Scholars Talk Writing: Who Really Wrote Your Book?

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By Rachel Toor

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration. All of my published books, including a novel, have benefited from having smart, supportive editors and readers by my side from the very beginning. I still had to wrangle words onto the page, but knowing I had someone to scrutinize a manuscript helped me finish and made the work infinitely better.

It’s lonely work, this writing business. Thinking is even harder. Even if Einstein didn’t actually utter the statement the Internet credits him with — “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it” — we cling to that quote because it rings true. We all need others to point out the holes and missteps in our work. That’s why they’re called blind spots.

Because I started my career in publishing, I don’t consider myself particularly naïve about authorship. But last fall I was shocked to learn — during an online panel discussion on ghostwriting, put together by the creative-writing program I teach in — that some scholars do not write their own books. On the panel were two women who said they made a good living as “collaborative writers,” as well as a tenured academic who had written a book with one of them.

Textbook companies have long employed developmental editors to wrestle information from teams of experts into readable prose. University press editors often help scholars structure their arguments. Agents help authors write book proposals all the time.

Editorial work on trade books may not look much different from what dissertation chairs do for advisees, but there’s a giant exception: The product matters more than the process. And that’s where, if you have a big idea for a book — and a platform to get it out to large numbers of readers — you might be able to interest a company in hooking you up with someone who can translate your ideas into best-selling prose. It will package the book and sell it to one of the big publishers for a boatload of money. That’s what happened with the academic and the writer on the panel.

To learn more about this process, and about jobs that our creative-writing students might be able to apply for, I talked with one of the panelists: Jenny Davis, who earned a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa in 2011.

Davis heard about the book-packaging company that hired her from an email sent to alumni. She explained the hiring process: “First I was asked for a CV and examples of my published writing; most of my publications had appeared in literary magazines, so I sent a few weird essays. I was a little surprised to find out that my lack of experience with publishing or book packaging in general wasn’t an issue. It seems it’s easier to teach someone who has literary skills to write a book proposal than the other way around.”

To “audition,” she wrote a couple of project-specific samples and hypothetical chapters. She was matched with the professor, who had given a popular TED talk and who himself had been approached by the company. Its business is to put together books by famous people — world leaders, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and a handful of name-brand academics.

The agency’s founders met with the professor, hammered out a structure for the book, came up with a table of contents, and then paired him with Davis. While its stated goal is to create influential books, there’s also big money at play here: Typically, book agents take 15 percent of the proceeds. I’ve learned that book-packaging firms take a much, much bigger chunk.

Davis interviewed the author at length, read published work relevant to the project, and wrote a few drafts of chapters. The author revised, and with significant editorial support and guidance from the agency, the two put together a proposal. It garnered three offers before it even went to auction and netted a hefty advance, out of which Davis was paid.

Even before the project sold, Davis said she’d been guaranteed a minimum by the agency — enough, she says, “to support a single person in a midsized city comfortably for about a year,” with escalations built in depending on the size of the professor’s advance.

On the Zoom panel, the professor said he was a good academic writer, but he didn’t know how to reach a wide readership. Both he and the “ghostwriter” said they’d learned a lot in the process and seemed to have a warm relationship. Davis didn’t mind not having her work credited: “The book simply isn’t mine. It’s my author’s, and I’m just one part of a team trying to get the book out into the world.”

This is, of course, how editors tend to feel about the books they publish. When I asked Eamon Dolan, a top editor at Simon & Schuster who recently published a book by a man whose job description includes the word “infallible,” he said something I know about trade publishing but tend to overlook: “Every single goddam book is a collaboration.”

Dolan is known in the industry for a hands-on approach. In a long and wide-ranging phone conversation he said, “An author is not an auteur. It is not cognitively possible to write something book-length that’s good on your own. It’s one of the biggest challenges any human can undertake. In order to do that, you need someone who’s not you to triangulate.” He said sometimes he annoys his authors by being a “pathological nitpicker in the service of making the thing read as easily to the reader as possible.”

In the world of trade publishing, the bottom line is that you have to think about the bottom line: sales. Then I started wondering about academic authors whose books won’t ever make much money, but where there can be even more at stake for them personally — like tenure and promotion. How much help can writers of scholarly books get — assistance that readers, reviewers, and colleagues are unlikely to know about?

To answer that, I turned to Molly Mullin, an anthropologist who left academe to become a freelance editor and works on faculty manuscripts, especially in the field of English as a second language. Most of her academic authors “want me to tell them whether their argument is convincing, whether the piece ‘works’ and, if not, how to make it work.” The normal territory of an editor.

She works on scholarly books and journal articles — mostly written by Ph.D.s but once with a client still in graduate school. “There have been times when I have felt I needed to be careful ethically, and some of my editor colleagues would draw lines more tightly,” she says. Mullin, who published a monograph and journal articles before bailing out of academe, makes nearly $100 an hour and says there are freelance editors who charge much more. There are also plenty who charge less, especially those with fewer academic or writing credentials. Mullen is a member of two different associations: ACES: the Society for Editing and the Editorial Freelancers Association, which posts a rate chart reporting median fees for various types of editing services.

Many university presses work with a stable of freelance editors, and acquisitions editors may be able to offer recommendations for writers who feel like they need additional help. Colleagues can be good sources of leads — many professors have students who jumped off the tenure track and started doing this kind of work.

There is, of course, also a dark side. Five seconds of Googling brought me to a host of websites for less savory businesses — places that offer to flat-out write your dissertation, scholarly article, or monograph for you. An essay in The Chronicle from a decade ago, “The Shadow Scholar,” gave a first-person account from someone who earned a living writing essay assignments for undergraduates.

It’s a spectrum, of course, and I’m still wrestling with the realization that some academic writers I admire didn’t write their own books. Then I remembered something else that Dolan, the Simon & Schuster editor, said: “The reader needs to feel like they are communing with one other vision. The ‘author’ is an essential illusion.”

Some authors fully acknowledge the help they got along the way — and others don’t (which in my view makes them ungrateful jerks). Some feel a sense of shame at needing guidance. When I was a book editor, I used to say that the more work an editor had to do on a manuscript, the less profusely you were thanked in the acknowledgments.

All writers need help, and as I’ve been writing for years, graduate programs should devote far more time to teaching graduate students to write. But what if you need more help with your prose than usual? If you are a scholar who is not a very good writer, what should you do — assuming you can’t afford to hire your own ghostwriter?

You might get ideas on how to frame a big project from reading how-to books on writing and revision or interviews with other academics talking about writing. But those books and interviews, I’m sorry to say, are unlikely to help you catch your own writing missteps.

Some institutions offer professional-development money to faculty members to seek editorial help with their work. A small number of academics are at big-name universities or have big-enough ideas that it’s worth it for an agent or a book-packaging company to take them on, and the world is better for their better-written books.

Most of us, however, must turn to friends, partners, and former students to point out our gaps in thinking and infelicities of language. Sometimes those folks do so much work they become co-authors. My advice for academics who feel like their writing is holding them back is to admit the problem, seek out those friends and mentors whom you trust to give you constructive criticism, and don’t be afraid to find yourself a collaborator — and then give that person appropriate credit.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program, in Spokane, and a former acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press.

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