Secrets of the Invisible Man: A Working Ghostwriter Tells All

Secrets of the Invisible Man: A Working Ghostwriter Tells All

September 23, 1997
Notes By Bonnie Britt

Richard N. Côté entertained the September gathering of the Bay Area Editors’ Forum with an engaging presentation replete with wit and tips for outlining, writing, and editing. Author of 18 books, Côté has the ability to organize vast amounts of information into marketable works.

He began as a biographer and historian. Ten years ago, he switched to ghost-writing for profit. Later he became a literary collaborator. While a ghostwriter promises not to reveal his contribution, a collaborator receives title page credit. Both may help conceptualize, outline, research, write, rewrite, and edit the final text. The duties of either could include locating a literary or dramatic agent or finding a publisher or producer.

According to copyright law, when a book is ‘made for hire,’ the person who signs the paycheck is the author. The ghostwriter agrees to forfeit acclaim. “For many writers, this proves to be too big a pill to swallow,“ Côté noted. “These would probably not be happy as ghosts.”

Fat paychecks and client-paid travel cushion the ghostwriter’s loss of recognition, said Côté who has ghost-written a celebrity biography, a business management book, a techno-thriller set in South America, and a romantic adventure out of Arabia.

His ticket out of the ‘ghostly ghetto’ came with an invitation to write Safe House, the memoir of Edgar Lee Howard, the first CIA agent to defect to the Soviet Union and betray national secrets. Howard’s version of his own story was ‘dead on arrival’ at the publisher—deemed unusable. Worse, the advance was blown. National Press Books offered Côté a meager $2,000 and an airplane ticket to Moscow to interview Howard and write his story. “It was the best career decision I ever made,” Côté recalled. “The book put me on the map as an international ghost with a trade publishing track record.”

Discipline and organization are Côté’s trademarks. Here are some of his professional secrets:

  • When twenty ideas come in ‘over the transom,’ only one winds up as a project.
  • Once the contract is inked, give clients a copy of Judith Applebaum’s How to Get Happily Published, a layperson’s primer to the publishing process.
  • To write a book proposal, you must know the topic cold. Do half the research before writing the proposal. “Sample chapters have to be dynamite.”
  • The proposal is the hard part. Write chronologically. When the proposal is complete, so is half the book.
  • An outline is 20-30 pages. An average book is 12 chapters. Each chapter has no more than three ideas. Each idea is described in half a page, single-spaced, in the proposal. Thirty-six ideas, fleshed out in 8-10 pages per idea, equal one book of 240 pages.
  • Author gets only two cracks at criticizing the ghostwriter’s outline.
  • Plan to devote six to seven months to writing, researching, and polishing the book. Write the contract accordingly, and make certain the author pays monthly advances so your mortgage and expenses are met.
  • Do nothing twice except this: Tell the client twice—but not three times—when he is about to slit his own throat. Examples include cluttering the manuscript with political, religious, or ideological diatribes or excessive autobiographical material.
  • Run from speculative projects. Avoid projects the client cannot pay for and stories that are vague or depressing.



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