Young entrepreneurs are breathing life into the ghostwriting business in India. While the internet is buzzing with opportunities for freelancers, who can be commissioned to write anything from blogs to books, upcoming self-publishing and pre-publishing houses have also started to write books for their clients. These phantoms are bound by the agreement that they do not have the copyright over the book they are writing and that they cannot claim any royalty from the sales.
“It’s heartbreaking to stay in the shadows,” says Harsh Agarwal, who owns Ghostwriter, which is based in Delhi. The fact that he has penned three books, two of which under his own name—apart from the ghostwriting work that he does—just “does not make up for it”. Agarwal started writing during his graduation days before launching Ghostwriter where he provides end-to-end solution for producing a book, from writing and editing to marketing.
Neil D’Silva and Varun Prabhu started Pen Paper Coffee after getting introduced to each other at a book club. Their agency, located in Mumbai, offers pre-publishing services with plans to expand to book reviewing and marketing soon.
Even as Prabhu takes anonymity in his stride, for him the biggest challenge about ghostwriting is to give vision to another person’s ideas and write about themes he is not particularly familiar with.
Agencies such as these charge anywhere between Re 1 to Rs 6 per word for a piece of fiction or non fiction, while many others also speak in dollar terms, offering non-fiction at around Rs 600 per page and fiction at around Rs 900. The charges in foreign currency range between US$18-25 per page, with roughly 300 words per page.
The charges also vary according to the amount of material the ghostwriters receive from their clients to start with. Prices climb if, for non-fiction books, the writer needs to research and produce data or develop a plan for the manuscript, structuring the novel into chapters, or both.
The clients usually provide the ghostwriters a rudimentary outline to work within, specifying the integral characters to the plot and indicating the general direction in which the story should be headed. The rest they leave to the ghostwriters. For works of non-fiction, biographies particularly, clients are more involved.
“We had a client who works in the IT sector. He would pick up our writer on his way to work and narrate his story to him while driving. That was the only time he was free, on his commute from home to work. At the end of the week, the client would receive a draft which he would check and return,” says U.K. Dash, COO of 24by7 publishing in Kolkata.
Another time, an elderly man from Jaipur requested the writer to stay at his house for about 2-3 days and take dictation, says Dash. Such requests aside, there is plenty of work that gets done over telephonic conversations too.
There are as many stories as there are people, but what is the motivation for increasingly taking to these services? Retired men and women want their memoirs, others want interesting anecdotes from their lives built into a work of fiction, while others do it for the sake of adding “author” to their resume because there’s a “charm” to it. Yet others promote themselves (their services) in the guise of self-help and motivational books.
Then there is the vast parallel universe of “fan-fiction”, where writers borrow characters and even “worlds” from popular fiction stories or sitcoms and give liberty to their imagination to script spin offs or alternate storylines from the original.
Working at the year-old Pen Paper Coffee, Prabhu, a graduate in computer science, spins fan fictions that, quite often, are inspired by the Harry Potter franchise. Since reproducing characters of writers in print is infringement of copyright, these fan stories are published on immensely popular websites like fanfiction.net. “Creating fan fiction is a great launch pad for a writing career, considering the exposure one gets,” says Prabhu.
Yet ghostwriting is a small part of Pen Paper Coffee’s business, with either Neil or Prabhu authoring one book per month at the most. The money usually comes in through their comprehensive editing services, which includes rewriting. Even then, the duo regularly ends up building a manuscript from scratch as many clients have poor language skills.
Lack of time and limited writing skills, but the desire to tell a story or simply to be published are driving this new industry, according to Agarwal. Prabhu and Dash agree. The revolution called self-publishing has also eased the way for aspiring authors.
Traditionally, well known publishing houses too employ ghostwriters who give voice to celebrity lives, the most recent one allegedly being that of the wife of a film star. Not only novels, but screenplays, speeches and even academic papers are ghostwritten. More recently, PR teams have been “ghostupdating” Twitter handles and other social media profiles of celebrities and politician. The ghosts are everywhere.