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9 Secrets of Ghostwriters

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Admit it: You’ve read at least one book written by a celebrity, politician, or business tycoon in the past year, if not the past month. You’re no fool, though. You know that people like Keith Richards, Snooki, and Donald Trump often have help writing their memoirs. But what exactly does ghostwriting a book for someone else entail? How much of the book does the ghostwriter write and how much does the “author” contribute? What’s the ghostwriter-author relationship really like? We tapped a handful of professional ghostwriters to find out.

1. COACHING THE AUTHOR IS A BIG PART OF THE GIG.

Researching, outlining, writing, and revising are only part of what ghostwriters do. The job also entails a certain amount of handholding, especially when working with a first-time author who may not know how labor-intensive book writing is.

“Just because they can tell a story at the bar, doesn’t mean it’s going to look good on the page,” says Mike Edison, a New York‑based author, editor, and ghostwriter who’s worked on a number of food and music memoirs. “Some people think that sex and drugs are what’s really going to sell the book, and they push too hard on that.”

On the flip side, some authors are more circumspect, requiring the ghostwriter to draw them out lest they have no material to work with. “Some people are brash in the public light but get skittish when the writing starts,” Edison says. He’s repeatedly seen larger-than-life rock stars clam up upon realizing that their spouse and family will probably read their book.

“They might freak out about their girlfriend if they’re talking about having sex with someone who’s not their girlfriend, even if happened 25 years ago,” Edison says. Here’s where that hand-holding comes in: “When you’re writing a memoir, honesty is the currency you trade in,” Edison reminds his clients. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”

2. GAINING ACCESS TO AUTHORS CAN SUCK UP A LOT OF TIME.

It may sound counterintuitive that a public figure who’s hot to “write” a book would disappear the moment they get a publishing contract, but it happens a lot. This means ghostwriters can spend a decent chunk of their time trying to get on the schedule of the authors who’ve hired them.

“I know one writer who builds a certain number of author-access hours into each contract,” says Judy McGuire, a New York‑based author and ghostwriter. “It’s an excellent idea because your publisher doesn’t care if your author is too busy on Broadway or fulfilling her Real Housewife obligations—they still want the book on schedule.”

3. GHOSTWRITERS GET TO KNOW THEIR AUTHORS REALLY WELL.

Being a people person is a must for ghostwriters, who can spend several weeks, months, or years working with an author on their book. “People have to feel comfortable with you and they have to like you,” says Stephanie Krikorian, a New York‑based journalist and New York Times best-selling celebrity ghostwriter. “They’re trusting you with their life story or their life’s work. And most people only get one book, so I take that responsibility very seriously.”

McGuire agrees. “You get so close to someone,” she says. “You hear all their dirt. You’re like their shrink. It’s a very one-sided relationship, but it can be very intense. And then it’s over. That can be good (if they’re annoying) or a little sad.”

4. THE AUTHOR GETS THE FINAL SAY, NOT THE GHOSTWRITER.

“A lot of times when people read back their words, they say, ‘Oh, I would never say that,’ or, ‘That doesn’t sound like me,’” Krikorian says of her authors. This happens despite Krikorian recording and transcribing each conversation she has with them.

But if an author doesn’t like a turn of phrase, they don’t like a turn of phrase, and Krikorian will make a tweak. “Every author I work with signs off on every single word in their book, so I’m not putting words in anybody’s mouth,” she explains. “They’ve read it five times before it goes into print.”

5. THE PAY VARIES WILDLY.

A book’s length, complexity, and deadline all factor into the fee the ghostwriter negotiates. Ghostwriters can get paid anything from $15,000 to $150,000, even hundreds of thousands if the author is a household-name celebrity. In addition to their flat fee, some negotiate a percentage of royalties.

Take Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter behind The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump’s 1987 New York Times best-selling memoir. Schwartz earned half of Trump’s $500,000 book advance for his efforts, along with half the book’s royalties on the back end, eventually netting him millions of dollars.

6. GHOSTWRITERS TURN DOWN FAR MORE WORK THAN THEY ACCEPT.

Almost everyone has a book idea in them. Many people, upon meeting a ghostwriter at a party, will share their idea in hopes that the ghostwriter will provide feedback or even take on their project for a cut-rate fee. (“I’ll pay you on the back end if the book makes any money.”) This is not how professional ghostwriters work. Most carefully vet the books they take on, based on budget, the viability of the project, and whether they’re the right wordsmith for it. Often the projects they accept have been vetted by a literary agent, publishing company, or mutual contact first.

“Most people do have a book in them,” Krikorian says. “But the economics of publishing don’t allow for all those people to hire a writer to do their book.”

7. GHOSTWRITING IS ONE OF PUBLISHING’S WORST-KEPT SECRETS.

Many ghostwriters will tell you—sometimes even on the record—that at least 60 percent of celebrity books are ghostwritten. The most obviously ghosted books bear both the author and ghostwriter names on the cover. Sometimes the ghostwriter or “collaborator” credit is a bit more subtle: on the back cover, inside the back flap of the book, or in the acknowledgments.

Take Edison. “The books that I’ve worked on, it’s generally an open secret that I’ve worked with the authors,” he says.

8. SOME AUTHORS GHOST THEIR GHOSTWRITER POST-PUBLICATION.

Despite how close ghostwriters can get to their authors, the relationship is primarily transactional—the ghostwriter is merely a service provider easily dismissed once the transaction ends.

“Most of my clients have been generous and easy, but I know some authors won't acknowledge that they had any kind of help—it's a struggle just to get listed on the acknowledgments page—because they've built this fiction that they have actually written the book themselves,” McGuire says.

She recalls one ghostwriting project where she never met or had direct contact with the author: “He never emailed, never called—all he contributed was having his assistant send one academic journal article per chapter. These weren't even necessarily journal articles he'd written. It was very strange, but a contractor handled the whole thing. I doubt he'd even read the book before he went on 20/20 to discuss it. But as long as the check clears, who cares? You need to be ego-less in this profession. Or at least a little thick-skinned.”

9. THEY'RE OFTEN SWORN TO SECRECY.

Tony Schwartz, who shared a cover credit with Donald Trump for The Art of the Deal, infamously told The New Yorker last year how much he regrets ghostwriting the president’s book. But many ghostwriters wouldn’t dream of spilling the beans on an author or project. Plus, some are legally bound to take the secret of having written someone else’s book to their grave, no matter how well the project goes and how good their relationship is with the author.

Krikorian’s friends and family know not to ask what author she’s working with at any given moment. Instead they just ask if she has work, end of story. “I really strongly believe that my job is to keep the secret,” Krikorian says. “There’s a reason it’s called ‘ghost.’”

All photos via iStock.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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