Giving Up the Ghostwriter

For over a decade, Kristin Loberg has quietly co-authored a long list of bestselling books for medical superstars like David Agus and Sanjay Gupta. Now she’s embroiled in a growing plagiarism scandal that has her celebrity clients worried sick

In 2014, Kristin Loberg—ghost author of scores of books, including New York Times best-sellers by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dr. David Perlmutter, and investor Phil Town— penned an article for the Los Angeles Editors and Writers Group, a 24-year-old ghostwriting organization that advertises itself with the slogan, “pros for your prose.” She titled her piece “The Secret to Creating Truly Original Content.”

The secret, which she implored every writer to use, was anti-plagiarism software. “It’s far too easy to cut and paste with good intentions during the crazy writing process and later find yourself accused of plagiarism. I know, you didn’t mean it. You had no idea. It was a mistake. But it happens, more than you might imagine,” she writes.

In March, Simon & Schuster pulled Dr. David Agus’ The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life the day before it was to come out after learning it included about 100 passages plagiarized from other sources. Like all three of the previous books that Agus has published in the last 12 years, it was ghostwritten by Loberg, whose name appears on the title page.

Agus, a USC professor, and cancer researcher who runs the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, had been paired with Loberg by his publisher, Simon & Schuster, who vaunted her speed, likeability, and talent. All of which he found to be true. The Westwood-born Loberg was valedictorian at Marymount High School, attended Cornell and was crushed when she didn’t get into medical school in 1997. She ended up using her pre-med knowledge to help actual doctors write their books.

Agus says he dictated the substance of the book; Loberg added the color. She assured him that she had run the books through plagiarism software multiple times. She assured all her authors the same thing. It was in her contract.

But the L.A. Times found that The Book of Animal Secrets, which argues that species such as pigeons and pigs can help humans deal with conditions like memory loss and chronic pain, had passages yanked from the New York Times, National Geographic, scientific journals, college websites, Wikipedia, and a South African safari company’s “Ten Craziest Facts You Should Know About a Giraffe.” (Some of which aren’t even crazy, such as number one: They’re tall.) 

Other than when he treated Steve Jobs, Agus, 58, had never been told anything besides that he’s awesome He’s the optimistic, non-threatening expert who regularly appears on CBS Mornings and the Howard Stern Show, and launched the Pararmount+ show The Check Up with David Agus, where he examines Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Ashton Kutcher, Nick Cannon, and Amy Schumer. Now, he had to worry that his cancer patients would lose trust in him. Or worry he was distracted. Plus, his donors might get nervous.

He didn’t sleep. He addressed the issue with his staff. And he ran all his books through a plagiarism checker.

It was bad. He discovered more than 25 passages in 2012’s The End of Illness that plagiarized Dr. David Perlmutter’s Grain Brain. But Perlmutter’s book hit bookshelves a year after Agus’s book did. It turned out Agus’ books were not only full of plagiarism but were being plagiarized too. By Loberg. Who also ghostwrote Grain Brain.

So Perlmutter, after reading about Loberg’s misadventures with Agus, ran all the books he’d written with her through the plagiarism software.  It spit out a giant list. Perlmutter issued a statement on his website apologizing for all the plagiarism. Sanjay Gupta is about to do the same. As, undoubtedly, are a whole lot of people that Loberg has worked with.

It’s beginning to look like Loberg might be the biggest serial plagiarist of all time.

Kristin Loberg (via LinkedIn)

She has issued a public apology, stripped her website of all of its content, and sent me very nice emails saying she didn’t have more to say right now. From what I can tell, none of the sentences in those emails was taken from any other source.

Nearly all experts and celebrities use ghostwriters, who aren’t really ghost-like since their names usually appear on the title page, cover, or acknowledgments. They’re usually paid in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, although the top 30 get $100,000 to $300,000, and the New York Post reported that J.R. Moehringer got more than $1 million in an advance for the Prince Harry memoir. Some authors are less involved than others. Nine weeks before his memoir came out, I asked Tony Bennett if he’d read it yet. “I’ve read sections of it. But I like what’s happening. I’m telling most of it to Will Friedwald. He’s doing a great job.” Agus and Perlmutter were very involved. 

Hillary Liftin has collaborated on 14 New York Times bestsellers including celebrity memoirs and self-help books. She got into the ghostwriting business after publishing two of her own books, and people are always asking her if she will write more of her own work. “Ownership is not what I’m in it for. This is the job I want,” she says. “It’s all the parts of writing I love and all the parts I don’t want to do. It’s collaborative. Someone is handing you material and it’s a puzzle you have to solve.” She thinks it’s weird when people assume actors and doctors write their own books even though they have never written anything before. 

After I told Liftin about Loberg, she reached out to a group of fellow ghostwriters, none of whom had heard about the brewing scandal. “They went from speculating on how this happened, to worrying about that to how they avoid it,” she said. Liftin says she always uses  Grammarly’s plagiarism checker to double-check her own work. Publishers don’t normally run authors’ work through plagiarism software because, in addition to the fact that copying text is rare, it could legally expose them to the responsibility that’s firmly in the writers’ contract. 

Back in 2009, after being shocked that Sarah Palin got a book out in four months—I asked Neil Strauss if he could ghostwrite my memoir in one day. In addition to writing best-sellers such as The Game and working at The New York Times and Rolling Stone, Strauss has ghosted for Rick Rubin, Motley Crue, and Jenna Jameson. His Jonas Brothers book is coming out soon, and his Lisa Marie Presley memoir would have been next, had she not died in January. As for ghostwriting my memoir, it took him all of seven hours to pump out a 49-page booklet that was not only in my voice but was better than most of what I’ve published. 

Neil didn’t even know anti-plagiarism software existed until I told him about it. It’s not like his exact words about Dave Navarro shooting up at the Playboy mansion were going to appear in other places. When I told him Loberg had stolen stuff from Wikipedia, he was flabbergasted. “That’s a plagiarization of a plagiarization problem. How far down does this go?” Strauss figures there are two very different types of books ghostwriters are hired to do. “It’s either taking all the material you have and condensing it into a book or taking a small amount of material and expanding it into a book,” he said. The latter carries far more danger.

Blaming Agus, he says, is ridiculous. “Do I blame him? No more than if there’s a run on a bank and you lose a deposit. Is it your fault? Or is it the bank’s responsibility to protect your money? When you sign these contracts as a ghostwriter one of the parts is you say your work is original.” 

But is this like a bank not protecting your money? How horrifying is the actual crime? Loberg wasn’t stealing paragraphs from Toni Morrison. How valuable is the intellectual property in the wording of “Both laboratory and clinical studies have shown that virtually every system in the body is affected by the quality and amount of sleep we get.” No one memorizes passages from David Agus’s books. The value of these books is their ideas and data. And none of the facts in them have been found to be wrong.

My 13-year-old son is learning how to write a paper. His teacher had the class practice rewriting their research into different words. He’s being asked to translate English into English, like moving rocks from one pile to another in a North Korean prison.

Sometimes we apply the law without the reason behind it. I hope everyone involved in this scandal is given more than forgiveness. I hope they’re given understanding.

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