“Bestselling Ghostwriter Reveals the Secret World of the Author for Hire” by Robert McCrum in The Observer.
Fantastic Ghostwriters and Where to Find Them” by Horatia Harrod from the Financial Times.
“Ghost in the Fame Machine” Times Literary Supplement by Andrew Crofts.
A few years ago, Andrew Crofts went to a grand party in Dubai. Although his hosts had flown him out specially for the lavish two-day affair, putting him up at one of the city’s seven-star hotels, he was not an honoured guest. Indeed, this affable, bespectacled 64-year-old was not a guest at all: he was, in fact, a birthday present, a gift from the children of a billionaire patriarch to their ageing father.
Crofts, you see, is a ghostwriter. For more than two decades, he has been the faithful amanuensis to a host of authors, privy to the intimate confidences of politicians, princesses, soldiers, CEOs and spiritual leaders. Crofts charges from £100,000 to £150,000 for his services, taking three to six months to write each book. “I would say, think of this as like hiring a really expensive artist to do a really nice portrait,” he says, sipping black coffee in the living room of his rambling Sussex home. “It’s a lovely thing to do, I promise you’ll enjoy the process, you’ll love the final product, but it’s going to cost you a lot of money.”
Of the hundred or so books Crofts has co-written, perhaps a quarter credit him on the cover, another quarter mention him prominently in the acknowledgements, but half offer no clue whatsoever as to his involvement. Yet, despite his discretion, Crofts has attained a paradoxical measure of fame. When Robert Harris wrote his novel, The Ghost – later a Roman Polanski film starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan MacGregor – every chapter began with a quote from Crofts. The first ran: “Of all the advantages ghosting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunity that you get to meet people of interest”.
“You have a passport into other people’s lives as a trusted confidant,” says Crofts. “A lot say afterwards, ‘That was like therapy’. A ghost is probably the least judgemental person they’re going to come across, because even a therapist is looking for angles. But a ghost just keeps asking questions: ‘How does that feel?’ ‘What happened next?’ I would imagine it is very pleasant.” Crofts says he gets two or three enquiries every day from people thinking of engaging him as their ghost. When he first branched into this line of work after many years as a freelancewriter, he put an advertisement for his services in The Bookseller, the trade magazine for the publishing industry. Today, most people contact him via email, having found him online – if you type “hire ghostwriter” into Google, his is one of the first sites to pop up.
There is a somewhat furtive air to these early exchanges, before contracts have been signed and trust established. “I remember some years ago having breakfast when the phone rang,” says Crofts. “This distant voice said, ‘Do you like Kuala Lumpur?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know, I’m eating a boiled egg.’” The voice on the end of the line turned out to be the personal assistant of Loy Hean Heong, a Malaysian billionaire who did ultimately employ Crofts to write his memoir. “He was very conscious of image,” says Crofts. “When we got to Kuala Lumpur, he wouldn’t invite me to his house until they’d finished the goldfish pond – which was like something from the gardens at Versailles.”
The nature of his business is such that he remains generally tight-lipped about the identities of his subjects. It is easier to name the ones who got away: Imelda Marcos, with whom he shared a stilted lunch in the Philippines, or Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the former Egyptian president, who was on the verge of hiring Crofts just weeks before her husband was deposed in the Arab Spring. When deciding whether to take on someone’s story, Crofts arranges a preliminary meeting, and is then guided by his interest. “If I’m interested enough to want to ask questions in the initial approach, when they first ring or email, then I can probably find enough for a book,” he says. Moral questions about a person’s life rarely trouble him – in that regard, Crofts likens himself to a lawyer. “I think one of the skills a ghost needs to have is to be completely non-confrontational,” he says. “You listen to their story and then you help them to plead it.”
Crofts is part of his peculiar profession’s elite. According to Dan Gerstein, founder of Gotham Ghostwriters, you get what you pay for. Gerstein founded his New York-based agency nine years ago to help would-be authors negotiate this little-understood business, and has built up a stable of some 1,900 ghosts, many of whom are high-profile authors in their own right. “Because it’s such an opaque market it’s totally unstandardised,” says Gerstein. “But to give a crude segmentation, there’s a low end, the $25,000-$40,000 range, to write a short business book or a very basic memoir. Then there’s the mid-range, anywhere from $75,000 to $125,000, where you’re getting a serious, qualified writer to produce a book that will enhance your reputation. And then there’s a whole other class of book from the low hundred thousands up to $300,000, where the principal tends to be a very high-profile figure and the ghost has written multiple bestsellers.”
Among that rarefied group is the American author William Novak. In the early 1980s, Novak became the ghost to Lee Iacocca, one time-president of the Ford Motor Company who went on to save Chrysler from bankruptcy. His memoir, Iacocca, sold more than 2.7 million copies worldwide, and helped make respectable the idea that even great business minds might need help bringing their thoughts to the page.
It was in many ways an unlikely match. Novak was in his early 30s, and the books he’d already written under his own name – a study of marijuana culture, a compendium of Jewish humour, a look at The Great American Man Shortage – had enjoyed only moderate success. Of business he knew “nothing”, although he had cultivated an amateur interest in the stock market. “I had a friend who was a junior editor at Bantam Books, and she mistakenly thought that somebody with an interest in the stock market must know a lot about business,” says Novak, speaking from his house on Cape Cod bay. “You know, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. She said, ‘Would you be interested in helping a famous businessman write his memoirs – only I can’t tell you who it is.’ I was sure the businessman was Armand Hammer [one-time head of Occidental Petroleum], who was the only one I could name. Of course, it turned out to be Lee Iacocca, who I’d barely heard of.”
Novak accepted a fee of $45,000 to ghost Iacocca’s book. He thought the project would only take a year to complete; in the end it took twice as long. “It was embarrassing to be number one on the American bestseller list for almost two years, because I was sure everybody thought I must be terribly wealthy,” he says. “They didn’t know I wasn’t getting any share of the royalties or the international sales.” There is no standard contract for ghosts and their principals, although almost all ghosts will expect to be paid upfront. And today, Novak prices himself high.
After the grand success of Iacocca, Novak began to be approached by other powerful people who wished to share their stories. He turned down the chance to ghost for Nelson Mandela – “I didn’t want to spend months away from home” – and Ronald Reagan, although he did ghost Nancy Reagan’s 1989 memoir, My Turn. “It was the most difficult project I ever did,” says Novak. “She had what is a very nice quality in a friend – she’d rather listen than talk. But that’s my job!”
What surprised him the most about the process was the lack of intimacy. “I thought I would probably have to live in Iacocca’s house and become his son,” says Novak. “I never even saw his house. We were not close at all. And yet, that didn’t matter. What matters is how good a talker a person is, and what the writer is able to do with that talking.” Novak was struck by how little his subjects revealed beyond what they needed to. The ghost can probe and publishers can make demands, but ultimately control rests exclusively with the author. “With Iacocca, I remember saying, ‘Lee, we’ve got to talk about your mistakes as well as your successes.’ He said, ‘I can’t think of any.’”
While contracts and non-disclosure agreements offer a measure of further protection to high-profile subjects, they are rarely airtight. There are many cautionary tales of ghosts who have broken cover to criticise the people they’ve worked with. The most recent example of this is Tony Schwartz, co-writer of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, who offered a very disobliging picture of his former boss to The New Yorker in the run-up to the US election. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was accused by Barbara Feinman Todd, ghost of her 1996 bestseller It Takes a Village, of failing to give her a promised credit in the book’s acknowledgements. (She didn’t make the same mistake in her 2014 book Hard Choices, where she credited her “book team” of Dan Schwerin, Ethan Gelber and Ted Widmer). Dan Gerstein says that most ghostwriters take the promise of confidentiality very seriously. “But,” he adds, “the best thing to do to instil loyalty is not to command it but to earn it.” Among other revelations in Tony Schwartz’s mea culpa was the fact that Trump did not have the patience to conduct sit-down interviews, so he had to make do with shadowing and eavesdropping on his conversations for 18 months.
Jay Moehringer, who ghosted Andre Agassi’s 2009 memoir, Open, worked from 250 hours of interviews with the tennis player. James Fox spent five years trying to get the material for Keith Richards’ memoir, Life – he likened his attempts to pin down the guitarist to the pursuit of a wily salmon. Edward Whitley took two years helping to shape Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity, as did Paul Morley on Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs; while the journalist and comedian Nell Scovell worked with Sheryl Sandberg to produce Lean In within a year.
Andrew Crofts, meanwhile, says he can produce a first draft based on a weekend’s worth of conversations. There are no real rules as to the time commitment for which a would-be author should be prepared. “How much time do they personally have to give me?” says Novak. “As much as possible. With Iacocca, I had the least time, but he was a very efficient talker, and I had access to everything he’d ever said in print. I know a guy who writes five books a year. Just one of mine took five years.”
Carlye Adler, a favoured ghost for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Marc Benioff and Maynard Webb, says that she usually envisages spending eight to nine months per book. “A lot depends on how much research is involved, the availability of the author and/or participants, and determining the best time to launch the book,” she says. “Books are ‘crashed’ [done at high speed] all the time because it becomes imperative to have it out for a certain event or circumstance. That’s not always best for the writing process, but it might be best for the book.”
According to Dan Gerstein, the first question any prospective author should ask is: “Why am I writing this?” “Some clients want to write a New York Times bestseller, in which case they’ll need someone to write a dynamite proposal for a traditional publisher. If you’re a tech CEO or entrepreneur, and you want to get your book out fast, on your terms, you should consider self-publishing. Whatever the method, a book creates a badge of credibility that’s unequalled in any other medium.”
It may be that an author does not wish ever to publish their book. This is about the most elite class of all: those who can afford to engage a writer of the calibre of William Novak to produce a book that will never be sold anywhere. When Novak first heard of this practice, he was stunned. “I had never heard of such a thing,” he says. “It turns out there are many books like this, but they’re never publicised and you never hear their authors on the radio.”
In the past 20 years, Novak has written half-a-dozen of these curios. Perhaps their authors are supremely wise. Writing books is not for most a profitable venture. “Most books only sell 500 copies, 1,000 copies,” says Andrew Crofts. “It’s only the odd one that takes off and becomes a phenomenon.” But even a single copy of a life offers a measure of immortality to its author. And who could put a price on that?
Ghost in the fame machine
Andrew Crofts gives a first hand account of Knightsbridge hotels and mysterious bank accounts: the life of the ghostwriter
Robert Harris’s thriller The Ghost (2007) featured a ghostwriter hired by a barely disguised Tony Blair. Roman Polanski turned the book into a darkly glamorous film with Pierce Brosnan as the ex-prime minister and Ewan McGregor as the ghost, who is very soon dragged out of his depth into murky international waters. It paints a chillingly accurate picture of how the business often works.
Real ghostwriters in America and Europe have been in the news a fair bit recently. Tony Schwartz, who ghostedThe Art of the Deal for Donald Trump, expressed his regret at “putting lipstick on a pig”. Trump responded by suggesting that Schwartz might like to return the considerable sums of money he had earned from the book, while also insisting that he himself had written every word. Helmut Kohl, Germany’s second longest serving Chancellor behind Otto von Bismarck, was, before his death earlier this month, suing his ghost, Heribert Schwan, for five million euros for allegedly publishing material from their conversations in a book of his own. Barbara Feinman Todd’s new memoir, Pretend I’m Not Here, is the best book about commercial writing life since William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screentrade(1983).
Feinman Todd started as a journalist on the Washington Post and ghosted for Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the journalists who exposed Watergate, and for Ben Bradlee, their editor. She went on to ghost for Hillary Clinton while she was First Lady, and gives a riveting insight into life in the Clinton White House. Charmed by Woodward into being indiscreet about Clinton’s holding some sort of séance in the White House, Feinman Todd found herself cut off by the Clintons, according to her memoir, when Woodward published the story in his own book (an account that Woodward has since denied). As a ghostwriter myself, I feel her pain when she writes of realizing that she has made a fundamental mistake. However much we ghosts may regret having agreed to apply lipstick to a client who turns out to be a pig, the deal has been done and we must stick to it. We must respect confidences, just as lawyers and doctors do, because that is what we have agreed to. Our employers have to be able to trust us, or they will not talk freely.
The hiring of a ghostwriter is a mutually seductive process. Those who are ghosted know that their reputations are going to be channelled through our eyes, and they are eager to make the right impression while at the same time maintaining the upper hand. They tend to like to meet in their palatial homes or in hotels that they think will reflect well on them. The darkly polished Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, equidistant from Harrods and Harvey Nichols, is particularly popular with Russians, Middle Easterners and Africans as a venue for brief meetings. For more lingering lunches, they usually favour the Rib Room in Sloane Street’s Jumeira Carlton Tower, owned by the grandees of Dubai, or China Tang, in the bowels of the Dorchester. Anyone who belongs to one of the grand clubs of Pall Mall will use that to impress their ghost, or the showier clubs of Mayfair and Soho. But what happens once you have been seduced into signing the confidentiality contracts and the money has pinged in from strangely named foreign accounts?
It is important to remember that you may receive no recognition at all for writing the book, should it come to fruition. If they choose to acknowledge you on the cover, or somewhere more discreet inside, that is very useful for the winning of future assignments, but it is not to be expected. You can expect that they will entertain you royally while they are telling you their secrets, but once the job is over, so is your relationship. If you have the sort of temperament that suits the ghosting process, you will welcome that brevity, because what you wanted was an interesting story, not a new best friend. By the time the book is finished, you will be itching to get started on the next one, which will almost certainly be about something completely different.
You don’t argue with your clients, or challenge their statements, however repulsive you may find them personally, unless they are contradicting themselves or saying something that either the publishers or the eventual readers are going to find hard to swallow. You want to encourage them to open up and tell you more, not clam up and become defensive. You are producing the book that they would write if they could, so any views expressed in it are theirs and not yours. You are writing in their voices, taking on their characters, pleading their case for them more eloquently than they are able to do for themselves, like a barrister would do for them were they to find themselves in court. Once a project is up and running, I hang around my subject like Charles Ryder hung around Sebastian Flyte, or Nick Carraway hung around Jay Gatsby, getting as much material on tape as possible while also imbibing his or her voice so that I will be able to reproduce it on the page, inventing dialogue and descriptions where necessary while staying in character.
Tony Schwartz did a brilliant job for Donald Trump. A number-one bestseller for weeks, the book brought the man’s name before a far wider public than would ever have heard of him when he was just another New York property developer. The book did all the things a ghosted autobiography is meant to do for the author, raising his profile to such a level that he was offered a role in a major reality television show. At that stage, Schwartz would have been pleased to know that his book had helped his client’s career. When Trump entered the race for president, however, Schwartz panicked and spoke up to say that in his opinion, having spent eighteen months in the man’s company, this was not a good idea. (I have never felt the need to spend more than a few days with any client. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Trump had such a short attention span when being interviewed that it took Schwartz that long to get enough material to make up a full-length book.) It is quite possible that without Schwartz’s help, Trump would not have got to the Oval Office, and I can see why he may find that thought troubling in the small hours of the morning.
Trump appears to believe that he actually wrote every word himself. Some clients do end up believing that they wrote their own books, but many say how grateful they are to be spared having to write 80,000 words themselves: they nearly always have far more interesting things to do, like running countries or corporations, starring in Hollywood movies or playing their songs to arenas full of adoring fans.
I receive two or three enquiries a day for ghosting services. I can only write three or four books a year, so I am looking for stories that interest me, subjects I want to find out about and places I have never been to. Is the person interesting enough for me to want to “be” them for a few months? Will their story work in book form? If they pass those tests, then I need to make a judgement as to whether I will be able to pay my grocery bills while writing. Will the author be paying a fee, or will we be able to find a publisher to pay enough to satisfy us both during the writing process? If we are going to go looking for a publisher, will we need to recruit a literary agent to help us in that quest, or will we be able to pull it off on our own?
Quite often, the rich and powerful lose interest in the book halfway through, diverted by a billion-dollar takeover, overthrown in a political coup, or simply distracted by a new yacht or life partner. The ghost must be philosophical in such cases and have another client waiting in the wings. There is no point trying to keep a project going once the protagonist has lost interest.
Sometimes, when confronted with their words in black and white, clients panic and say that they will have to make lots of changes. The ghost must stay calm and assure them that he will be delighted for them to make any changes they like. Most have no more appetite for editing than they did for writing in the first place, so the manuscript will usually come back with a few token scribbles in the margins, which can be incorporated into the body of the text in a few hours.
I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I work only for the rich and powerful. In fact, in the past it has been the exact opposite. Travelling all over the world, I have worked with victims of forced marriages in North Africa and the Middle East, sex workers in the Far East, orphans in war-torn areas such as Croatia and dictatorships such asRomania, victims of crimes and abused children everywhere. But so absorbed was I in the work that I quite forgot to equip myself with an adequate pension, and so now I find it harder to justify writing entire books for the sorts of advances that most publishers want to pay. That is why I go looking for patrons in much the same way as artists have been doing for centuries.
So I accept gratefully the offers of fine wine and fine dining, the invitations to fine homes and fine hotels, as I play the parts that are assigned to me.
Andrew Crofts is one of Britain’s most successful ghostwriters. Top publishers produce his books and he is in demand by showbiz personalities as well as leading businessmen. His motto seems to be, if it is a good story , I will write it. Some of his most recent books include Sold by Zana Muhsen, which tells of her years as an enforced child bride in the Yemen, My Gorilla Journey by Helen Attwater, the story of an English couple who ran an orphanage for gorillas in the Congo, Through Gypsy Eyes by Kathy Etchingham, Jimi Hendrix’s girlfriend. He also ghosted Kathy and Me by Gillian Taylforth, which covers the soap star’s colourful private life and her experiences in Eastenders, and Bienvenida -The Making of a Modern Mistress by Countess Sokolow (formerly Lady Buck). He has written fiction –Crocodile Shoes by Jimmy Nail and The Java Man by Sean Martin Blain are two of his books -and non- fiction, mainly on marketing and business issues.
Many of his books are written without a mention of his major contribution and his contracts stipulate that he must not disclose his involvement. The glory goes to the ‘author’ named on the title page but a sizeable chunk of money goes to him. If you think about it logically, there are many people in the public eye whose talents are far from literary yet who produce interesting and readable autobiographies -with the help of a ghostwriter.
Andrew Crofts’ skills are of particular interest to business people who have neither the time nor the publishing background to write their own success stories. Against All Odds -A Billionaire’s Tale by Tan Sri Roy is a rags to riches autobiography of a controversial Chinese billionaire and Fighting Back by Atannas Tillev is the autobiography of Bulgaria’s wealthiest citizen and a portrait of a criminal government.
He has a solid list of successes behind him and impeccable credentials but what I wanted to know from Andrew Crofts is how a ghostwriter can give away his own work for someone else to reap the praise. Is this a case of prostituting your art?
‘No: he says firmly, but terribly nicely because he is used to dealing with difficult people. ‘I wanted to make a living. I was doing company magazines and I was doing travel writing as well as writing books. I was doing an article for one of the management magazines with a business guru, John Fenton. As we were sitting talking in his palazzo, he said, “I have been asked to do three books by a publisher and I really want to do them but I haven’t got the time. But I want the glory because I want the business. You write the books for me, I’ll get the glory and you’ll get the money.”‘
It seemed like a good idea. Then, when he actually wrote the books, it dawned on him that the biggest problem with writers is finding material. ‘If I am going to write a book on how to double your sales, say, as just a writer and not a business man first, I have to find out how to do it. So I shall have to interview a lot of people. Then I shall have to convince a publisher that they should buy a book from me, who knows nothing about selling and then I have to trudge around radio stations for six months or so. I will probably get £1,000 or £2,000 or £5,000 if I’m lucky. If I go straight to this man who has the entire book in his head, have a publishing deal set up and get all the material from one place -his head, his filing cabinet -that will cut out all that area.’
Having completed those books he knew there were good stories around but how could he find them? He decided to put an advertisement in The Bookseller that I might attract people to come to him. Why did he choose The Bookseller?
‘My theory when I first did it about ten years ago was that if I went in The Daily Mail all the time I would get completely snowed under and inundated by people who have always wanted to write a book and who can’t: he explains. ‘I thought that if I advertised to the trade it means that these people have got one step further; they have asked a publisher or a literary agent or the library and it would filter it down a bit. My ad is always on the back page of The Bookseller.’
Then he had a call from Zana Muhsen that was going to change his life. He travelled to Birmingham, heard her story and then did a synopsis for Sold that went off to the agent. At this time he had done four or five books and so had a bit of a track record. ‘I wouldn’t have said my track record was enough for a publisher, to make an offer, though. They made the offer because of the synopsis and the sample chapter and they bought on that. Once the book was published my agent had some very good foreign contacts and he started sending it abroad and it became the best-selling book of the year in France.’
The book went on to sell three million copies in France, was condensed by Reader’s Digest, dramatised for Radio 4 and republished in this country by Little Brown. Ten years later he wrote the follow-up, A Promise to Nadia, which tells of the continued fight to save Zana’s sister.
How does he know if a story is worth writing? So many people say they have a story to tell but what makes it worthwhile for Andrew Crofts to write it and ultimately, for people to read it? ‘Usually, someone rings me up and I find out a little bit of his or her story ” he says. ‘If they give me what Hollywood calls “the high concept” then I know this person is a “possible” and I arrange for us to meet. I have to be as interested as a reader is and be fairly confident that the story will interest a publisher. You have to be very non- judgemental to be a ghost. You have to be on their team. You don’t have to like the person but you have to be interested in them.
‘When we meet I get that person to tell me their story which I tape and this could take two or three hours. I would get the bones of the story and I would go away and do a synopsis, which I show to him or her. Everything that gets written is shown to the author before anybody else and he or she can take out anything. I want them to completely trust me; I want them to tell me everything. If it is Gillian Taylforth, I want her to tell me exactly what happened in the Range Rover and later we’ll decide if we are going to put it in the book.’
If the person does not have an agent Andrew will suggest one.
He never goes directly to publishers although sometimes they come directly to him. A third party, he believes, is very handy as a mediator and a good testing ground because if an agent thinks they can sell it, that is a good start. ‘I usually provide a sample chapter which is what one thinks will be the first chapter. The best page in the book has to be the first page and the best chapter has to be the first chapter. I think with Zana’s story I gave them a dramatic chapter and not the first one dealing with her childhood. ‘The agent might want to meet the person but they usually take my word and go on to make a few enquiries before coming back to me. They may say forget it or they may say do it. They are looking for a book sale, a newspaper serialisation, foreign rights and a possible television follow-up.’
It does not take him that long to write someone’s book. ‘We sit down with a tape recorder and I try and get twenty to 30 hours of information on tape. Then, including other things I can glean, I have the book. That part might take me two or three days. I work chronologically because although the book may not run chronologically I want to know what the subject knows at certain stages in their life because that will depend on how I tell the story. It is like writing a very long monologue but at the same time you can’t make it too dense.’
So, what makes a good ghostwriter? ‘You have to be non-confrontational and be completely open to someone else’s opinions. If I disapprove of something I can’t voice that. I don’t want to either because I don’t want to make the person feel inhibited and feel they have to justify themselves. Occasionally, I might say that something in the story might make the person seem unsympathetic to the reader and how do they justify it. It is like being their lawyer. You have to show you are completely on their side and you want to put their case as well as possible and you do want to understand.
‘If there were certain things a person didn’t want to talk about I would say to them, we may not put that in the book but I need to understand. Gillian Taylforth had to tell me what happened in the Range Rover because I had to understand whether she had or hadn’t done this thing. And I needed to know what on earth made her think she could sue The Sun and win. She might not really want to talk about what possessed her that day and it might not be in the book, but I needed to know in what frame of mind she went into this. I think she behaved immaculately as far as she could, in a very difficult situation. There are people who I have worked with who have done things -killed people, for example – and I have to be able to understand why they have done this, from their point of view. The crunch comes when someone is shown his or her book for the first time. Do they always approve? Supposing they hate it? Andrew is clearly an old hand at dealing with these situations.
‘When you show someone the manuscript it’s a bit like someone taking a candid shot of you with a Polaroid at a party. You think, oh my God! Because it is not the way you usually pose. Then after a bit you look at it and think, it’s not that bad, and a bit later you look again and think, well it’s quite good. And that’s because it is you.
‘When I give the finished manuscript to a person, sometimes the first reaction is negative. So I say, take a pen and change anything you want to change. When they actually sit down with a pen, apart from changing some factual things such as dates and times, they very seldom change anything else. If you’ve got it right, they can’t think of a better way to put it. Out of about 50 or so ghosting projects I have done, I think only one, maybe two, have proved difficult.’
What happens if he is given information in good faith but in fact it is wrong? ‘I would only put it in the book if they had managed to convince me. I can be working with people who are strangers to the truth. The publishers would want some sort of warranty against libel.’ There was a problem with the book Leonard of Mayfair that was withdrawn because of so many disputed facts but not before review copies were out and it was serialised in the Daily Mail.
Andrew is extending his writing to his own fiction and guess who his hero is? A ghostwriter, of course. Maisie’s Amazing Maids (published by House of Stratus) is the first in a series of books featuring Joe Tye, an American living in London. ‘It occurred to me that in these series type books where you have a running character, they are either lawyers, doctors, policemen, journalists or private eyes. What they have in common is that they all dip into other people’s lives at a moment of excitement. It seems to me that is exactly what a ghostwriter does. It can be anything -big, business fraud, murder, show business.’
It worked perfectly. The synopsis was shown to House of Stratus along with other ideas for ghostwritten books and they took it, along with another book they suggested was fictionalised. That book, The Princess and the Villain, which tells the true story of a gangster who fell in love with a Middle Eastern princess he was hired to guard, was published in June 2001.
I ask what he sees as the main problems of a ghostwriter? ‘It’s a very difficult balance to get right because you have to please the publisher and you have to please the author. The publisher wants as much controversial stuff as possible and the subject wants to look as gloriously pure as possible.’ Tricky. But Andrew Crofts has clearly managed to get the balance right.
Judith Spelman has been a regular contributor to Writers’ News and Writing Magazine since they started. She works full-time as a freelance journalist writing features for national newspapers and magazines, as well as editing a house journal for Weetabix Limited and reviewing books on the Internet.
There is a man who’s been a hitman, a pop star, an abused child, a billionaire, a business guru, a Ghurka Colonel, an aid worker, and an environmental activist. He’s told the stories of those wildly different experiences in such gripping prose that he’s had more than one bestseller on his hands, and will probably have others. But you’re unlikely to have heard of him.
Step forward Andrew Crofts, Britain’s foremost ghost-writer. Step forward and take a bow! Ladies and gentlemen, behold the ghost. If he’s blinking a little in the limelight, that’s because he’s not used to it. Of all the books he’s written, his name has appeared on scarcely any of them, and he’s sometimes under contract never to mention the fact that he was the writer to anyone other than the agent and publisher involved. On occasion, he can’t even tell the publisher.
Not that he’s complaining – which probably makes Crofts the only writer in the world without an ego. “If I’d designed the new Mini, that would be a pretty staggering achievement, wouldn’t it? But I wouldn’t expect to have my name plastered across the back of it – ‘designed by Andrew Crofts’. I’m perfectly willing to accept that it’ll say ‘Mini’ on it. If I’d baked the new Mr Kipling cake, I’m quite willing for Mr Kipling to take the credit. So why are writers and actors so much more important?
“Isn’t building a fantastic modern building more important than most books? But the architect doesn’t have ‘designed by …’ written all over it, he doesn’t insist that the building’s never mentioned unless he’s praised for it. It’s very nice if he does get into an architectural journal, but he doesn’t expect the public to …” He trails off, leaving the sentence unfinished; something he does quite a lot. It’s a bit like his habit of asking questions instead of making statements – a form of unconscious verbal self-effacement. Never mind my opinions, he seems to be saying, what about yours? Perhaps it’s something he’s picked up from years of being the man behind the Dictaphone, the blank sheet of paper that others can write on.
What he needs to do is empty out all his preconceptions and identify completely with the person sitting opposite him. He’s very good at it – frighteningly good sometimes. “Quite a lot of the people I’ve interviewed would be considered …. unsavoury. But I don’t know any of the victims. If they’d killed one of my family, I’d probably have a different feeling. Which Graham Greene novel is it ( The Third Man), where he’s on the Ferris wheel looking down at the people, and saying, ‘would you honestly care if one of those little ants …? Let’s be honest.’ You’re merged with the man with the gun, aren’t you, at that moment, looking at the ants down there. Go home and start describing it to somebody else, and suddenly you think, ‘oh, hang on a minute – one of those little ants could be me’. And everything changes. But while you’re in that little capsule, on that Ferris wheel, just the two of you – that’s the point of view, isn’t it?” He pauses, Thinks about it. “And assassins are very interesting people, aren’t they?”
It’s a different world that Crofts lives in – or rather a multitude of different worlds, a new one every few months or so. It’s an unusual perspective, that sometimes makes him act a little oddly. “I had a chap who wanted to do a novel, and he said he’d meet me in a black BMW beside King’s Cross Station. And I didn’t think, just said, ‘oh, all right’. And then as my wife was waving me off, she asked, ‘where will you be?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m meeting a man in a …’ She said, ‘do you mean to say, if the police come round tonight, I’d have to say, look, he told me he was going to meet a man in a black BMW outside King’s Cross Station’, and that’s all they’ve got to go on?’ So I thought, ‘well, perhaps I am being careless’. But I did go and meet him, and it was fine. He was somebody’s bodyguard. I’m not an 18-year-old girl who’s going to be abducted and sold into slavery, am I? The only reason they have to talk to me is that they want a book. So obviously, they want me alive.”
They certainly do, if they’ve got any sense. Crofts was the ghostwriter for Sold by Zana Muhsen and The Kid by Kevin Lewis, both massive sellers, as well as a multitude of other titles, ranging from business books to celebrity autobiographies. Just a Boy by Richard McCann, the son of the Yorkshire Ripper’s first victim, ghosted by Crofts, went into the hardback charts at number five shortly after publication.
Usually, when Crofts is writing someone’s story for them, he’ll take their word for what they tell him. If it seems suspicious, he might ask, “are you sure? Are you sure that’s the way it happened?” But if they say yes, absolutely, he’ll put it in. Like any responsible ghostwriter, he always makes sure there’s a clause in his contract absolving him of culpability for anything his client says that turns out not to be true. But it’s very important, he points out, that they should put up a convincing argument for what they’re saying being the truth – after all, if they can’t convince him, he’s going to have real trouble convincing the reader that they’re being honest.
Crofts’s first ghostwriting experience was with John Fenton, a business guru whom Crofts, then a freelance journalist, was interviewing. Fenton (who Crofts calls “the man in the white suit”, in a wry reference to his sartorial habits) had recently been asked by a publisher to do some how-to business books, but he was so busy that he simply didn’t have the time. He suggested a collaboration: Crofts would write the books for him. He’d supply the know-how, Crofts the actual authorship. Crofts jumped at the chance; it gave him something to put on his CV, a feather in his cap, and besides, it meant reliable money – which, to a man with a young family, as Crofts was at the time, was quite an inducement. “As you get older, you gradually need more money, so I was constantly looking for ways to make the money more secure, and larger.”
So he found his way into authorship by the back door. But perhaps it had been inevitable all along that Crofts would end up writing books. “I went to a school called Lancing, which has a sort of history about it, because it’s where Evelyn Waugh went, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Jan Morris – there’s quite a history of writers there.” Despite skipping university in favour of going to London to make his living (“I’d been at boarding school so long, I wanted to be somewhere where there were lots of girls!”), Crofts had a fairly conventional upbringing – “my father was in business, I suppose, and my mother did very little, as ladies of that generation did. They met in the War. For people who had a good War, nothing ever after was quite the same” – which has perhaps helped to drive his eternal fascination with other kinds of existence and other people’s lives. It’s that fascination that makes his job so endlessly interesting to him. “These people are living the lives I don’t have to live, because I can just go in, find out all about it, and then move off again. I love it.”
But where does he find these people? Or, more to the point, where do they find him? Well, one of the ways is through the ads he takes out in the trade press. “My name has got to be constantly around, so that if anyone’s looking for ghost-writers, I’m the one they find. Some of the best projects I’ve had have been from people just going into libraries and asking how to find a ghostwriter. The librarian gets out a copy of Publishing News or the Bookseller, and gives them the number.”
It’s going to be his number they give out, not only because he’s the only person who takes out weekly adverts in the trade press to publicise his ghost-writing services, but because he’s just about the only full-time professional ghost-writer in the country; and, so far as he knows, just about the only one who’s willing to describe himself as a ghost-writer by trade. “Most writers have done it at some stage, but they don’t like people to know. They think they’re too important or something, whereas I think – pff.” He grins a toothy grin, a most contented, self-effacing, ego-free ghost.
The Age of the Ghostwriter.
Published on line at www.ojaiorange.com
The book sales charts are full of blockbusters by people who could obviously never write their own books. A sportsman at the top of his game? When’s he going to find the time to sit down and tap out eighty thousand words? A film star rushing from one movie set to the next? Paris Hilton? Sharon Osbourne? I don’t think so.
So who’s doing all the writing? Ghostwriters; professional scribes who live by the power of their pens and need a constant supply of new material. New material is just what the celebrities have, plus an audience of people ready and waiting to read what they have to say.
One of the leaders in the field in Andrew Crofts (his website, www.andrewcrofts.com, lists many of his titles, although he is more often anonymous). Based in Britain his books sell all over the world, often reaching number one in the sales charts. (At one time he had three in the charts simultaneously in the UK and several of his titles have been the best selling titles of their year in countries like England and France).
‘I was in an airport bookshop the other day,’ he says, ‘and was browsing through the book department. I found 12 different titles I had written on display in the biography section. Surprising, isn’t it?’
So why are so many books being ghosted?
‘It gives a book a lot more immediacy and power if it is written in the first person singular by the main protagonist. Imagine, for instance, a story about a young girl sold as a child bride in the Yemen; a book written about her by an objective author is never going to be as powerful as one describing the experience in her own words, seeing the world through her eyes.’
Crofts wrote a book called “Sold” on exactly that subject for a girl called Zana Muhsen, which has now sold around four million copies worldwide.
‘We wrote it over ten years ago,’ he says, ‘and I still receive e-mails every day from all over the globe, asking what has happened to Zana and her sister, Nadia, and telling me “Sold” is their favourite book of all time.’
Crofts has written through the eyes of a young Filipino girl who ended up murdering her English husband, a Pakistani slave boy, a Chinese billionaire, a Nigerian industrialist, several abused children, gangsters, courtesans, reality television stars and a host of other characters.
‘Where else,’ he asks, ‘are you going to be able to meet and talk to such an interesting range of people? How else would you make the time to really find out about their lives and their thoughts? It’s a wonderful way to earn a living.’
Crofts thinks that it is possible as many as half the non-fiction books that find their way onto the shelves are written by ghosts.
‘And people should be very grateful that they are. Imagine how hard it would be to read books by all those non-professional writers. Just because you are a genius at football or a beautiful model does not mean that you are going to be able to tell your story in a readable way.’
Crofts usually spends just a few days talking with his subjects and then goes away for a couple of months to produce the manuscript, which they then get to check before anyone else sees it.
‘It’s crucial that they have complete trust in their ghost,’ he explains. ‘They must feel as confident about talking to them as they would to their doctor or lawyer. In fact a ghost is very like a lawyer, pleading his client’s case in court.’
So does Crofts miss seeing his name on the covers of his books?
‘Well, in fact, I’m finding that more and more publishers are including the ghosts in the credits. I think they are realising that the public doesn’t mind in the least, and would actually prefer not to be patronised. They have also found that the big retailers are more open to placing large advance orders if they recognise the name of the ghost on the project.’
It seems this truly is the age of the ghostwriter.