half offer no clue whatsoever as to his involvement. Yet, despite his discretion, Crofts has attained a paradoxical measure of fame. When Robert Harris wrote his novel, The Ghost – later a Roman Polanski film starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan MacGregor – every chapter began with a quote from Crofts. The first ran: “Of all the advantages ghosting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunity that you get to meet people of interest”.

James Fox said trying to pin down Keith Richards for his memoir, Life, was like trying to catch a wily salmon
James Fox said trying to pin down Keith Richards for his memoir, Life, was like trying to catch a wily salmon

“You have a passport into other people’s lives as a trusted confidant,” says Crofts. “A lot say afterwards, ‘That was like therapy’. A ghost is probably the least judgemental person they’re going to come across, because even a therapist is looking for angles. But a ghost just keeps asking questions: ‘How does that feel?’ ‘What happened next?’ I would imagine it is very pleasant.” Crofts says he gets two or three enquiries every day from people thinking of engaging him as their ghost. When he first branched into this line of work after many years as a freelance writer, he put an advertisement for his services in The Bookseller, the trade magazine for the publishing industry. Today, most people contact him via email, having found him online – if you type “hire ghostwriter” into Google, his is one of the first sites to pop up.

There is a somewhat furtive air to these early exchanges, before contracts have been signed and trust established. “I remember some years ago having breakfast when the phone rang,” says Crofts. “This distant voice said, ‘Do you like Kuala Lumpur?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know, I’m eating a boiled egg.’” The voice on the end of the line turned out to be the personal assistant of Loy Hean Heong, a Malaysian billionaire who did ultimately employ Crofts to write his memoir. “He was very conscious of image,” says Crofts. “When we got to Kuala Lumpur, he wouldn’t invite me to his house until they’d finished the goldfish pond – which was like something from the gardens at Versailles.”

The nature of his business is such that he remains generally tight-lipped about the identities of his subjects. It is easier to name the ones who got away: Imelda Marcos, with whom he shared a stilted lunch in the Philippines, or Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the former Egyptian president, who was on the verge of hiring Crofts just weeks before her husband was deposed in the Arab Spring. When deciding whether to take on someone’s story, Crofts arranges a preliminary meeting, and is then guided by his interest. “If I’m interested enough to want to ask questions in the initial approach, when they first ring or email, then I can probably find enough for a book,” he says. Moral questions about a person’s life rarely trouble him – in that regard, Crofts likens himself to a lawyer. “I think one of the skills a ghost needs to have is to be completely non-confrontational,” he says. “You listen to their story and then you help them to plead it.”

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Crofts is part of his peculiar profession’s elite. According to Dan Gerstein, founder of Gotham Ghostwriters, you get what you pay for. Gerstein founded his New York-based agency nine years ago to help would-be authors negotiate this little-understood business, and has built up a stable of some 1,900 ghosts, many of whom are high-profile authors in their own right. “Because it’s such an opaque market it’s totally unstandardised,” says Gerstein. “But to give a crude segmentation, there’s a low end, the $25,000-$40,000 range, to write a short business book or a very basic memoir. Then there’s the mid-range, anywhere from $75,000 to $125,000, where you’re getting a serious, qualified writer to produce a book that will enhance your reputation. And then there’s a whole other class of book from the low hundred thousands up to $300,000, where the principal tends to be a very high-profile figure and the ghost has written multiple bestsellers.”

Among that rarefied group is the American author William Novak. In the early 1980s, Novak became the ghost to Lee Iacocca, one time-president of the Ford Motor Company who went on to save Chrysler from bankruptcy. His memoir, Iacocca, sold more than 2.7 million copies worldwide, and helped make respectable the idea that even great business minds might need help bringing their thoughts to the page.

It was in many ways an unlikely match. Novak was in his early 30s, and the books he’d already written under his own name – a study of marijuana culture, a compendium of Jewish humour, a look at The Great American Man Shortage – had enjoyed only moderate success. Of business he knew “nothing”, although he had cultivated an amateur interest in the stock market. “I had a friend who was a junior editor at Bantam Books, and she mistakenly thought that somebody with an interest in the stock market must know a lot about business,” says Novak, speaking from his house on Cape Cod bay. “You know, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. She said, ‘Would you be interested in helping a famous businessman write his memoirs – only I can’t tell you who it is.’ I was sure the businessman was Armand Hammer [one-time head of Occidental Petroleum], who was the only one I could name. Of course, it turned out to be Lee Iacocca, who I’d barely heard of.”

From left: It took Paul Morley two years to produce Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. Carlye Adler is a favoured ghost for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Marc Benioff. Hillary Clinton made sure she credited her “book team” for her 2014 Hard Choices
From left: It took Paul Morley two years to produce Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. Carlye Adler is a favoured ghost for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Marc Benioff. Hillary Clinton made sure she credited her “book team” for her 2014 Hard Choices

Novak accepted a fee of $45,000 to ghost Iacocca’s book. He thought the project would only take a year to complete; in the end it took twice as long. “It was embarrassing to be number one on the American bestseller list for almost two years, because I was sure everybody thought I must be terribly wealthy,” he says. “They didn’t know I wasn’t getting any share of the royalties or the international sales.” There is no standard contract for ghosts and their principals, although almost all ghosts will expect to be paid upfront. And today, Novak prices himself high.

After the grand success of Iacocca, Novak began to be approached by other powerful people who wished to share their stories. He turned down the chance to ghost for Nelson Mandela – “I didn’t want to spend months away from home” – and Ronald Reagan, although he did ghost Nancy Reagan’s 1989 memoir, My Turn. “It was the most difficult project I ever did,” says Novak. “She had what is a very nice quality in a friend – she’d rather listen than talk. But that’s my job!”

What surprised him the most about the process was the lack of intimacy. “I thought I would probably have to live in Iacocca’s house and become his son,” says Novak. “I never even saw his house. We were not close at all. And yet, that didn’t matter. What matters is how good a talker a person is, and what the writer is able to do with that talking.” Novak was struck by how little his subjects revealed beyond what they needed to. The ghost can probe and publishers can make demands, but ultimately control rests exclusively with the author. “With Iacocca, I remember saying, ‘Lee, we’ve got to talk about your mistakes as well as your successes.’ He said, ‘I can’t think of any.’”

Andre Agassi did 250 hours of interviews for his memoir, Open
Andre Agassi did 250 hours of interviews for his memoir, Open

While contracts and non-disclosure agreements offer a measure of further protection to high-profile subjects, they are rarely airtight. There are many cautionary tales of ghosts who have broken cover to criticise the people they’ve worked with. The most recent example of this is Tony Schwartz, co-writer of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, who offered a very disobliging picture of his former boss to The New Yorker in the run-up to the US election. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was accused by Barbara Feinman Todd, ghost of her 1996 bestseller It Takes a Village, of failing to give her a promised credit in the book’s acknowledgements. (She didn’t make the same mistake in her 2014 book Hard Choices, where she credited her “book team” of Dan Schwerin, Ethan Gelber and Ted Widmer). Dan Gerstein says that most ghostwriters take the promise of confidentiality very seriously. “But,” he adds, “the best thing to do to instil loyalty is not to command it but to earn it.” Among other revelations in Tony Schwartz’s mea culpa was the fact that Trump did not have the patience to conduct sit-down interviews, so he had to make do with shadowing and eavesdropping on his conversations for 18 months.

Jay Moehringer, who ghosted Andre Agassi’s 2009 memoir, Open, worked from 250 hours of interviews with the tennis player. James Fox spent five years trying to get the material for Keith Richards’ memoir, Life – he likened his attempts to pin down the guitarist to the pursuit of a wily salmon. Edward Whitley took two years helping to shape Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity, as did Paul Morley on Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs; while the journalist and comedian Nell Scovell worked with Sheryl Sandberg to produce Lean In within a year.

Andrew Crofts, meanwhile, says he can produce a first draft based on a weekend’s worth of conversations. There are no real rules as to the time commitment for which a would-be author should be prepared. “How much time do they personally have to give me?” says Novak. “As much as possible. With Iacocca, I had the least time, but he was a very efficient talker, and I had access to everything he’d ever said in print. I know a guy who writes five books a year. Just one of mine took five years.”

Neil Scovell produced Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In within a year. Tony Schwartz criticised Trump after ghosting The Art of the Deal for him. Edward Whitley took two years to shape Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity
Neil Scovell produced Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In within a year. Tony Schwartz criticised Trump after ghosting The Art of the Deal for him. Edward Whitley took two years to shape Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity

Carlye Adler, a favoured ghost for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Marc Benioff and Maynard Webb, says that she usually envisages spending eight to nine months per book. “A lot depends on how much research is involved, the availability of the author and/or participants, and determining the best time to launch the book,” she says. “Books are ‘crashed’ [done at high speed] all the time because it becomes imperative to have it out for a certain event or circumstance. That’s not always best for the writing process, but it might be best for the book.”

According to Dan Gerstein, the first question any prospective author should ask is: “Why am I writing this?” “Some clients want to write a New York Times bestseller, in which case they’ll need someone to write a dynamite proposal for a traditional publisher. If you’re a tech CEO or entrepreneur, and you want to get your book out fast, on your terms, you should consider self-publishing. Whatever the method, a book creates a badge of credibility that’s unequalled in any other medium.”

It may be that an author does not wish ever to publish their book. This is about the most elite class of all: those who can afford to engage a writer of the calibre of William Novak to produce a book that will never be sold anywhere. When Novak first heard of this practice, he was stunned. “I had never heard of such a thing,” he says. “It turns out there are many books like this, but they’re never publicised and you never hear their authors on the radio.”

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In the past 20 years, Novak has written half-a-dozen of these curios. Perhaps their authors are supremely wise. Writing books is not for most a profitable venture. “Most books only sell 500 copies, 1,000 copies,” says Andrew Crofts. “It’s only the odd one that takes off and becomes a phenomenon.” But even a single copy of a life offers a measure of immortality to its author. And who could put a price on that? 

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