Ghost in the machine

The spoof horror writer Garth Marenghi, created by comedian Matt Holness, used to boast: “I’m the only man I know who’s written more books than he’s read.” But even he might have drawn the line at not having read the books he has written, which is more than can be said for some of today’s bestselling novelists.

These are boom times for celebrity authors and the ghostwriters who, in most cases, stand in their shadows. Publishers who have had a hit with a celebrity autobiography or misery memoir cast around for further ways to market a successful name and logically turn to fiction or, if the fan base is right, children’s books.

There was controversy over one of former model Katie Price’s children’s books being shortlisted for the British Book awards (the literary world had barely recovered from last year’s shock of discovering that her first adult novel had outsold the entire Booker shortlist combined).

Soon after, Geri Halliwell and Coleen McLoughlin went head to head with the release of their respective series for young girls. Price’s next adult novel is released this month, while Kerry Katona, best known as the face of Iceland, has two new novels out this year.

The growth of celebrity fiction in both the adult and children’s markets has led to a wider acknowledgement of the ghostwriter, who has partially come in from the cold; celebrities, their publishers and those who buy their books are quite knowingly and willingly colluding in a kind of illusion.
In our culture of reality stardom, honesty and openness are the cardinal virtues; the public will cheerfully accept most things from our celebrities except the knowledge that they have deliberately tried to deceive us.

This was the golden rule stated by Christy Walsh, the man who coined the term “ghostwriting” in 1921 and established the Christy Walsh Syndicate to produce articles and books in the names of leading American sportsmen, including Babe Ruth. “Don’t insult the intelligence of the public by claiming these men write their own stuff,” was his code of conduct, and it’s one that publishers are still trying to interpret.

There is a delicate balancing act between acknowledging the hand of the ghost and spoiling the make-believe. The favoured word among publishers is “collaboration”, which usefully fudges the question of authorship; only the celebrity and her ghost know the exact division of labour between the suggestion of ideas and characters and the work of marshalling them into a story, but as long as she doesn’t deny that she had help, there has been no deception and no one really minds.

Speaking at a live event in London recently, Katona, listed on the copyright page as the author of the novels Tough Love, The Footballer’s Wife and the forthcoming Glamour Girl, openly acknowledged that she didn’t do the actual writing, not least because she’s dyslexic.

“Ebury had a lady on hand called Annie. We sat down together and came up with plotlines, characters, then she packaged it together and wrote it the way we spoke about. For me it was a lot like creating the Sims,” she explained, adding, with a knowing giggle, “Can you imagine if I’d said I’d not read it?” (She had already declared earlier that she has never read her autobiography.)

It has been generally assumed that Katona’s novels were ghosted by Fanny Blake, who wrote the memoir, but her agent confirms that this is not the case, though the mysterious “Annie” remains elusive. Publishers are often cagey about the ghosts they use, not for fear of revealing that their prize name did not write every word herself but rather, as one publisher explains, because “good ghostwriters are hard to come by and we don’t want to publicise who they are to other publishers”.

It has been widely reported that Rebecca Farnworth, who ghosted Price’s three bestselling volumes of autobiography, is also the author of Price’s two novels, Angel and Crystal (she is listed with Price on the copyright page), but Farnworth herself has never spoken publicly to confirm or deny it.

A spokesperson for the Hanbury Agency, which includes both Farnworth and Price on its client list, politely explains that, despite many requests, Farnworth doesn’t do interviews “because she’s too busy”. The reticence make sense; it is, above all, the publicity and Price’s public appearances that drive sales of these books and it would make no sense for the ghost to appear separately, openly taking the credit. Nor would the fans who queue for hours for Price’s signature have the slightest interest in meeting the person who actually wrote the words, any more than they would care to meet the perfumier who developed the scent that bears her name.

“This part of the market is product, it’s part of the entertainment industry and there’s a knowingness among the public—we all know what we’re buying,” says Jonny Geller, MD of the books division of Curtis Brown, which represents a growing number of ghostwriters as well as established authors. “But cynically going on a celeb’s name doesn’t work: the book will run out of steam. It was very clever of Katie Price to market herself as a novelist, but the reason people respond to her is because the books work. The celebrity novel won’t go, but the ones that stand out are actually good books.”

When it was revealed last year that Price’s first novel had outsold the Booker shortlist, a few Jeremiahs claimed that the celebrity novel would be the death knell of our literary culture, but they sounded oddly stuffy and out of touch. Those who write and publish literary fiction might well wish it sold even half as well as Price’s books, but no one seriously believes that she is stealing readers from the likes of Anne Enright, and it has become unfashionable to be snobby about ghosted books, not least because it can easily look like the more usual kind of snobbery.

People who buy Katie Price novels are on the whole not the people who buy the new hardback Salman Rushdie and it doesn’t look good for the largely middle-class, university-educated literary community to be sniffy about them.

Perhaps ghosting exercises the literary world because it regards fiction as an art, even at the commercial end; writing a novel is seen as requiring a degree of creative talent and—let’s be honest—intellect that you don’t need for modelling, singing or sleeping with footballers. Becoming an “author” is a way of saying that you are more than a pretty face.

Author Michael Rosen thinks this attitude is too precious. “There are levels of authorship and originality,” he explains. “We’ve accepted collective authorship from the time of Da Vinci. Shakespeare wrote several of his plays in collaboration with others, I’ve adapted some of my books from folk tales and there are lots of examples of that. It’s obvious that with some of these celebrity books they come up with the ideas and someone else writes them, but I’m not unduly worried about it.

“The only question that really matters is whether the books are any good, do they engage children’s interest? If they don’t, then children won’t read them, no matter whose name is on the cover—we can see that with the Madonna books.”

Rosen sees the opposition to the rise of celebrity books among some authors as born of anxiety, not snobbery. “If you sit down and write something and it’s taken you years, and then someone comes along who’s a model or a dancer and seems to have all this money behind them and didn’t even do the work, then people feel resentful and they feel it devalues what they’re doing. What I feel like saying to fellow authors is, if you feel anxious, you just have to try harder.”

But any would-be ghostwriters should not be lured by the profession’s new-found respectability and the prospect of reflected fame. “You have to have no ego,” says Andrew Crofts who, paradoxically, has a considerable public profile as a ghostwriter, having been one of the first to openly advertise his services in the Bookseller magazine and on the internet. And he warns prospective ghosts that it is an art in its own right, and not as easy as it looks.

“It’s like Mills & Boon books,” he says. “I suspect every writer has at some stage thought, ‘I could do one of those,’ and tried to bash one out, but if you’re not fully committed you’ll be crap at it.”

Crofts sees the misery memoir—of which he has ghosted many bestselling examples, including Zana Muhsen’s Sold and Kevin Lewis’s The Kid—as the bridge between straight autobiography and fiction.

“With a memoir, your role is more like a lawyer pleading their case in court. They tell you their story and you present it in the best way possible, in a way that they might not do because they’d be tongue-tied. So you need to draw them out and you mustn’t be threatening or judgmental because then people will clam up and become defensive. You need to coax them to tell you why they did what they did and for me that’s the fascination—how did they feel, what went through their mind?”

It’s no surprise to learn anecdotally that a growing number of authors struggling to sell their literary novels are asking their agents to put ghosting work their way, though the amount a ghostwriter can earn varies widely. With celebrity “authors” agents on each side often tussle to decide if the ghost will be paid a flat fee or a percentage of the royalties. Publishers and celebrities prefer the former, but a ghost in demand can often negotiate both. For a big-name celebrity autobiography expected to sell well, the ghost’s advance can start at $250 000.

The last word goes to Caroline Upcher, who writes a successful series of mystery novels under the name Hope McIntyre, in which the main character is a professional ghostwriter. She says: “Ghosts have huge control. It’s the ghost who has to fashion the story. In the end, it’s the ghost who decides.”—

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