My Life as a Ghostwriter

My Life as a Ghostwriter

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay
10 min read

For 15 years, I’ve led a professional double-life, working as editor, writer, author, and podcaster in plain public view, while also helping famous people produce their own books—memoirs, mostly—behind closed doors. This parallel professional existence was outed in 2014, when one of my more well-known clients told a reporter about the arrangement. At the time, this caused me headaches, as some readers wondered (not unreasonably) how my day-to-day editorial choices were being influenced by these side-hustles. But in the long run, it was a plus, because the disclosure brought in more clients.

It also brought inquiries from other writers, who wondered whether ghostwriting might be a viable means to supplement their own incomes. This month brought in a fresh round of messages, following on a prominent story involving one of the books I’d worked on being published by a state-run Chinese company. And while the controversy didn’t implicate me, it did provide the push I needed to set out my thoughts on ghostwriting in some kind of systematic way.  

The simple way in which most people imagine this kind of work was captured well in episode 124 of that highly underrated animated children’s show Cupcake & Dino: General Services, in which the eponymous protagonists are hired to ghost the memoirs of action-film hero Greggy Naturo (“Star of the Caveblasters movies, the Cavehunter movies, and other movies with caves in them”). But as soon as the anthropomorphic cake and dinosaur begin interviewing Naturo, he reveals himself as an airheaded fraud—thus leaving Cupcake and Dino with no choice but to re-script the star’s life out of whole cloth.  

No doubt, there are some real-life celebrities whose contributions to their own ghostwritten memoirs really do conform to this unflattering stereotype. But in my experience, this isn’t how these collaborations work. Contrary to cliché, in fact, some of the famous people one meets through ghostwriting are actually a lot smarter and more interesting than their public image might suggest. (That includes Justin Trudeau, by the way, as I wrote way back in 2015—which is one reason why I found his surrender to the most dogmatic forms of identity politics during his second term as Canadian prime minister to be so baffling and disappointing. But I digress.)

Justin Trudeau with an editorial assistant in 2014. Photo by Adam Scotti.

In many cases, a ghostwriter is brought in—whether by a publisher or agent—only after the client (or “author,” as the grandee whose name goes on the book cover is typically described for contract purposes) has already made a stab at writing out the story of his or her life, at least in outline form. No matter how incoherent that first text may be, it can supply the ghost with a basis for identifying promising themes, and giving structure to the interview process. (To some extent, the role of Diane Nguyen on the equally underappreciated BoJack Horseman was very true to life.) And in some cases, you find out at this early stage that the author is actually a pretty good writer—and the ghostwriter becomes redundant, or, if he stays on the job, transitions into an editor’s role.

An experienced ghostwriter also knows how to quickly identify projects that aren’t suitable, because the genre in question lies completely outside his or her literary wheelhouse. In my case, that has meant saying no to books, mostly written for women, about wellness, self-esteem, spirituality, relationships, meditation, and nutrition—which is too bad, because these are profitable sectors of the book market.

If you pick the right projects, on the other hand, ghostwriting can be highly lucrative, especially as compared to the low payouts available to mid-list authors publishing non-fiction books under their own name. That’s because ordinary people love buying books written (or purportedly written) by famous people. It’s really that simple. As I tell my accountant, the worst thing I can do to a book is put my name on it.

The other advantage is that, as a ghostwriter does his or her work in secret, he or she isn’t likely to be cancelled for wrongthink. So if you’re good at it, you’ll continue to get work, no matter what you once got caught tweeting about Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, or J.K. Rowling. What’s more, your knowledge of this secure financial lifeline will (in my experience) allow you the freedom to take more risks, and write with more candour, in your above-ground literary life. Who knows? You might even become confident enough to quit your stifling day job and, say, take a flier on some ambitious new journalistic venture headquartered on the other side of the world.    

When you’re interviewing for a ghostwriting gig, there are usually a few awkward first meetings, during which the publisher, agent, and author try to figure out if you’ll bring good chemistry to the project. In these early stages, an aspiring ghost shouldn’t waste his or her time asking about the actual substance of the author’s story (which will be on Wikipedia anyway). Rather, the ghostwriter needs to come away with answers to two specific (and usually interrelated) questions: “What is the book’s purpose?” and “Whose idea was it?”

In some cases, these answers are obvious, or at least stated explicitly. When you’re working for a politician, for instance, the goal is to get the author elected (or re-elected). With celebrities, the book might be oriented toward getting the star on TV to talk about some planned pivot in public image or professional orientation. Or it might simply be a financial play intended to help a rich athlete get richer.  

But more complicated situations can arise when you’re dealing with an author who is highly accomplished in a less visible field, such as business, science, or academia. These projects tend to come with a less well-defined sense of mission. Interviewed ghostwriters will be told that there’s “an important story to tell,” but it’s not always clear that the people in the room know what that story is.

And this gets us to that second question, “Whose idea was it?” In this regard, one common pattern is that the children, grandchildren, or spouse of an aging corporate magnate might realize that there are only a few more years left to set down the beloved patriarch’s stories for posterity. These situations can be tricky for a ghostwriter to manage because the author himself may be a passive (or even reluctant) participant in the writing process, and because the real movers don’t always know what they want the book to look like, except to such extent that it reads back to them their own sentimental attitudes.

You also have to consider the role that’s going to be played by certain people who aren’t yet in the room with you, but soon will be if you get the job. That’s because a ghostwriter’s role often requires him or her to penetrate certain inner domestic and professional sanctums that are otherwise guarded by small armies of assistants. From the perspective of a celebrity’s entourage, the ghostwriter is just some badly dressed rando who suddenly gets a hall pass to waltz into the boss’s home or office, interrogate everyone about old memories, pore over photo albums, and make snacks in the kitchen. And putting aside their suspicions of your physical presence, many of these people will also have their own thoughts, or fears, about what you’re going to put in the book.  

To offer one specific (but suitably anonymized) example, I once interviewed with a legendary real-estate developer (no, not that guy) who had a great story to tell about the history of high-rise construction and urban planning in one of America’s biggest cities. He and I got along well. But it emerged that, if I got the job, I’d be working through the client’s corporate aide-de-camp, who was clearly focused on redirecting the book in a way that signal-boosted the company’s day-to-day messaging on environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility. These are important boardroom issues, of course, but they had nothing to do with what made the author’s story unique and interesting. I didn’t get the job, and that’s probably a good thing.

Another cautionary tale involves a job that I did get, but which fizzled before we got to a published book. In this (again, anonymized) case, the prospective author was a successful entrepreneur with a quirky backstory. Interviewing him was difficult because he could never stay on timeline, and every anecdote led to a dozen others. But I could tell that if he kept talking, and I kept banging away on my keyboard, I’d eventually get everything I needed, much in the way that a random rain-drop pattern will eventually soak an entire surface if you just wait long enough. The problem was that he also happened to be an extremely private person with a complicated family life, and it was made plain that he’d never really understood why this book needed to be written in the first place. The project had been conceived by a trusted communications colleague who believed that telling the boss’s life story in book form could help earn media eyeballs, attract new investors, and give everyone on the team their proper morale-boosting due for past triumphs. And even if this kind of book probably wouldn’t become a bestseller, it was reasoned, the project made commercial sense as a loss-leader at speaking events and conferences.

I ended up submitting seven chapters—half the book. Unfortunately, the experience of reading them seems to have validated the client’s original doubts. Most of us will die without anyone writing down a comprehensive, publicly accessible account of our lives. As a writer, I have to remind myself that a lot of people, even those with inspiring stories to tell, are totally fine with that.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that some of the people who do want to tell their stories are simply incapable of doing so, even with a ghostwriter’s assistance. This includes at least two prospective clients I met who suffered from depression. One of the unfortunate effects of this condition is that it can cause those afflicted by it to lose interest in many of the events and relationships that once brought them joy and success, thus making it difficult for a literary collaborator to elicit information during the interview process. You’ll ask the person about some important milestone, and they’ll respond with short, canned responses—even monosyllables. (As a side note, I will say that this has only deepened my admiration for those writers who are capable of writing about their depression. For someone like this to create a whole book about his or her life must be like a swimmer who goes the length of a pool with rocks tied to feet and hands.)

The opposite problem can occur when an author who’s rebounded from a period of adversity, or even disgrace, comes to you because he wants to write a book that helps restore his reputation and rebut his detractors. In this case, you typically won’t have trouble eliciting words—as they will come at you by the thousands, sometimes in manic torrents. But because this kind of author is trying to settle scores, he’s often inclined to skate over inconvenient facts or events whose inclusion (at least in some abbreviated form) is essential to any kind of coherent narrative. You can’t spend a whole chapter denouncing the motives of one’s “false accusers,” for instance, if you aren’t willing to inform readers what the accusations were and why they were wrong.

In this context, the ghostwriter’s role is somewhat analogous to that of a lawyer who has to know all the sordid facts surrounding his client’s case, if only so that he might better explain them to a judge and jury. Of course, there are always going to be no-go literary zones in everyone’s life when it comes to, say, the bedroom or the doctor’s office. But a client who isn’t forthcoming with important details is usually either an unreliable witness to his or her own existence, or simply doesn’t trust his writing partner. Neither scenario lends itself to a productive outcome.

A more mundane problem that a ghostwriter often faces is the tendency of clients to take a jaded view toward their own rarefied professional or artistic subcultures. They’ve been operating within their silos for so long that they forget what it is about them that makes them unusual or mysterious to outsiders.  

By way of example, I’m thinking of an amazingly successful immigrant who’d essentially invented a whole branch of production engineering in the late 20th century—probably the smartest person I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. Part of my ghostwriting job involved touring his corporate facilities, interviewing his engineers, and following him around to meetings. And all of the eye-popping technology on display convinced me that our book should go beyond being just a straightforward memoir, and should also include a capsule history of this hugely important industry he’d pioneered.

Alas, the client rejected this approach, thinking it dull, and encouraged me to write instead about his corporate mission statement, his philanthropy, and all the value and great service he’d delivered to his many satisfied customers. I said that this would be a great plan if we were writing the “About Us” section of his corporate website—instead of a book that human beings would actually have any interest in reading. As you might guess, it was at about this point that I was handed my walking papers.

I was already on thin ice with this client, I should note, because I’d been lecturing him about how we needed to include chapters on his (absolutely fascinating) childhood roots overseas; whereas the author instead wanted me to start the story off with him already ensconced on North American shores as an adult immigrant, climbing the ladder to fame and fortune. I countered that this was like starting off Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with Harry already enrolled at Hogwarts instead of attracting the reader’s empathy in a cupboard under the Dursleys’ stairs.

When I look back on these arguments, I realize that I was 100 percent correct about my editorial instincts, but 100 percent wrong to keep pressing them on the guy paying my freight. And this gets us to the core tension embedded in the ghostwriter’s craft. On one hand, most clients want someone who’s passionate enough about writing to care about the finished product, push back gently on bad ideas, and generate a few good ones of his or her own. On the other hand, no client wants a writer who doesn’t respect the chain of command, or who gets huffy and precious.

It’s a fine line to fly, and what you tend to end up with in the field are writers straddling both sides of it—either an obedient yes-man struggling to get his or her prose to lift beyond tree-top level, or a soaring artiste manqué who bristles at the client’s landing instructions and risks running out of fuel.  

If you’re an aspiring ghostwriter, think carefully about which of these two categories describes you best. In the end, every client will get what he or she wants—whether from you, or from the next warm body rooting around the office fridge. Before setting out to write a single word, find out whether that wanted thing just happens to be a book that your conscience won’t ever allow you to deliver.

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is a Quillette editor and podcast host, a National Post op-ed contributor, and a member of the FAIR advisory board. His books include Among the Truthers, Legacy, and Magic in the Dark.