The ethics of ghost-writing

282428943_322a2027b4_oThis week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.

It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.

What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:

  • Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
  • Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?

I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.

Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.

What about the sanctity of the byline?

In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.

Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.

Books are rarely solo projects

Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.

16600055975_5f58168b7c_bA quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.

In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Art v commerce

Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).

Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me)  and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.

Books are not just books

And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.

Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?

trumpI’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.

 

Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business

But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial.  Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.

Weird Tales

You see Houdini’s name in the byline on this cover? The actual writer of this story is believed to be HP Lovecraft.

This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.

‘Let’s not lose the writer’

In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’

 

matt haig

Matt Haig

Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.

Matt Haig also said:

‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’

Lifeform Three by Roz Morris

Do not attempt if you are not Michael Morpurgo. You have been warned

I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).

I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.

It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.

That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.

Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr

ghostwriter red smlAnd, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.

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  1. #1 by DRMarvello on August 14, 2016 - 2:29 pm

    I have no patience for the black-beret “artiste” mentality, and that seems to be what’s really behind all this ethical angst. It’s ego railing against reality.

    Writing is a skill, and like any skill, it can be used to produce work for hire. The problem seems to come in when we start defining something as “art,” as if the product is worth more than the sum of skills used to create it. And it is … for certain audiences. Art is an aesthetic that gains value by consensus. If you write a novel and everyone hates it, is it still art? What if five people in the world think it is the most insightful and entertaining work they’ve ever read? Does it qualify now?

    I see nothing unethical about ghostwriting because writers are hiring out their skills to others under a contractual agreement. Confidentiality is often part of that agreement. Is it deceptive to put the buyer’s name on the end product? No. The product would not exist without the buyer; the writer is a relatively interchangeable widget in this scenario. (Even if you argue that all writers are unique, the buyer is going to hire *someone* to write the book.)

    What about the audience? Do they “deserve” to know who truly wrote the words they’re reading? To many readers, it probably doesn’t matter. We like to know who wrote something we liked so we can acquire more writing by that writer. At heart, that’s a commercial/marketing consideration, even if the desire is driven by an emotional reaction to the writer’s work. Granted, some readers become “fans” and want a deeper connection with the writer, but when healthy, that connection shifts to an interpersonal relationship between individuals where the art was mostly the method of introduction and a common frame of reference.

    Roz said: “It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve.”

    Writers, good or bad, don’t “deserve” breaks. We deserve to produce the best work we can and do our best to find an audience who appreciates it. No one cares as much about our work as we do, so expecting others to carry the torch for us is foolhardy. It’s up to each of us to find a path through the marketplace jungle and deliver our work to readers. It’s not easy. Sometimes, given our own self-limiting viewpoints, it’s impossible. We can’t wait to be discovered; we must discover the strength within ourselves. The publishing industry and book market is what it is. It’s up to us to find a way to thrive within that ecosystem. It’s either that, or accept that our work will remain unknown. All of this angst comes from wishing things were different than they are.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 14, 2016 - 6:59 pm

      Well said, Mr Marvello. There’s the ‘perfect world’ mentality, and then there’s messy reality where we try to do our best. I have never worn a beret.🙂

  2. #3 by depatridge on August 14, 2016 - 3:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog.

  3. #4 by karencv on August 14, 2016 - 3:44 pm

    Interesting article and one that I agree with. I love DRMarvello’s comment, especially the part that a ghostwritten work wouldn’t exist without the client/buyer. I’ve never thought of it that way and I’m a ghostwriter.

  4. #6 by MG Mason on August 14, 2016 - 8:39 pm

    I don’t see it as unethical, especially when you agree to the terms of the contract.

    As a professional web writer I would rather get credit for my work but I would also rather work was uncredited than credited to somebody who did not write it – but I also appreciate that I can have very little control over that if it is what the client prefers.

    I once had a copy agency not pay me and it took weeks to convince the relevant websites that I was the legal owner rather than the named person. I am just a little cautious about somebody else taking credit but not hostile to it.

  5. #8 by jrford on August 15, 2016 - 3:52 am

    Thank you for the link for the “Art of the Deal.” Brilliant writing on the story behind the book, and now I feel like like such a “dunderhead” for liking the book years ago.

    • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 15, 2016 - 5:51 am

      I’m sure Mr Schwartz appreciated your appreciation.

      • #10 by jrford on August 17, 2016 - 3:21 am

        Sorry, it should have read being a dunderhead for “thinking Donald Trump wrote the book and liking it!” Mr Schwartz did a stellar effort to craft “the facts verses Trumps inflated ego” into such a successful book. I now understand in a small way how you must feel as a ghost-writer when there is conflict. I feel Tony Schwartz did the correct ethical move to disclose the details about his involvement in the Art of the Deal. For me personally, I’ll never quote passages out of the book again forever.

  6. #11 by jrhandleyblog on August 15, 2016 - 4:07 am

    Feeding your family has ethical value too…..

  7. #13 by authorleannedyck on August 15, 2016 - 6:12 pm

    I submitted a short story to a short collection and thought I’d be credited as the author. Only one author’s name appears on the book. And it’s not my name. Does that make me a ghost writer?

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 16, 2016 - 2:27 pm

      Hi Leanne! No, I don’t think it does. Are you talking about the Amazon listing? Often they randomly pick just the first author in the collection, or the editor. But hopefully you’re credited somewhere in the book.

  8. #16 by Don Massenzio on August 15, 2016 - 6:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  9. #17 by mlblogsredsoxlady35/lighthousekat on August 15, 2016 - 7:16 pm

    Roz, your words today for some reason stuck me dumb today I really liked your post…I started the reblog over on Don’s page and continued over her. Thanks for sharing your insight into ghost-writers and what or how they write. I don’t think I have ever thought about it quite this way but you are truly correct. I hope you have an awesome week can’t wait to see what else you have in store for the rest of us….I can tell you are going to keep us on our toes. Thanks!! Red Sox Lady 35 and Lighthouse_Kat

  10. #19 by rileyjfroud on August 15, 2016 - 7:30 pm

    Reblogged this on Authordom, or There About.

  11. #20 by LionAroundWriting on August 15, 2016 - 8:27 pm

    Generally I agree with you.

    Books about a band, a memoir or biography for example, that kind of thing I have zero issue with ghost writers being used because without them, the book would never be created.

    When it comes to fiction, the way James Patterson does it, that’s repugnant to me. Everyone knows he doesnt write 13 books a year, he trades off his name and has a team of people write for him. That’s utter bullshit.

    So there’s two sides to it really. And there are a team of people that help get a book to market, but when the writer of a novel isn’t the one on the cover that is worrying and I doubt anyone respects it. Hopefully it doesnt become overly prevalent in fiction.

  12. #24 by dgkaye on August 16, 2016 - 1:06 am

    Thanks for sharing these informative insights with us Roz.🙂

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 17, 2016 - 10:40 pm

      And thanks for all your tweeting and Google Plussing, Debby.

      • #26 by dgkaye on August 17, 2016 - 11:29 pm

        No need to thank Roz. I love sharing good info for other writers.🙂

  13. #27 by patriciaruthsusan on August 16, 2016 - 1:10 pm

    This was an informative and thorough post. However, I differ with you on one point. I don’t know which priests are allowed to break confidentiality, but it isn’t Roman Catholic priests. They’re forbidden under the threat of pain of mortal sin to ever break confidentiality. There is no circumstance under which they may do so. If they were allowed to do so it would keep people from confiding in them. You are free to check on this by asking the Roman Catholic Bishop in your area. This Church law has never changed. It cannot change. —- Suzanne

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 16, 2016 - 2:30 pm

      Hello Suzanne! Aha, I don’t know the law on Roman Catholic priests and I don’t doubt you’re right. I know for a fact that doctors are allowed to break confidentiality in extreme circumstances, and I’m sure I’ve heard doctors I know say that priests of some denominations are allowed to as well. Thanks very much for the clarification and I’ll put a citation in the post.

  14. #29 by dasoulstriker on August 17, 2016 - 11:04 pm

    I don’t agree and i will never agree because i am not convinced at all🙂🙂 why would i give someone my life to represent it because of what money?which why these days we find people represent certain words their life is different behind those words.

  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Readers and Writers 08-18-2016 | The Author Chronicles

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