Donald Trump's co-writer and the ethics of ghostwriting

There's been some interesting debate in the ghostwriting community over the last few weeks since The New Yorker published an interview with Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump in 1987.

In the interview, Schwartz pulls back the curtains on his time with Trump, essentially to make a case that the Trump he worked with is manifestly unsuitable to be president of the USA.

If nothing else, this article is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how the ghostwriter/author relationship can work.

Every such relationship is different, of course, but one of the points illustrated is that sometimes a ghostwriting subject can be less than forthcoming and the writer needs to get creative in order to collect meaningful material. Schwartz's experience bears a number of similarities to that of the fictional Thomas Yates in House of Cards.

But that's not the source of the controversy. Debate has arisen from a perception by many who feel that Schwartz has broken a golden rule of ghostwriting by speaking out.

There's a reason why ghostwriters are so-called. We are 'ghosts' in the sense of being invisible. In the truest ghostwriting/client relationship, the writer is strictly a behind-the-scenes assistant. He or she is a gun for hire, paid to do a job that starts with the book idea and ends when the writing is complete. What goes on in the 'locker room' of the project should stay in the locker room.

Certainly that is the way I regard any ghostwriting assignment on which I work. And on that basis there would seem to be no doubt that Schwartz has been disloyal, at the very least.

But ... it isn't quite so simple.

There are at least two extenuating circumstances in this case.

First, Schwartz was not a ghostwriter in the truest sense as his name is on the cover of the book. He's a co-author. That changes things quite a lot. His name is publicly attached to the book and its contents.

The real question of Schwartz becomes why he agreed to that in the first place when – as he describes in some detail to The New Yorker – he knew the book was full of falsehoods and that it paints a grossly trumped up (was ever a word more apt?) portrait of its subject. What's more, at the outset, he had already written about Trump previously and didn't like either the man or what he stood for. "He knew that he would be making a Faustian bargain."

The reason why Schwartz agreed to having his name on the cover is, to put it bluntly, money. For a writer, a huge amount of money. Trump agreed to Schwartz's terms for taking on the project, namely that Schwartz would be a named author and that they would equally share the publisher's advance of half-a-million dollars and of ongoing royalties. Those royalties have reputedly been worth many millions of dollars since. As a young journalist, Schwartz was set up financially to an extent that 99% of his colleagues could only ever dream of.

It seems easy now to point the finger at Schwartz and tell him he sold out, but he freely admits that he did so. And I would suggest that the vast majority of writers would in the same circumstances.

The other extenuating circumstance in this case are the stakes are much higher with Donald Trump having won the Republican party nomination for the US presidency.

When Schwartz worked with Trump on the book, Trump was no more than a loud, dodgy businessman. For the most part, the only real harm he could do, and was doing, was the ripping off of other businessmen. It wasn't ethical, but it was just business. This was before Trump had any real profile outside New York. It was before The Apprentice), which made Trump properly famous. In fact that television show was spawned by The Art of the Deal.

How things have changed. There is now a very real chance that Trump could become the next US president, and this seriously worries Schwartz, who knows Trump better than most. As president, no longer would Trump just be conning a few other dubious business colleagues. His would literally have the power to put millions of lives at risk. As Schwartz tells The New Yorker, "I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization." And this is only one of his fears about Trump. I strongly suggest you read his interview to get the full picture.

So how to judge Schwartz? While not entirely comfortable with them, I can understand his actions – both originally and recently. I think it's difficult for any of us to honestly know how we would react in similar circumstances. Schwartz clearly would have preferred to keep 'mum', and did so through the nomination process hoping that Trump wouldn't win the primaries and the dilemma would melt away. It didn't, and finally he felt he had to speak.

As for the ethics of ghostwriting, I do believe this is a very special and rare case. I know my clients and those of the vast majority of ghostwriters can rest assured that their confidences will be kept forever. Unless you're a narcissistic demagogue running for the top job in the most powerful nation on earth, you have nothing to worry about.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

Image by Gage Skidmore on used under Creative Commons license.

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