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Ghostwriter Christopher Shulgan

Christopher Shulgan's not-so-secret life as a ghostwriter

Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Mar. 03, 2017

Ghost Writer Christopher Shulgan

It was late at night on a dirt road in the Michigan wilderness. An auto industry executive and I were driving to his vacation home to hole up for a few days to work on a manuscript. Then the headlights illuminated a tree the snowstorm had blown onto the road. The two of us tramped out into the cold. On a count of three, we heaved at the trunk – and succeeded in moving the thing just a couple of inches.
My client looked at me and grinned.
“I don’t suppose this is in your job description?”
The thing about being a ghostwriter is that it doesn’t really have a job description. I began this line of work by accident. More than a decade ago, I called up the media relations manager for a company that I’d profiled for Toronto Life. The company had posted the article on its website, a violation of copyright, and taken my name off the story. I’d prefer if they just posted a link to the original article, I said. Sure, the manager agreed. No problem. And by the way – the company sometimes needed a writer. Would I be interested?
Sure, I shrugged over the phone. Why not?
What started with essays and op-eds segued into speeches. I ran an e-mail newsletter that required collaborating with a half-dozen professionals per month. Then came an offer to ghostwrite a book.
Turns out ghostwriting fits well with my abilities. It helps to be impervious to criticism. And psychic when it comes to interpreting editorial feedback. I happened upon the key skill early in my career when I ran a magazine that relied on a handful of volunteer contributors. With more empty pages than writers to fill them, I would dash off articles myself and slap a pen name at the top. The practice helped me develop the ability to write comfortably in a variety of voices.
“A ghostwriter, huh?” an Uber driver asked me recently. “You must be a really good writer.” And I suppose I am. But that’s not the service that I’m selling to my clients. A few years back, I judged one of CBC’s Canada Writes short story contests. I read hundreds of entries created by amateur writers, and time after time I was blown away by how good the contributions were. The experience deflated my ego. A distinct voice, a fresh turn of phrase, a well-told anecdote – sure, I manage each one pretty well, but it turns out plenty of people have those abilities.
Once, at a party, somebody asked me why I do it. Didn’t I want my name to be the big one on the cover? “I do it for the cash,” I said. The line earned a guffaw, but like a lot of cheap laughs it wasn’t strictly true. I really enjoy the work. Aside from therapists, whose job mine sometimes resembles, ghostwriters hear the stories that no one else gets to hear.
People have various ideas about the job. The name, ghostwriter, suggests some sort of subterfuge. Over the 12 or so years I’ve been doing it, I’ve worked with … Oh, hell. I don’t know. Fifty? Let’s say 50 clients. Only a handful have insisted on complete secrecy. Most of them are happy to admit that they’re working with me.
My latest book, The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That’s Smarter, Faster, Shorter, was written with the McMaster University time-efficient exercise expert, Dr. Martin Gibala. Working on that book was basically my ideal experience. It started when I was interviewing him for another client. Once I was done that job, I called up Marty and mentioned to him that I thought he should do his own book.
“Oh,” he said. “I’d never have time.”
“No,” I said. “I could write it with you.”
I explained the way I worked. We’d meet every week, for about an hour at a time, and just talk. Then I’d edit the transcript of our conversations. He’d read the result and offer feedback. I’d revise, and we’d repeat until both of us were happy.
Marty is a smart guy and, really, he could have written the book himself. Except it would have taken him a lot longer. Because, like most of my clients, he’s also a busy guy – a research scientist who runs a major physiology lab, and the chair of one of the most renowned kinesiology departments around.
Which brings us to the service that I’m actually providing to my clients.
Writing a good book requires big blocks of time. Scads of it. A certain kind that doesn’t exist for most people. The kind without interruptions. Long spans that aren’t punctuated by text messages or e-mail pings, Instagram notifications or Twitter DMs.
My career has confronted me with some remarkable experiences. I’ve suffered altitude sickness on a Himalayan mountaintop, sprinted across an active driving range in Aix-en-Provence and, for an upcoming project in Silicon Valley, ridden in the world’s most advanced self-driving car minutes after interviewing the men who designed it.
Then, I head to my office and I do something that’s not available to most of my clients. I stay off e-mail and avoid social media, and type away on my unnetworked computer for hours at a time.
Many of my clients can write well. Many of them are smarter than I am. And at least one of them can manage to work with his ghostwriter to heave a fallen birch tree off a remote Michigan road, inches at a time.
What they don’t have is the ability to disconnect from life.
Who does but a ghostwriter, these days?
Christopher Shulgan lives and writes in Kensington Market in Toronto.


Hire a Ghostwriter - When should you?

Should you Hire a Ghostwriter?

By Jonathan Crowl |March 2, 2017

Should you Hire a Ghostwriter

This morning, your CMO approached you about creating new content to be published online. Among several new ideas for campaigns, she mentioned having a ghostwriter create some thought leadership content that could be published under her name. You’re supposed to come up with a way to make this work.

You want to give your boss the answers she wants, but you’re uncertain of how to handle the suggestion of ghostwriting. For one, you may never have worked with ghostwritten content before, and might be uncertain of its efficacy. For another, you may be unclear on the rules of producing ghostwritten content and attributing it to a different source. Before you can have a meaningful conversation on the subject with your boss, you need to know where you draw the line on using ghostwriters versus producing original content in other ways. And that line’s location can depend on several factors.

When Ghostwriting Works

There are plenty of scenarios where ghostwriters can be useful in a content strategy. Companies inevitably have a need for content that isn’t necessarily inventive or dynamic: website content can fall under that banner, as well as white papers, press releases, and other straightforward content. In these cases, it’s more about communicating information than conveying a sense of passion or personal expertise, and ghostwriters are often all that’s required to get the job done.
Other types of content, meanwhile, require the creative touch of someone familiar with that specific content channel. Two great examples are social media and website landing pages: while they may not seem complex, each type of content is closely cultivated, and the stakes are high. More than a writer who intimately understands your brand, you first and foremost need a content creator who knows how to have success on these platforms. Your best in-house writer is worth very little on the social media front if they don’t know the nuances of creating Facebook content, for example, as opposed to Twitter, LinkedIn, or another social channel. Likewise, a landing page that doesn’t generate conversions is useless to your company. It’s common for brands to find that ghostwriters are the best experts to put in these positions.
It gets dicier as you move toward content that requires a deeper understanding of your brand. Blogs, articles, videos, and other digital content often take a longer form that demands a more developed understanding of your company. If you’re creating ghostwritten content in the voice of one of your executives, it’s even trickier to get the tone and details consistent and correct. Covering industry news in a blog may be manageable for ghostwriters, but the more specialized and authoritative the content, the tougher it is to find success through ghostwriting.

The Problem of Thought Leadership

In your industry, and as one of the faces of your company, your CMO is very important. She plays a crucial role in many aspects of your company’s success, all of which affect the brand’s bottom line and its future business prospects. So when she pitches the idea of having content ghostwritten, it’s important that she understands what she’s really asking for: she wants to hand over her voice—and, by extension, the voice of her business—to someone she hardly knows.
This isn’t to say that ghostwriters can’t be trusted, or that they can’t offer incredible value to a company in certain scenarios. But asking them to write content in the voice of an executive isn’t necessarily fair to them, either. For one, they don’t have your experience in the industry, or at that company. Their knowledge of the work you do isn’t as deep as an executive’s, even if that ghostwriter has worked for companies in the same industry in the past.
Ghostwriters also won’t have the personality of the executive, which is hard to match perfectly at every turn—and, since the executive is more visible to the outside world, inaccuracies will be easier to spot.
But a bigger issue, as HubSpot pointed out, is the problem ghostwriting poses to your credibility. Typically, one of two things will happen: Either a ghostwriter won’t be able to fill online content with deep insights and high value, which means the executive will still have to do the heavy lifting if she wants successful thought leadership content. Or, ghostwriters might pitch ideas independently—which means your CMO won’t develop as many concepts and innovative ideas of her own. Over time, the latter can erode the competence of your leadership. By outsourcing thought leadership to ghostwriters, in other words, you risk executives’ reliability as thought leaders in their industry.
It’s not a clear recipe for failure, but it’s a content experiment that is rife with potential pitfalls.

Finding the Right Balance

Ultimately, the answer isn’t black or white: a ghostwriter could be a great investment for your company—but only if you use him or her wisely.
You can start positioning yourself for success by hiring ghostwriters with a proven background in your industry. Establish clear parameters on what ghostwriters can effectively handle, and what should be reserved for in-house staff.
In general, it’s best to ease into the relationship with ghostwriters, making sure they aren’t biting off more than they can chew. As they establish themselves as competent and reliable, you can increase their workload and the types of content they create.
Thought leadership and other specialized types of content are always going to be risky to hand over to ghostwriters. It’s best if your c suite can take a more proactive approach in content creation, and thought leadership articles are a great way to do this: executives can create a first draft that captures their innovative ideas, and marketers can work to polish the piece over time.
If your boss is insistent on having a ghostwriter create content under her name, encourage her to offer ideas and provide feedback to help shape that content strategy. If you’re working with the same ghostwriter over time, this can help address some of the inherent shortcomings that ghostwriting often renders on thought leadership content. Additionally, suggest that your ghostwriter conduct an interview (either in person or over the phone) with your CMO to capture her ideas and get a sense of her personality. This will help synthesize the writer’s talents with your CMO’s voice and expertise.
In the end, every company has to make content decisions based on their own in-house resources and the outsourcing options available to them. If you do find yourself in need of ghostwriters, just remember to look for two key features: a solid body of work, and a commitment to working consistently with your brand.

Jonathan has worked as a journalist for the past 8 years. His journalism credits include employment at the Omaha World-Herald, Willamette Week, and, with projects appearing in New York Newsday, WRITERS' Journal, and others. Other writing has regularly appeared on, and, among others. He is the recipient of a First Place award in Sports Feature from the Society of Professional Journalists Northwest Region. He lives in Portland, Oregon and works as a marketing writer and a freelance editor.


Celebrity Ghostwriter Nancy French

Ghostwriter to the Stars

By James Bennett

Feb. 18, 2017

High-profile political figures and celebrities trust Columbia's Nancy French to tell their story.

Celebrity Ghostwriter Nancy French
    Milwaukee County, WI, Sheriff David Clark (Facebook)

The wife of David French, who came close to running for president in 2016 as a conservative independent candidate, has ghost-written books with high-profile figures such as Bristol Palin, Sarah Palin, former "Bachelor" Sean Lowe, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson and actress Stacey Dash.

"I just ask my subjects, 'Give me everything you have, and I'll give you back the best version of you,' " French said.

French's latest book on Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Sheriff David Clarke comes out Feb. 28.

Three of her books landed on The New York Timesbest-seller list and turned her into a go-person for conservatives who need clarity and personality in putting their thoughts and unforgettable moments into print.
"Once you get a New York Times best seller in the conservative world of politics, you're asked to do more," French said. "People will look at their books and say, 'Oh, Sarah Palin's ghostwriter is this person.' They'll call my agent and set it up.
"I didn't know David Clarke, known best for wearing the big cowboy hat and boots and for being plain talking on crime and race," she added. "I did not know him from anybody. His people called my people, and we worked out a deal."
"Cop Under Fire: Moving Beyond Hashtags of Race, Crime & Politics For a Better America" was published by Worthy Publishing of Nashville. French spent two weeks with Clarke as he campaigned for Donald Trump in the presidential election.
"When I wrote about Sarah Palin, I spent a month with her in Alaska," French said. "Now I tell my subjects that I am not going to do that with them so it will not sound so intimidating. I made two one-week trips to Milwaukee to spend time with Sheriff Clarke.
"What I do with celebrities is just stick with them," French said. "You eat breakfast with them. You go to work with them. You meet their kids. You meet their wives. You go to church with them. You see what the details are like. You get to know everything about them."
French, 42, and her husband were opposed to Trump's candidacy, with National Review columnist seriously considering a White House run with substantial backers led by influential conservative editor Bill Kristol. Some of David French's commentaries were among the most scathing against Trump before he won the Republican nomination.
"Donald Trump provided a plane for Sheriff Clarke and I to go somewhere," French said. "I literally was on a Trump plane, writing a book about Sheriff Clarke while everything was swirling around us."
Some Trump supporters threatened the French family for their outspokenness and for considering a presidential run. Nancy considered one to be a death threat. Clarke advised her to learn to carry a gun.
On the other hand, Clarke was one of Trump's biggest supporters. After voting for President Barack Obama in 2008, he became a Republican. He spoke at the 2016 GOP convention, opening with the words, "Blue Lives Matter."
"Sheriff Clarke has been a faithful and adherent supporter of Donald Trump," French said. "He did a great job, talking about the law-and-order aspects of Trump's platform."
On Friday, Clarke tweeted his support for Trump, whose "Make American Great" campaign led to his Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton.
"Michelle Obama said she was never proud of her country til they elected her husband POTUS. I've never been prouder since we got rid of him," Clarke wrote.
Later Friday, Clarke was in Orlando, Fla., when a woman told him he should take off his "Make America Great" baseball cap.
"Told her she should go get her money back for her ugly haircut. That ended THAT! Mic drop!" Clarke wrote on Twitter.
"The People's Sheriff," as Clarke calls himself, has charisma in spades, French said. He wears cowboy boots because his uncle, Franklin Clarke, played for the Dallas Cowboys after being taken by America's Team in the 1960 NFL expansion draft.

"He wears cowboy boots and a hat, and walking around Milwaukee with him is amazing because of his charisma," Clarke said. "He is mobbed like a celebrity. He speaks the truth plainly and a way that is resonate. He speaks what Americans believe. If he thinks something is true, he will say it in the most dramatic and forceful way possible.
"He's gotten in trouble for controversial statements in the past, and probably will in the future," French added. "But he's generally saying what most people believe, and that's why he is so popular."
In the book, Clarke talks extensively about racial issues and "Back Lives Matter," a movement that emerged in wake of police shootings in America.
"The chapter on Black Lives Matter that is so eye-opening and brilliant about that organization, even if you're not a Sheriff Clarke fan," French said. "It's worth the price of the book itself just to read that chapter. He's also an expert on national defense and terror."
French said she's unsure whether Clarke aspires to higher political office either as a governor to replace Gov. Scott Walker or as a member of Trump's cabinet.
"You may wonder why he is the way he is," French said. "He's so emphatic that everyone take responsibility for themselves, which is a great American attribute."
Clarke's father, a paratrooper with the 2nd Ranger Infantry Company, raised him in an environment of trust. He used to let Clarke pack his parachute at age 8.
"He knew if he made a mistake, his dad would die," French said. "Finding out that was very poignant to me."
French became close to many of her subjects, including Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate, and her daughter Bristol.
"I love the Palin family," French said. "I have talked to her 10 times in the last six hours. We collaborate on a lot of things. I love my clients so much. As a ghostwriter, my relationship with them is somehow like a counselor, somehow like a best friend, somehow a confessional like a priest. It's all of those rolled into one. And I am responsible for making their story as enticing as possible.
"The one thing I don't like about ghostwriters is they get close to celebrities and do tell-all books," she continued. "I get close to celebrities and appreciate them so much. I develop this close relationship. I have a very close and trusting relationship with everyone I have written about."
When John McCain chose Palin as his running mate in 2008, she only had been governor of Alaska for two years. Some thought she was not ready for prime time, but French disagreed with that analysis.
"She was perfectly capable of being rolled out when she was rolled out," French said. "The press hates strong political women who are conservative. They did everything in their power to assassinate her character and her intelligence.
"No woman has been treated like Sarah Palin in the history of American politics," she said. "It's reprehensible what the press did to her. I don't think the McCain campaign handled it properly. There were many who supported McCain because of Palin. She was a breath of fresh air. I hate all that happened to her. I hate seeing the affect of politics on a family."
French knows the impact of politics on a family first hand. She was criticized for a book she and David wrote about his experience in Iraq. Media outlets erroneously reported she and her husband came to an agreement that she would not use e-mail or social media while he was stationed in Iraq.
In "Home and Away," a book co-written by the two, they revealed they set up rules for their marriage to keep it strong while French was gone. A Harvard educated attorney, French went to war as an Army reservist in 2007.
"I am thankful for freedom of speech," Nancy said. "We complained a little bit because we wanted people to see the underbelly of what was going on at the time.
"Some of the stuff written was just flat wrong, like the stuff about our e-mail and social media while David was away. We did talk about how our marriage would stay strong while he was deployed in Iraq. The unknown story of the war was, people would land in Iraq and be greeted with divorce papers. It was awful. Men would be at war and look on Facebook and see their wives with another man. So we did not have to worry about what was happening at home, we just made some basic rules. The liberal media got a hold of it and make me out to be subservient, which was asinine. I am a professional person. I was working three jobs while David was away at war."
French said she was proud her husband was considered as a presidential candidate. She said she was just as proud that he turned down the opportunity.
"It wasn't the right thing to do," French said. "It was the right thing to consider it. It would not be good for America for David French to run for president and affect the race in the way he undoubtedly would have. I am thankful David is the kind of man who can decline power. He is a really great, rare person. He is very smart and not seeking the limelight."
David and she write from their home in the Zion community of Columbia. Their daughter, Camille, was the valedictorian for the Class of 2017 at Zion Christian Academy.
"We don't even have a home office," she said. "He writes from the bedroom. We stuck a desk in there. I write from the kitchen. We're happy in Columbia, writing."
The presidential campaign experience came in handy for her next book. Instead of ghostwriting a biography, French is writing a novel about a woman and her family unwittingly pulled into national spotlight when her husband decides to run for president.
"It's based on what happened last summer, but it is not the actual events," French said. "I'm going to have some fun with this one."


James Bennett is editor of The Daily Herald. Contact him at