The ghost who writes

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By Many foreign writers are outsourcing their work to Indian ghostwriters. Reena Martins seeks out some of these scribes who remain in the shadows
  • Published 26.12.10

From his study in his Calcutta home, Pinaki Ghosh writes books for people from across the world — an American soldier on the 1994 Rwandan genocide; the mother of a New York City cadet killed in the World Trade Center blast in 2001; and a small time British leader looking to demolish his political opponent before the elections.

The “authors” of these books walk away with the credit, not to mention the money and power that come with them; ghostwriters like Ghosh continue to make their living in the shadows.

But the shadows too have seen a significant growth, if someone like Ghosh is any indicator. Over the last five years, he says, his monthly turnover has risen from $1,000 to $14,000-15,000 (Rs 6-7 lakh).

Ghostwriters are those who write something — even a speech — in somebody else’s name. India has always had its share of ghostwriters, but the tribe is increasing in strength. The spread of the Internet across India has led to a mushrooming of ghostwriters. Fluent in English, many Indians are sought after by people wishing to use their language skills. And the ghostwriters are finding it increasingly lucrative to write under another’s name.

Today, there are even ghostwriting companies. “There would be over 100 such companies in the country, and at least 10-20 in each city,” says Sunita Kripalani, director and chief editor, Writer Force, a Mumbai-based company which caters largely to foreign authors looking to outsource their writing. Seventy per cent of its 60 authors are American, adds Kripalani’s son, Nikhil, the company’s 20-something founder.

Clearly, ghostwriting in India is going global. The Net is the medium for those seeking ghostwriters, as well those in search of assignments. Ghosh, for instance, has a website where he says he can “expand any sort of input into an enjoyable book.” He claims to deliver a 150-page book in 45-50 days, and a 100-page book or screenplay in a month.

When it comes to remuneration, ghostwriters in the international market speak in dollar terms. Payments above $1,000 can be made in instalments, says one website. The rates, Nikhil elaborates, vary. “In places such as Kerala and Hyderabad, small ghostwriting companies would agree to churn out, say, a bunch of 100 articles for $500,” he says.

Getting an entire book ghostwritten by an Indian ghostwriter could cost between $4,000 and $15,000. A single page would cost $20, adding another fiver for a page of fiction. And that’s not much, says Ghosh, for in countries such as the US, a ghostwriter would charge $100 for an hour’s work. On a good day, Ghosh can write six to eight pages.

In India, a ghostwriter writing a book can make up to Rs 10 lakh, says V.K. Karthika, chief editor, HarperCollins India. Five years ago, this figure was “less than a lakh of rupees,” she says. A lucky few could get a thin wedge of the author’s royalty — “two to five per cent”— if the book sold about 30,000-40,000 copies, she adds.

Many ghostwriters in India are people working with publishing houses and looking to make money on the side. Some others, says Karthika, are former public relation professionals and writers, many of whom insist on some credit, even if only in the book’s acknowledgement section. “The ghost wants to be known,” she says. “The hardest part for a ghostwriter is to hear praise for their work and pretend it’s not theirs.”

Indeed, apart from writing skills, ghostwriters need to have a special trait — and that’s a desire for anonymity. “In the 20 years I’ve edited work for newspapers, I’ve never craved recognition,” says Carol Lobo, a ghostwriter in Mumbai. “I still don’t. But if a writer were to derive ongoing benefit from a book that I have ghostwritten, I would feel used.”

The job of a ghostwriter is a tough one. “The challenge is in giving vision to another’s ideas and concepts,” says Aruna Chandrashekharan, a film writer in Mumbai, who over the last couple of years, has ghostwritten six books of fiction with themes ranging from horror to romance. Each of these emerged out of a 10-line outline given to her by the commissioning author. “I have a field day working around the concept,” says Chandrashekharan.

The work can get monotonous. “Ghostwriting can become a laborious process because it’s not your topic of choice,” says Anupama Purohit, a freelance copy editor who has worked with wellknown publishing houses. “It’s about putting meat on the bone.”

In India, celebrities’ books are often ghostwritten. Karthika says those who hire ghostwriters are well-known people who are usually great raconteurs, but are unable to write a book themselves.

Sports and business are areas where ghostwriters thrive. Some sport columnists have their columns written by professionals. Harsha Bhogle, sports commentator and a former ghostwriter for cricket captains in Australia, admits that only a few sportsmen write well. “My problem, however, would not be with their lack of writing skills, but if they were to not care about what was going with their byline. I sometimes get the impression that there is a kid sitting in an office somewhere, writing whatever comes to mind.”

Ghostwriters are occasionally roped in to improve a big author’s manuscript — Kripalani believes that 40 per cent of bestsellers and movie scripts are ghostwritten. A well known Indian author, whose books have clocked record sales in recent years, is believed to have used the services of a ghostwriter for at least one of his later books.

In the age of the new media, even social networking sites have ghostwriters. Ghosh points out that when politicians and film stars regularly update their Twitter and Facebook accounts, it usually means that there’s a ghostwriter at work.

Occasionally, the demands from clients border on the absurd. Kripalani refers to a Bollywood film industry insider who wanted a ghostwriter to spend three hours a day with him, taking dictation for a book. The filmmaker had another condition: the ghostwriter would have to be someone like “Sidney Sheldon or Lee Child” and the book would have to be on “an American president falling in love with a Pakistani actress.” The remuneration was Rs 25,000.

Those ghostwriting on behalf of known personalities have to often walk the tightrope between the secrets they know and those they can disclose in print. “Ghostwriters can only do what they are allowed to do,” says Karthika.

Most ghostwriters, of course, never blab. H.Y. Sharada Prasad, media advisor to three Prime Ministers who wrote numerous speeches for them, was once asked why he didn’t write his memoirs. “A man can become a ghost, but a ghost cannot become a man,” he replied.