Shining a light on the hidden
world of surrogate storytelling

What can a talented ghostwriter do for you? Ask Donald Trump.

April 17, 2017

In the summer of 2016, before the term “Trump Administration” had entered the lexicon, the New Yorker published a story about the ghostwriter who’d penned Donald Trump’s massively successful 1987 break-out memoir/business-advice book, The Art of the Deal.

Tony Schwartz, who was a writer for New York when he landed the gig, made a killing on the book, on which he is credited as a co-author. Prior to talking to the New Yorker, Schwartz, who followed Trump around for eighteen months, had never before spoken publicly about the experience of working with him. But as his presidential star began to rise, Schwartz became deeply remorseful about the role he’d played in helping to mythologize him as a brilliant mogul in America’s eyes. He told the New Yorker he’d “put lipstick on a pig” and confessed that if he were writing The Art of the Deal today he’d title it The Sociopath.

One of the most important roles a ghostwriter plays in the creation of a book is making the author appear relatable on the page. Some authors are naturally relatable. But some need image enhancement. How much enhancement they need to make them appealing depends on the author. I’m guessing Schwartz had his work cut out for him there.

First, though, the ghostwriter has to come up with a narrative that will sell the author to a wider audience. In that respect, Schwartz was invaluable to Trump. While the idea to publish his memoir was the brainchild of a New York media magnate, the concept for the book – and the title – originated with him.

Schwartz first crossed paths with Trump when he interviewed him for a New York story. He portrayed him as a thug in that story, but to his astonishment Trump loved it. Schwartz was interviewing him for another when he clammed up. By then he had a book deal. He told Schwartz he wanted to save his best material for his memoir. Schwartz laughed and said he didn’t have one yet. He was only thirty-eight! He advised him to call his book “The Art of the Deal”. That was a topic people would be interested in. Trump agreed and asked if he wanted to write it.

The Art of The Deal exponentially expanded Trump’s celebrity, turned him into the poster boy for a tycoon, and led to his reality star turn on The Apprentice. We all know where things went from there. In the spring of 2016, when Trump was on his way to clinching the Republican nomination, Jeff Zucker, who created The Apprentice and is now president of CNN Worldwide, reportedly ran into Trump in the men’s room of CNN’s Washington bureau. Trump asked him whether he thought what was happening would have happened without that show. “Nope” Zucker replied.

Zucker is undoubtedly right about that. But if you’re connecting the dots, you really have to connect them back to Tony Schwartz, because Schwartz is the guy who conceived the narrative that sold Trump to a mass audience in the first place. (Hence the remorse.) But he didn’t just invent a defining narrative for his client. He turned Trump into a charming character with a genius for dealmaking.

In other words, he created an idea of Trump that he could then sell again and again on many different platforms – TV, Twitter, The White House, to name a few. Trump may be finding that narrative harder to sell these days, but it certainly had a long run. However, in Trump’s case, Schwartz didn’t just create a powerful brand narrative and hugely profitable revenue stream for his client. He created a monster. As Schwartz’s former editor and publisher at New York told the New Yorker: “Tony created Trump. He’s Dr. Frankenstein.”

All of which is to say that if you’re thinking of publishing a book, the ghostwriter you choose is the most important decision you’ll make. We’ll never know how Trump’s memoir would have sold if he’d worked with a different ghostwriter. What we do know is that if you plan to hire a ghostwriter, you’d be wise to choose one with a keen eye for optics and the skill to create a narrative and persona your audience will be powerless to resist.

  • It’s always a pleasure to read what you write, Wendy Dennis. Your observational skills and incisive points of view are as delightful as they are enlightening. Keep up the good work!

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    I’m an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and ghostwriter of business books, memoirs and speeches for special occasions. I like helping people talk about ideas that excite them and people they love. Many people are curious about ghostwriting. A lot have misconceptions about it. If you’re interested, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the subject here from time to time.