CEOs turn to ghostwriters in a self-publishing flurry

With the ‘vanity press’ stigma dissipating, busy execs rely on outside wordsmiths to give voice to their stories in DIY tomes.

Ralph Braun had a story to tell, and he needed a ghostwriter.

Once a disabled youth who couldn’t go to school because of his multiple sclerosis, he ended up founding an international company that creates lifts to make vans wheelchair-accessible.

So the CEO hired a ghostwriting firm to create “Rise Above,” an autobiography he distributes to dealers, occupational therapists—and customers. He leaves a signed copy in the glove compartment of every van he sells, says Jerrold R. Jenkins, founder of Jenkins Group, which produced the book.

CEOs and other corporate authors often want to publish not to create a revenue stream but to boost their profiles and establish themselves as experts or industry leaders.

“Their PR firm may say we could really position you better as a keynote speaker or to write an article in The Wall Street Journal if you had more credibility, and one of those credibility items is authoring a book,” Jenkins says.

Many are bypassing traditional publishers amid a revolution in self-publishing, says Dan Gerstein of Gotham Ghostwriters.

‘Sherpas’ for CEOs

For many business leaders, self-publishing makes sense more sense than shopping around a manuscript among literary agents—although Gotham also passes promising ghostwritten books to agents. Gerstein sees himself as a “sherpa” who guides newcomers through the unfamiliar world that lies between traditional publishing and old-fashioned vanity presses.

Consider a hypothetical CEO biography with a built-in constituency of 10,000 copies, which would be sold for $20 apiece, grossing $200,000, Gerstein says. A generous publishing deal for a run of that size might net the author $70,000 of that through an advance and royalties.

But if someone has the capital to pay roughly $50,000 for the ghostwriting, printing and distribution, he could net $150,000 under the same print run, Gerstein says. The break-even point would be 2,500 copies.

Besides, major publishing houses have gutted their marketing staffs, and midlist authors are left to promote themselves.

“So it raises the question, what are you getting out of the deal other than the imprimatur of Random House or Bantam Books or HarperCollins?” Gerstein says.

Instead, authors can go to a book packager and get printing, distribution and publicity. They pay for the service but retain intellectual property rights.

One of Gerstein’s clients is an American executive working for a Chinese agribusiness. The company is bolstering its business in the United States and trying to attract capital, so the book was a logical way for the company to position itself.

Similarly, a multinational agribusiness contracted with Jenkins to produce a book with a print run of 40,000, distributing it to shareholders, employees and vendors.

“It’s really just as good, because the landscape has changed so much in the publishing world,” he says.

Publishers Weekly along for the ride

Even a mainstay like Publishers Weekly is getting in on the self-publishing act with PW Select, which focuses on self-published books. It acted in a topsy-turvy industry environment that has seen some self-publishing phenomena.

Authors William P. Young and Amanda Hocking have sold millions of copies of self-published books. And novelist Barry Eisler says he walked away from a $500,000 book deal after his daughter jumped in on a dinnertime conversation about contracts. “Daddy, why don’t you just self-publish?” she said.

“Call it what you will—self-publishing, DIY, POD, author-financed, relationship publishing, or vanity fare,” PW Select announced when it launched the site in August. “They are books, and that is what PW cares about. And we aim to inform the trade.”

In a phone interview, Cevin Bryerman, publisher of Publishers Weekly, said authors are increasingly moving out of mainstream houses.

“Self-publishing is becoming more acceptable, and there’s a lot of good stuff that’s out there,” he says. “The gist is that it’s a growing trend.”

Jenkins, who has been in the business for more than two decades, says there has always been a need for ghostwriting, but Amazon led the way by selling self-published books that previously would never have made it into bookstores.

Vanishing stigma

“When I got in the biz back in 1988, self-publishing was a very bad word,” Jenkins says. “It basically meant that a royalty publisher didn’t pick you up.”

Jenkins’ company has more than 20 books being ghostwritten now, and 70 percent of its titles are business-related. Like Gotham, he also represents individuals who have a story to tell and who may not wish to struggle for years to land a publisher. (One of Gotham’s clients is a Holocaust survivor who wants to leave a memoir as a legacy for his family, Gerstein says.)

As in the music industry and news media, CEOs and other authors have alternatives to get around the industry gatekeepers.

“Independent people now have ways to hit the masses,” Jenkins says.

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