In my freelance writing career, I have done my share of ghostwriting. Let me explain how it works. I write something for someone else for a one-time fee. Sometimes, I’m given a lot to work with — a piece that’s mostly written but needs a lot of editing, polishing and some additional information. Sometimes, I’m told, “write 400 words on ball bearings,” and I have to research everything, write and hope it’s what the person who will eventually take credit for the piece wants to see. When all is said and done, I get paid, someone else’s name goes on the piece, and I keep my mouth shut.
Last week, The New York Times ran “I Was a Cookbook Ghostwriter” by Julia Moskin. “Tales from the ink-stained (and grease-covered) wretches who actually produce most of the words attributed to chefs in cookbooks,” is the teaser for the piece.
Moskin paints the world of cookbook ghostwriting as an entirely unglamorous one, where the ghosts are often taken for granted by the chefs. Their job is to “produce a credible book from the thin air of a chef’s mind and menu — to cajole and probe, to elicit ideas and anecdotes by any means necessary.”
She names specific chefs, cooks and celebrities who have published several cookbooks including Gwyneth Paltrow’s “My Father’s Daughter,” April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and Her Pig” and others. Here's more from the Times piece:
Many real-world cooks have wondered at the output of authors like Martha Stewart, Paula Deen and Jamie Oliver, who maintain cookbook production schedules that boggle the mind. Rachael Ray alone has published thousands of recipes in her cookbooks and magazine since 2005. How, you might ask, do they do it? The answer: they don’t. The days when a celebrated chef might wait until the end of a distinguished career and spend years polishing the prose of the single volume that would represent his life’s work are gone. Recipes are product, and today’s successful cookbook authors are demons at providing it — usually, with the assistance of an army of writer-cooks.
Since the piece was published, both Paltrow and Ray have publicly denied through Twitter that they used ghostwriters.
I have a question for you. Do you care that some cookbooks are written by ghostwriters? Does it even surprise you? When many of these celebrity chefs and cooks host shows, run restaurant empires, make public appearances and have some sort of personal life, is anyone naive enough to think that they don’t have help writing their books?
I know that help varies. Some may write recipes, but then have others test them and tweak them until they’re cookbook-ready while others may (according to Moskin) simply put their name on the cover. A good cookbook will have the recipes really tested out and scrutinized to make sure that home cooks can replicate the recipe. What celebrity chef or cook has the time do that?
I want the cookbooks on my shelf to be well-tested. If that means that the person whose name is on the cover didn’t do all the work himself (or herself), I understand that and I don’t care. Actually, when I see a cookbook by a celebrity chef, I wonder if someone else has given them a hand with it.
Last year when Emeril Lagasse published “Sizzling Skillets” just one year after publishing “Farm to Fork,” I wondered if he had someone doing work on it with him or for him. But, I had been so impressed with the recipes in “Farm to Fork,” which the publisher had sent me to review, that I wanted “Sizzling Skillets.” So I bought it. Did he have help? I don’t know, and I don’t care.
I don’t buy cookbooks because of the celebrity’s picture on the cover. When I buy them (and I must admit that I get sent many of them for review so I haven’t bought many of the books on my shelf), I buy them for what’s inside, not for whose name is on the outside. And, I know that if what’s inside is going to be any good, a lot of testing and tweaking needs to occur. I’m okay with whatever is needed for that to happen.
What do you think? Do you think it’s okay for celebrity chefs and cooks to publish a cookbook with little or no acknowledgement to their ghostwriters?