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Gathering of the Ghosts – January 22, 2024

The State of the Ghostwriting Union

January 25, 2024

This past Monday, 138 professional ghostwriters came together in New York City for the Gathering of the Ghosts, the first-ever convention for ghostwriters. I think it’s safe to say it was THE largest gathering of ghostwriters in one room ever. I’d go a step further and suggest it was the most extraordinary collection of ghostwriting talent in one place since. . . well, when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

This remarkable assemblage called to mind my favorite ghostwriting joke: How many ghostwriters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

We’ll never know. . . because they all signed NDAs.

That line may still elicit a knowing chuckle, but the truth is it’s becoming less and less relevant as our field has gained more and more attention and recognition over the last few years.

Publishers Weekly was one of the first to highlight this shift with an article in November 2021 aptly titled “Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows,” noting the growing number of A-list authors and journalists who are openly eschewing the stigma long associated with ghostwriting and unapologetically embracing the identity of collaborator.

Like Ariel Levy, the New Yorker writer who collaborated on Demi Moore’s celebrated memoir; Sam Lansky, the best-selling memoirist who worked on Britney Spears’ blockbuster new release; and most notably, J.R. Moehringer, the author of the acclaimed Tender Bar, who set off a media frenzy two years ago with his rumored million-dollar deal to collaborate on Prince Harry’s Spare.

Just this past week, reports surfaced that Buzz Bissinger – the writer behind the Friday Night Lights phenomenon – had signed on to work with his fellow Pennsylvania John Fetterman on the iconoclastic Senator’s upcoming memoir.

Equally significant, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in prominent authors who are publicly embracing their writing partners rather than hiding the fact they used a ghost, as was the norm for most of modern publishing’s history. Not just giving them cover credit, but highlighting their collaborator’s contributions during their press tours. Indeed, I was particularly struck by the fact that Ariel Levy was giving interviews herself to help promote Demi Moore’s book – it doesn’t get any more new normal than that.

For me, though, the watershed moment was Moehringer’s groundbreaking confessional in The New Yorker last spring. By documenting his personal journey from bylined bigwig to secondary sideman and pulling back the curtain in un-Sparing detail on how ghosts engage with authors while they wrestle with their own egos, Moehringer opened the reading public’s eyes far wider to the unique role we play and the evolving nature of our work.

Now, to be sure, this evolution is still a work in progress. The majority of ghost-hiring authors today — from brand names to no-names — still insist on keeping their partners invisible. Worse, too many clients still try to stick them with onerous and unnecessary NDAs. But in my time running Gotham, I’ve observed first-hand the start of a sea change in author attitudes and comfort levels with openly recognizing their collaborator’s work beyond the traditional vague reference on the acknowledgements page.

In the meantime, in this tumultuous time, our profession is also coping with our own unique challenges. 

There’s the new – and some would say existential — threat of AI, which comes with its own set of particular problems for ghosts. And the perennial bugaboo of demanding, unrealistic, and occasionally delusional authors, which in some ways is getting worse with the democratization of publishing and the explosion of interest in taking advantage of the new, non-traditional forms of publishing from a new breed of author. If only we had a dime for every time we heard “I want to write a best-seller.”

Our presumption of hidden-ness makes it particularly difficult to educate these growing client ranks and re-set their expectations en masse. It makes it generally impossible to have any common understanding about price-setting in the field, let alone any industry standardization. It covers up the pronounced lack of racial diversity in the profession. And it creates a real barrier to entry for writers of color – in fact, most any aspiring ghost – to break into the field.

But it means something that so many writers, beyond the Moehringers and Bissingers of the world, want to get into the game. We at Gotham regularly field calls and emails from veteran authors and reporters who have heard about the growing demand for ghostwriting (especially in the thought leadership space) along with the potential for much higher paydays. And they all want to know how to crack the ghostwriting code.

Suffice it to say, and I suspect many here will agree, overall, it’s a good time to be a ghostwriter. So we at Gotham, along with our partners at the American Society of Journalists and Authors, thought it would be a good time to literally come out of the shadows (and our silos) to gather as a community for the first time. 

And we did. We celebrated (and ruminated) about the evolution we’re in the midst of and deliberated on the common challenges I outlined above. We announced the inaugural class of Andy Award winners, a program we created to honor the highest achievements in our field, and took in countless pearls of wisdom from our panelists and audience members alike. 

We intend for this to be the beginning of an ongoing conversation within our community – our attendees left the closing town hall clamoring for more, and we are already brainstorming for round two of GOTG.

But in the meantime, given that a lot of ghosts could not make it to New York for Monday’s inaugural gathering, we plan on sharing key highlights and takeaways here on our blog in the coming days. So stay tuned.

FYI: This post was adapted from Gerstein’s opening remarks at the Gathering of the Ghosts. 

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