What to Do if an Author Gets Sick

My dad showed me an article a couple of weeks ago about Dean Smith, the University of North Carolina’s most decorated basketball coach. The article was about his struggle with memory loss, and it mentioned the fact his health problems forced John Feinstein to cancel a book project they were collaborating on.

Mr. Feinstein wrote about the situation in a blog post:

The sessions I had with him in August were difficult—more difficult, to be honest, than I anticipated. There were still moments when he was classic Dean. His description of the night he met his first wife, Ann, was hysterical: “It was the graduation dance. She came with a football player I didn’t like. The guy was really cocky. I decided to ask her to dance and we hit it off right away.”

Typical Dean; his competitiveness led him to the altar.

But there were other moments when he simply couldn’t remember things. When I asked him to talk about Bob Spear, his first boss at the Air Force Academy, he said, “you tell me about him. Maybe it will come back.”

Mr. Feinstein recounts how much the book meant to him, and the many ways he tried to make it work, even though “Dean wasn’t Dean anymore.”

I thought briefly about suggesting that I do the project without interviewing Dean any further. Given all the past interviews I had done with him, if I had the cooperation of everyone else involved, I could still write the book. But that didn’t feel right: the agreement Dean and I had was to work together on the book. It was what I had always wanted to do. Going forward with him only being peripherally involved felt wrong.

Concern that any sort of involvement might affect Coach Smith’s health, everyone agreed that the project should be canceled, despite how important they thought the book was, or how much they all trusted Mr. Feinstein to do it the right way.

It’s a sad story, because future readers will never learn the lessons that Mr. Dean’s accomplishments, on and off the basketball court, could have taught them.


A similar situation happened to me after completing about 90% of a manuscript for an author who wanted to tell the story of his business success as a way of inspiring people, especially college kids.

Just before we were going to meet in person to make final additions and changes, he took ill. This was over a year ago, and we haven’t yet been able to finish the book, despite several attempts.

We’re all subject to illness, accidents, and other whims of fate that may derail our best-laid plans. As ghostwriters, we need to consider this in our negotiations with authors. What happens if either party gets incapacitated? Most contracts have standard clauses that allow agreements to be terminated if one of the parties becomes permanently disabled.

But beyond that, the story of Coach Smith tells me that you shouldn’t wait to get your story out. If you have something to say, be sure to say it while you can.

[Photo by taberandrew]