The Secret Side Careers of Successful Authors

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Today’s post is by SaaS copywriter Alexander Lewis (@alexander-j-lewis).


Open by Andre Agassi is one of my favorite books I’ve read in the past few years. Agassi’s tennis memoir details his long emotional road from training as a child under the strict guidance of his father to his hardest-won achievements as a world-renowned tennis icon. Readers of Open are likely to miss one subtle interesting detail about the making of the book. It’s a brief story, buried in the acknowledgments section, about a disagreement between Agassi and his ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer.

Writing the memoir required multiple years of close collaboration between Agassi and Moehringer. As the book neared publication, Agassi wanted Moehringer to receive public credit for all his hard work. Agassi insisted that both their names should appear on the cover.

Moehringer pushed back. He believed Agassi’s name alone should be on the front cover: it was Agassi’s story, after all. All you have to do is glance at the book cover to know Moehringer got his way. But Agassi still wanted to give credit where it was due. This small story about their disagreement, along with a kind note of gratitude from Agassi, is the only appearance of Moehringer’s name in the book.

Sometimes the craft of writing is more important to an author than seeing their name on a book cover. Many successful authors maintain side writing careers, where they can exercise their abilities in a new medium. These side hustles receive far less publicity than their books, and often include less glamorous writing styles such as grant writing, copywriting, and ghostwriting.

Here are three of my favorite examples of authors with secret writing side careers:

1. Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is a modern literary powerhouse, writing mostly in the genre of Western Noir. Some of his most famous works include the novels No Country for Old Men, The Road, and Blood Meridian. He is a living legend in the literary community, with many universities offering courses that explore his body of work.

What you may not have guessed is that this literary giant is also a scientist and science writer at the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a Trustee. He has worked in the science field more than two decades, and has been described as, “an aficionado on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, comparative evidence bearing on non-human intelligence, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind.”

McCarthy’s first science paper, called “The Kekulé Problem,” was published in 2017.

2. Ryan Holiday

Many people know Ryan Holiday for his books on Stoicism: Ego Is the Enemy and The Obstacle Is the Way, among other titles. But for years, Holiday has also used his writing chops to run a quietly successful author marketing agency called Brass Check, where he has collaborated with successful authors including Tim Ferriss, John Grisham, Arianna Huffington, and Tony Robbins.

Holiday’s day-to-day work at the company is difficult to learn about because he doesn’t publicly promote his services often. But following his work carefully, you’ll learn that book ghostwriting and book consulting are just a few of his writerly services. He seems to enjoy the craft of writing as much as he enjoys the business of book promotion.

3. Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is a gifted storyteller who built his career writing nonfiction stories, often about complex subjects such as high finance. Many of his books—including The Big Short and Moneyball—have been turned into blockbuster films. For most of his writing career, Lewis has been a journalist, writing books and articles for some of the largest publications.

In the last few years, Lewis has taken his writing skills to the world of audio. Inspired by fellow nonfiction author Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis launched his podcast, Against the Rules, in 2019 to write within a new storytelling medium.

Writing careers extend beyond book publishing

Like many writers, I have loved the craft of writing most of my life. Until my early twenties, I thought making a career through writing meant writing novels or being a journalist.

It turns out for many writers—even those who’ve achieved great literary success—the love of writing runs deeper than merely seeing their name in print.

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