Hard Choices And D.C.’s Dirty Ghostwriting Secret
She won't admit it publicly, but Hillary Clinton didn't really write her new book.
As Hillary Clinton begins her book tour, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi talks about the dirty secret of political biographies, namely the fact that they are rarely actually written by the person whose name is on the cover:
Hillary Rodham Clinton has written a new book. Except maybe she hasn’t. It all depends on what the definition of “written” is.
The former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state had some help on her new memoir, “Hard Choices.” Clinton employed a phalanx of aides and associates in producing the volume, which is being released Tuesday.
But don’t expect to hear much about Clinton’s “book team,” as she calls those who helped her write the book, which carries her name alone on its cover.
Clinton’s acknowledgment of her three-man team — Dan Schwerin, a former Senate and State Department aide to Clinton; Ethan Gelber, another State Department aide; and Ted Widmer, a Clinton adviser and Brown University historian — appears in just a few sentences on Page 597 of the 635-page book. Their exact contributions, however, aren’t spelled out.
Such is the lot of the ghostwriter.
Actually, many ghostwriters get even less credit. The ghost behind Clinton’s 1996 bestseller, “It Takes a Village,” wasn’t credited at all. That prompted complaints from Barbara Feinman Todd, a Georgetown University lecturer and writer who reportedly labored for seven months on the book (she declined to comment).
Given how frequently politicians use ghostwriters to churn out their hagiographic campaign books, Feinman’s complaint implicitly raised a question: Is it ethical to pass off the work of someone else as your own?
Ghostwriting is a common occurrence in politics, of course. In addition to books, where it goes back at least as far as Profiles In Courage, a book for which John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize but which was largely written by Arthur Schlesinger Jr with Kennedy serving as, at best, an editor, it’s also a common practice for Op-Ed and other opinion pieces published under the byline of politicians and high profile pundits. Sometimes, the contributions of ghostwriters to these efforts get acknowledging, albeit often inadvertently, but usually such people wallow in anonymity while the person with the well-known name gets the adulation, the media appearances, and, of course, the vast majority of the money paid by the publishers.
For her own part, Clinton is staying mum on who her ghostwriters were and what they might have contributed to the effort:
Initially, her spokesman, Nick Merrill, deferred the question to her publisher, Simon & Schuster, whose representative also punted. “I think all your questions will be answered when the book is out,” said Cary Goldstein, executive director of publicity for the imprint.
Pressed for a response, Merrill said via e-mail, “If I told you, you wouldn’t be as motivated to buy the book!”
Pressed again, he replied, “We just want the book to do the talking, that’s all.”
In fact, all three of Clinton’s memoirs have been written with the help of others, if not by others. Her second book, “Living History,” was ghosted by Maryanne Vollers, who has also collaborated on books with the actresses Sissy Spacek and Ashley Judd.
Citing confidentiality agreements, Vollers declined to offer specifics about her clients. But she said, “What I can tell you about Hillary is that she was a delight to work with, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. Although I have absolutely no knowledge of her intentions, I hope she runs again. I’d vote for her in a heartbeat.”
There are pragmatic reasons why politicians, and celebrities and other people of note, use ghostwriters. Writing a book is a time consuming task, especially if we’re talking about something the length of Hard Choices which clocks in at 635 pages in the hardcover edition, and publishers prefer that books be written on a reasonable schedule so that they aren’t waiting years for a book that they may have paid huge advances for. This is even more true for books such as Clinton, which are obviously being released according to schedules that have as much a political agenda as a business agenda. Writing is also a skill just as much as anything else, and someone who is a good at politics, delivering speeches, business, acting, or signing isn’t necessarily going to be very good at writing a book that readers are going to find compelling and interesting. Above all, of course, people are going to be more likely to by a book about Hillary Clinton that is “written” by Hillary Clinton than they are to buy a book about her written by a bunch of ghostwriters that nobody has ever heard of before. Thus, the illusion is created that the subject of the book is the “author” of the book even when that obviously isn’t the case.
The question, of course, is whether this is ethical. After all, what’s the difference between the ghostwritten political biography and the student who pays someone else to write a college term paper? One obvious difference, of course, is that the student is defrauding his or her professor by passing off the work of someone else as his own, while the politician with the ghostwritten political biography is working with a publisher who is most probably aware of the fact they aren’t actually writing the book themselves. Of course, that isn’t necessarily the case with the people who buy the book, and the politician in question rarely ever acknowledges that the book isn’t really the product of their labor, so the analogy does seem to fit in at least some respect.
Underlying all of this, of course, is the fact that the idea of the political biography is in itself largely absurd. For the most part, they are self-serving and, in the case of Hard Choices largely bland so as to not cause controversy for someone who is obviously intending to run for President. Why publishers pay so much for them is puzzling, as is why anyone chooses to read them.
Fascinating. Over the last ten years or so dozens of major political figures have published books with their names on them that were obviously ghost written. But now that Hillary Clinton is out with a third, suddenly it raises major ethical issues.
Anybody remember Doug’s major ethical issues when Going Rogue came out?
Not just political people….one of my friends made a very good living ghostwriting “autobiographies” of famous people.
I’d bet that we’ll hear who did that job sooner or later. And it really does explain a lot who is the ghostwriter chosen by the candidate. My favorite example is the Barry Goldwater classic ‘Conscience of A Conservative’. Turns out that the author was L. Brent Bozell who we learned years later would have preferred Franco’s Spain.
I carried that little paperback around with my school books for months back in high school days, underlined passages and wrote volumes of marginalia thinking it actually had something to do with democracy.
Michael Korda, the editor and publisher, once remarked that the only politician whose books made any money was Richard Nixon. Most of the other political memoirs, autobiographies, etc., have been money-losers.
As to why publishers continue to print them? One guess is that campaigns and PACs buy them in very large quantities now.
A certain former Speaker of the House got in trouble over that once.
I am an engineer and scientist but not a writer. I have a story to tell so I currently have someone else doing the actual writing of my autobiography. It will be my name on the book with a credit to the ghost writer. I really don’t see how this is a sin.
But the article he quoted says:
The CDS continues unabated.
Mentioning them in passing on page 500+ of a 600 page book is hardly an acknowledgment. And there’s only one “author” listed on the cover.
But, I get it, you’ll be reacting like this to anyone who dares to criticize Hillary (or Obama or anyone with a D after their name)
Sure, but if you’re not actually in office at the time, or just contemplating running for office, I think the situation is a little different. In 2009, Sarahpac spent over $63,000 on copies of Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue.”
It isn’t, Ron. Ghostwriting deals are worked out differently. In some cases, the ghostwriter is a co-author and acknowledged as such on the cover. (This is often a selling point, as in the case of William Novak.) Sometimes the ghost is paid by the author of record, and sometimes by the publisher.
The real sin, to me, is when the ghostwriter is financially cheated, but a good agent can help to prevent that.
It actually is. And it’s certainly not “staying mum”, which implies complete silence. Just own up to the mistake and move on.
You’re really going all-in on the hackery lately, aren’t you? If you can’t stand the slightest criticism, maybe punditry is not the field for you? This ain’t a job for the thin-skinned.
Dude…you wrote the post.
I’m just pointing out your glaring error.
Your partisan bias is showing.
Oh look, acknowledgments are provided, as indicated in the article. I have to ask, should “their exact contributions” have been enumerated on a page-by-page, paragraph-by-paragraph basis?
That said, I look forward to re-opening the investigation of the Rose Law office billings.
There’s nothing wrong with ghost writing – I’ve done it and had it done for me. The publishers all know, so there is no fraud. Hillary is still responsible for the final product.
As to why publishers pay so much: because it will have a long tail, there’s a degree of prestige, the editors like to hang out with celebs, the touring author will fill bookstores, libraries will place big orders… The usual mix of business and foolishness that characterizes publishing.
Can’t we all get along?
As to why political biographies, it’s so pundits can snark about them.
As to the ghostwriters not getting credit, I note Ms. Vollers seems quite happy with her behind-the-scenes role-money may be the best acknowledgement of all.
I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised by ghostwritten political autohagiographies. That you bring it up now is somewhat betraying the partisan bias. I mean, this has already been a joke on Veep.
You ignored the facts to post a story that soothed your CDS. It’s a fact in black and white…or, I guess, 0’s and 1’s.
And your go to response is always that anyone who disagrees with you is being partisan.
It’s like Republicans claiming to help the poor by cutting programs that benefit them.
Everyone pointing to the one page where her book-writing team is acknowledged: was that on the Acknowledgement page? Which is usually near the beginning or smack-dab at the end?
SOP varies, from no mention of the ghost and an NDA, to a name check on the dedication page, to a name on the cover as co-author. That’s all worked out in the contract and subject to negotiation. No one held a gun to the ghost’s head.
Doug, ITYM Sorensen not Schelisinger.
I am awaiting your next expose on the “dirty” secret of Clinton hiring people secretly known as “speechwriters”. I’m sure it’ll blow the lid off politics as we know it.
The latter is puzzling, the former is based on the latter and is considerably less puzzling.
True enough, but it is more acknowledgement than most ghost writers get on these types of books. As to it being a type of fraud, who doesn’t at least guess that any book written by a celebrity is ghost written? It is the rare exception that is actually written by the author listed on the cover.
None of this is new or unique to Clinton. Since I’m in that game, I’m more irked by ghostwritten op-eds than ghostwritten autobiographies, in that the only reason the ghostwritten op-ed is being published at all is the famous byline. Frankly, a Clinton “autobiography” with the actual author’s name also appearing on the cover wouldn’t be any less marketable; it’s Clinton giving the inside scoop, not her prose skills, that are the selling point.
I’m annoyed by the practice of ghostwriting in book serials as well, at least if it’s not spelled out. I think that actually defrauds the reader. Years and years ago, I used to read the genre series “The Destroyer” by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy. Books continued under their byline for years after Sapir’s death and Murphy eventually only had a loose affiliation with the books. That struck me as unethical.
Readers deserve to know the truth. I never bought any of the “Tom Clancy” books once Clancy started having other people write them.
I’d avoid James Patterson, then.
Did you read Hardy Boys as a kid? I did. 100% ghosted. There was no Franklin W. Dixon. Ditto Nancy Drew and Carolyn Keene.
@C. Clavin: I voted for Obama originally because I didn’t want to relive the insane, scandal-mongering, nitpicking criticisms we constantly encountered when Bill Clintion was president. I’ve learned, as have many others, that the insane, scandal-mongering, nitpicking criticisms didn’t go away once the Dems nominated a bland centrist-leaning technocrat with an apparently healthy family life.
So when I read about the scandal of HRC having her book ghostwritten, it doesn’t even register. I think it’s funny that Doug rebuts with the “you’re being partisan” retort, when it’s pretty obvious who is biased, though I suppose not technically partisan. There’s no scandal, here, and the ethics are pretty normalized. Besides, any politician worth their salt will pore over every word written in an autobiography, even if the words origninated from someone else.
Wow, that’s exactly why I picked Obama over Hillary. So, that worked out pretty well, eh?
I’m not as familiar with ghosting non-fiction as I am with fiction, but from what I’ve heard the principal and the ghost work pretty closely together. The ghost probably sketched out an outline, more a structural tool than anything else, and then started plugging in details supplied by Hillary or her aides. Guaranteed that Clinton aides pored every every word, extremely likely that Hillary did as well, and then there would be the editor, the copy editor, probably a fact-checker. Suffice to say a lot of eyeballs were on the ghost’s work. Probably drove the poor SOB crazy.
Also, Doug, if you’re going to get in a snit-fit about this, get in a snit-fit about how distressingly boring and bland these all are.
Oh for a Hunter S. Thompson…
@Doug Mataconis: “But, I get it, you’ll be reacting like this to anyone who dares to criticize Hillary (or Obama or anyone with a D after their name) ”
Only if you keep holding them to standards you refuse to hold Republicans to, as you are here.
By the way, Obama quite famously wrote his own book, which is probably why it was valued as a piece of writing before it became important poltically. And I’m pretty sure that the Senate’s only current professional writer, Al Franken, writes his own books.
That’s OK, we get it too…we can expect, from now through Election Day 2016, a whole load of posts that dissect every negative (in your mind anyway) minuscule thing she’s ever done…my goodness, whatever will you do when she’s elected president…
He also gives a lot of credit to his researchers by name throughout his books.
Look, when pratically every single person in politics and biz and hollywood (etc.. ) release ghost written books and have been doing it for many, many decades and everyone knows it, it can only be news if she DID NOT have it ghost written but had written it herself (like Obama did on the first one).
TL;DR Doug writes “I am shocked, SHOCKED to see ghost writting going on in DC!!!!” then logs into the right-wing talking points server to close out another item on his task list.
Please do not construe this as an anti-Hillary thought. I do not understand why anyone would read a book purporting to be written by any American politician. Surely every one is intended to enlist loyalty and not to enlighten. Sometimes they are literary infomercial. Sometimes they say that our hero was right all along and all failures were due to our author being ignored.
There is no truth in any of them. Any actual factual material is merely the bait hiding the hook.
I guess it might be possible to read one of these texts in the hope of finding an inadvertant disclosure or Freudian slip.
@Ron Beasley: Please note that “By Ron Beasley (with John Smith)”is not quite the same as “By Ron Beasley (with no one).” The first is the truth. The second is not.
Not that I particularly care, you understand. As long as there have been books, there have been people writing them who got no credit for their work.
@Doug Mataconis: And your”s isn’t?
I’ve read that some of Dumas’s works were written by others (ghost written I suppose), and I’ve wondered if that’s why “The Count of Monte Cristo” and the original “Three Musketeers” were so much better than his subsequent books.
I suppose the only reason I would care about ghost writing is that its annoying to read a book with the name of an author I truly enjoy on it, and then find its nowhere near the standard of earlier works.
In terms of politicians, I’d have been shocked to hear that any modern one wrote his or her own autobiography – in fact, I’m not sure I’d believe it of anyone since Winston Churchill.
While I am still here: As I read the paste-up that Doug provided (with attribution)–wherein the author of the post Doug was commenting on questioned the ethics of the situation, I found myself wondering what ethics has to do with making money or gaining political traction–except to interfere, of course.
Doug, you didn’t mention the ethical dilemma of using a retouched photograph on the cover. You’re slipping.
Probably it’s not. “SOMETHING SOMETHING SOMETHING By Ron Beasley with Michael Reynolds” or something like that seems perfectly fair. We wouldn’t have the SOMETHING etc. book to read without Ron Beasley, and the reference to Michael Reynolds is a more than decent admission that RB shaped the story but MR put the words on paper.
We can live with this. It’s when the underlying account is fraudulent that we reject the narrative. MY LIFE AT HUGHES AIRCRAFT by RB with MR might be a helluva read, as long as we all can take seriously. But if the sensational stories about helping Howard Hughes shoot up with heroin in chapters 6 and 13 are disproven, it’ll hurt your sales and your reputation, and it won’t do poor Mike Reynolds any good either.
Promise us you’ll be truthful, Ron! And be damned sure to tell us when the book comes out..
I don’t know if “ghost writing” is exactly appropriate. Dumas found that a market existed for historical fiction, and he attempted to fill it. He wrote some novels himself, he leaned over their shoulders as other authors wrote books using plots he’d created, he edited manuscripts to ensure they adhered to his story telling style.
Okay, so a lot of people bought works “by Alexandre Dumas” thinking Dumas had written every single word, and it wasn’t so. Is this dishonest? When I was a kid. a awful lot of people bought Hardy Boys mysteries, thinking someone named Franklin Dixon had written them. And other people were buying Nancy Drew mysteries by Carolyn Keene. If you haven’t guessed the punch line, neither Dixon nor Keene ever drew in a breath of air — they were as imaginary as the creatures they wrote about. Ditto for Tom Swift, Rick Brant, and other series.
While even now … The “Robert Jordan” credited with writing The Wheel Of Time fantasy series was actually known to his friends and creditors as James Ripley; Robert Jordan was a pseudonym. Ironically; the last three books in the series were “by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson” because Ripley had died and Sanderson was brought in to complete the thing using Ripley’s notes.
And there are a whole lot of books and websites discussing which parts of de Vinci’s MONA LISA were completed by him and which by his students, and how much of Rembrandt is really Rembrandt, and how much Turner is Turner, and so on.
Let’s go back to the start here. Hillary Clinton has “written” a book. Maybe, wanker that I am, I can suppose a chapter deals with “Discovering My Husband Receiving Fellatio From An Aide”.. Does it actually matter if Hillary or her ghost wrote that chapter? Sure, I sort of want to know her responses and all that. But … are Hillary Clinton’s own words TWENTY YEARS AFTER sure to be more informative about her character and her reactions than what a ghost writer might tell us after talking to Hillary about those events? I dunno. I’m not sure of it.
@michael reynolds: I’ve never read Patterson but was indeed a big Hardy Boys fan from roughly age 10-12. I’ve still got a couple dozen of them in hardcover, which I saved to pass down to my futures sons. I got two daughters instead. Wonder if they’ll like them?
If I knew that “Franklin W. Dixon” was a pseudonym for a composite, I’d forgotten. I wonder whether the books would have sold well with the actual author names attached?
BTW…someone else types all my comments.
You can’t usually get stores to shelve then together as a series unless you have a single author name.
@michael reynolds: Ah. That makes sense.
Speaking of Hillary, she believes that Abraham Lincoln was once a Senator from Illinois. One would think that such an intelligent and accomplished woman, especially one who was born and raised in Illinois and served for 8 years in that very same Senate, would know better…
@Jenos Idanian #13: Hey, what do you expect? I heard she’s got brain damage!
@Jenos. The outrage and ridicule for getting history wrong only applies to conservative. Even when the conservative take on history is debatable or even right. Double standard also applies to thrown shoes or trying to open a locked door/window.
I wouldn’t call it dishonest – just annoying. However, I can see why its done – I bought Dumas novels based on the his name that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
@The other jack:
I think you’re a touch paranoid. Generally conservatives have outrage and ridicule for liberals when they get something wrong, and liberals have outrage and ridicule for conservatives when they get something wrong. No one is particularly persecuted in that game.
I agree for the most part. Which indicates in general that those who ridicule mostly conservative and seldom liberals are they themselves liberals. Which indicates that most of the MSM and some of the main commentators here are liberals. The MSM have a very large microphone so I disagree that it equals out in the end.
One more thing. I’m not calling Hillary an idiot for getting a somewhat significant detail wrong. I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy of those who call Palin that for disputably getting a small detail wrong. How many main post were written about that on OTB?
Yes, Lincoln was an Illinois State Representative not an Illinois State Senator, the horror!
I was born and raised in Illinois and I knew he served in the legislature but couldn’t have told you which house off the top of my head.
@The other jack:
Where do you live that the MSM is anything like a uniform block? That was the case a couple of decades ago, now most people get their information from a wide variety of sources, typically the Internet. And in fact, I’d argue that what happens is the opposite of your suggestion of most people getting their information from the same block (unless you’re talking about the ’90’s and earlier), but that most people go to a source which echoes and confirms their already held opinions.
If you’re liberal, you get your opinions and news from a liberal source, if you’re conservative from a conservative source (and this works down to even small groups like libertarians and socialists, or even relatively tiny ones like anarchists and Trosky-Leninsts or flat earthers) … the Internet provides a confirming source for even the tiniest groups. Its the thing that makes our society more fragmented than its probably ever been before – no one need read any opinion they disagree with, because they can find hundreds or thousands that tell them what they want to hear. Pick an event. Choose a viewpoint. Then Google. You’ll always find a source happy to tell you all you need to know from that vantage point.
The MSM is a bogeyman for both liberals (who say its conservative) and conservatives (who say its liberal), but hasn’t existed as anything but a barely noticeable ghost for well over a decade. Generally blaming it for a political outcome (and every side does that when its losing) is the equivalent of a coach blaming the umpire for a loss because that’s easier than admitting you were just outplayed.
Unless you’re living in an area without Internet access; then the MSM may still exist for you, and I apologize if that’s the case.