Famous get published with a little help from these ghosts

BOOKS | The famous get plenty of assistance from professional writers in crafting their memoirs

February 14, 2010
BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporter

Sarah Palin’s cranked-out memoir, Going Rogue, was actually written by a comparatively obscure and subtly credited woman named Lynn Vincent. But that matters not to armies of admirers who have helped make it a monster hit.

There’s plenty of carping, though, and not just from Palin’s ideologically opposed critics.
 “This sort of book once fell into a particular publishing category called a vanity book — it was not to be taken seriously,” author and Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff wrote of Going Rogue on his Web site, Newser.com. “It was to be dismissed, or tolerated only with the clearest condescension.”

Wolff added that such books are nothing but fake “brand enhancers.”

“So many are just simply not written by the people the publisher tells you they are written by. Somebody should sue.”

A bit hysterical? Perhaps. Then again, says veteran co-author David Rensin, “He’s got a point that things are being marketed disingenuously. But the people who love Sarah Palin don’t care who wrote the damn book. It’s authorized by Sarah, she’s approved it, she’s read it, she’s edited it, she talked to the [author]. ... They just want information about that person. And if it’s by that person, great.”

If not, healthy sales of other popular ghosted titles suggest, big whup.
Jenny Sanford, the scorned soon-to-be-ex-wife of cavorting South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, wielded a phantom pen for her new best-selling volume, Staying True. Tennis great Andre Agassi’s new-ish blockbuster memoir, Open, was put to paper by journalist J.R. Moehringer. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (True Compass: A Memoir) enlisted the talents of erstwhile Sun-Times critic Ron Powers for his chart-topper. And hard-living rocker Ozzy Osbourne’s just-out tell-all, I Am Ozzy, already is going gangbusters thanks in large part to the toiling of London Times L.A. correspondent Chris Ayres.

The list is long and studded with stars — actors, pols, musicians, captains of industry. They’ve got stories; they need storytellers. And they’re increasingly unafraid to reach out for help.
“In the old days, [subjects] were slightly ashamed of having ghost writers,” says Ayres, whose Osbourne tome is his first foray into this growing niche. “And now they’re honest about it. They accept that most celebrities are way too busy and not practiced enough to turn out a whole manuscript by themselves. It’s almost like when Madonna hires some unknown producer to make her album. Who you choose as your collaborator is seen as almost part of the talent of the artist. It’s seen as a decision that’s an important part of the creative process.”
New York literary agent Madeleine Morel, of Lowenstein-Morel Associates, says her hired guns (she represents ghost writers exclusively) used to earn between $50,000 and $100,000 per project. That range has fallen in recent years to between $30,000 and $65,000, because author advances are down dramatically and the number of titles publishers buy has plummeted. Writers of multimillion-dollar celebrity books have taken a hit, too.

“There is no correlation between what a celebrity gets [paid] and what the writer gets,” Morel says. “In fact, if anything, I often come across cases where the celebrity feels as if they are doing the ghost writer a favor.”

And plenty of them, it seems, are eager to accept. In the last five or so years, Morel says, her stable has grown from one to around 150.

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In the mid-’90s, Rensin assisted comic and then-sitcom king Tim Allen with his No. 1 best seller Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man. The author of two solo books, he soon became a go-to guy for other celebrities (especially comedians) in need of literary guidance: Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, Jeff Foxworthy and several others. And he never works alone. Rensin (who prefers the term “collaborator” over ghost writer) stresses that both parties must contribute equally for these projects to work best.

“It’s got to be 50-50,” he says. “The people I’ve worked with have worked very hard. You can’t do it unless they are full participants. And so whether you’re writing a book like Tim Allen’s Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man [or] the other comedy ones that I’ve done ... they’re all right there, meeting with me regularly, telling me their life stories, being funny about stuff, allowing me to be funny. It’s a complete back and forth.”

Another key to success, Rensin and other ghosters say, is a good vibe. Writer and subject must mesh.
“Ozzy had me laughing so much once I almost threw up,” Ayres says. “I think that’s when we really bonded. It was maybe the second or third session. I think a lot of people laugh at Ozzy’s jokes, but when he saw just how helpless I was with laughter, he realized it was a genuine sort of connection, and that we really had the exact same sense of humor.”
Rensin and the late, legendary show-biz manager/producer Bernie Brillstein (You’re No One In Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead!) were similarly well-suited.
“We were a couple of Jews who had difficult mothers and we appreciated a good shvitz,” Rensin says.

Former Rolling Stone staffer Anthony Bozza boasts a slew of collaborator credits, including Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee’s Tommyland, “30 Rock” standout Tracy Morgan’s I Am the New Black and Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange’s No. 1 best seller Too Fat to Fish.  
“You have to like your co-writer,” Bozza tells ghost-seeking notables and anyone else in need of his services. “Because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them and you’re going to be telling them things that you really have not told other people, or have not told many people, and never thought you’d be telling anyone. And if you’re not willing to go to that degree, then you’re book’s not going to be good.”
For some, seeing their most intimate secrets in black and white is jarring enough to prompt serious second thoughts.

“When you’re a writer, you know that to make something salable or interesting to read, you have to put everything out there,” Ayres says. “You can’t do it by half. For the celebrity, you have commit to divulging things about yourself. You can’t hold things back. But when they read the manuscript, they often get a terrible shock.”
Despite advice to the contrary, there are those who choose to whitewash damning revelations. Others, such as Agassi and Osbourne, throw caution to the wind.

“Even Ozzy, when he read back his own book, I think he was shocked,” Ayres recalls. “He would read it and go, ‘Fuuuu--. I can’t believe we put that in there! And then he’d go, ‘We caaan’t do that.’ And then he’d go, ‘Oh, f--k it! And he’d just throw the page on the floor. And then he would come to another one and go, ‘Ohhhh. Oh, f--k it!’ He just signed off on it. He had no patience. He just did not want to start bowdlerizing his own book.”

* * *

Unlike the names of Palin’s, Sanford’s and Kennedy’s ghosters, Ayres’ appears on the title page. Other collaborators, including Bozza, negotiate an “as told to” or a “with” cover credit, though it typically appears in much smaller font. Moehringer’s name appears only in the acknowledgements despite Agassi’s repeated entreaties that it go on the cover. As Moehringer — whose own memoir, The Tender Bar, spurred an impressed Agassi to offer him a crack at Open — explained to the New York Times, “The midwife doesn’t go home with the baby. It’s Andre’s memoir, not our memoir, not a memoir ‘as told to.’ It’s his accomplishment, and he made the final choices.”

Even scribes who receive more visible recognition than Moehringer and Vincent agree that ghost writing is definitely an ego-less, behind-the-scenes profession. For no matter how close they are to their subjects or how integral they are to the finished product, insiders say, past bylines and prestigious awards (Moehringer and Powers are Pulitzer Prize winners) mean little. In the end, it’s all about them — the lionized pol, the decadent rocker, the jet-setting movie mogul.

“You can easily end up convincing yourself that that was your book, but the fact is that it emphatically wasn’t,” says Ayres, who claims Osbourne was deeply involved every step of the way. “It’s Ozzy’s life. It was his stories and his sense of humor. And you can’t kid yourself that you really have much ownership over it other than being the mechanic. But that’s not to say that being a mechanic is a bad job. It’s great.”

As in racing, to extend the car metaphor, mechanics must bask vicariously from the pit while their famous drivers soak in praise. For Rensin, Ayres, Bozza and presumably Moehringer, that’s perfectly peachy.

“What’s nice,” Ayres says, “is when you’ve written a couple of [your own] books that have been critically well-received but ultimately sell in sort of cult numbers, it is immensely gratifying when your book immediately debuts on the New York Times best-seller list or the Sunday Times best-seller list — even though you know that you’re not really the reason why.”