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Dan Paisner has lived many lives. He’s been an international tennis star. An Academy-Award winning actor. One time, he was even the Governor of Ohio. But you’ve probably never heard of him.

PAISNER: I don’t think anybody is combing through the bookshelves in Barnes & Noble and saying, “Oh, this is a Daniel Paisner book. I should buy it.” They’re buying it because of the celebrity name that’s on the spine.

Paisner is a ghostwriter. He’s written 70 books, including 17 New York Times bestsellers. His clients have included Serena Williams, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ivanka Trump. His job is to get inside the heads of people who tend to be very careful about what they reveal.

PAISNER: You know, you push people to reflect and reconsider the stuff of their lives for public consumption. It’s a very sort of naked and personal and intimate transaction that happens between a ghostwriter and his subjects.

That intimate relationship may not earn Paisner credit on the spine of a book. But it pays his bills.

MOREL: A few years ago, I would say to somebody, “Oh, $100,000 for my writer,” and I’d be sort of crossing my fingers and thinking, oh my God, I’m never going to get away with this. But now it’s like, “$100,000. Of course!”

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: ghostwriters.

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The practice of writing material for publication under someone else’s name goes back thousands of years. But the word “ghostwriter” took hold in the 1920s. It was used by sports agent Christy Walsh. He started a syndicate to produce sport articles under the names of professional athletes. But Dan Paisner says the modern ghostwriting business really kicked off in 1984. That’s when William Novak collaborated with Chrysler C.E.O. Lee Iacocca on Iacocca: An Autobiography.

PAISNER: The book was a real juggernaut. I think it was the number one best selling book in the country for two consecutive years. So, he kind of hit that out of the park. And on the back of that success, he became sort of the go-to ghostwriter for every big name, 15-minutes-of-fame, headline book that emerged from the mid ’80s to the mid ’90s.

Paisner was working as a freelance entertainment reporter when he was offered a chance to follow in Novak’s footsteps. He ended up ghostwriting a book for the TV presenter Willard Scott.

PAISNER: So, this was a gig that was going to run like six months. It was going to pay me like sort of a year’s salary. And I figured, “Great, this is a nice sort of refresher or a palate cleanser.” There was still, I think, a little bit of a taint or a stigma to the idea of ghostwriting. It was — you know, some people might have disregarded it as hack work. So, I don’t know that a lot of people were coming out of journalism school throwing their hats in this particular ring, saying, “Hey, this is something I want to do with my life.” It was more of a fallback position. And for myself, it wasn’t until I was four or five books into this gig that I thought, “Okay, this is a career that I’ve stepped into.”

Over the past 30 years he’s worked with A-list actors, musicians, politicians, and business leaders. For many celebrities, getting a book deal is easy. But writing the book is a different story. And that’s where Paisner comes in.

PAISNER: You know, we are a D.I.Y. culture. But if you can’t D.I.Y., then you hire some schmuck like me to help you. And that’s kind of how it works. If you can write, if you can string two words together, and if you could help somebody be a more effective communicator, then why not put those skills to work on their behalf?

Regardless of who the subject is, the general process of collecting information to ghostwrite a book is usually the same.

PAISNER: What happens in the early going for me is I’ll spend some time with somebody, a period of days. Sometimes I stay at their houses, I have dinners with their families, I am with them in their workplace. I need to sort of understand them. I need to walk around in their shoes a little bit. When I’m firing on all cylinders, what I can do is help somebody see themselves better. It’s like therapy really.

Paisner is often working with people who don’t have a lot of time to spare. When he was writing a memoir for the DJ and producer Steve Aoki, he joined the musician on the road in a tour bus.

PAISNER: This guy does hundreds of shows a year, and he just couldn’t possibly sit still to do a book. So, I rode on his tour bus with his crew and his roadies, for a week or so through Middle America, and the only times we really could find to work is when we’re barreling between Cincinnati and Milwaukee or in Chicago at four in the morning and running tape while the rest of his crew slept in these bunks in the back of the bus. But what I got to see during this experience was how he lived, what it’s like to not go on until midnight, and to then have to work your way through an after party and wind down at three or four in the morning. And it sort of just put me in the right frame of mind to be able to write on his behalf. 

For his book with Ohio governor John Kasich, he attended Bible study meetings.

PAISNER: He would travel back from Washington when he was a congressman and go to Columbus, Ohio, every other Monday and sit with his Bible study guys. And they would discuss scripture. So, of course, I would go every other Monday to Columbus, Ohio. Not quite as fun as, you know, blazing with a rock star, but it’ll do. 

CROCKETT: I’m guessing no doobies with John Kasich?

PAISNER: There were no doobies, but we did have a couple of nice bottles of wine along the way. 

Ghostwriters have to glean as much information as they can from a source — in as little time as possible. Sometimes, they’ll only have a few weeks with a subject.

FRANKEL: It’s like you parachute drop into somebody’s life, and you have to be as authentically yourself as possible or they don’t trust you. It’s a very intense period of time — like maybe six months — that you are in their orbit, and working closely with them. And then the project ends, and you move on to the next world that you are inhabiting.

Valerie Frankel has worked as a ghostwriter for 17 years. Her first collaboration was with the comedian Joan Rivers.

FRANKEL: Entering Joan’s world was just pretty crazy. I mean, you walk into her house and it’s this incredible mansion. One of our first meetings, I was let into a room and told to wait, and then she walked in, like in a schmatta, like a house dress, that was unzipped in the back, and she turned around and said: “Can you zip me up?” And I’m like, “Oh, my God.” This was like our first interaction, it was very intimate. And I’m sure she did that intentionally, looking back but I was completely charmed by it.

Frankel wrote Omarosa Manigault Newman’s memoir Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House. She also wrote two fiction and two nonfiction books with Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi from the MTV show Jersey Shore. Snooki’s first novel in particular required an extremely fast turnaround.

FRANKEL: I wrote it in, I think, seven weeks. It was a very tight deadline, because sometimes that happens with people who are extremely hot in the moment. The publisher wants to get their book out — they “crash” the book out, which means it’s written very quickly, and then published very quickly. And then like a month later, it was on the bestseller list.

In the process of spending time with subjects, ghostwriters are exposed to a lot of sensitive information. A part of the job is to have a discerning eye for what to include in the book. Earlier this year, a ghostwriter hired by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem learned this the hard way. Her recent book, No Going Back, included a story about her shooting and killing her 14-month-old dog — and it caused an uproar.

FRANKEL: Everyone was saying the ghostwriter should have said, “You really shouldn’t include that story.” And, of course, the ghostwriter community agreed that you do have an obligation to the author to be “the civilian.” Right? Like, a lot of the people who need collaborators are VIPs or celebrities or politicians, and they don’t live in the real world. So, the collaborator functions not just as the writer, but also the reader — the person who exists in the real world and will have real world reactions to their content. 

Ghostwriting is a challenging job. And it’s a service that celebrities are willing to pay handsomely for. That’s coming up.

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Ghostwriting is, by nature, an opaque world. So, when a famous person decides to publish a book, they generally need a little help getting set up with the best writer. And oftentimes, the first call their literary agent makes is to this woman.

MOREL: My name is Madeleine Morel. I have a company that specializes in ghostwriters. And the only thing I do is matchmake ghostwriters with quote-unquote authors. The author is the person who doesn’t write the book. And the writer is the writer. 

Morel basically invented the job of ghostwriting matchmaker.

MOREL: I’ve been doing this for almost 25 years. I recognized that book publishing was becoming more and more like Hollywood, and everything was predicated on big-name people or what we call in the industry “platformed authors,” i.e. somebody who can bring a preexisting audience to their book. And nobody was specializing in providing writers for these authors.

Morel has worked with Dan Paisner on a handful of projects. She now has around 100 freelance ghostwriters in rotation.

MOREL: So all of my writers specialize in their particular field, be it politics, business, memoir, you know, health, whatever. And I only work with writers who have been multiply published by the big five big houses. And so, when somebody comes to me looking for a writer, I go through my list of writers and figure out who’s available, who would be most sympathetic to the book in hand, and I come up with 4-6 different choices of writers.

There’s a lot of demand — especially in the past few years, when memoirs and autobiographies have boomed.

MOREL: It’ s an incredible explosion. I think nowadays — and this is unscientific, but I — I reckon, very frequently, 60 to 70 percent of all books on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list have been ghostwritten. I think that what happened with the advent of social media, with the advent of this endless churning of celebrities, suddenly it became obvious that there was a big need for writers to work with these people. There’s a huge amount of work out there, which is wonderful for all these freelance writers. But there are also so many freelance writers out there that it’s become incredibly competitive.

The ones who get regular work can make a good living.

MOREL: The average starting price is probably $100,000. So there are books that pay $50- to $70,000. I would say the health fitness books pay less on average. And then there are really big books for major celebrities or business people, and those can pay $250,000 or more. I mean, it can go up to, you know, $3-, $4- or $500, but that’s fairly rare. 

Really big titles can fetch even more. Pulitzer-winning journalist J. R. Moehringer was reportedly paid a $1M advance to ghostwrite Prince Harry’s 2023 bestseller, Spare. There’s a lot of variance in how ghostwriting deals are structured. Here’s Valerie Frankel:

FRANKEL: There’s the work for hire — which is where you get a fixed rate that you mutually agree on, where you just get paid a fee and that’s it. There’s no bonus on the back end, there’s no percentage of the advance. I have other relationships where I get a percentage of everything. So, if the author signs a contract for, say, $10 and I get 35 percent of everything, for every $10 that person makes, I will get $3.50. From the initial advance to any royalties, to foreign, to drama rights: anything, for all time, I would get a third. 

In other cases, ghostwriters might get incentive bonuses if the book ends up on the New York Times bestseller list. But getting paid in a timely manner can be challenging. Ghostwriters are typically paid out of the author’s royalties, which means they’re last in line when the checks are cut. As a result, some ghostwriters now ask for 50 percent of their fee up front.

FRANKEL: The way a publisher will structure it, it’s four payments: on signing, on delivery and acceptance, on publication, and then a year after publication when the paperback would come out. So, it seems completely unfair that a ghostwriter would have to wait a year after publication, which could be a year and a half to two years after the manuscript has been accepted, when your work is completed.

MOREL: It’s really a terrible, terrible situation that’s been set up by the publishers. 

Again, that’s Madeleine Morel.

MOREL: So from the time a literary agent has a verbal deal on a book, to the time they get what we call the on-signing payment, you’re probably looking at average of three months. The writer gets paid when the author gets paid. And if it’s a book that’s on a rush schedule — which a lot of these books are, because so many of these books have to time some kind of media thing — you know, the writer maybe has to write the book within six to nine months. Well, for three months they have the choice of either writing without having been paid, they double up and do another book, or they come to Bank Morel — which sort of pisses me off when I’m fronting the monies for my ghostwriters when the authors have plenty of money. And if a writer decides, “Screw it, I’m not going to start writing the book until I have the money,” they have a very compressed delivery date. Then they run the risk of delivering a book that’s of lesser quality, which means the editor won’t want to work with them again and the agent won’t want to work with them again. I mean, we all spend our life cursing and yelling, “Where’s my contract? Where’s my money?”

In order to make any money to begin with, ghostwriters have to develop a name for themselves. And traditionally, that’s been a challenge outside of the publishing world. Ghostwriting used to have a sense of secrecy — celebrities didn’t want readers to know they hadn’t written the books with their names on them. And many writers thought cranking out pseudo-autobiographies was déclassé. All of that has changed.

MOREL: The analogy I always draw is that 20 years ago or so, if you were doing online dating you would never tell anybody; now everybody’s perfectly open about it. And I think it’s the same with ghostwriting: twenty years ago it was a dark secret. And now it’s being talked about.

That can be good news for ghostwriters — who need to get credit for the work they do under someone else’s name.

MOREL: In most cases, the ghostwriter will get what we call a generous acknowledgment, you know, which is on the acknowledgment page. And the acknowledgement can read anything from, you know, “who wrote this book for me” to “somebody who, you know, interpreted my thoughts,” some b******t like that. Increasingly, title page credit is given and that’s on the inside page where it says “by x, y, z with so and so” in smaller type. And then, you know, there’s cover credit. Personally, I don’t think it’s that important. I sort of say, you know, if it makes your mother happy, that’s great. 

Dan Paisner doesn’t mind when celebrity authors downplay the role of the ghostwriter — at least, in most cases.

PAISNER: The only times it does bother me is when you’ll see somebody on the couch at The Tonight Show saying, you know, “I had this idea for the title,” or, “I remember when I wrote this part of the book” — you know, when they take it to the extreme and talk about how they did this on their own, smoking a pipe with leather patches on their elbows. Credits are currency of the realm for us ghostwriters. I need to be able to share with other prospective clients who I’ve worked with in the past. Most people are happy to share credit and to acknowledge that they had a helping hand here. The few exceptions to that rule have mostly to do, in my career, with people who are known as creative individuals — standup comedians, for example — whose audiences have been conditioned to reasonably expect that this person is providing their own material. So, publishers in those cases have asked me to step off of the cover, and I’m happy to do so.

Paisner might be happy to leave his name off the cover — but one of his well-known collaborators wasn’t.

PAISNER: When I worked with Whoopi Goldberg on her book, it was very important to the publisher that she stand alone on the cover. And Whoopi herself kind of bristled at that. We ended up writing together a whole chapter in her book on affirmative action and what it meant to take help and why is it that we can’t freely admit when we need assistance of some kind or another. So it’s basically this chapter-long acknowledgment of my work on the book, which I helped to write. 

And in the end, Paisner is there to help his clients.

PAISNER: I think of these books as assignments looking to win over a readership of one. If Serena Williams is happy, if Denzel Washington is happy, then I’m happy and I feel like I’ve done my job.

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer and Sarah Lilley, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson.

MOREL: “Oh, you must have some great stories to tell. Yeah, oh, tell us.” Well, I actually don’t, you know, because the ghosts have to sign a confidentiality clause as a very important part of the book contract!

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