Ghosts emerge in Central Park East

Note: This convention report was originally published on

With 164 ghostwriters in attendance, the first Gathering of the Ghosts, which took place in New York City on January 22, was likely the largest ever gathering of ghostwriters in one place. As Dan Gerstein, CEO of Gotham Ghostwriters, the cosponsor of the event along with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, quipped, it was the largest collection of writing talent in one room . . . since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Ghostwriters are a proud but underappreciated group. Because their contributions to the literary world have traditionally been made in secret, ghosts rarely get public recognition. But the world is shifting. In recent years Donald Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz related his story, and regrets, in The New Yorker, and J. R. Moehringer, ghostwriter of Prince Harry’s mega-selling memoir Spare, published a revealing peek into the intimate dance between author and writer.

The ghosts in attendance were diverse: more women than men; young, middle-aged, and grizzled; mostly white with a dozen or so writers of color; and bursting with accumulated expertise in everything from scientific discovery to leadership and technology. They may have started as journalists, publicists, editors, novelists, and bestselling authors, but now they were united in a fellowship of scribes.

Put aside your preconceptions: while there were plenty who penned memoirs for actors and athletes, there were at least as many focused on thought leadership and advice books from business executives, consultants, health experts, and scientists bent on boosting their audiences. Few of those present set out to be ghostwriters, but fewer still regretted it.

In hallway meetings and lunch conversations, ghosts were elated to skip the usual explanations to businesspeople and readers unfamiliar with the ghosting process and instead compare notes on author antics, tactics to wrangle source material, dealing with client regrets, and how to get paid. When two ghostwriters meet, it’s not one-upmanship about fees that drives them—it’s more about client prominence: “I wrote a book for a Nobel prize-winner,” “I did one for a basketball star,” “Hey, my client was a famous nun!”

The bond between writer and author is intimate, and uncomfortable as often as it is joyous. On the conference stage Jodi Lipper, a six-time New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, spoke of the often overlooked intimacy and trust that extends beyond what’s on the page, and commented, “I’m not a licensed therapist, but sometimes we must all act that way.” Daniel Paisner, host of the popular “As told to” ghostwriting podcast, said, “There’s a constant drumbeat in your head: ‘Don’t f— this up!’” And as Holly Gleason, chronicler of popular musicians, explained, “There are always two truths. There is the truth of the facts . . . and the truth of what actually happened.” The hired scribe’s job is to tell both.

There was plenty of talk about money—how to ask for what you’re worth with a straight face, and how to get flinty billionaires to part with what they owe for work well done. A consensus emerged: a writer who charges less than $50,000 for a book of 50,000 words or more is going to starve. Ghostwriter Michael Levin suggested that writers take whatever they’re charging now, double it, and add 20 percent.

Ghostwriting is clearly a growth business. The number of prominent people—and strivers—hankering to tell their stories and demonstrate their brilliance is increasing. Even when they have the talent to write, they don’t often have the time. As publishing houses and media companies shed writers and editors, there’s a burgeoning supply of available talent. Even as it becomes tougher and tougher for an author to get a book contract with a big New York publisher, reputable hybrid publishers like Greenleaf and Amplify are multiplying, and self-publishing is opening up paths to market for nearly anybody. If you want to get a book out and you can pay, there’s a writer and a publisher ready to give you your chance to sparkle.

Like all conferences these days, the Gathering of the Ghosts gave out awards for outstanding books written collaboratively—the “Andys” (because of the “and” followed by the ghostwriter’s name that appears on the cover of some ghostwritten books). Winners included: 

  • Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World by former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, ghostwritten by Joanne Gordon
  • Glimmer: A Story of Survival, Hope, and Healing by Kimberly Shannon Murphy, with Genevieve Field
  • Sisterhood Heals: The Transformative Power of Healing in Community by Joy Harden Bradford, in collaboration with Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts

The Gathering also devoted the obligatory time to gnashing of teeth about AI. Lawyer Scott Sholder said we’d need to wait a while for justices’ decisions on the main legal challenge: were the providers of large language models (like OpenAI’s ChatGPT) trained on vast collections of text liable for misuse of copyrighted material? The panelists and audience agreed that AI could never replace the human touch of skilled ghostwriters, but I worry that you might hear the same lament from a gathering of skilled chefs certain that Americans would never eat the bland fare at fast food restaurants. The real threat may not be AI replacing writers, but replacing books altogether. If a bot can tell you Ginni Rometty’s wisdom on any management or technology topic, who’s going to buy and read her book?

Storytelling remains an enduring and fundamental human talent. Ghostwriters are storytellers, and this is their moment. The Gathering of the Ghosts may be the first time dozens of storytellers-for-hire reveled in their creativity, diversity, and expertise, but it won’t be the last. As one ghostwriter in attendance remarked, all of us ghosts love to write, and that’s never going to change, regardless of who’s reading, who’s hiring, how they’re publishing, and how much they’re paying. Ghosts are a lot more visible now. The rest of the industry had better get used to it.

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