Is there one surefire way to succeed in the business of ghostwriting? According to the experts, the answer is ‘no… but.’ There are certain commonalities, they say, that separate and define the work of the greats from those who merely aspire to become so. Broadly speaking, these can be whittled down to five foundational categories: trust, truth, taste, tenacity, and timing.
The opening session of the Gathering of the Ghosts turned to a handful of prominent authors who have done much to raise visibility and interest in the profession. In teeing up the discussion, Gotham Ghostwriters Chief Operating Officer Alison Schwartz, who oversaw conference logistics on behalf of Gotham and ASJA and chaired the programming and awards committees, noted that a central theme of the conference is “the growing number of elite writers who are affirmatively embracing the role and identity of ghostwriter and collaborator,” she said in welcoming just such a group to the stage.
Author, ghostwriter, and podcaster Daniel Paisner served as panel moderator. The author or co-author of more than 80 books, including seventeen New York Times bestsellers, Paisner hosts the popular podcast “AS TOLD TO: The Ghostwriting Podcast,” a production of the Writers Bone Podcast Network. He was joined in an hour-long discussion by three well-known panelists whose work includes a range of prominent titles in the fields of sports, music, business, wellness, relationships, and other popular subject areas.
Sportswriter and CBS broadcaster Seth Davis is a New York Times best-selling author and a mainstay of coverage of college basketball and the NCAA tournament for CBS Sports and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.
Writer, critic, and artist development consultant Holly Gleason has co-authored, contributed, and edited books on contemporary American musicians, including John Prine and Miranda Lambert.
Six-time New York Times best-selling ghostwriter Jodi Lipper has co-written memoirs as well as prescriptive books on business, wellness, relationships, parenting, and personal development.
In introducing his panel, Paisner began by noting, “We all got here by degrees and hardly by design,” and then turned first to Davis, who had a 22-year career writing for Sports Illustrated. Davis’s soon-to-be-released book with former NBA star Rex Chapman tackles, among other issues, the trauma of Chapman’s opioid addiction after being prescribed oxycontin following an appendectomy and a downward spiral that eventually led to his being arrested for shoplifting merchandise from an Apple Store in Arizona. Davis knew Chapman from his Sports Illustrated work and subsequently discussed a book project. But he warned him, “Don’t do it until you’re ready – you gotta tell everything.”
Eventually, Chapman told all, though leading up to publication, he experienced profound fear of what his honesty might unleash. Chapman turned to his ghostwriter and collaborator to help get him through. “I think you can all relate to this,” said Davis. “You all have done this. There’s a beautiful intimacy that gets formed when you are doing these projects.” That deep connection is the basis of trust, so vital to a successful collaborative effort.
No less important is recognizing the need for any book to understand and convey its subject in a way that is “true to their truth,” as Gleason describes it. When country singer Miranda Lambert released a very personal record called The Weight of These Wings about her lengthy and acrimonious divorce, she declined all media requests to talk about it. Gleason persisted, and eventually, Lambert agreed to do an interview. “What I didn’t know was that her mother was in the next room taping it,” recalls Gleason. But it worked out well because, she says, “I got the truth right because there are three or four ways you can tell any given fact. So in this work, you need to be true to their truth.”
While trust and truth may be objectively earned, the matter of taste – knowing which clients to embrace, which to keep at arm’s length, and which to flat-out run from – is a far trickier matter. Paisner asked his panel, “Is there anyone you wouldn’t collaborate with?” With varying degrees of qualification, all agreed there are. “Oh yes!” chimed in Lipper at once. “But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them or be aligned with them philosophically. I have done books where I definitely don’t agree, but I don’t think they’re adding something negative to the world. If it’s someone whose messages could directly cause harm or hurt, I would not want to be a part of it.” Gleason agreed. “I believe in the first amendment, but… I don’t do hate,” she said.
While it is important to know there are certain clients you’d want to run from, all panelists said the trickiest part was finding those who are willing to run with you. Turning the prospective client into a collaborating partner takes focus, time, and, most of all, tenacity. “I’m sure everyone in this room has experienced this at one point or another,” said Paisner. “I’ve found if they don’t have this idea themselves, it’s very difficult to push them down this path.” Lipper responded that she had had more luck in finding people with compelling stories who were not yet celebrities. “It’s hard to think of someone new that’s already well-known that hasn’t already been offered. I had two cases where I chased them and was successful, but both of them were not celebrities.”
When all is said and done, it finally comes down to a matter of timing. And that is the great unknown, the nearly mystical alignment when the client is ready, the collaborator is available, and somehow all the stars align. “For years, I had a cartoon clipped and taped over my desk,” is how Paisner described it. “It’s just a doctor with a patient in an exam room. But the caption says it all: ‘That book in you – it’s going to have to come out.’”