Six years ago I helped a young Army officer who was dying of cancer to write his memoir. The first edition, published by Beaver’s Pond Press, had my name on the cover, because that’s what the author and I felt was most honest. When Random House bought the rights, they wanted me off the cover on account of people look askance at an as-told-to book.
Caring about book sales the most, I readily agreed to this change. Unfortunately the author died the same week the book cracked the NYT best-seller list, but before he could do a book tour. And since I wasn’t on the cover, I certainly couldn’t fill in even had Random House wanted me to, and I doubt they made back the fat advance.
I thought of this last weekend as I read a positive New York Times book review of Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards’ new memoir, Make Trouble.
“Books by public figures, especially when written with help from others—Lauren Peterson is a speechwriter—are often pretty deadly,” wrote reviewer Katha Pollitt, “but Make Trouble manages to be genial, engaging and humorous.”
If you want to see deadly, check out books by public figures not written with help from ghostwriters. My Army officer collaborator happened to be a fantastic writer, and the book is most definitely his. But when I got to it it was a stack of well-written diary entries, and without me—without my organizational thinking, without our brutally, wonderfully honest conversations—it would never have seen the light of day. As he wrote in the acknowlegements, “David listened, observed the common threads of my life, and then aggressively helped me find an approach I never would have found on my own. His candor, humor, objectivity, empathy, and keen eyes helped me transform my stories in to My Story.”
Acknowledging that didn’t diminish the book, which was so much his in the end that when people commented on its quality—for good or ill—I was almost uninterested in what they had to say.
I don’t know about the reading public, but I’m coming to the conclusion that the authors I trust are the ones who do want their collaborators on the cover with them, because they have the confidence and candor to acknowledge the help they got in telling their own story.
And by the looks of it, publishers are beginning to agree. Collaborators are getting cover treatment more frequently these days—at least my speechwriter friends have. Lauren Peterson is a Facebook pal, and it’s sweet (and just) to see her nieces talking about how this book has made their ebullient aunt “basically famous.”
Longtime AARP speechwriter Boe Workman got cover billing with AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, about their book Disrupt Aging. He even did some first-person promotional press for that book.
And Former James Clapper speechwriter Trey Brown is on the cover of Clapper’s forthcoming book, Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence. Trey is appearing, with his boss, at the 2018 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association, to openly discuss their collaboration.
Whether we’re talking about Facts & Fears or Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas—if a book is legit, it out to be able to survive conversation about its making.
Even if a “speechwriter,” God forbid, was involved.
David Murray is the executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. This article originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.