UK: In search of the real author.

UK: In search of the real author. - Take a good look at the business books on your shelf. Where there's a best-seller, there's often a ghostwriter.

by Stuart Crainer.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Take a good look at the business books on your shelf. Where there's a best-seller, there's often a ghostwriter.

The acknowledgments pages of business books are prone to gushing sentimentality. They contain more gratuitous thanks and tributes than an awards ceremony - and are about as sincere. Most of us skip these pages, but look a little closer beneath the sugary sentiments and you begin to discover the true story of a book's creation.

Take Reengineering the Corporation by James Champy and Michael Hammer - the early 1990s business blockbuster. It's no literary masterpiece, but it is highly readable and well-researched. In the acknowledgments, Champy and Hammer pay tribute to 'Donna Sammons Carpenter, Tom Richman, and Abby Solomon, whose extraordinary editorial skills helped turn an inchoate mass into a coherent narrative'. If you open Jamming by Harvard Business School academic John Kao you also read plaudits to 'Donna Sammons Carpenter and her extraordinary team of creative talents'. She is also mentioned by Tom Peters in The Circle of Innovation and some of his other books. Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema were grateful to her for her work on The Discipline of Market Leaders. Michael Milken and Senator John Kerry are also thankful for her editorial support in their literary endeavours.

Clearly, Donna Sammons Carpenter is a very busy woman. For she is, according to Business Week, 'the Queen of ghostwriters' and CEO of her own ghostwriting factory, Wordworks Inc. based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Take a good look at the business books lined up on your shelf. The chances are that their real authors are not who you had assumed. Of course, ghostwriting is not new in some areas - illiterate sports stars have been using ghosts for years. What is new is that companies like Wordworks have spread the ghostwriting industry into business books.

In some ways, such arrangements are a dream ticket for everybody concerned.

The publisher is happy. For publishers ghostwriters often represent little expense or risk because they mean that a manuscript will be delivered more or less on time - journalists meet deadlines, academics tend not to, while consultants are usually too busy making money - and that it will be more or less readable.

Traditionally, an author receives an advance on royalties from the publisher.

In the UK this is usually less than £5,000. In the US, where the market is much larger, heftier advances are commonplace. If the author is using a ghostwriter, he or she will usually enter into a separate agreement with them. In many cases the publishers' advances fail to cover the ghostwriting charges with the author effectively using the book as a loss leader, the ultimate calling card to open doors for consulting business or to secure engagements on the lucrative lecture circuit.

The ghostwriter is also usually happy. One calculation of Wordworks' fees put them at a massive $60,000 (£35,000) for a mere proposal - merely suggesting that they are going to produce something pretty persuasive.

Alternatively, a complete book project could cost $300,000. (Fees for the ghostwriters themselves range from $20,000 to $200,000 depending on the project.) Wordworks also receives royalties. Clearly, in such deals, only massive book sales would allow the authors to recoup their costs.

The final winner is the 'author' with his or her calling card. It is a card with substantial rewards. Good book sales can be costly for the 'author', however. Some consultants buy thousands of their own books to ensure they reach the best-seller lists. Most famously, the authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders arranged the purchase of over 10,000 copies of their book, while Champy bought 7,500 copies of his Reengineering Management.

Ken Shelton, editor of the newsletter, Executive Excellence, is the ghost behind one of the biggest business best-sellers of all time, Stephen R Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Shelton has also worked on Smart Talk by Lou Tice; Managing People Is Like Herding Cats by Warren Bennis; and 21st Century Leadership by Larry Senn and Lynn MacFarland.

He argues that ghostwriting is simply part of a wider media process. 'Publishing today implies multimedia presentation. Often the book is merely part of the package of a product that follows a certain line of thought,' says Shelton. 'The package may include audio tapes, video-based training, CD-Rom games, presentations and speeches. Covey's Seven Habits book, for example, was the last item in the Seven Habits product-line - the cherry on top.' But, what a cherry - Seven Habits has sold over six million copies.

Another star name in the ghostwriting pack is the writer and researcher, Art Kleiner. In his own right, Kleiner is author of a successful title, The Age of Heretics. As a ghost, his credits are many and varied - he worked as a 'consulting editor' on The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz, Control Your Destiny by Noel Tichy, The Last Word on Power by Tracy Goss, as well as The Living Company by Arie de Geus. 'Many business people don't know how to convert their speaking insights to the printed page,' says Kleiner. Similarly, the average consultant is adept at putting together a consultant-style report with lots of diagrams and analysis, and in giving a stirring end-of-project presentation. But when it comes to writing a book they too come unstuck.

Academics are similarly limited. The tortured prose of academic journals is hardly likely to set the pulse racing. Real money comes from big sales and, even in the rampant business book market, dense academic treatises do not sell.

Enter the ghost. Shelton believes that ghostwriting is an inevitable and useful editorial service. 'Many authors can't or won't write. But they may be very gifted as thinkers, presenters, synthesisers, commentators, speakers or entertainers,' says Shelton. 'I often use a track-and-field metaphor. If a person is world class at the 400-metre hurdles, does that mean that the same person should also be world class at the 100-metre sprint, the high jump or the marathon?' Put like that, there clearly aren't many Daley Thompsons out there.

The process which lies behind ghostwriting is far removed from the traditional publishing process where someone has an idea for a book and approaches a publisher. 'There are parallels with the film industry. You get the star and build the project around him or her,' says Timothy Clark of King's College, London, who has studied the guru industry. 'We are moving away from the origins of management books - the Peter Drucker-style academic - into the entertainment industry.'

Indeed, the idea for a book can play a secondary role to the marketing plan. 'It is very difficult for authors to break through,' says literary agent John Willig, who represents over 40 authors. 'Publishers spend a lot of time discussing the author's marketing activities - they can spend as much time on that as on the actual contents of the book. The big change over recent years is that authors are communicators of their ideas whether through speaking engagements, web sites or workshops. The book is just one part of supporting the message.' And, if the message is popular, you have to move fast to meet demand. The average teeny-bopper pop sensation has a longer life expectancy than a business fad. Michael Hammer's sequel to Reengineering the Corporation, The Reengineering Revolution was written, edited and published in six months.

Armed with an idea and a travel itinerary taking in major cities in Europe, the US and Asia, the guru then moves on to the next stage: finding a ghost.

This is often more difficult than it sounds. The aspiring author has to find a sympathetic ear, someone with the appropriate skills and, most of all, someone they can work with. 'Good ghosts of management books are rather rare,' notes Shelton, 'because ghosting requires almost as much knowledge of the subject matter as the author has - with one tenth of the ego.'

Shelton is choosy. With his record of success he can afford to be.

'My litmus test to detect the real thing is - Has the author ever had a real job? Has the author ever started a business, grown a business, or exercised real leadership in a line position where he or she was responsible for results? Have the concepts of the author ever been applied in a real company with favourable results? And, on a personal level: Does the author's noble mission square with his or her motive, means and message?' Even if the aspiring authors pass these tests, there is Shelton's bottom line to meet: 'As a ghost, I want to be sure that the author has real character, competence and substance. I have found from no little experience that it's hard to create something fresh and meaningful out of nothing.'

What happens once a ghost has been recruited differs from case to case.

'A ghost will interview the author and write a first draft of the material, possibly then writing a second or third draft as well, and then helping with final edits,' says Kleiner. 'But it varies. Different authors prefer different types of working relationships. Many times ghosts will not do research or vice versa.' The Wordworks approach is to allow the 'authors' to concentrate on what they are good at. 'A lot of the authors are very experienced speakers. Typically we outline each chapter and then ask the writer to give a presentation. It maintains the person's voice,' says Wordworks' Carpenter. It also gives clues to the weight of substance underlying an argument. 'We are good at identifying whether lack of content is going to be a problem. It is much easier to edit someone who has a lot of material, shaping and pruning it.' A typical Wordworks book will go through many drafts before publication - perhaps as many as 40 - and the timescale for each differs from 90 days to the more usual 12 to 18 months.

Wordworks' most famous star is Tom Peters. He began to work with the company after the publication of his epic 1992 book, Liberation Management, by common consent one of the most under-edited books in management literature.

Since then, all three of his books have gone through the Wordworks process.

Nevertheless, Peters does at least attempt to write in his own celebrated style. 'I am a rather conventional author, startlingly sober perhaps, in that I hand over the seventh or eight draft,' says Peters.

Peters' draft is then fed into the Wordworks system. Even so it is only at this point that creativity becomes submerged by heavy industry. In Peters' most recent book, The Circle of Innovation, he fully acknowledges Wordworks' influence - 'Donna Carpenter ... Pal. Supporter. Wordsmith and idea fount and editor. Entrepreneur and CEO of Wordworks.' Peters goes on to acknowledge a project manager, designer, co-editor, fact-checker and seven others from the company. Book writing is clearly labour intensive.

While Tom Peters is noted for his willingness to generously spread the credit, others can be more reticent.

The matter of how and where the ghost is credited is significant. Many get their name on the cover - though it is usually in much smaller typeface than the more famous name. Understandable, perhaps, as big names sell books.

'There are very often two names on business books and often it's the first person who is primarily responsible for the promotion of the book so much so that one tends to forget there was another person involved,' says California-based, book publicist Kathryn Hall who represents (genuine) authors such as Margaret Wheatley, Peter Block and David Whyte. 'I would prefer it if the standard were that if someone is to be acknowledged as a writer, he or she deserves that recognition.'

While some ghosts make the cover, but miss out on the promotional tour of Alaska, others either have their name on the inside title page or buried at the bottom of the dust jacket. It is increasingly common to find ghostwriters included in lengthy lists of acknowledgments. There is, therefore, an art in discovering if a book has been ghostwritten. Euphemisms abound (see box). 'Most ghosts are credited in the acknowledgments as consulting editors or some such. You can usually find them,' says Kleiner. 'Often ghosts take part in writing the acknowledgments about themselves, which is unfortunate because they often short change themselves. It's part of the ghosting personality to short change oneself since one has to be a bit self-effacing to take on the job in the first place.' While most ghostwriters receive some sort of credit, others are forgotten about completely - their contract forbids them declaring their involvement.

It should be emphasised that there is nothing technically wrong with any of this. Consultants who buy their own books are simply using the system, by applying their marketing skills to their own product. Ghostwriting is legal and yet another service in our increasingly service-driven society.

But is it decent? To some, there is no ethical debate at all. 'Ghostwriting could be abused but, as practised in business books, I think it's ethical,' says bookseller and ghost Ted Kinni. 'I don't know of an instance where the ideas, concepts or story were not the listed author's. It is the presentation and readability that the ghost has created. Ghostwriting is unacceptable when the content of the book, the boiled-down thinking or story, is not the credited author's. If a ghost has good business ideas then he or she should take the credit.' To Kinni, ghostwriting is commercial good sense: 'As a writer, if Andy Grove (the departing boss of Intel) called me to ghost, I'd rather have his name on the book than mine. He's the message, I'm just the medium.'

The obvious point of departure is whether the person credited on the cover is actually the author in any shape or form. Stories are recounted of authors who have never actually read their book and of a well-known management academic who produced a book simply by dictating into tapes for 20 hours and then handing the tapes over to a ghost. Given such stories - and not all are apocryphal - some suspect that the point of no return has been passed. 'The problem with ghostwritten books,' says Tom Brown, who collates a top 10 book list, published on the Management General web site, 'is that they often camouflage or misrepresent the ideas of the author. In the best case they are often rhetorically enhanced, so that the name on the book cover sounds much more provocative, savvy or deep.

In the worst case, the book actually presents the ideas of the writer instead of the author - so whose book is it really? And who should be making speeches around the world on its behalf?' Brown adds: 'At least a book that lists a name on the cover with another name as writer makes it clear to the reader that, if in doubt, either person can be approached and interviewed. But a fully hidden ghostwritten book does a disservice first and foremost to the person who finds himself the author of a best-seller and is, because of that, tongue-tied in more ways than one.'

Not surprisingly, those who have taken the trouble to write books by themselves feel slightly deflated. 'I am absolutely appalled at the number of synthetic business books that, worse still, are labelled as organic,' says Eileen Shapiro author of Fad Surfing and The Seven Deadly Sins of Business. 'Brands imply promises. If you buy a cereal from Kelloggs, you expect the product to meet the Kelloggs standards in all respects. The problem with ghosts is that they write well enough that they can make mediocre ideas sound compelling, even when the thinking is weak.'

The genius of good ghostwriters is that they can disguise lack of content - they can make a silk purse out of a pile of tapes and 30 minutes in the great guru's presence. It is worth looking closely at books which are supposedly based on research. The research can prove elusive. The ghost constructs a smooth edifice, uncluttered by such things as bibliographies or references; picking up ideas from here and there, crafting them into something which appears original and important. At best (from a literary standpoint), the ghostwritten business book is a smoothly written mirage.

Some may shrug their shoulders at concerns about the authenticity of business books. Does it really matter that a journalist honed the prose a little and dug around to find a few case studies? Probably not. But clearly if the ghost originates ideas it becomes more dubious. One of the great paradoxes of modern management is that a profession dominated by action should be so driven by theory. In business, books and the ideas they contain affect people throughout the world. 'People do not read a John Grisham book and then change their company. Business books affect management actions,' says Clark of King's College. 'I know of companies where someone has read a book and then bought copies for everyone on the board. Then they have turned around and said "let's do it". That then feeds into management education. Their work is reported on. It becomes a case study.

Given this, there must be some sort of ethical responsibility on publishers.'

Not surprisingly, publishers offer a more pragmatic view. 'The real ethical issue for publishers is rather less one of whose name appears on the cover than one of the quality of the thinking that underlies the book,' counters Richard Stagg, publishing director of Financial Times Management. 'A loosely constructed string of anecdotes, process diagrams and references to the usual corporate suspects will fool no one these days, however well made-over by a ghostwriter. But if the ideas are sound and the research rigorous, then all power to the clearest voice which helps take it to the management world. If that involves a ghostwriter, then so be it. Ultimately, it's the ideas that count. They drive the real value of a book.'

Stuart Crainer is a business writer and author of several best-selling books. This piece is entirely his own work (honest)

GRATEFULLY ACKNOWLEDGED

How to tell if a book was ghostwritten

The Loyalty Effect by Frederick Reichheld ' ... the excellent job performed by my editor, Tom Teal. Formerly a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, Tom identified fuzzy thinking in more than a few of my early drafts, and his writing skills have helped to make the manuscript far more readable than I could ever have managed on my own.'

The Discipline of Market Leaders by Michael Treacy & Fred Wiersema 'We particularly want to thank Bill Birchard, Donna Sammons Carpenter, Robie Macauley, Tom Richman, and the other talented writers, editors and researchers at Wordworks Inc.'

Value Migration by Adrian Slywotzky 'Mark Fischetti, a freelance writer and editor, helped us articulate complex ideas more simply as well as challenging us to keep up the pace of the chapters.'

The Living Company by Arie de Geus 'It took Nan Stone, then a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, a week of her annual leave to coach me through the material and to help me arrive at the conclusion that, after all, it might be worth a try ... Nan Stone persuaded Art Kleiner, historian and author, to reshape the manuscript around its main theme of 'the living company'.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today