Ghostwriting for a Dead Man

My first ghostwriting client was a dead man.

It was a pro-bono job.

I realize this is not the way most ghostwriters start their careers.

I was in graduate school at the time, working on a PhD in Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. Before I could start working on my dissertation, I had to complete three preliminary exams or papers. For my Special Author in Latin, I chose Plautus. The specific project was reconstructing Cistellaria, a play dated to about 200 BCE and missing about a third of its text due to damaged manuscripts. (You can see the Latin text here and the 1912 translation on the Perseus Project website.)

I didn’t think of reconstructing Cistellaria as a problem in ghostwriting. It was a problem in script analysis, the process by which a director works backward through the action of a play to find out what in each scene could not have happened without the scene before. The missing parts of Cistellaria are scattered through the middle of the text, so examining the later scenes made it clear what had to have happened in the missing lines. (We know how many lines are missing because of the way manuscript pages are constructed.)

Without finding a lost papyrus containing the missing parts of the script, there’s no way to figure out what Plautus actually did say in the missing lines. But there’s more than enough left of Cistellaria to know how the different characters behave and speak, and to know Plautus’ style. (There are also several complete plays to go by.)

This close study of the client’s previous writing is very similar to the way I work with clients today, though I have an advantage now in that I can get their confirmation that I have succeeded in capturing their “voice.”

Melaenis and Alcesimarchus from the 1994 production of Easy Virtue
1994 production of Easy Virtue in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Photo by Peter Smith

In 1994, I had to convince an audience made up substantially of my classmates and instructors that Easy Virtue, as I called my reconstruction, not only worked as a comedy in performance, but sounded convincingly like Plautus. I had a slight advantage, because I wasn’t writing in Latin. Therefore I didn’t have to match Plautus’ style exactly. (And while Plautus’ Latin is difficult at first because it’s more archaic than, say, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the kind of comedy he writes is easy to adapt for a modern audience.)

The key scene in Cistellaria revolves around a box, or cistella, whose contents prove that the heroine is really the daughter of the Rich Couple Next Door. It’s a scene involving a lot of physical comedy (for which director Kate Mendeloff created some wonderful stage business), as the character who dropped the box searches frantically all over the stage, not knowing that the people she meant to give it to have already found it and picked it up.

After the production, one of my classmates asked whether that scene was the one I’d written, so I figured I must have done something right.

And though I didn’t know it at the time, that was the beginning of my ghostwriting career. While I’ve learned a lot since then, one thing hasn’t changed: my goal is still to create a final document where no one can tell which parts my client wrote and which parts I wrote.

You can read the script for Easy Virtue here.

Should You Start Your Own POD Bookstore?

On October 12, 2008, Paula B from The Writing Show published an episode about Print-on-Demand Technologies hosted by Ricardo from Amigo Audio (known to me from his insightful contributions to the For Immediate Release podcast). Ricardo talked about buying your own printing press in order to start a bookstore that could provide thousands of titles without needing acres of shelf space.

The printing press, in this case, would be one of two devices, either of them smaller than the HP Indigo printers used by many POD houses and the new MagCloud services. The first is Instabook Maker, which when assembled is 7 feet long, 3 feet high, and 2.5 feet deep.

Instabook Maker III

The second is the Espresso Book Machine from On Demand Books. The new 2.0 version is 3.8 feet wide, 2.7 feet deep, and 4.5 feet high.

Either of these could fit in a good-sized office or a modest-sized storefront. (Ricardo even talks about the possibility of installing such a press in a van and creating a new, improved bookmobile.)

When listening to Ricardo’s recording, I had a hard time imagining myself, or most of the authors I work with, wanting to start a bookstore. Devices like this do have the potential to give independent bookstores—a dying breed—an edge they haven’t had before and an opportunity to make a wider range of books available to their customers, including titles that have now gone out of print. But most non-fiction authors don’t aspire to running a bookstore or even a printing press. Come to that, I don’t know any novelists or poets who do, either. In fact, most independent publishers have someone else do their printing.

Then there’s the caveat that even if the quality of the paper, printing, and binding do in fact stack up to those of commercially published books, producing a professional-looking book requires good design and good editing in addition to the correct technology.

And if you want to be able to reprint books from other authors and publishers, there has to be some kind of arrangement about rights and royalties, which could get complicated.

But then I got my October Michigan Today, and what should be in it but an article about an Espresso Book Machine recently installed in the Ugli? (Excuse me, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. But when I was in gradual school at U-M in the early 1990s, we all thought “Ugli” was only too appropriate.) U-M was one of the first libraries to get involved in digitizing books as part of the controversial Google Book Search project, so it’s not surprising they should be quick to adopt other new technologies.

The Espresso Book Machine makes perfect sense as an investment for a research library. Academic books tend to have small print runs and to go out of print quickly, but those out-of-print books remain important for scholars. U-M is a research university famed for its library collections. They even have a papyrology collection; I worked there one summer. (Yeah, I know, you thought U-M was all about football. I was in Ann Arbor for 5 years and never went to a single game.) And libraries only need a few copies of any given title, but they need to restock them due to wear and tear.

So when I read the article and watched the video, I thought “Now that is really cool.”

Espresso Book Machine

Do I want to open a bookstore? No. And I don’t think either Instabook or Espresso is likely to be a good investment for anyone who wants to print large runs of single books. Nor is owning such a device enough to make you a publisher (assuming you can afford one, and the prices are such that you’d better be independently wealthy, a large enterprise, or have VC backing). But the potential really is tremendous, if the intellectual property issues can be worked out.