Uncovering international conspiracies, solving murders, watching a former British Prime Minister get shot right in front of him — these are just some of the things that Ewan McGregor’s titular character does in Roman Polanski’s 2010 movie The Ghost Writer. The real world of ghostwriting, as frequent Readers’ Digest contributor and former Toronto Life columnist David Hayes describes it, seems a little tame by contrast.
True ghostwriting, as Hayes explains, is working “from scratch, with somebody who can’t write at all.” And just like Pierce Brosnan’s character in Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, the figures Hayes and other writers like him work with are looking to tell their stories. “One way or the other, it always is about legacy, whoever it is.”
Discretion is a significant part of the job description, so Hayes won’t tell me about all the subjects he’s worked with. But it’s clear from our conversation at his Toronto home that he has ghosted for some prominent figures, and some real characters.
“We had a discussion with the publisher of how many ‘fucks’ would I liberally sprinkle through this [book],” he says of one particular attempt to capture the personality of a subject. “You couldn’t possibly do this and not have a couple. So we discussed where there were a couple of good spots where it was particularly effective, the context was really good, so we put two or three in there.
“They had to be there — if you knew this guy at all, and you read something that was supposedly him talking and [the word] ‘fuck’ didn’t happen once, you’d think ‘What?’ That would be like it was laundered.”
Ghosting an autobiography means writing it the way the subject would have written it, if they had been able to write it themselves. “The autobiography has to be written in the voice of the subject,” Hayes stresses. “A biography is going to be written in my voice as a writer, telling their story. I want to capture their voice maybe in quotes and things, but that book would be written in my voice. That’s the difference — [when] you’re capturing in a memoir or autobiography, you’re capturing the voice of the person.”
That ‘voice’ or style is often very different from the way Hayes writes under his own name — a repertoire that includes three books and feature articles for publications like The Walrus and Report on Business. “If I was writing for Toronto Life, I’d have much more freedom with the voice [than with ghostwriting],” he explains. “I could be a little more experimental, there could be more personality to the voice.”
Contrast that with the style used for On Equal Terms, a book by Hong Kong businessman Zheng Mingxun that Hayes worked on last year. “With On Equal Terms, I did not write it the way I would have written a book,” he admits. “I had to write it the way this 70-year-old Hong Kong-Chinese CEO, corporate-guy would have written it. He has no voice as a writer. If he had a voice as a writer, it would be a little bit dry, [an] academic type of voice, like what might be an Atlantic Monthly essay.”
On Equal Terms was published by Wiley, a prominent international publishing house, and is available at an Indigo near you. “He paid to have that book done,” Hayes explains. “And Wiley’s got it out there all over the world. Most people wouldn’t know that it’s a book that the author paid for. I don’t know if they’d care — it’s by the author. I don’t think most people care how the book got written.”
Hayes doesn’t receive any money from sales of the book. “I get a fee, I don’t get any royalties. The royalties go to the author,” he says. Still, the nature of many ghostwriting projects means that a fee up front is often better than a cut of royalties.
“A lot of them are vanity in a sense, or the company is using them for promotion. So they’re not selling them, they’re giving them to clients and prospective clients, and to employees as a Christmas present,” Hayes says. “They’re not actually selling them and making money. So you’re actually not going to make that much of royalties from those kinds of books.”
Samantha Reynolds, the founder of Echo Memoirs, says that the books her custom-publishing house produces don’t often find their way onto shelves. “Most of our clients come to us and don’t want their book in bookstores — that’s not at all their interest. They have their audience, whether it’s family or employees, so it’s not about whether it hits bookstores.”
If a client does want to see his or her book on sale, Reynolds and her team have to believe the book will appeal to the average reader. “We don’t take that project unless we have complete confidence that it will be bookstore-appropriate and that bookstores will want to buy it.”
The modern world of custom publishing and ghostwriters is markedly different from the early days of the business. “It’s what used to be called ‘vanity publishing,’” Hayes explains. “It’s come up a lot in quality. It used to be very low quality, because nobody serious did it, nobody spent very much getting it done. They used to be crummy little books, and it didn’t tend to be the best writers doing it.
“And today, top writers are doing this kind of work, so the quality of the books is higher, and in some cases some of them go into the store.”
Reynolds mentions a project that seems to confirm the newfound respectability of custom publishing. “We’re doing a book with a client in Los Angeles right now, and we’re working with a New York Times number-one bestselling author. So they’re getting great authors.”
That kind of quality does not come cheap. “We’re fee-for-service,” says Reynolds. “Most families and individuals invest in the range of $150,000 and most companies invest in the range of $250,000.” But, she points out, that sum buys a lot of expertise. “They’re mobilizing a team of about 12 publishing professionals that are going to incubate their story for two years — that’s where they see their investment go.”
Echo Memoirs produces about 20 books a year. “These days we do about three-quarters of our work for organizations and companies, so non-profits, large global companies, and many different types of organizations in between. The balance is families and individuals.”
Hayes admits that the financial considerations motivate his ghostwriting. “It’s a money job — I do it for income. It’s part of my living as a writer. Unless you’re one of the stars, it’s very hard to make your living just from doing your own writing.”
It’s better than the alternative, though. “If I wasn’t doing this I’d be doing — well I wouldn’t be doing it — for a woman’s magazine, the sort of ‘what colours of lipsticks are coming up this season,’ service journalism.
“People grind that stuff out, and you can make a decent living grinding that stuff out. It’s not wonderful prose you’re going to labour over — it’s service journalism. So that’s one way to make income, but to me [that’s] harder.”
Ghostwriters are hired for their writing abilities. Natasha Master used her expertise in a slightly different area of the custom-publishing business.
“The company specialized in working with people who were self-published authors,” she explains. “So they offered them various services and one of them was that you could have your book turned into a film treatment or a script.”
Master wrote those scripts, using the books of the commissioning authors as source material. “[Screenwriting] is a different way of structuring a story,” she explains. “There’s a whole different approach to telling a story; you have a lot less space to do it in. If you’re writing in a book format, you can make it as long as you want, but you’re pretty restricted in terms of length with a screenplay.”
How much the script deviated from the source text depended on the client. “That was one of the first things I would establish in that initial call was how much leeway did I have to change things around, how much creative license were they willing to give me.
“There’s a little bit of back-and-forth in the editing stage. They’re either comfortable with the changes you’ve made, or they want you to stick mostly to their original text. That’s an ongoing negotiation.”
Like Hayes, Master doesn’t have a financial stake in the scripts she produced. “I don’t own the rights to any of that work, so once I hand in my final edit, it’s out of my hands. I have no idea what’s happened to any of them.”
Master hasn’t seen anything to suggest that any of her scripts have made it to the silver screen. But, she explains, that’s not surprising. “Some of them were just curious to see what [their books] would look like in script form, and maybe not as serious about developing it for production.”
Whose story is it anyway?
Hayes, like Master, follows the lead of his clients. “You’re working for that person. Whether you’re doing it through a publisher or not, you’re doing it for that person, so they will decide how they want to put it and whether they want to put it in, and what they want to put in.”
There’s room for a ghostwriter to improve or re-work a story to make the resulting book more readable. “I can make suggestions that I think will improve the story. I’ll say, ‘This will really improve the book, and here’s why, and here’s an example of what it will look like.’ And often they’ll say, ‘That’s great. Fine, I like that, I understand what you’re saying.’ But sometimes they won’t.”
One client in particular, Hayes notes, was particularly easy to work with. Hayes’ first book as a ghostwriter (or co-writer, since his name appeared on the cover of the final product) was Canadian figure skater and choreographer Sandra Bezic’s The Passion to Skate.
“Sandra was incredibly reasonable,” Hayes remembers. “She thought about anything I was suggesting we do, and most of the time they were sensible ideas, and she thought they were great ideas.”
Other subjects have been more challenging. “I think in some ways it was harder, or one might say more boring, with [On Equal Terms] because I didn’t spend much time with [Zheng]. I tried to do Skype interviews with him, and it didn’t work too well over the phone. He worked better actually with email. He just didn’t give me as much as I needed, so it was a little bit of a struggle working on that one.”
Hayes notes that ghostwriters don’t necessarily have a deeper insight into their subjects than the average reader. “It’s funny, sometimes you learn less than you would if you were a journalist doing a profile. With [one of his subjects] it wasn’t my job to dig into everything about who he was. I wasn’t interviewing a dozen or 15 people who he’s worked with in the past, who still work with him, who were influential at some point in his career, friends, enemies, critics and supporters. You’d be getting this full picture because you’d be going outside the subject himself or herself.
“With this kind of book… The person’s going to give you the side or sides that they want to put in the book, and as you’re talking you pick up on things, so you do ask questions a certain way and try to bring other things out to some degree. But basically, it’s pretty much you and the subject.”
The access that the ghostwriter-subject relationship provides can sometimes mean a less well-rounded story, Hayes admits. “There are lots of profiles done where the person never spoke to the profile subject at all,” he says, citing Gay Talese’s famous 1966 Esquire article, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.”
“You can sometimes do a better profile than the ones where you actually talk to the individual, because you talk to so many other people that you actually get a picture [of the subject]. Often when we do have great access to the main subject, we don’t do as many interviews around the person. You don’t need to go quite as far afield, and some of those people far afield may be incredibly great people to talk to.”
Certain subjects, like Bezic, choose to acknowledge their ghostwriters on the covers of their books. Others are more reticent to credit their co-creators. Still, Hayes explains, it’s not hard to find a ghostwriter’s name.
“Look at the acknowledgements — if it isn’t explicit, sometimes it’ll just say, ‘Thank you for the valuable help given to me by my editors,’ and it’ll name two or three people,” he explains. “Google their names — one of them will be the publisher and editor-in-chief of that publishing house, the other one will be a senior editor at that publishing house, and the third person will be a writer.
“As soon as you see that, [you know] that’s the person who wrote the book.”
In the end though, the book is the property and responsibility of the person whose name is front and centre on the cover.
“You’re interpreting to a degree in ghost- or co-writing and in authorized biographies sometimes, but the subject has control,” Hayes says. “Ultimately, I am only putting in what each of these people wanted to put in.”