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I didn’t get the credit for my bestselling book: the secret life of the celebrity ghost writer

A few years back, a long-held dream of mine came true: a book I wrote became a runaway hit.

You’ve probably read the book. You’ve definitely seen the book. Four years since it was published, it’s still selling like Taylor Swift tickets. It’s still in airports, still displayed face out in bookshops. It pops up at Airbnb libraries, on friends’ bookshelves and in conversation when people tell me it changed their lives and ask me if I have read it.

They don’t know I wrote it. For one thing, my name isn’t on the cover. For another, it’s a very good book, authored by a very good man. The sort of book you give to a friend when they are going through a tough time. A book that’s inspired many, many people to live a more hopeful and generous life; full of hope and kindness and wisdom.

I’m an unlikely person to have written this book, because I’m not known for my kindness or wisdom. Actually, I’m known for not being known at all, because I’m a professional ghost writer.

Like most ghosts, I became one unexpectedly – when a publisher I’d previously worked with on my own memoir (which, while it didn’t set the world on fire, was enough to destroy my own life and kill any possibility of future gainful employment) asked if I would be any good at writing someone else’s. I said I’d never tried.

Then the publisher told me what my fee would be, at which point I agreed, on reflection, that I was perfect for the job.

The gig went fine. More followed. In the years to come, I would write books with all sorts of people, from vastly differing backgrounds. Dishonest work, and I was good at it. Then the pandemic hit and I suddenly became very busy writing memoirs for celebrities. Because they couldn’t work in entertainment any more, they all decided to become authors.

Being a ghost writer for a celebrity is – and I know this sounds like a lie – very inspirational. I’d recommend it to everyone. Nothing makes you re-examine your relationship with ambition and vanity more than listening to very successful, good-looking people confess problems worse than your own.

Generally, my clients want to write a book, usually a memoir, because they have achieved something momentous – in sports, arts, statecraft, on TikTok. Things you can only do if you were smart enough to avoid becoming a professional writer and having to study useless concepts like exploring theme and subtext, what a narrative arc is or how defamation law works.

Most of the time, I do very little actual writing, but a lot of trying to convince my client that these things are important. Depending on the author, it’s a task somewhere between copy-editing and trying to strap an excitable Staffordshire terrier into their thunderstorm anxiety vest.

Over a series of days or months, they tell me all the stories that make up their life, and together we order them in a way that readers will resonate with. It’s an intense, intimate, emotionally charged process that recalls both the awkwardness of a blind date and the oversharing of the therapy room.

It’s a strange inversion of the dynamic of interviewing a celebrity as a journalist, where your job is to try to pry personal details out of them while a PR runs interference.

In ghost work, your job is to help them sound more like themselves, while also guiding them to choose which stories should make the final cut. Half the job is fighting with a client about discretion. A good book is made by what is left out, rather than what’s in.

Finding that balance means diving pretty deep. Intense intimacy and then, at the end of that relationship, your task as ghost is to, well – ghost. To disappear without a trace and never mention it again.

It’s all very discreet. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a publisher initiative to stop ghost writers meeting and unionising. Perhaps it’s because some folks are sniffy about ghost-writing, as though it’s somehow unseemly or immoral. Which is silly. Ghost-writing is the most morally sound thing I will do on any given day.

But I understand the suspicion. It’s a weird gig. Even I find it strange. It’s an odd feeling to walk through a bookshop full of books I worked on, whose relationship to me nobody will ever know about.

Appreciation – a novel by Liam Pieper – is out now.

When strangers at parties find out I’m a ghost writer, they inevitably ask if I’ve written any books with celebrities.

“I could tell you,” I inevitably answer. “But then they would kill me. Ha ha ha!” It’s a dumb joke. I’d estimate that less than half my clients would have both the means and inclination to have me killed.

More likely to kill me is my workload, and the whiplash of forming and ending so many intense relationships so fast. It’s something I’m working through with my therapist – who has a job much like mine but is smart enough to make more money from it.

I once told my therapist an anecdote which summed up my strange feeling of alienation and overwork which is so complex I could write a book about it (which I did – is out in March. Please buy it.)

I’d wandered into a bookstore and over to one of those display shelves of new releases. It held six titles which – due to one of those weird bottlenecks that happen in publishing and also my karma – I’d ghost-written five of. I realised I could no longer keep up writing competitively at that pace, because I was the competition, and I couldn’t possibly win.

My therapist suggested I have a tendency to over-narrativise my problems and that I should try to live in the moment more. They mentioned a book I should read, a very good book full of kindness and wisdom which has inspired many people to live more hopeful, generous lives. I wrote it a few years back.