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Gathering of the Ghosts – January 22, 2024

Summary: Town Hall — Addressing the Community’s Needs and Goals

February 7, 2024

From frank discussions about fees to a realistic look at AI, most of the Gathering of the Ghost panels focused on the cornerstones of the ghostwriting profession — to bring the work ghosts do out of the shadows. The final panel of the day, however, asked the ghostwriters in the room to take a deeper look around and confront which ghosts are often given the most access and opportunity to this work. 

“The ghostwriting community is very white,” Gotham Ghostwriters CEO Dan Gerstein acknowledged in introducing the panel, adding that this reality is “both a moral issue but it’s also a business issue.” As publishing becomes increasingly democratized via more accessible publishing paths and as more diverse voices are publishing books, Gotham has seen an increasing demand for ghostwriters “who have lived a shared experience [to the client], who are sensitive to some of the nuances of their lives and stories.”

To discuss how the ghostwriting community can encourage diversity within its ranks, Gerstein and co-moderator Emily Paulsen, President of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, invited up panelists Michael Franklin, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Speechwriters of Color; Pauleanna Reid, Founder of WritersBlok; and ghostwriter Lisa Crayton.

Michael Franklin kicked off the conversation by acknowledging the “frank truth” that the professions of ghostwriting and speechwriting “weren’t designed for diverse voices — they weren’t designed for Black folks, queer folks, or for women, either.” Because of that design, he noted that he’s “damn near the antithesis of a traditional speechwriter because I’m a Gen Z, Black, queer, guy,” That said, when thinking about how to change that reality, we shouldn’t blame individuals or make them feel personally attacked, but instead think about how we can evolve by “coming from a place of honesty and seeing where we’ve gone wrong, where we have things to do and where we can go.” Part of that honesty was his frankness with the audience, noting that he tries to operate “with the audacity of a straight, white man” after the conversation earlier in the day around the “swagger” necessary to ensure one’s price is equitable. As a result of that “audacity,” he aims to “throw his hat at things and hope for the best.”

Pauleanna Reid shared her experience witnessing the reluctance of major publishers to actively seek out ghostwriters of color and their insistence that they don’t know where to find such writers. “There’s a lot of gatekeeping,” she noted. “This is an archaic system, and people are resistant to change. And I hope from this conversation we can think about how to move the needle.”

Franklin noted that he has encountered similar misconceptions about a perceived lack of speechwriters of color. His experience with speech and debate had demonstrated to him that there was no lack of talent among speechwriters of color, and so he set out to find them and “build community and try to build a pipeline.” He did so by founding Speechwriters of Color in 2020 alongside Mintaro Oba. A door had been opened for him, Franklin said, and “now I’m going to blast that door off its hinges to ensure we can bring as many folks as possible into this space.” 

Referencing Reid’s comment about the archaic structure of the publishing industry, Ghostwriter and editor Lisa Crayton added that ghostwriters of color often face another issue: how books are perceived by some publishers based on the author’s–or ghost’s–race.  “When a white person writes a book,” she said, “and pitches that book or gets a contract, that book is often considered universal, and it’s perceived as if anybody can buy it. But if a person of color writes or ghosts that book or a Black person writes or ghosts that book, that’s now a ‘Black book.” As a result, she argued, white ghostwriters are provided greater opportunities to write across racial lines, write about more topics, and land lucrative contracts.  It’s an impediment that isn’t restricted to race but gender, ability, and other marginalized identities, too. No writer, Crayton argued, should be limited to writing about topics just because of those factors.

The panelists also emphasized how important raising awareness of the ghostwriting profession is to diversifying it. “I do think if more young people understood that this was a career option for them, they would pursue it,” Reid said. That visibility could ideally come in college, in the form of courses on speechwriting and ghostwriting, as well as “promoting ourselves, talking about the profession, and hosting town halls like this,” but it can also take the form of mentorship, from which Reid has benefited. 

“It’s not just finding those who are already doing the work,” Crayton added, “but actually going into the communities and working with organizations that foster growth.” For example, she said, outreach to Black communities such as HBCUs, churches, and Black media could go a long way. 

Franklin emphasized that the way we frame ghostwriting to new and diverse talent matters, too — namely, that one has to be a strategist to be a successful ghostwriter, a distinction he believes is “a way to help bridge the divide and making [ghostwriting] a bit more appealing.”

These insights provided a foundation for the audience to share their own reflections on how the ghostwriting community can address these issues, break down barriers, and create a more inclusive and representative industry for future generations.

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