I was reading BARRON’S over the weekend and came across a book review of a Warren Buffett business biography, to which the book’s author was apparently assigned.
What? How could a book about the philanthropist Oracle of Omaha, who saves companies, advises Barack Obama, and refused to get sucked into buying bad mortgage CDOs, be boring?
First off, I am a book reviewer as well as a writer and ghostwriter. Like Andrew Bary, I have struggled in the past to like some books that should have been good. An example of this is BAD BOY BALLMER, an exploration of Microsoft CEO Stev Ballmer. The anti-Microsoft bias damaged the book in my opinion. The author took exception to my review even though I attempted to be positive—because I’ve been in the trenches. I know what a feat it is to complete a book, especially one with a complex subject. One memorable line from the book “Ballmer is large. Ballmer contains multitudes.” I also know what an even bigger coup it is to get a book published, by a major publishing house at that.
And when the subject, such as Buffett, has been extensively written about, and by his own admission doesn’t have any outside interests or juicy stories (the article by Bary admits this), writing an 838-page book (an even more Herculean achievement) is bound to be an uphill task. You are going to annoy some people with the way that you do it and never mind the hours of wishing that you’d never chirpily agreed to take it on, because after all, how hard could it be with a famous subject?
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with ghostwriting? As ghostwriters, we often start out with a subject we think is going to be fabulous, phenomenal, the stuff of dreams and blockbusters. David Leonhardt notes in his post “Ghost writers need to eat, too” that clients often come to us with an idea they think will make a bestseller even though there’s no money now.
I’ve taken on pro bono work because I believed in the cause.
I rarely do it now.
It’s all too easy to spend hours getting carpal tunnel syndrome and backaches and ignore the outside world, then lose the fire and stubbornly continue because you’re stuck. It happens in our own projects, except we can usually set those aside without guilt. When there are other people involved, it’s harder to clear all moorings and push off from the desert isle of No Name where all once-glittering novels and screenplays languish. I’ve had a few clients/friends realize on their own that they weren’t ready for prime time.
Was the Buffett book this author was commissioned to write ready for prime time? I’m going to reserve judgment, as I haven’t read the book.
I can speak in defense of the author from a purely practical standpoint, however. Once again, I have been there.
I have written about subjects I had no attachment to and could care less about (coin collecting, for example), but had fun with them at times. I have done writing jobs that were so obscure only five people who knew about the subject would be interested. This does not describe any current THGM clients.
Word to ghOStwriters and ghostwriting clients: The most exciting and glamorous subject or personality in the world can become as difficult a project as, to use David’s example, ditchdigging. There are several reasons for this.
- The subject is already completely well-known, as with Warren Buffett, Elvis, “Star Trek” (with its legions of love-to-argue fans), Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Marie Antoinette (Antonia Fraser’s book, which inspired a movie, is reputed to have broken new ground). An essay of mine, “Abraham Lincoln, YouTube and History Reconsidered,” excerpedt in a forthcoming Lincoln Bicentennial anthology (NLAPW), reexamines Honest Abe in the context of modern politics. But chances are that your subject has been so well-covered that you might have difficulty finding something new to say–unless you’re interviewing Abe’s ghost.
- The subject is completely controversial, or the angle is opposite to the accpeted view, and you are certain to risk offending people, to the point of death threats, government interference and, even worse, media/publisher ostracism. My dear friend Joyce Spizer Foy and Claude Rogers wrote THE CROSS-COUNTRY KILLER about serial killer Glen Rogers, Jr–Claude’s brother. I won’t go into the eye-opening experiences Joyce had in writing and promoting this book that she calls “a blueprint for how to raise a serial killer”. Joyce and Claude didn’t pull any punches, but many people, faced with a controversial subject, may water down the book or shrink from revealing details that would ruffle feathers. The ghostwriter may be forced to fill pages with regurgitated facts, unless the contract and the personal rapport (and the publisher and/or agent, if applicable) allow the ghostwriter to push for more flexibility.
- The subject or the subject’s representatives won’t tell certain facts, or try to impose their own ideas about a book, which may not always be interesting to write, let alone read, and therefore may not be marketable. I’m aware that some poorly written and ho-hum books have been marketed and sold to publishers and the public because of successful promotion and a sexy subject. However, as ghostwriters and clients we want to aim above that. Right?
- The people bankrolling the project or producing/publishing the project have their own agendas, and by the time they’re through designing a horse by committee, the writers are completely burned out and just want to move on to the next gig (or do their own writing on a tropical beach with no cell phones). This is why so many movies start out with a dream cast and a great story and end up boring you to death and/or being panned by the critics (these are not always connected).
I’m not saying that the above apply to the process of writing the new Buffett book. The BARRON’S article simply struck a chord in me. I hope it’s of some help to my fellow ghostwriters and their current and prospective clients.