John Greenya, a Washington writer who has collaborated on books with Anne Burford and F. Lee Bailey, tells this story about his moment of reckoning in the writer-for-hire game:
"I had written a book for Pete Shields, the head of Handgun Control Inc. There was a big party. All of a sudden Pete gets up to speak, and he tells everyone, 'I didn't write this book.' So I start moving away from the bar and straightening my tie. Even his daughter comes over and takes my arm to walk me to the front. Then Pete pauses and says, 'I want to thank the person who wrote this book. It was all of you.' Well, I slipped back to the bar and that was that."
Greenya adds that that's the way it goes if you choose to be a collaborator. "You have to know that going into it," he says. "I did not have my name on the cover of Pete's book and I regret it till this day."
They used to be called ghost-writers, those imperceptible wordsmiths behind the lines of the famous. By any other name: hired guns.
But today, as the publishing industry becomes more sophisticated in terms of financial upmanship and talent, the writers who used to sign away their egos with their pursestrings are becoming a virtual industry.
Today, they are known as collaborators.
Their names are listed on the covers almost as prominently as the supposed authors, and the percentages of the royalties that they demand are impressive. Linda Bird Francke, writer of Geraldine Ferraro's book, to be published in the fall, reportedly has negotiated a $100,000-plus contract. ("All I'll say is that I didn't get 50 percent," Francke says.)
"I think for the person who is an artist this would be a bad way of life," says William Novak, who wrote "Iacocca." "I write for a lot of reasons, but I'm not one of those guys who holes up in the attic in search of the truth."
Francke, who helped write Rosalynn Carter's book, "First Lady From Plains," and is now signed up to write Jihan Sadat's book, agrees that the experience of working with historical figures is very attractive.
"There's no question that I would have liked to write all of these books myself," says Francke, who has published two of her own novels. "But I never would have had the unlimited access if I were writing my own books about them. I'm probably better off doing what I'm doing.
"I'll tell you this," Francke says. "It's a lot easier writing with a single point of view than being a journalist and always trying to find the 'on the other hand' paragraph."
Trevor Armbrister, who spent two years on Gerald Ford's memoirs, says it was an educational experience for him -- albeit not very rewarding financially.
"I found that Palm Springs and Vail are not cheap, so I took a bath," he says. "But having said that, let me say that I would do it again. Not many have had the chance to work intimately with a president."
Armbrister, who is at the Washington bureau of Reader's Digest, says that there is always the push-pull between being a journalist and a hired writer.
"I remember that, pushing Ford on Richard Nixon," he says. "It was hard for him to articulate how he really felt that Nixon had not come square with him on Watergate. We labored over every word in the book."
Not everyone has had pleasant experiences. Take Mike Lupica, sports columnist for the New York Daily News who wrote Reggie Jackson's bestselling autobiography. He made a lot of money, but almost lost his sanity.
"It is not a fun thing to do," Lupica says. "They tell you to check your old ego at the door. But it's not that easy to do. I mean, if you're a columnist for the New York Daily News, it's a star job in your little realm. And all of a sudden you're on someone else's schedule."
Lupica said his relationship with Jackson finally erupted one night in Las Vegas. "We just ended up in a screaming fight which ended up in him saying to me, 'You're getting paid enough to follow me around like a puppy dog.' I said, 'Get yourself a new dog,' and walked out." Lupica eventually made up with him and finished the book. "Now I'm working on a novel," he says. "And when I say to the writer, 'Let's meet to do it,' I know he's going to be there."