Ghost pride; polyglot swearing; IRS jargon purge: Newsletter 24 January 2024

Gathering of the Ghosts, New York, 24 January 2024

Newsletter week 28: why ghostwriters are having a moment, Wimbledon umpires must know how to swear in a dozen languages, and Texas can’t make publishers, authors, libraries and booksellers into thought police. Plus, three people to follow and three books to read.

Ghostwriters ascendant

I just shared a whole day in New York with more than 150 ghostwriters. Ghosts were once a shameful secret — “authors,” no matter how famous and busy, wanted you to believe they wrote every word themselves. But more and more, people understand that just as you’d hire a professional architect to design your house, you need a specialized professional to help you tell your story.

And ghosts are having a moment. I point you to Prince Harry’s ghostwriter for the megabestseller Spare, J. R. Moehringer, who revealed the trials and triumphs of working with royalty in a frank article in The New Yorker.

In 2015, having just left Forrester and struck out on my own as an editor and writing coach, I received a call from Dan Gerstein, CEO of Gotham Ghostwriters. He said I should consider ghostwriting. My editor at Harper Business had told me the same thing. I told both of them to forget it. I write for me, I told them, not for other people.

What I didn’t realize then — but fully understand now, with three ghostwritten books under my belt and a fourth in process — is what a rewarding and exciting collaboration ghostwriting could be. I brought specific skills: at understanding ideas, researching case studies, interviewing, structuring narratives, understanding publishing processes, and of course, writing sparkling prose. My clients had awesome ideas well worth telling and a willingness to spend time and money to get those ideas out into the world in the best possible form. These collaborations were frustrating, exhilarating, fulfilling, and ultimately, awesome. They also paid well. I could get five times as much for ghostwriting a book as for an editing project.

If you think of ghostwriting as simply celebrity memoirs, you’re missing most of the market. The fellow ghosts I met in New York wrote about medicine, science, leadership, marketing, technology, innovation, sports, and music. If you were looking for a fascinating intellectual group to be a part of, you could hardly do better. They loved words. They told great stories. They were passionate about books, but even moreso, about ideas. At the Gathering of the Ghosts, freed of the need to explain ourselves and justify our own existence, we were in our glory, reveling in the ability to write — and serve people with ideas — as an actual lucrative career.

You might wonder if ghostwriters will be replaced by AI. A panel at the event discussed this. Unfortunately, asking ghostwriters if they’ll be replaced by AI is like asking factory workers if they’ll be replaced by robots — the workers have an obvious bias. Even so, I think the things that make writers and all storytellers human will keep them relevant: the ability to compellingly narrate human experiences; to change tone to be by turns humorous, provocative, tender, or lyrical; the skills to coddle, relate to, and prod a client as needed to get the truth out; and the ability to understand, truly understand, content, ideas, people, readers, storytelling, words, and inspiration.

Navigating the treacherous waters of publishing and celebrity will continue to be challenging, regardless of the role of AI. But now that we ghosts are out of the shadows, we can join arms and help each other, safe in the knowledge that we have a unique talent, love what we do and, for the most part, our respect and admire our fellow practitioners. It’s a good time to be writer. It’s a good time for ideas. What a way to make a living!

If you’re interested in more about the Gathering of the Ghosts event:

Here’s my full writeup, published on publishing expert Jane Friedman’s blog.

Here’s how the New York Times covered it.

Here’s a recap from the the event’s cosponsor American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Here’s coverage from the daily newsletter Publisher’s Lunch, which quotes me (subscription required).

News for authors and others who think

With an infusion of cash from a recent appropriations bill, the IRS is rewriting its abstruse taxpayer communications into simpler language. Taxes are complex enough without the poor citizen being required to decode obfuscatory and vaguely threatening government letters. Presumably they won’t skip all the way to the simplest possible version: “Pay up, sucker, or you’re going to federal prison.” (If any IRS officials are reading this: I promise that everything on my return is strictly accurate.)

Umpires at Wimbledon and other Grand Slam tournaments must know how to swear in lots of different languages. Why? Because there’s a fine for swearing, and any given competitor might decide to swear in French, Japanese, Portuguese, or Arabic. Frankly, I think the player who swears best should get an extra stipend, since they’re probably smashing their rackets to bits on a regular basis.

A federal circuit court blocked a stupid, vague, and pernicious Texas law that would have required publishers to rate all their content before any school library can even consider it.

Three people to follow

Michael Franklin, co-founder and executive director of Speechwriters of Color, an articulate voice for diversity in those who work behind the scenes in content.

Denise Lee Yohn, brand leadership guru.

Beth Kanter, expert in everything about the world of not-for-profits and charities.

Three books to read

How Data Happened: A History from the Age of Reason to the Age of Algorithms by Chris Wiggins and Matthew L. Jones (W.W. Norton, 2023). How data grew up from bits of information to weapons of corporate and political intelligence.

Stop Engaging Employees: Start making work more human by Eryc Eyl, illustrated by Chanel Botha. A constructive and practical approach to cultivating healthier workplace cultures.

The Interaction Field: The Revolutionary New Way to Create Shared Value for Businesses, Customers, and Society by Eric Joachimsthaler (PublicAffairs, 2020). How creating an open platform allows companies to grow influence and profits.

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  1. Not to diminish Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote in any way, but when I read “But now that we ghosts are out of the shadows, we can join arms and help each other, safe in the knowledge that we have a unique talent, love what we do and, for the most part, our respect and admire our fellow practitioners. It’s a good time to be writer. It’s a good time for ideas. What a way to make a living!” I couldn’t help but think you were saying the equivalent of “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.”

    Sorry for that ridiculously long sentence.