Ghost Stories

An agent for writers who stay behind the scenes—and off the jacket.

by Lynn Andriani -- Publishers Weekly, 5/29/2006

Among the ironies of today's book industry is the fact that good writers struggle to get published, while celebrities who can't write get big book contracts. Lots of people complain about it. But not literary agent Madeleine Morel, who has figured out a way to exploit these facts—she represents no authors, only writers—ghostwriters, that is. Morel's clients have written seven New York Times bestsellers in the past two years, three of which have reached number one. Though Morel's tight-lipped when it comes to revealing specifics, she would let slip a few of her writers' recent hits: there's The Biggest Loser (Rodale), the TV tie-in diet book, which, according to PW, sold more than 150,000 copies in 2005; and numerous books by lifestyle guru and perennially bestselling author Dr. Phil (published by Free Press).

With books by movie and television stars, athletes and "personal trainers to the stars" flooding the market (and bestseller lists), Morel's timing is perfect. Atria editor Wendy Walker, who has worked with Morel on two books in the past year, says, "Ideally, you want a book to be authored by the true author, but today, [with] a lot of the high-profile people [who write] celebrity books, you don't get the writing. You get the person." And nine times out of 10, that person doesn't know how to write a book.

One of a Kind

Morel is an impeccably dressed Englishwoman who moved to New York in 1977. Her agency, 2M Communications, Ltd., located in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, may be the only one of its kind. "I think she's absolutely found a niche," agrees Walker.

Jen Bergstrom, publisher of Simon Spotlight Entertainment, says Morel's decision to open an agency that strictly represents ghostwriters was "the most brilliant idea. I speak to Madeleine at least once a day. It's like a drive-through window. I pull up at that window, and I ask for two romance writers, and two more with no egos who can handle anything. She's such an important part of my business and how I get my books to market."

Morel turned to agenting for ghostwriters after nearly two decades in the book business. She worked for book publishers for her first five years in New York, and started agenting in 1982. In 1991, she teamed with agent Barbara Lowenstein to form Lowenstein-Morel Associates. There, Morel learned the ins-and-outs of book packaging, and worked with a number of adaptable, commercially minded writers—experience that would prove to be a boon for her in the future.

By the early 2000s, it had become increasingly evident to Morel that "platform had become the sine qua non of selling nonfiction." Morel's "aha" moment came when realized she knew plenty of people who could write books, and that people with "platforms" but inadequate writing skills were getting book deals. So, calling on the many writers, editors and former publishing folk she'd worked with over the years, Morel started exclusively brokering ghostwriting book deals. She now represents 75 writers, each one specializing in a nonfiction area, including health, parenting, business, memoir/autobiography, history, pop culture, science and multicultural topics. Some of her writers do freelance editing and book doctoring as well. All have published multiple books with the major New York houses.

The inner workings of Morel's agency, she says, more closely parallel those of a modeling or talent agency, rather than a typical literary agency. Instead of Morel pitching people at publishing houses, those publishers come to her, seeking a writer who can ghostwrite a book they've acquired. Morel then sends the publisher four or five biographies of writers who have expertise in the particular area. An elimination process comes next, wherein Morel, the editor, the agent and the "client" (i.e., the book's author) make a final selection as to who will ghostwrite the book.

Sometimes an editor or agent calls Morel because he or she has signed up a celebrity and is looking for a writer to help "create" the book. Literary agent Kathleen Spinelli, of Brands-to-Books, has worked with Morel on such deals. Spinelli says her agency "primarily represents branded properties and personalities. In most cases we're looking for writers to interpret the brands on the page. [Madeleine is] a wonderful matchmaker." In other situations, an editor may be looking for a ghostwriter or rewriter because he or she has a manuscript that needs rewriting. Morel also connects her writers with literary agents in instances where agents need to create proposals from scratch. And increasingly, Morel has agents coming to her with authors they need to keep busy. Morel might find the agent's client a project, and they'll go 50-50 on the deal.

The economics of these negotiations vary, naturally: the ghostwriter may get a flat fee or a percentage of the advance with a guaranteed minimum, and Morel takes 15% commission on whatever she gets for the writers. The average ghostwriter's advance is "between $30,000 and $100,000, which is a hell of a lot more than they could make on their own," says Morel.

What Becomes a Ghost?

There's clearly money to be made in ghostwriting, but the profession isn't for every writer. First, Morel says, a ghostwriter must "have no ego." Second, a writer must be able to work quickly. And, of course, a writer must "be able to scream to me about the person they're working with" but still get the job done.

It also helps if ghostwriters have expertise in a certain field. For example, Harriette Cole, who wrote the bestselling Jumping the Broom: The African-American Wedding Planner, has worked with Alicia Keys, Mary J Blige and Erykah Badu, and is a former Essencefashion editor. She's on Morel's roster of ghostwriters of self-help books for an African-American audience. Nutritionist Maggie Greenwood-Robinson wrote The Bikini Diet and writes about fitness for a number of national women's magazines. With Morel's help, she landed a cowriting deal for The Biggest Loser. If a publisher comes to Morel with a lifestyle book that needs writing, chances are the agent has someone who can do it. Heather Jackson, executive editor at Crown, has collaborated with Morel on numerous occasions. Of Morel, she says, "Within the sphere of nonfiction, especially in the practical arts, we've never had a place where these writers could go. When people were ghostwriting or cowriting, [they had] second-class citizen status, and she's created a place where [those writers] don't have to be. They're not competing for the limelight."

For the time being, Morel is focusing on nonfiction, although one of her clients is currently working on a novel, "a roman à clef by a major party planner." Now that celebrities like Nicole Richie are writing fiction that's commercially successful, Morel says, it's proving that "the Judith Regan approach to publishing works. I have no doubt that it's going to happen more and more." The rush to publish all things celebrity has also accelerated the publishing schedule in recent years. The day before our conversation, for instance, Morel received a call from a house that had just signed up a celebrity. They asked Morel if she had a writer who could deliver a book in mid-July—which was less than three months away. Morel's response? "Yes, I do. Now, whether they'll pay the right price...."