In High-Stakes World of Autobiographies, the Ghosts No Longer Keep a Low Profile

Times Staff Writer

William Novak has a simple credo: better fed than dead.

But he’s also comfortable with being dead--up to a point.

Novak is a ghostwriter. In fact, he may be the Stephen King of what was once considered the shadowy, slightly unsavory side street of literature.

But Novak is not ashamed of what he does. By most standards, he is wealthy and has achieved a certain kind of fame. Perhaps most important, he is the epitome of a phenomenon--the metamorphosis of the ghostwriter from ink-stained, anonymous hack to well-paid, respectable, indispensable partner in the celebration of celebrity.

Since taking up “collaborative” writing five years ago, Novak, 39, has been the word wraith behind the autobiographical blockbusters “Iacocca”--more than 5 million hardback and paperback copies in print--and “Mayflower Madam,” the story of Sydney Biddle Barrows, or “how a woman from one of America’s oldest families mastered the world’s oldest profession” with more than 500,000 copies in print. In September, the autobiography of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who received a $1-million advance from Random House, is due out. Novak, who lives in Newton, Mass., will share author credit with the Massachusetts politician and raconteur. Next year, his collaboration on expelled Soviet Jewish dissident Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky’s autobiography will be published.


Best-Selling Books Ever

Since the 1984 memoirs of Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca became one of the best-selling books ever, the publishing industry has been cranking out celebrity autobiographies almost faster than television can make people famous. Such books regularly make the best-seller lists, which currently include ghosted accounts of the lives of industrialist Armand Hammer and actress Bette Davis.

Books in the works or due out soon include the biographies of CBS’ William Paley, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, Manhattan real estate magnate Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, Jihan Sadat (wife of the assassinated Egyptian president), ballet master George Balanchine, and Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, the aviators who made the first nonstop global flight last December.

There’s even a posthumous ghostwritten autobiography published by Bantam Books and concocted from tapes and papers left behind by the late aviator Jacqueline Cochran.

Just this week Bantam--also publisher of “Iacocca” and “Yeager,” another million plus ghostography--released “Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke” in which journalist Kenneth Turan shares writing credit with the actress. Copies of the book were kept under tight wraps while portions of the frank memoir were serialized in People magazine.

On the book’s cover, Turan’s name is the same size as Duke’s--an indication that ghosts now require gratification and that billing on autobiographies has become as sensitive as in movie credits.

The new-found respectability of ghostwriting clearly is linked to money. As fees for playing second fiddle have risen, opinions of ghostwriting have inflated. Editors, agents and others in the publishing industry say they are continually approached by well-known writers and journalists eager for a piece of the action, if the right combination of subject and remuneration can be found. Stuart Applebaum, publicity director for Bantam, quipped that status-conscious, would-be collaborators no longer see ghostwriting as “a form of literary sharecropping.”


Turan won’t say how much he made on the deal, but sources in the publishing industry report that ghosting for a top-name celebrity can earn a writer perhaps as much as $250,000.

Novak, who was making about $25,000 in a good year before the best sellers, admits to earning in “the low six figures” now. He jokes that “I buy a better grade of vegetables; I live the way I had been living but now I can afford it.” Not bad for a guy who once was on the verge of hanging up his word processor because the three books he wrote on his own had expired in the bookstores.

Veiled in Secrecy

When he was approached about the Iacocca biography in late 1982, Novak remembers that the project was veiled in secrecy. He was told only that the book would be about a businessman.

“Well, I immediately knew who it was,” he recalled in a telephone interview. “Of course, it had to be Armand Hammer because he was the only businessman I had ever heard of. . . . At that time, to be honest, I barely knew Iacocca from Ayatollah. First of all, he was not a household name in 1982; he was known in business circles. Secondly, I was immersed in (another book) and I didn’t really follow the news as closely as I might have. But I said, ‘Lee Iacocca, he’s my kind of guy’ because I needed the work.”

In hindsight, it seems that Novak got a pittance for a nonfiction book that has been outpaced only by comedian Bill Cosby’s “Fatherhood,” which has 2.7 million hardcover copies in print. Publishing sources say that Novak accepted a flat fee of $45,000 for “Iacocca.” Bonuses bought his total earnings up to $80,000, a fraction of what he would have made with even a portion of a standard 15% royalty. (Iacocca donated his earnings to the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.)

Although he won’t discuss the money angle himself, Novak conceded that he’ll never take a flat fee again.


Turan declared that taking a flat fee instead of a fee plus a slice of the royalties is professionally demeaning. “I would never do that, period, not even for God,” he said. “I have a lot of experience and skill. . . . I would have felt like a hired gun if I had done it for a flat fee.”

Turan argues, however, that money wasn’t the sole, or even chief, consideration in his collaboration. Turan, who calls his work with Duke “a paint-by-numbers novel,” said the project was his return ticket to book-writing after an absence of 10 years. It also was a project in which the chemistry was right: He was interested in writing a biography, Duke wanted to tell her story, a publisher was eager for the book.

“If you do this just for the money, you’re in trouble,” Turan maintained. “I’ve had friends who wrote books for money and it was like working in a butcher shop.”

Mike Lupica, who wrote “Reggie,” the autobiography of baseball slugger Reggie Jackson, isn’t so picky.

“I have my price and if they meet it, I’ll do it,” Lupica, who is also a novelist and sports columnist for the New York Daily News and Esquire magazine, said, adding that on his two ghost books he has demanded “between $5 and $100,000 and it’s closer to the second figure than the first.”

Both Turan and Novak said they have maintained cordial--if not close--relationships with their subjects. But that’s not always the case.


Started Bad, Got Worse

Lupica said his relationship with Jackson started out bad and got worse. Jackson was uncooperative and often late for the taping sessions crucial to any ghostwritten autobiography, he said.

The acrimony continues to this day, Lupica added, with Jackson firing shots to which he replies in his newspaper column.

If he ever is offered a similar project, Lupica promises, his price would be steep.

“The next time they can pay me the Reggie money and give the other guy the Lupica money,” he said.

Esther Newburg, Lupica’s agent, said her client is a quick worker who finished in one month his 258-page autobiography of New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells, “Parcells: The Greatest Giant of Them All” (Bonus Books, Chicago). “Believe me, it’s a very nice job,” she said.

Lupica professed memory loss when asked about his speed. “It’s been so long since I wrote it, I don’t remember how much time it took,” he said.

As for actually working with a celebrity, it’s a lot less intimate than might be expected, the ghostwriters say.


Novak thought when he landed the Iacocca book “that I practically had to move into the man’s house.” However, when it soon became clear that “we would have something like 40 hours to work together, that I would never even see his house, that we would never have lunch or dinner together, I thought, ‘Well, this is impossible.’ ”

But, Novak explained, “It turns out that you don’t need to be that close, as I had assumed and most people assume. You have to have good rapport and good material from the person. . . . The reason I could do the book with only 40 hours from Iacocca is that he never, ever repeated himself. Normally, it’s more like 150 hours.”

Ghost-Subject Chemistry

Nowadays when an autobiography package is being put together, writers, agents and publishers say that the choice of a ghostwriter hinges on the chemistry between ghost and subject.

Bantam vice president and editor-in-chief Stephen Rubin said the choice of a writer “often doesn’t have anything to do with an ability to write. What you want is somebody who can get good stuff from that person. With a big cheese you need somebody who’s going to stand up to that big cheese.”

Indeed, it is possible to write too well.

Novak said that his first submission of “Iacocca” was rejected because of its style.

“They said, ‘Well this is wrong, this is too well-written.’ What do you mean too well-written? ‘It doesn’t sound like Lee Iacocca talking to you, it sounds like a writer writing.’ They were right. ‘We hired you,’ they said, ‘to get his voice, now go get it.’ ”

Novak and others said that the sublimation of their own egos can be a crucial factor, even in these days when ghostwriters get credit. The ideal collaboration produces a seamless book in which the personality of the writer is invisible, they say.


‘Tip’s Book’

Peter Osnos, the editor supervising the Tip O’Neill book at Random House, put it this way: “This book is Tip’s book in every way. It is the book he meant to write.”

Over and over, those interviewed stressed too that the subjects of these autobiographies has the final say over the book’s style and content.

Yet there are rewards, including basking in the reflected fame of the rich and famous.

“Just to be associated with these people makes one a bit of a celebrity,” said Novak, whose personal interests run to Jewish affairs and health foods. “ . . . But fame is a funny thing. A lot of people think that any author is inherently famous. To measure the fame of a ghostwriter who’s paid not to be famous is a tricky area. I haven’t yet had to get an unlisted phone number.”