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Charles Barkley once famously said that he was misquoted in his own autobiography. Many, if not most, of the famous actors, athletes and politicians who write a memoir use a ghost writer - Hillary Clinton, David Beckham, Keith Richards to name a few. Top-tier ghostwriters can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. As NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel discovered, it's their reward for channeling somebody else's ego.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: David Fisher has written over 70 books. He's ghostwritten quarterback Terry Bradshaw, attorney Johnnie Cochran and actor and comedian Leslie Nielsen. And to see how he does it, you have to go down to the basement.

DAVID FISHER: It's a real mess down there.

EMANUEL: Boxes and boxes of cassette tapes.

FISHER: I have literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tapes.

EMANUEL: On those tapes in Fisher's basement in the Bronx are the lives of famous people.

FISHER: Let me get in there. These should be tapes. Yep.

EMANUEL: Secrets about the FBI's crime lab, the pharmaceutical industry's inner workings, Hollywood's real dramas.

FISHER: All right, here are George Burns' tapes. Let's just see what he has to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GEORGE BURNS: There's only one reason why I went into show business. I fell in love with it. It's as simple as that. In fact, the more I flopped, the better I loved it.

FISHER: Have you ever been terrified on the stage?

BURNS: No.

FISHER: Do you still nervous?

BURNS: It sounds like a joke, but I imagine to get nervous, you got to have talent.

EMANUEL: Fisher studies speech patterns, sentence structures, what jokes his subject tell, and then he has to organize all the bits of information into a coherent story. Not so long ago, Fisher's profession was mostly a deep dark secret.

MADELEINE MOREL: Say, 10 years ago, ghostwriting definitely had a sort of dirty name.

EMANUEL: That's Madeleine Morel, a literary agent for ghostwriters.

MOREL: The same way as online dating had a dirty name.

EMANUEL: Morel says those days are long gone.

MOREL: And in fact, it has become a very significant subgenre in publishing. I mean, publishing's absolutely dependent on ghostwriters.

EMANUEL: She estimates that if you look at the nonfiction bestseller list right now...

MOREL: At least 60 percent of all those books, at least 60 percent, are ghostwritten.

EMANUEL: That's because celebrities sell books, but they can't necessarily write books. So what about the actual product?For that, I talked to Dan Paisner. He's ghosted almost 50 books, with Gilbert Gottfried, Denzel Washington...

DAN PAISNER: I've been an autistic high school student. I've been a founder of the most successful urban fashion line. I was the 17-time Grand Slam champion.

EMANUEL: Yep, he means Serena Williams.

PAISNER: I was a Holocaust survivor. What else? I was the three-term Democratic mayor for New York City. I was the three-term Republican Governor from New York state.

EMANUEL: But he readily admits, he's not writing the next "Moby Dick." His works often don't have a very long shelf life. He's often racing against the clock - the celebrity's 15-minutes-of-fame clock. So while he can labor over a book for two years, he can also crank one out in two weeks, writing up to 35 pages a day. But regardless of how long it takes, he has one main goal.

PAISNER: The end game is to capture the tone, the voice, the essence of the subject that you're working with.

EMANUEL: He recently did a book for surfer Izzy Paskowitz.

PAISNER: He comes from a legendary American surfing family. So the goal there was for his book to sound like a surfer dude, and there's no room in that experience for some ghostwriter from New York breathing down the reader's neck.

EMANUEL: He started interviewing, gathering material, and then he started writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

IZZY PASKOWITZ: Didn't much matter to us kids if we woke up on a beach in Florida or Texas or Rhode Island or all the way down at the tip of the Baja Peninsula...

PAISNER: ...Or even in the motel parking lot, tucked way in the back where the streetlight didn't quite reach, as long as we could surf and hang out and make our little pieces of trouble.

EMANUEL: That's Paisner in New York and the surfer himself in Southern California. Paskowitz says when he started working on the book, he had his doubts. Fast forward a year. He has taught Paisner how to surf. They have bonded over beers. And finally, Paskowitz sat down to read his own book for the first time.

PASKOWITZ: It is my voice. It is my words. It is everything that I would say. And I was blown away, you know, how incredibly interesting, you know, my life was.

EMANUEL: And his ghostwriter Dan Paisner says that's the point.

Gabriela Emanuel, NPR News.

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