Fans and foes alike have worked themselves into a speculative lather in recent weeks over the contents of Sarah Palin's memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life. Now that the book's Nov. 17 release has answered those questions, just one mystery remains: how the heck did the former Alaska governor pen the 413-page tome in just four months?
Palin's publisher says the answer is simple: hard work. "When she resigned as governor, she had a lot more time and was able to really devote herself full-time to writing the book," says Tina Andreadis, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins. "That's really all that there is."
Well, there's also this: Palin had help. Editorial sidekicks are par for the course in political memoirs, though ghostwriters say many pols are heavily involved in the writing process. Palin's assist came from Lynn Vincent, a writer for the Christian news magazine WORLD who has co-authored several other books.
Vincent is mum on the collaboration; a confidentiality agreement forbids her from divulging any details. But the authors behind other famous names say a variety of factors can influence how quickly a ghostwriter does her job.
Foremost among them is the richness of the subject material and here Palin, with her colorful family, devoted following and knack for inciting controversy at every turn, is a ghostwriter's dream. "Your worst enemy is a boring subject," says Sally Jenkins, co-author of Lance Armstrong's 2000 best seller, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, and other sports memoirs. "And [Palin] certainly isn't that."
It also helps to have a subject who knows what message she wants to get across. Palin was apparently clear from the start about her book's mission: "It will be nice through an unfiltered forum to get to speak truthfully about who we are and what we stand for and what Alaska is all about," she told the Anchorage Daily News in May, when the deal was first announced. Memoirists with fuzzier goals may find the process slowed by handlers or publishers who bicker over how the book should read, ghostwriters say.
But having a clear message is no guarantee of speed, especially if it's a policy-heavy, labor-intensive one. Crafting former CIA chief George Tenet's 2007 memoir, which was laden with sensitive information and required extensive document research, took about 18 months, says ghostwriter Bill Harlow. "If it's more personality driven, I think it's probably easier to finish in a shorter period of time," he says.
The last potential time sink is steeping the ghostwriter in the author's voice well enough that he or she can channel it convincingly. Palin's singular rhetorical style is a boon on that score. "The fun part is when you get to the point that they don't even notice it wasn't something they actually said," says Jenkins. "Sarah Palin, in her own odd vernacular, is incredibly sort of quotable and eloquent, in her own Palinesque way."
After interviewing the memoirist extensively, talking to family members, scrutinizing television appearances and mining speeches or other documents, a ghostwriter with the need for speed may enlist transcribers and fact checkers to expedite the process. But in the end, how quickly the book gets finished depends largely on the ghostwriter's drive to grind it out. "My friends used to joke about, I think it's Control plus F10 [the computer shortcut that brings up] the word count," says Barbara Feinman Todd, who ghostwrote Hillary Clinton's 1996 best seller, It Takes a Village, among other books. Jenkins, meanwhile, recalls months of pumping out 40 pages a week for Armstrong's memoir. "You're a basket case afterward," she says. "But you can certainly do it."
Once the ghostwriter has finished writing, the task of rushing a book into print falls to the publisher. If a newsy or highly anticipated manuscript arrives on schedule, says Steve Culpepper, executive director of editorial at Globe Pequot Press, editors huddle with sales and marketing staff members, among others, to determine whether it's big enough to be worth crashing out quickly. The company's president makes the final call.
If it's a go, each step in the release process gets crunched. Instead of having a manuscript copyedited all at once and then sent to the author for review, doing it piecemeal can whittle the typical four-week process down to less than one, Culpepper says. Two weeks of fact-checking can get cut in half, and design and layout times may be curtailed from five weeks to five days. Eight days are shaved off the usual 10 for proofreading. And last-minute corrections are done in a single day instead of a week. When the printed books arrive in the warehouse, they're shipped out again the same day.
The impetus for all that extra work is, of course, money. Rush rates can bump up copyediting, proofreading and fact-checking costs by 50%, Culpepper explains. Which means the publisher has to calculate whether or not getting a book out quickly will drive up sales. In that sense, the decision to expedite Palin's memoir was a slam dunk, since the quick turnaround ensures that the book will hit shelves with just 38 shopping days until Christmas. "It's holiday time, which is the best, best time to sell a book," says HarperCollins' Andreadis. "We're thrilled."