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The writer who lives in shadows

He wrote that bestselling novel, the autobiography of that head of state, and those chartbusting lyrics. But he is invisible and nameless. Welcome to the secret world of the ghostwriter.

brunch Updated: Aug 16, 2014 19:34 IST
Satarupa Paul
Satarupa Paul
Hindustan Times

It is 3am. Amit Kumar, 28, is surrounded by research material for a book he’s writing about the temples of Kerala. By day, he’s a journalist. But at night, he’s a writer. Strike that last bit out. By night, Kumar is a ghostwriter.

That doesn’t mean he appears out of nowhere in the middle of the night. It means his work is varied and prolific, yet you never see his name attached to the books, articles, speeches, research papers, and other things he writes. You see someone else’s name instead.

(Photo: Thinkstock, Imaging: Monica Gupta)

Ghostwriters have existed in the West for centuries. The composer Mozart was one of the earliest: he was paid to ghostwrite music for his wealthy patrons who then took the credit. In the early decades of the 20th century, American composer David Raksin worked as a ghostwriter for Charlie Chaplin, while the latter took the credit for the scores. Former US Presidents John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had their memoirs ghostwritten. Pop music sensations from Justin Timberlake to Justin Bieber, Jason Mraz, Chris Brown and T-Pain are believed to have commissioned ghostwriters to write the lyrics for their songs.

In India, however, ghostwriting as a profession has been a fairly recent development. A well-known publisher who prefers to stay anonymous attributes the appearance of this new character to the boom in the publishing scene in India. "The country has been warming up to the concept of writing in English, and a large number of such books are being purchased now. So I think the financial model is changing to accommodate ghostwriters," he says.

Their words, your cover
Rituraj Das started ghostwriting in 2008 while he was working as a trainee for a credit card company. “I had to write eight Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) articles on vacation spots in Florida and was paid a measly sum of Rs 800 for it,” he says. Within the next few months, however, he had found a few more clients and soon quit his full-time job to work as a freelance-cum-ghostwriter.

“By 2010, I was working for four or five clients, all of whom were running SEO firms in different niches such as travel, health, news, etc. I even wrote product descriptions for a sex-toy website,” Das says.

Also read: Meet Govinda, the ghost writer!

Now he mostly ghostwrites blogs and articles with a more journalistic tone, as they pay more. “Right now I work with only two clients, both of whom are ‘guest writers’ for different blogs. And I also ghostwrite product descriptions and blogs for a lingerie site whose customers prefer women writers. They don’t know that I am a guy.”

Kumar, on the other hand, has ghostwritten business-related articles, academic papers on panchayats in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, a PhD thesis on ‘Kathak and Patriarchy’ and several non-fiction books on various topics. It’s mostly non-fiction books that are commissioned to ghostwriters, say publishers. No fiction has been ghostwritten in India so far, or so the publishers claim.

Emulate, write, repeat
So what does it take to be a ghostwriter? Publishing experts say there are three prerequisites: command over the language, good prose, and the ability to understand the style and tone of the person under whose name the work will be published.

“You have to understand that you are writing on behalf of another person, so this is not the best place to voice your opinions,” says Das.Kumar adds, “When you are ghostwriting, you are also expected to edit your own work, so it is imperative to possess decent editing skills. It is also important to know the subject well. For the PhD thesis that I ghostwrote on ‘Kathak and Patriarchy’, I had to read up on the subject thoroughly before taking the assignment.”

Respect for deadlines is a must. “The clients are mostly middlemen who have deadlines of their own, so if you don’t submit your work on time, they can’t either,” says Das. “And you don’t get paid unless your client gets paid. So never miss the deadline.”

Big bucks raining
While ghostwriters do all the hardwork of researching, interviewing, writing, editing, it is always someone else who walks away with the credit. Isn’t that tough? “Yes, it is,” says Das. “The stuff I wrote for one of my clients often ended up on well-known sites like Huffington Post, WIRED and Allvoices under the ‘Contributing Author’ section, but obviously it was under somebody else’s name. What actually hurt me was that I hadn’t been told about this. Since then, I’ve always made it a point to ask my clients where the pieces will be published. If they’re not willing to divulge that info, I don’t work with them for long.”

But the pay is reasonably good. “The main reward is the money,” says Kumar. “I have charged anything between Rs 4,000 and Rs 50,000 for my work.” Das adds, “Short deadlines usually pay higher, so does more writing experience. Academic or technical pieces usually pay more than generic content. Op-eds pay even higher.”
Money makes other dreams come true, after all.

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From HT Brunch, August 17
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First Published: Aug 14, 2014 15:09 IST