The hottest author working today has sold more than 5 million books in the past five years. She commands top-dollar advances, and one of her most popular works is being turned into a film starring Samuel L. Jackson. The only catch: you’ve probably never heard of her.
Lynn Vincent is a ghostwriter, the collaborator behind such giant hits as Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. But over the past two years, as her books have reliably rocketed to the top of bestseller lists, Vincent has also become a star.
This makes her something of a walking contradiction. In a profession full of beggars, Vincent can be a chooser, picking books that match her own conservative and Christian worldview. Usually ghostwriters are paid to stay out of the picture. But a string of staggering successes has dragged Vincent into the spotlight. With her latest, Unsinkable, about 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland’s unsuccessful trip around the world, out this month, the professionally anonymous collaborator could achieve a rare publishing hat trick: having three books on the bestseller lists in one week—and that tally doesn’t even include Going Rogue, which sold more than 2 million copies.
Palin’s book gave Vincent a huge audience, but Going Rogue is one of Vincent’s lesser accomplishments, commercially at least. Vincent’s Heaven Is for Real, cowritten with a Nebraska pastor about his toddler’s otherworldly experience, is outselling every other book in the country. Three million copies have been printed since its November publication, Vincent says. Same Kind of Different as Me, the story of the friendship between a wealthy white Texas art dealer and a black former sharecropper, cowritten by Vincent, has been on the bestseller lists for more than three years.
The collaboration game is a highly discreet business, but not everyone in the industry has remained invisible. Gerold Frank gained renown for ghosting for Hollywood starlets like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Last year, Roman Polanski accomplished the impossible—making ghostwriting look both dangerous and sexy—with his movie The Ghost Writer.
Vincent’s life story sounds like, well, something written by Lynn Vincent. She was homeless, living in an abandoned drug house, before fleeing her abusive mother. Later, wanting to see the world, Vincent dropped out of college and joined the Navy, becoming an air-traffic controller. Based in Sicily as an airman in 1985, Vincent remembers sneaking onto the weather deck to witness the capture of the Achille Lauro cruise ship’s hijackers, pitting U.S. Special Operations commandos against the carabinieri. In 1992, Vincent left the military and became a full-time writer.
Vincent, 48, is tightlipped about working with the former Alaska governor, but she does talk about the criticism that came with the job. Muzzled by a nondisclosure agreement with Palin, Vincent had to stay mum while angry Dems rifled through her past for signs of zealotry. Vincent once wrote an article for World, a biweekly publication based in Asheville, N.C., which called President Obama a “minority survivor” of “black genocide,” appropriating a phrase first used by a black pastor to describe the impact of abortion on the African-American community. Her 2006 Donkey Cons didn’t have many kind words for Democrats.
The most successful ghostwriters can earn millions in royalties, though most make far less.
“You can starve to death as a collaborator,” Vincent says. “If the Sarah Palin project didn’t come through when it did, I would have been eating a lot of ramen.”
Two threads, often entwined, run through Vincent’s books: redemption and Christianity. Palin’s book was nothing if not a score-settler. Vincent also cowrote Jerry Boykin’s memoir, Never Surrender. Boykin, a retired lieutenant general, gained notoriety for casting the U.S. war on terror in religious terms. (The Los Angeles Times called Boykin “an intolerant extremist.”) Vincent also thinks that the Sunderland family got a bad shake in the media’s coverage of their daughter’s voyage. Although Vincent signs emails “Jesus Rocks,” she resists the idea that her books are only for the faithful.
Sarah Palin gave her ghostwriter an enviable platform, but Vincent knows that for many new readers, she’ll always be Palin’s ghost. Now, she’s the one feeling haunted.
“I’m forever linked with Palin,” Vincent says. “You see reviews of Heaven Is for Real, saying, ‘This was written by Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter, therefore it is bunk.’?”