American Ghostwriter

My adventures among the memoir-happy one-percent

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The prognosis for American journalism is not good. In due course, the cancerous forces of Google, Facebook, and algorithmic optimization will complete the terminal ravaging of the journalistic trade from the inside, chewing through it vital organs one newsroom at a time, hollowing out its traditions and lore. Journalists and editors will grieve the demise of their beloved calling, which once nourished the sacred democratic principle of holding those in power to a sustained public accounting—and, on occasion, created a kind of widely accessible art form. Now, however, as journalism slouches toward oblivion, it churns out high-outrage, low-grade content for its web-addled audience, who click and share anything that flatters their ideological preconceptions.

Sundered from all the now-obsolete protections and best practices of a free and independent press, journalists will do what displaced workers everywhere must: get on with the necessary business of making a living. And a select few will fall into what is perhaps the grimmest possible simulacrum of journalistic endeavor: they will join the now burgeoning market for luxury ghostwritten memoirs.

Among a handful of competitive outfits offering these ghosted biographies, two in particular, LifeBook and Story Terrace, have established themselves as the lead providers of compelling life sagas for an exclusive if international customer base of moguls, C-suite executives, and titans of industry and finance. Publishing hundreds of small-batch editions in recent years, with prices as high as $8,000, these ghost houses have found a way to once again make good money employing journalists writing for the printed page—if not good money for the journalists, then at least for themselves and their investors.

Last November, while tracking the growth of this nascent post-journalism narrative marketplace, I came upon a job listing posted by LifeBook. The firm certainly presented itself well. Based out of a renovated barn in the lush rolling county an hour south of London, LifeBook has carved out a prosperous niche as the biographer of first-resort for the global ruling class. The job notice explained that the company was looking for an experienced former journalist to become their next American Ghostwriter. Although that sounded less like the description of a secure job than the title of a Philip Roth novel, it was, indeed, a paying gig, and unlike many opportunities in freelance journalism, it offered the American Ghostwriter the potentially steady work of writing three books at one time. The ideal candidate, the listing informed me, would be fluent in the tradecraft of narrative, character, structure, and descriptive scene detail. Once hired, the American Ghostwriter would partake in the “extraordinary exercise of tracking people back to their childhood and their heritage.”

Founded in 2012, LifeBook was clearly a standout concern in the silent- author industry. Unlike other ghost houses offering all forms of scribe-for-hire writing, from penning “Thank You” cards to a keynote speech, LifeBook focused its consumer product line on a single $9,000 luxury item: a two-hundred-odd page book handcrafted in a London bindery, wrapped in fine linen covers, and embossed in gold letters. Written by someone not unlike myself, a journalist who applied care and concern to the story itself, the exquisite presentation enshrined a hagiographic narrative of the subject’s successful career in (usually) business, real estate, or finance, interspersed with scenes of choice family vacations and holidays in exotic locales. Indisputably at the top of the ghost-memoir class, a LifeBook biography was an heirloom-quality depiction of a life well lived.

The Birth of the Author

Curious about the career prospects facing and many thousands of other displaced journalists, serving the same maximum leaders of commerce that, with hipster-digital elan, have gutted modern journalism, I applied for the American Ghostwriter position. Not long after the new year, I received an invitation to a phone interview with Tom, a project manager at LifeBook.

In a hearty and enthusiastic British accent, Tom explained the streamlined operations underpinning the LifeBook machine. Once the LifeBook sales team took the order from a new customer from a client base now spanning fifteen countries and counting, an interviewer was dispatched to the home of the LifeBook subject. The subject (referred to, in the morale-boosting but entirely misleading company argot, as the Author) shared his or her life story during a carefully structured series of a dozen or so in-person interviews, over several months. With questions ranging from a subject’s earliest memory to the source of the family’s wealth, the script ensured that the interviewer would fully capture the Author’s major life events and milestones. Then it would be my job, as the Ghostwriter, to take the raw audio tapes, ninety minutes or more, and spend no more than two business days to turn them into biographical prose.

As Tom, my own interviewer, informed me, this was less Boswellian homage to a captain of finance or industry than glorified ventriloquism, in which the Author called upon the American Ghostwriter to play the dummy. “The one thing we don’t really want is a Ghostwriter going a bit haywire and making up a load of stories,” Tom told me. “The Ghostwriter is hopping into the Author’s shoes, getting into their head and writing their story as if it were their own.”

Lifestyles of the Rich and Lonely

But while the Ghostwriters were expected to speak fluently of the Authors’ lived experiences, they would have to do it deceptively, as no Ghostwriter would ever approach the Author’s rarefied socioeconomic perch. Upon a LifeBook editor’s acceptance of each three-thousand-to-four-thousand-word excretion, LifeBook would compensate this ghostwriter with a paltry $100. After reviewing a few chapters, the Subject/Author will chime in to provide the ghostwriter with helpful edits on style and structure (actual writing or editing experience here being irrelevant). Sometimes the finished books ran up to forty-five thousand words, Tom said, adding that it was up to the Ghostwriter to make sure the chapters all flowed together. Once the Author approved the final manuscript, the Ghostwriter would receive his or her final installment of the total, which for me would have been a meager $1,100.

This was glorified ventriloquism, in which the Author called upon the American Ghostwriter to play the dummy.

Sounding out the breadth of the LifeBook demographic, I asked Tom if the Authors all tended to be older and wealthier. In his reply, Tom sounded upset, as if I had broken with the tactful decorum required of discreet hired hands.

“Not at all, look—” he snipped. “Rather than simply saying, ‘Here’s an Author, there you go, shut up and write the book—” he took a breath to catch himself, before continuing more calmly. “I try to match the ghostwriter as best I can. Because when you’re engaged in the Author’s subject matter you get a better end product.”

LifeBook was the brainchild of the Englishman Roy Moëd, a top executive for a company that had specialized in airline food supply chains. When Moëd’s elderly father had become ill, lonely, and blind, Moëd dispatched a secretary to record and write up his father’s many stories of his life and times. After Moëd observed how much comfort an elderly person took in speaking to someone who sat patiently because they were paid to do so, he had an epiphany: across the global corporate economy there must be scores of other affluent executives like him, too busy for their aging family members but willing to lay down a handsome fee—and thereby mobilize the growing literary reserve army of precariously employed journalists—to ease the guilt of their own neglect.

In short order, Moëd had laid out the main elements of LifeBook’s winning business formula. “The major breakthrough was when I realized that the interviewer and the ghostwriter didn’t need to be the same person,” he told the BBC. This meant that LifeBook could contract any local interviewer at a low rate of $50 per session, with no reimbursement for travel, to drive to the Author’s house, follow the prompt, and record the interview. As long as the interviewer stuck to the script, he or she was sure to produce what the Ghostwriter needed. This audio could then be whipped into a biography by a ghostwriter —and those writers could be anywhere in the world, thanks to the internet’s just-in-time task-rabbiting capabilities.

Enter, Ghost

There was a certain grimly apt symmetry in the return of writers to the neofeudal practice of chronicling the personal exploits of the elite and the well born. Indeed, the practice of ghostwriting stretches back at least as far as the fifth century BCE, with imperial scribes writing out the thoughts of their illiterate kings. As the power of emperors and kings expanded, the ghosting assignments became more baroque and demanding. When Nero’s bloodthirsty mother, Agrippina, allegedly poisoned her new beau, Emperor Claudius, it was Seneca who ghosted Nero’s first speech, throttling the people’s anxious alarm over Nero’s power grab, as the plucky young emperor seized the crown from his dead stepfather’s still-warm head.

It wasn’t really until the early twentieth century that the ghostwriting trade expanded beyond the brute and transactional justification of power for power’s sake. In this, as in so many other disruptive endeavors, American society was at the vanguard. By the 1930s, once word got out that the major league sports stars of the day were ghosting their autobiographies, the era’s top ghosts were in hot demand—particularly among CEO’s and other business titans looking to double up on their output of industry speeches and shareholder presentations. Meanwhile, ghostwriters became increasingly important to presidential communications, with Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover all lending their executive brands to ex officio decrees composed by silent pens. (Yes, this was technically ghostwriting in the old Neronic tradition of supplying a mouthpiece to the maximally powerful, but most of these pronouncements followed the basic literary conventions of America’s emergent, and world-conquering, business-advice genre.)

By the mid-twentieth century, ghostwriters became increasingly engaged in the daily flow of communications out of the Oval Office.

Shouldn’t this greatest of great men put the conviction of his person behind his public utterances?

They indeed became so dominant in presidential messaging that some White House observers suggested that the mouthpiece model of presidential communications was unethical, or at least unsavory: shouldn’t this greatest of great men put the conviction of his person behind his public utterances? Alas, however, the sheer volume of word-production in the modern presidency made it impossible for the nation’s chief executive to speak for himself. As one ghost booster put it, “I cannot conceive of the president of the United States, or the head of any other large institution, doing his job responsibly and effectively without deploying the fullest range of talent available to him in the conduct of that job.” To delegate effectively was to lead intelligently. And that’s why, for instance, Ronald Reagan had his speeches run through the ghost fingers of as many as fifty White House staffers before the text was ready for public oration. One of Reagan’s top speechwriters, Peggy Noonan, certainly saw no harm in such robust if anonymous massaging of White House messaging. To her, speeches were “part theatre and part political declaration,” as she wrote in What I Saw at the Revolution. “A personal communication between a leader and his people.”

Today, satisfying our appetite for celebrity culture has made the ghostwriter who specializes in books as popular as ever. Everyone from Victoria Beckham to Keith Richards to Donald Trump has tapped a ghost for biography projects. It was almost inevitable, then, that with the public sphere fully infused by the ghostly spirit—with politicians, athletes, and celebrities all calling upon someone else to articulate their most personal thoughts and branded feelings—that ghostwriters would make their spectral move into the realm of our private lives, bringing the story of a family to the luxurious pages of a LifeBook project.

Yachting to the Bottom

Meanwhile, back on our phone call, Tom was explaining that there was one final step before I could join this global cadre of elite ghostwriters. I’d have to pass a writing exam—an approximately three-thousand-word sample culled from the raw audio of a forty-five minute interview.

“Is it paid?” I asked.

“Alas, we can’t offer compensation for the test. This is just to make sure it’s right for you while our editors ensure you’re suitable for a LifeBook project,” Tom said sheepishly. “But it’s just a wonderful thing to be a part of this process—a part of the team!”

I assured him that, compensated or otherwise, I was indeed eager to get into the LifeBooking trade. Tom sent over the audio for the exam, from that of a previously published LifeBook “author” and elderly matriarch Polly Conn, and an excerpt from her final work. “To give you an idea of [the] writing style . . . [here’s what’s been] signed off by Polly herself,” Tom wrote.

It read as follows: “One Easter, we hired a yacht to go sailing. We had planned on crossing the Channel, but the weather was awful and we all felt ill, so we turned back after three hours. We didn’t enjoy it at all! After that, we promised Yvette and Michael that we would have at least one holiday on a boat that we could all enjoy, so Jack chartered a boat in the south of France.”

As I waited for the full audio to load into my transcription software, I became irritated at the grim stretch of unpaid labor before me. There was something perverse about the idea of painstakingly transcribing the bland playtime reminiscences of the leisured rich for nothing more than the putative team-building joy of the intellectual pursuit itself. The same leaders of business and finance who had destroyed most sanely configured publishing enterprises in the course of their culture-wide march toward monopoly were the people I was now to adoringly hymn—without even the assurance of minimal compensation for my labor. As edifying as the LifeBook endeavor might be in vouchsafing me a glimpse into my profession’s prospects over the longer term, I was faltering in my quest.

But then I saw that my own dogged resistance to the re-feudalization of the journalism profession was actually the shared, sad refrain of all the many fallen “legacy media” souls who refused to adapt to the logic of market disruption. Why not take a page out of Roy Moëd’s supply chain corporate playbook? Like the presidents and great leaders of generations past, Moëd’s fortunes rose as he outsourced the narrative labor to the ghosts at his disposal. The future of media, I realized, wasn’t about writing well or sustaining a core democratic institution. It was about delegating to the lowest bidder. I calculated that if I got the LifeBook gig, with this American Ghostwriter’s going rate on a fully commissioned LifeBook project at worst 2.4 cents a word, then I should be able to find someone out there willing to do the writing exam for less than that, and still turn a profit of a few pennies.

Two Cents’ Worth

I promptly logged on to the trusty WriterAccess portal, a massive online clearinghouse for refugees from journalism and academia who hawk their credentials and customer reviews in breathless bids for writing jobs. In a no-nonsense alert, I wrote that I needed three thousand words, stat, at no more than 2 cents a word, from a diligent scribe capable of spinning raw interview audio into error-free paragraphs that flowed as smoothly as glass.

Almost instantly my queue filled up with prospective ghost-ghost-writers and their persuasive offers. A man I’ll call Kenny told me that he had completed fifty orders as a writer on the platform, and promised to do this “Narrative/Memoir-Style Autobiography” within a scant twenty-four hours. Another writer, who described herself “as a former journalist with twenty years of experience,” had, in fact, “done this sort of thing many times.” One of the service’s elite writers wrote in to tell me I was lowballing: “if you really want a good memoir—it’ll require much more than a two-cent writer.” But this dour soul was clearly another slow-to-adapt acolyte of the old print order; her cautions aside, I had dozens of highly qualified scribblers to choose from. A woman I’ll call Faith provided the most thoughtful response. “I have done many of these types of projects. They are always very enjoyable, regardless of the subject,” Faith wrote. “I end up learning a great deal from the individual, their work, and their life.”

I wrote to Faith to tell her that the job (which was in fact another person’s uncompensated job tryout) was hers. And as Faith cranked away on her assignment, I continued to explore the potential LifeBook subjects. There, among the video testimonies and online samples published across the company’s social channels, I found that many LifeBook customers were in fact the children and direct relations of a family’s aging patriarch. Roy Moëd was spot-on in marketing LifeBook chiefly to affluent, adult children, struggling to dispel the mounting guilt they felt over how little they could, or would, comfort their parents as they approached the final stage.

As one LifeBook client noted, the interviewer, Will, did more than simply pay much needed attention to her father-–he got him “talking about things that family members don’t normally talk about. . . . The deeper, perhaps more disturbing things that he hadn’t come to terms with.” She noted that “talking man to man . . . was a very therapeutic process” for her dad. Another happy LifeBook customer: “It’s incredible for him . . . to have a reason to sort of get up, think about the day, [and] get dressed to see Anna the interviewer.”

Certainly, the interviewer’s job was no easy task— adhering to the LifeBook script while doing double-duty as quasi-therapists unwinding their elderly Author’s existential dread. But clearly the most difficult labor fell upon the Ghostwriter, who had to rapidly shape the dozen sessions of audio interviews into a coherent message for the family’s future generations.

Families, Fortunes

Once Faith sent me her version of Polly’s chapter, it became clear that Polly’s LifeBook served much the same purpose as a ghostwritten Reagan speech: a definitive, authoritative word on how the heroic caste of makers and job creators can continue living on, in work and in leisure, atop the socioeconomic food chain

Here, for example, Faith evokes Polly’s childhood memories of cavorting across an idyllic, sprawling Argentinian estate. The effect is less a finely wrought Proustian reverie than a Downton Abbey roll call: “We had a limousine and a chauffeur. . . . I also fondly remember our dressmaker. She worked at home on the smocking for our little dresses. Also, she embroidered. Of course, we had a nanny who was retained to teach us to be young ladies. I have a very vague recollection of them as I was about four years old at the time. While my memory of the chauffeur is vague, I definitely remember the woman who used to do beautiful embroidery.”

I soon realized that there was a different sort of stylistic embroidery at play in the process of depicting Polly’s life story. In employing a ghostwriting firm to bequeath her biography to her family’s future generations, Polly signaled in practice as well as language what it means to maintain the family’s socio-
economic position: the Conns live well thanks to the cheap help of those less fortunate. Drawing out this subtext, Polly, through the ghostwriter’s two-cent-a-word voice, makes it explicit: “There were always a lot of people around. It was how it was done there. The rich people had a lot of poorer people who supported and served them.”

In this fashion, the LifeBook biography was serving as the matriarch’s own savvy brand of content marketing.

I’d hoped that the refeudalized journalism economy might have supplied me a viable perch as a favored servant of the affluent, penning soul-less hagiographies but using my pen nonetheless.

Such reminiscing allows the head of a family to show not only how the family money was made—as Polly does in her nostalgia for the Argentinian servants she can only partially recall by name—but also how to hand down the family’s values through the children. “As a Victorian, my mother was very strict with us,” as Faith, parroting Polly, said. “Everything had to be exactly how she thought it should be done. She wanted her daughters to be young ladies,” she said, adding that this was how she and her sisters learned “to be adults when we were quite young.”

But of course, family life is more than the money you make, the dresses you wear, and the hired help you keep. There’s much to be made of how you maintain the home itself. One evening, for example, when a crocodile had found its way to Polly’s estate, her father called the police. But instead of simply removing the animal, Polly’s mother decided: “‘Oh, I want to preserve the skin of crocodile . . . to remind us of how we were saved from what could have been.” Thus, “some people”—more hired hands—“came and took him away to be stuffed and preserved. We had him perfectly preserved. All his nails were there. They put a couple of marbles in for his eyes. He was perfect . . . even all his teeth were there.”

When war broke out and the family made their way back to England, Polly’s “mother had [the crocodile] in the house under the grand piano. When my brother got married, he took it. His wife had it under her grand piano, but she didn’t like it and wanted to get rid of it. He gave it back to us and we had it under our grand piano.” For decades, the thing that had once threatened the family served as a token reminder of their privileged ability to re-imagine the world as a place designed to afford them a safer, better-appointed existence. When the stuffed crocodile was no longer serving its purpose under one or another grand piano, the family “gave it to the gardener. And that was the end of the crocodile.”

Dummy Out

With the Polly chapter duly transcribed, smoothed into Polly’s own narrative voice, and properly formatted, I added my name and sent it on. The act of affixing my byline to someone else’s grunt work gave me a sense of the possibilities that would open up after gaining a toe-hold in the new luxury ghost marketplace. I dimly envisioned the comfortable career of becoming a mid-list American Ghostwriter for the global power elite—delegating the nuisance of actual writing to those still crawling their way up the ghosting ladder. While it was poorly compensated, it at leased promised to be steady work: diligently curating the preferred content marketing strategies of the world’s wealthiest families.

Alas, my own disruptive delegation strategy proved a mistake. When I opened my email the week after submitting Faith’s chapter as my own, I found that I had not landed the gig. With much formality Tom wrote: “I am sorry to advise that your submission did not match the author’s style and voice accurately enough. . . . As this is such a personal project for our authors, we really need to ensure that the books are right the first time to meet our authors’ requirements.”

I’d hoped that the refeudalized journalism economy might have supplied me a viable perch as a favored servant of the affluent, penning soul-less hagiographies but using my pen nonetheless. But it was not to be. There was something bracing, at this stage of our cultural oligarchy’s global consolidation, to be archly informed that you don’t have the stuff to channel the sunset reminiscences of the one percent. I felt a queasy flash of affinity with the Conn’s stuffed heirloom crocodile, forever silent and accumulating dust in the attic.

Sean Patrick Cooper is at work on a book about journalism and unsolved murders. He's written for The New Republic, n+1, and Businessweek.

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