FOOD JOB: Ghost Writer

The other day a woman bumped into me. “I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed in embarrassment. “I didn’t see you.” Admittedly I’ve lost a little weight, but I think this is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me for a  long time.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer (2010)

This brings me, of course, to the topic of ghost writing, a career which is the opposite of a mother’s stern warning to her children — that they be seen but not heard. A ghost has the duty to be neither seen nor heard.

Andrew Friedman is one of the rare exceptions. In 2005, New York magazine reported: “Alfred Portale, Laurent Tourondel, Michael Lomonaco, and Bill Telepan all published cookbooks this fall. The common denominator? Co-writer Andrew Friedman, wannabe screenwriter turned restaurant publicist, turned prolific channeler of the inner culinary voice.”

Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman is another celebrated ghost. His radiant, joyful writing coupled with his extensive knowledge of all things culinary, has earned him wide acclaim and effusive praise from Thomas Keller with whom he has essentially co-authored Ad Hoc and other publications and with Brian Polcyn, the Michigan charcuterie chef.

Michael writes both fiction and non-fiction, including Ratio and most recently, The Elements of Cooking: Translating The Chef’s Craft For Every Kitchen, an opinionated food glossary modeled after Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

I mention Michael’s credentials because he an atypical ‘ghost’. He is both seen and read (and frequently heard on the lecture circuit too).

Most ghosts, like most speech writers, are like a body at a wake: the corpse is needed for the ceremony but is not expected to say anything (much)!

In fact, speech writers and ghost writers have a lot in common. Not only must they be able to write quickly and accurately, but they also must be able to gather words together with the same rhythm and in the same idiom as the speaker or “author”.

This is not always an easy task. Just as eye witnesses to an accident will report the details quite differently and from their own bias, a ghost may prepare a draft of a cookbook, an autobiography or a press release from their own perspective rather than through the rose-colored spectacles demanded by the author.

David Joachim has written an immensely valuable description of the collaborative process in my FOOD JOBS book. It is too detailed to reprint here but here is a tiny portion of it:

“Cookbook collaborations work in a variety of ways. On one side of the spectrum, co-authors share similar interests and work hand in glove throughout the entire project. On the other side, a chef or expert provides the content and the writer puts that content into an appropriate form. Most collaborations fall somewhere in between these two extremes.”

David is THE expert in this field. He has written about healthy cooking for more than 15 years, and authored or collaborated on more than 25 cookbooks, including The Food Substitutions Bible and the New York Times bestseller, A Man, a Can, a Plan series, which has sold more than 1 million copies.

Jane Dystel, president of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, who represents the work of dozens of successful chefs and writers, advises prospective ghosts/collaborators: “Plan to invest a day or so on the preliminaries; talking, sharing a meal together, reviewing each others work. Before taking one more step, get a signed agreement. There must be a collaboration agreement before one word of the book — or even the proposal — is written.”

A ghost is customarily required to audition with the author before an agreement is made and will certainly need to submit writing samples to make sure he or she is capturing the “voice” of the chef or author, who takes all the credit for the work in question.

A cookbook doctor (or book doctor) practices within the same arena as a ghost. The task here is to bring a fresh eye and detailed knowledge to a manuscript, and turn a sick or slightly unwell body of work into a publishable book.

May I also suggest you check FOOD JOBS, which contains contributed and credited essays from dozens of culinary experts and the website, Working With a Ghostwriter to Write a Book: What Authors Can Expect During the Ghostwriting Process as to whether this food job may be right for you.