After devouring J.R. Moehringer’s deeply revealing self-examination of his work with Prince Harry and his identity as a ghostwriter in The New Yorker, a friend texted me with a question that surely was on the minds of a lot of readers unfamiliar with our field. Didn’t this violate the ghostwriter’s code? You know, what happens in Literary Vegas stays in Literary Vegas?
It’s a more than understandable response – based, unfortunately, on a more than outdated conception of the ghost’s duties. Pre-digital age, ghosts were, in fact, uniformly expected by their patrons to stay in the shadows. But thanks largely to the incredible power of social media, there are no secrets anymore. Once the Spare deal was done, we knew Moehringer was the ghost and how much he was paid faster than you can say Fleet Street. Even more notably, a growing number of authors are embracing this new reality by openly hat-tipping the help.
This is why, quite paradoxically, I would argue that Moehringer’s sharing of seemingly private details of his relationship with the Prince was a public service. Indeed, by pulling back the curtain on how ghosts engage with authors and wrestle with their own egos in un-Sparing detail, Moehringer opened the reading public’s eyes much wider to the progressive evolution of ghostwriters into collaborators – and foreshadowed a bit of the future for our field.
Now, to be clear, the majority of authors who hire writers today — from brand names to no-names — still insist on having their ghosts stay invisible and too often stick them with onerous NDAs. Some out of vanity and/or insecurity, some out of concern for privacy. But in my time running a leading ghostwriting agency, I’ve observed the start of a sea change in author attitudes and comfort levels with crediting their collaborator beyond a vague reference on the acknowledgments page.
It’s apparent on a micro-level with the broad range of clients we work with — experts, advocates, business leaders who want to share their insights and tell their stories, as well as ordinary people who want to document their extraordinary experiences in book form. Many of the collaboration agreements we broker have a clause that gives the writer the right to publicize their work on a project as a credential to secure future work, and the authors almost never object.
It’s especially apparent on the global stage. As Publishers Weekly noted in an article two years ago, aptly titled “Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows,” a growing number of collaborators on high-profile memoirs are receiving the prized credit on book covers. But beyond that, it’s not uncommon now for prominent authors to name-drop their collaborators proactively on their book tours and even share promotional duties, as Demi Moore did with her partner Ariel Levy, an acclaimed New Yorker journalist and author in her own right.
What’s driving this limelight-sharing in part is the parallel trend of star writers like Levy and Moehringer and Buzz Bissinger (of Friday Night Lights fame) eschewing the old taboos and stigmas around ghostwriting and embracing the supporting role as part of their writing portfolio. These literary stars can score big paydays to subsidize their own work, pick and choose the stories of others they want to tell, and savor the liberty that comes from killing someone else’s darlings. For the authors, they not only gain an elite partner and storyteller, they get the validation and prestige that comes with partnering with a Pulitzer Prize winner.
As the dynamic of the author-collaborator relationship evolves, so too are the ethical expectations. In an old-school engagement, where the author has made clear they want their writing partner to remain anonymous, any ghost worth their salt will still keep their lips zipped. Their livelihood depends on discretion. But in the newer, more open relationships, collaborators have the freedom to follow their authors’ lead and talk publicly about their work – to a point.
The common denominator – and this has not and will not change – is consent. The author-ghost relationship has often been compared to a marriage. And just like with any married couple, each writing partnership will come with its own slightly different obligations and considerations. In this context, the ghostwriter’s one and only duty is to honor the trust of the author. And if the author explicitly says it is okay to blab about how the sausage is made, then the collaborator is well within their rights to do so.
That brings us back to Moehringer’s confessional. He doesn’t specifically say he had Harry’s blessing to spill so many beans, but he doesn’t have to. It’s inconceivable that a writer of Moehringer’s experience and sophistication would risk the reputational ruin – not to mention the potential legal consequences — that would result from betraying a royal trust. Indeed, the fastest way for an elite collaborator like Moehringer to destroy his career would be to screw over the client who (allegedly) made him the highest-paid ghost in the world.
Whatever your views on the Prince are, we in the editorial community should be grateful for his permissiveness. Moehringer’s article did a brilliant job educating the public about the ins, outs, and occasional shouts of a ghostwriter’s work and the immense value they typically offer their authors. It covered the common challenges (managing egos, tending to emotional wounds, cracking the vulnerability code) and the idiosyncratic tactics and techniques different ghosts employ to overcome these impediments to birthing a compelling story.
In this vein, the opening anecdote Moehringer relays is incredibly powerful and instructive. Not every ghost would feel so bold as to engage in a yell-off with the once third-in-line heir to the British throne and future best-selling author in the world. But regardless, Moehringer vividly shows readers that part of the ghost’s remit is often to save the author from their worst impulses – and that the best collaborators can convince their principals that it’s in their best interests to let go of their pet peeves and retributions.
Speaking of retributions: One of the most fascinating elements of Moehringer’s article – for insiders and outsiders alike — is the journey he took to breaking his silence. Much like Prince Harry himself, Moehringer recounts how he was viciously trolled online after the book was released and stalked by paparazzi. The worst part, though, was the concerted campaign to trash the book for being rife with errors. As the publicly-celebrated collaborator, Moehringer took these attacks about as personally as the author did – and felt compelled to defend his/their work.
Here we can get a glimpse of what’s in store for this evolving class of collaborators. With the public glory inevitably comes public scrutiny — and, at times, villainy. Maybe not at the intensity Moehringer experienced, given what an outlier the Royal family is. But with the extraordinary microscope business leaders and influencers are operating under these days by their niche followings – above and beyond the typical pop culture celeb – more and more high-profile collaborators are going to have to be prepared to dodge the virtual slings and arrows of digital infamy.
As I laid this all out for an astute journalist friend of mine, he raised the existential question I’ve been chewing on for some time: is the term “ghostwriter” on its way to obsolescence? Going back to the marriage metaphor, he pointed out that it was not that long ago that wives, like children, were expected to be seen and not heard. That norm has thankfully become extinct, as most American wives expect to be treated as full partners. Could the same be true for ghosts?
From my vantage point, I’d say it’s likely to be more nuanced than that. The trend line is irrepressibly moving in the direction of ghosts being openly treated as collaborators – many of us now use the terms interchangeably. And that’s all for the good. Collaborative storytelling is as old as culture itself – heck, the Bible was wholly (and arguably Holy) ghosted. In almost every major cultural medium today – from movies to TV to music – multiple writers normally receive credit. It’s long past time for book publishing to do the same and publicly recognize the important contributions of writing partners.
But at the same time, history and human nature also tell us to count on a considerable number of ghostwriters to remain in the shadows. Remember, for as long as books have existed, writers purposely chose to be ghosts for reasons other than avoiding the stigma of hackery, and I suspect those motivations (such as not wanting to be associated with a text) are not going to disappear any time soon. Plus, some ghosts won’t have the stomach for the 21st-century downsides to being credited that Moehringer is contending with. On the flip side, there will certainly continue to be authors who wish to preserve the illusion they wrote the book on their own and insist on the traditional ghost arrangement.
Either way, the job itself – not to mention the hierarchy — will mostly stay the same. “To borrow an image from William Gass,” Moehringer wrote in explaining the ghost’s role, “you’re the air in someone else’s trumpet.” Which is to say, it will never be a game for writers who are intent on blowing their own horn.
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