Friday 30 December 2011

Ghostwriters and Biographers as Gift Items

Following a recent trip to Bangkok, (see previous blog entry), I have been thinking about this concept of ghostwriters and biographers as gift items. I have recently been commissioned for a number of such projects. One client, for instance, wished to write his autobiography in order to present it to his grandson. He had no expectation that the grandson would actually read it for many years to come, he just wanted it to be there, ready for the day when it might seem a tempting proposition. A couple of other clients have presented me to recipients who they knew wanted to write books but who they also knew would never get round to tackling such a daunting task without help.

Millions of people are now hooked on the idea of tracing their family histories. I have met enough of them personally to know they would be thrilled to discover that their great grandmother or great uncle had written a book chronicling family relationships, homes, businesses and – with any luck – scandals. It wouldn’t matter if the books had been read by no one since the day they were written, to that particular researcher they would be absolute gold dust.

It might once have been called vanity publishing – and if the author is persuaded to part with money on the promise of becoming a bestseller, then it still should be – but if all you are doing is leaving a record for future generations is it any more “vain” than commissioning a portrait painter or an architect to create a great family home?

Printing books to a high standard is no longer hard. It can be done on line at sites like or by the many specialist self-publishing companies, but writing the books in a readable style can be more challenging and that is where the specialist skills of the ghostwriter or biographer come in.

Given Away in Bangkok

(This blog was previously published on the excellent "Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?" site: )

I was sent to Bangkok as a gift this month. I was to be presented at a party to the host, who had long said he wanted to write a book and whose family thought he would welcome the help of a ghost. The family did not ask me to go to the Orient gift-wrapped, but they did ask me to take with me a mock-up of a possible cover of the book, so that there would be something tangible to be handed over, something that would show instantly what the gift was.

That got me thinking about the place for printed books now that we are all concentrating so hard on understanding the dynamic of the electronic versions. This imaginative idea of the book as a prestigious gift would not have worked so well if presented in e-book form. It would have lacked the cultural resonance of the print version. The recipient of the gift would not have been able to pick it up, turn it over in his hands and pass it round the guests who had assembled for the presentation beneath the hotel’s palm trees.

E-books are undoubtedly the way forward when it comes to getting writers’ work out there, showcasing it, distributing it more economically and ecologically, but when it comes to creating a product with special meaning, and for limited editions that are to be displayed as well as read, print will no doubt live on for a long time. Books that might be read by millions on screens, can still be produced in special editions for hundreds or thousands of collectors and enthusiasts.

The hotel in Bangkok where the four day party was being thrown, was next to a mighty new shopping mall, which had a whole floor dedicated to information and communication. Wandering past the bustling, beautiful stores belonging to brands like Apple, Blackberry and Nokia, I found in the middle of the concourse the most beautifully presented book shop. Half of it was dedicated to English language books and there were hundreds of well displayed, well designed, tempting books. The aisles were full of browsers and there was steady business at the tills. I know very little about the Thai book market. It may well be that retail rents are much lower than in Europe, but whatever the reason it was a wonderful experience to find books so integrated into this very modern shopping experience, seeing them finding their place amongst the Smart phones and tablets. It seemed like a glimpse into a harmonious future, bringing the works of writers to readers in an attractive way that we are still only stumbling towards in Britain.

Thursday 15 December 2011

BBC's "Imagine" Explains the Current State of Publishing Perfectly

With so much confusion and hype all around the publishing and reading world - are printed books dead in the water? Is Amazon going to take over the world? etc - it was good to have the whole business put into a very positive perspective by the BBC on Imagine - (Episode 6. "The Last Chapter").

The way I came to the programme seems to illustrate the subject rather effectively.
1. At a Society of Authors gathering another writer says "did you see Alan Yentob on Imagine last night?"
2. I went straight to Iplayer and found it.
3. I played it on my Ipad while answering emails on my computer.

Anyway, my point is - if you are looking for some erudite illumination on the state of publishing, this is the programme for you.