The Ghost Who Writes But Doesn’t Speak
By Pranay Gupte
If you walk into most bookstores in India and elsewhere, the chances are that you’d see books written by me. One or two titles, or perhaps all 14 that I’ve penned so far in the last three decades, would have my name on the cover. Many more would not carry my name on the jacket at all. Perhaps some of those books might mention me in the acknowledgements, but that’s all. But they are my books nonetheless.
How so? Because, you see, I am a “ghost.” Business tycoons and world leaders hire me to provide words for their voice and, of course, for their byline. They sign contracts with publishers; they get the advances; they pocket the royalties. Publishers know the identity of the ghostwriter because, after all, the luminary usually cannot be bothered to deal with the nitty-gritty of the editing process; it’s the ghost who must deal with demands of by editors, it’s the ghost who must respond to queries, it’s the ghost who’s responsible for fact-checking and for rectifying typographical errors.
But the glory of being celebrated on the book’s cover goes to the man – and it’s usually men – who invited the ghostwriter to pen (well, let’s say “create”) his words for posterity.
There’s an ironclad rule in the ghostwriting industry: Unless the “author” chooses to name you as a collaborator, the ghostwriter keeps his/her lips zipped. Your silence, or reticence, if you will, is purchased for anywhere from US$100,000 to multiples thereof. The ghostwriter is paid a one-time fee, and that is that. I have a friend in New York who typically makes more than $2 million annually from ghosting: he always has two or three projects on the burner simultaneously. His literary agent – who fetches him projects for the standard 15 percent of his book writing income – is a very happy person indeed: she just bought an island off Croatia.
Sometimes ghosting a book can come in the form of a biography. Just the other day, the industrialist Kumarmangalam Birla reportedly agreed to pay the Mumbai-based writer Minhaz Merchant Rs. 3-crore to write a book about his late father, Aditya Birla. Vir Sanghvi, the ubiquitous journalist, reportedly was paid a handsome amount by a fabled Indian business dynasty to write a biography the late Madhavrao Scindia. A paid-for biography still comes within the ambit of ghostwriting.
Lest the reader might want to jettison his day job and jump into the ghostwriting business, let me sound a word of caution. Please take me seriously. There are less than honorable men out there who commission, or formally invite, you to ghost an autobiography or biography. You do the book, or at least a substantial chunk of it, and then – and then they say they’ve changed their mind. Or you don’t hear from them. The bottom line is that you’ve spent months on the project on good faith, and in the end there’s no bottom line for you. In sum, don’t start ghosting unless you have a solid contract in hand, and a sizable down payment.
Let me give you three examples of my own misguided trust in people who commission books. The brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited me last month to write a biography of the leader, who will turn 65 in November 2012. We shook hands on the deal, and then the brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sent me to meet a senior aide, Jayantha Wickramasinghe, to complete the logistical arrangements. Mr. Wickramasinghe said he would revert to me. He took his time in doing so. His ultimate decision: “No.” He had overruled his boss. I have little doubt that he and the Rajapaksa brothers will take my outline of the proposed book and have someone else do it – undoubtedly for less money. What am I going to do? Take the President of Sri Lanka to court in Colombo? Or sue his flunkies?
This is a hazard of the ghosting trade: You have very little recourse unless you’re prepared to spend large sums on lawyers. Years ago, I persuaded Macmillan, one of the world’s leading publishers, to take on an autobiography of Kamal Nath, who was then India’s minister of trade and commerce. Mr. Nath is an old friend.
But guess what should happen? Scarcely had I started the project, two members of his inner circle – neither of them writers – muscled in and took over the book. The book’s title was mine, its architecture was mine, but did my name appear anywhere? Of course not. A shady restaurateur in New York was actually mentioned as the man who brought publisher and author together! Now this gentleman may know lots about wine, spices and women, but not much about words.
Other than the thousands of copies bought by Mr. Nath’s friends at the Confederation of Indian Industries, the autobiography was not what you might call a bestseller.
In my long experience in the ghosting business, I dare say that I’ve found trustworthiness not an especially prominent characteristic of bigwigs from South Asia. Of course, I should have long learned lessons from some of my bitter experiences. But as a professional writer who depends on words for his livelihood, I am forced, willy-nilly, to take chances.
One of those chances was with the wealthy Jashanmal family in the Gulf. They even gave me written guarantees. I did extensive work on the book, including interviews with members of the family, that was among the first to open retail stores in the Middle East. Two years have gone by. But not a word from the Jashanmals, and not a dollar.
Then there was Farooq Kathwari, the Kashmiri tycoon behind Ethan Allen, the global furniture chain. He gave me a contract, then decided he would have someone else do his autobiography after I’d spent months on the project. He refused to pay me what was owed – until a mutual friend, a member of the New York Establishment, shamed him into parting with a few pennies. In retrospect, not writing his book may not have been such a bad thing after all, especially in view of Mr. Kathwari’s controversial engagement with the Kashmir issue.
Whose books would a ghost like me refuse at the very outset? Criminals, crooks, wife beaters, for sure. That some of the “respectable” figures would turn out to be cheats, or worse, is purely a matter of chance. Ghosts need to take risks in their career, but there’s only so much gloss that even ghosts can apply to unworthy lives.
(Pranay Gupte’s next book, under his own byline, “Dubai: The Making of a Megapolis,” will be published this month by Viking-Penguin. Mr. Gupte can be reached at: email@example.com)