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Memoirs of a memoir writer

By Stephanie Goldberg, Special to CNN
Jon Warech co-authored Jodie Sweetin's memoir, "Unsweetined."
Jon Warech co-authored Jodie Sweetin's memoir, "Unsweetined."
  • Celebrity memoirs fill bookshelves before the holiday season
  • Many celebrities might not have the time or skill set to write their own books, expert says
  • Five ghostwriters worked with Zsa Zsa Gabor before her memoirs were finally finished

(CNN) -- When all is said and done, Wendy Leigh is just a name on a book cover.

Sometimes her name is accompanied by the word "with," or, in the case of one juicy memoir, the phrase "assisted by, edited by, and put into proper English by ..."

Leigh is a celebrity ghostwriter -- as crucial to the publishing process as paper and ink.

"Clearly I am not sitting there holding a pen with the [celebrity]," said Leigh, who has co-written autobiographies with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Madonna's brother Christopher Ciccone. "It's a very delicate relationship," she said. "I'm not there as an interrogator. ... Nothing will go in that book that they don't want. But that's not to say you're not going to do quite a bit of coaxing and convincing." Leigh's latest, Barbara Eden's "Jeannie Out of the Bottle" is due out in 2011.

Gallery: Celebrity memoirs

Dan Strone, the CEO of Trident Media Group, a New York-based literary agency, said the reason celebrity memoirs are taking over bookshelves is simple: People buy them. More than 80 celebrity autobiographies have already been published this year.

"When certain books do well, publishers want more of those books. These books have been doing really well: The Toris [Tori Spelling] and the Kendras [Kendra Wilkinson] and the Jon Stewarts," he said.

And with the increased interest in celebrity memoirs comes a need for people who can help get the celebrity's words down on paper. Enter Leigh, and a small circle of Hollywood ghostwriters.

"Sometimes celebrities will try to write a book themselves. ... But because everything in their life seems important, you get to page 200 and they're only 12 years old," Strone said. "It's difficult to sit there by yourself and remember your life because you're in the center of it."

And not every star has the skill set or even the time to sit down and write an autobiography, said Stone.

And it's not just memoirs. Some celebrities employ ghostwriters to help bring their novels to life. But according to ghostwriter Jon Warech, there is little appeal to co-writing someone's novel.

"The argument could be made that more people are going to read it or see it that way, but you're just handing over the credit to someone else," said Warech, who has co-authored memoirs with Kendra Wilkinson and Jodie Sweetin. "But a memoir is their life. They deserve the credit because they lived it. All I'm doing is helping them put it on paper."

Warech said, despite being responsible to tell someone else's life story, there's little pressure involved.

"It's all about staying realistic," he said. "If someone knows who they are ... and what their fan base is looking for, that's really helpful."

But even with the most accommodating, self-aware subject, ghostwriting is not for everyone, Strone said.

"You have to be sort of a shrink -- taking someone through their life, you need patience and put your own ego away because you're not the boss."

As a ghostwriter, "you're part psychoanalyst, part best friend, part lion tamer, part interviewer and part nanny," Leigh said. "You have to crack the whip now and again."

Leigh recalls working with Gabor, who went through co-authors like she went through husbands.

Leigh, the fifth and final writer to attempt Gabor's memoir, ended up uncovering a long list of lovers Gabor had previously chosen to keep under wraps -- simply by asking -- including a secret affair with Frank Sinatra.

"I thought, 'Well, she's met all these people. ... If I had met those people, who would I have had affairs with?' "

Leigh used the same techniques when helping Madonna's younger brother Christopher Ciccone write his best-selling memoir, "Life With My Sister Madonna."

"I knew this was the most amazing topic. ... You could feel Madonna's breath on your face when he talked."

"We live in an age where there's so much out there," Leigh said. "You're very lucky if you have a scoop."

Even so, there's no guarantee that the scoop will end up in finished product, hence the aforementioned coaxing.

"It's the celebrity's book," Strone said. "You can't make someone put something in a book that they don't want to put in it. They're not on the witness stand. I'm not saying they don't tell the truth, but, sometimes, stories are told up to a certain point."

But Leigh and Warech agree: It usually doesn't take much to convince subjects to include salacious information.

"They [usually] know it's important and they just want to hear someone else remind them," Warech said.

Leigh agreed: "It's like an impressionist painting: little brush strokes. You don't want to tread on any sensitivities, yet you don't want to leave stones unturned."