GHOSTS FOR HIRE

HOW INCREASED INTERNET CONNECTIVITY HAS BROUGHT ABOUT INDIA’S FIRST WAVE OF CAREER GHOSTWRITERS.


On a bright Sunday afternoon in late February, the exhibition hall of Delhi’s Pragati Maidan is busy and crowded. Milling about are people of all ages wearing anything from saris to business suits to jeans, all united by one common denominator: books. Love to read, love to write – the 20th Biennial New Delhi World Book Fair attracts thousands of visitors.

Among the book lovers, publishers, agents and curious visitors is Rahul Bhatnagar, in a black round neck sweater, trainers and baseball cap. A friendly man from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, Bhatnagar is at the book fair to make business contacts and meet distributors as his first book Journey to Genius, is out in March.

With a background in engineering, Bhatnagar has always been fascinated by what makes people successful. This interest turned into a research project, and over a decade he collected and analysed data on the subject. He then organised all his findings with the intent of publishing them, but what he ended up with wasn’t a book. It had the contents of a book, but not its form. Bhatnagar was aware that his English writing skills weren’t strong enough, and that the data he’d carefully compiled needed more elements of storytelling to be interesting, and therefore useful.

So he looked for help. Through the online freelance marketplace Guru.com he found Radhika Sachdev, whose profile tagline reads, “I can power all your word dreams.” He contacted her, and after deciding to hire her, he handed over his research and a table of contents and let her work her writing magic.

Two months later, the book was ready to go into print. Well edited and written in a voice Bhatnagar recognises as close to his own, his notes had become a narrative he was quite pleased with, although he would have preferred the final product to have had a few more dramatic touches. He blames the lack of coup de théâtre on the writer’s mindset. “The problem with the writers is that they write so (sic) boring contents that you know, it’s very hard to read,” Bhatnagar says.

Sachdev wrote the book, but ask Bhatnagar whether he considers himself the writer, he doesn’t hesitate to answer that of course he does. His reply is layered with stupor, as though he can’t see how it would be otherwise. To his mind, he is the author of the book as he came up with the idea and collected all the material for it.

In Bhatnagar’s book, Sachdev is credited as editor, but for most of her other assignments she gets a pay check, not an acknowledgment, for completing her work.

Sachdev is a ghostwriter, a “ghost” if you will, as these writers call themselves. She writes on behalf of her clients and remains an anonymous entity, contractually bound to not reveal her clients’ identity or anything that could link her to the project. And she doesn’t just write books or speeches, as one might typically imagine, but manuals, essays, papers, and booklets of all kinds. As a former journalist, Sachdev often takes on assignments that focus on similar topics to what she covered for the news, such as marketing, media and business. Some of her projects are more unusual. Once she was commissioned to write a book for a foreign woman who claimed she could communicate with her dead son, and wanted to gain credibility as a “paranormal consultant.”

Sachdev, 45, has been ghostwriting for about eight years. She began moonlighting as a freelance writer to up her income as a reporter to support her family during a period of financial difficulty. She listed her services online in 2007, reaching out mainly to inter-national clients. Over time, ghostwriting projects became the most prominent of her commissions and the good earnings coupled with the desire to stop working for someone else motivated her to become a full-time ghostwriter in 2010.

In India, where it has developed thanks to the growing use of the Internet, the ghostwriting industry is only about a decade old. With the increased web connectivity and Indian rates for content ghostwritten in English remaining low enough to entice overseas clients – where the demand and better paid assignments have traditionally come from – these factors have made being an independent ghostwriter armed with vocabulary, an Internet connection, a word processor and online self-marketing skills, a viable business option.

Sachdev lives in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, on the ninth floor of an apartment building that brings to mind the kind premium property one would receive a promotional SMS about. The elevator opens out onto an outdoor landing filled with plants, where with the strong wind and an impossibly blue sky as backdrop, it’s hard not to feel a faint sense of vertigo. Behind the front door of Sachdev’s apartment lies a neat, modern, homely space with simple wooden furniture and a few colourful decorations. She lives there with her parents and her eight-year-old daughter and every day, when she sits at her computer to work, the flat becomes her office too.

As a single working mother, Sachdev needs flexibility in her work schedule. Ghostwriting, she says, has allowed her to become a “one-woman outfit” which in turn has enabled her to have full control over her timetable and better paid work hours. “I enjoy being my own mistress,” Sachdev says. “You know, this makes me an entrepreneur,” she says with great enthusiasm.

Sachdev secures her clients online, through US based platforms Guru.com and Elance.com which are marketplaces for 350 000 and 1 300 000 freelancers respectively, where she advertises herself, under the alias of Write Solutions, as a “wordsmith.” The idea of writing as a craft and not as a literary pursuit comes across strongly when speaking with Sachdev. Words like “inspiration,” “talent,” or even “creativity” are absent from the vocabulary she uses, indicating a mindset that’s immune to the more commonplace writers’ predicaments. For her, there’s no search for the muse, no procrastination, no last minute delivery. Her process is organised and controlled to the point that it can be monitored live by her clients who are often in the US, Australia or Europe. When she’s working on a project obtained through Elance.com, she has to use a tracking program that sends her client randomised screenshots of her desktop; if the sent screenshot contains non-work related pages the hour is counted as idle time.

A device that would scare most writers – who may see satisfying a random curiosity on Wikipedia, stalking an old flame on Facebook or playing a round of Tetris or Solitaire as ways to get the creative juices flowing – the tracker seems to pose no difficulty for Sachdev, who says she would be in any case writing constantly for a client during work hours.

On Guru.com, the parameters of Sachdev’s expertise and writing talent are translated into a series of numbers. For instance, potential clients are able to view her test results for “U.S. word usage” (49 percent) and English vocabulary (34 percent for the UK test and 29 for the US version) as well as her earnings. Since she started using Guru.com in September 2007 she has earned US$ 37 748 through the website.

Sachdev is not interested in the potential limelight that comes with the recognition of being a writer. Obscurity for her seems to simply be part of the job description, and one that’s not even difficult to accept. “It’s equally rewarding and satisfying to leave a client happy,” she says, explaining that the excitement of seeing her byline in print had worn off long ago, when she was working as a journalist. Oftentimes, she doesn’t even see the final product of her work when it’s printed, nor is she particularly curious about it.

“I see myself as a midwife. I have to deliver somebody’s baby,” she says. “[It’s] his or her personality that should shine through … I’m lending my words but I cannot let my personality seep through the work in those words.”

While Sachdev maintains her one woman enterprise, others, such as 38-year-old Pinaki Ghosh, have taken this business idea to a bigger platform. In 2005 Ghosh founded the ghostwriting agency Writer4me in the literary hub of Kolkata. He has given his agency’s website the slogan “world’s most popular ghost writer service” which is based on the heavy web traffic they get. In early 2004, Ghosh was teaching English, and also juggling various freelance writing assignments, including writing copy for customised greeting cards, when he was approached by a British-Indian leadership trainer who asked him to ghostwrite his book. A month later, his first assignment as a ghost was complete, and he was paid US$ 500 for the job. He then listed his services “for a humble two dollars per page” on Elance.com.

As he kept writing, he became faster at it, the volume of work grew and thanks to the reputation he was building so did his rates, going up to US$ 25, even 30, a page. By the end of the year he’d amassed enough work to scale up and start a company. Today, Writer4me employs 12 to 15 full-time writers in the company’s office and 60 freelancers, who altogether churn out 35 to 40 projects and books a month; about 1 400 completed assignments since the agency opened.

“It’s the financial thing that gave me the main inspiration to start this,” Ghosh says. “I had been reading in the newspaper that … the Americans are outsourcing knowledge processing into India because it is expensive there,” he says with the unmistakable zeal of a businessman talking about their successful idea.

“Outsourcing knowledge” evokes the idea of call centres, and indeed Ghosh’s enterprise shares a few analogies with them. While call centres offer spoken English at cheap prices, Ghosh’s agency plugs written English at low rates. If a call centre measures its productivity in the number of calls per day, Writer4me does so in the quantity of pages – up to six in a ten hour working day. And just as phone operators at call centres undergo accent training, Ghosh’s ghostwriters learn how to write like an American. “The Indian style of writing and the American style of writing are very different so in the first two weeks we give them a lot of training to adapt to the American style,” Ghosh says.

Despite declaring his passion for writing – “I will write till my last breath,” he says – while speaking about his business Ghosh doesn’t waste a second to promote its convenience, saying the reason for its success is its competitive rates. If Sachdev’s work is priced at about half the standard US price, Writer4me’s rates go down until a fifth, and the emphasis placed on budget output is evident on the landing page of the agency’s website, which looks similar to that of a webhost promoting deals on web space. In Ghosh’s business language, written words become numbers, prices, pages, lengths.

Because of its size, Ghosh says the agency can accommodate most clients’ needs, no matter how specific. But he draws the line at writing pornography and people’s theses. “We get a lot of offers to write theses but we do not write them because we say that a thesis should be written by the person itself,” he says.

Writer4me’s young employees – the average age is 30 – are former journalists or writing professionals who have decided to ghostwrite for something other than the need for flexible schedules or entrepreneurship – they do it for the money. His ghostwriters, explains Ghosh, “are coming with the mindset that ‘I’ve come here to earn money and nothing else.’ ”

For some of them, however, not being credited for their work is disheartening. “Sometime[s] it’s tough,” says one employee who writes under the pen name “Zak.” He says: “You give everything to create the characters … you create their entire life and at the end of it you have to let go of it. It feels like you’re giving up your own child.”

This feeling must be common among Ghosh’s employees if he says he provides “counselling” to new recruits to ensure “they understand that less than one percent of people can earn from writing.” Ghosh says: “A lot of people are writing but most of them are not earning anything.” He also encourages his employees to publish their own work – he has set up a small publishing house for this in what looks like an attempt to satiate their need for fame.

Since the time they started, Sachdev and Ghosh have written primarily for international clients, often professionals such as doctors and dentists, looking for public validation (and higher rates to charge) by publishing a book. However, in the last year, both have seen growth in the local market, with entrepreneurs and company heads contacting them mostly to have their autobiographies and professional stories written. It’s a function of the economy: the more successful businesses, the more successful businessmen who want to publish books with their stories, even though they don’t have the time or the skills to write them.

But successful, prominent Indians don’t stop at the local options when it comes to finding a writer for their books.

“A lot of my clients are from places like India or Africa or the Middle East, where they speak English well enough to talk to a ghostwriter but not enough to write a book,” says Andrew Crofts, who is one of Britain’s best known ghostwriters and is considered an authority on the profession. Crofts has been ghostwriting books, especially people’s autobiographies, how-to books and works of fiction for the past 25 years. He is often approached by high profile clients and is currently working on a book for the Indian Premier League’s founder Lalit Modi.

That more substantial works are commissioned to a reputed ghostwriter from outside also indicates that while homegrown talent might have the expertise, reputation also figures heavily into the equation. Saugata Mukherjee, a publisher with Pan Macmillan India, says although he’s heard of agencies such as Writer4me, he’d be hesitant about commissioning a writing project to them. “Most publishers in India would shy away from such an organisation,” he says.

Indeed, the young, business-led ghostwriting industry is met with some disdain within more established publishing circles. When asked to comment on it, several published authors asked not to be even mentioned this context, and editors and publishers of both large and smaller publishing houses in India and abroad declined to comment as well. “There is some stigma attached to it. They [people in the publishing industry] don’t want to associate themselves with ghostwriters or ghostwriting because they feel it’s damaging their credibility,” Mukherjee says.

That may explain why, for some ghostwriters who aspire to become recognised writers, being linked to ghostwriting is seen as problematic. Zak, for instance, who is working on his autobiography and wants to publish under his own name, didn’t want to disclose his real identity when interviewed for this story. “I have a very illustrious profile [as an entrepreneur] which is extremely visible on the Internet,” he claims. “I don’t want that to get affected from a story that says I’m a full-time ghostwriter,” says Zak, believing that, in his case, it’s better to keep the man separate from the ghost.

Byline: Annalisa Merelli
Illustration: Reshi Dev


Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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