Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter?

A few months ago, a blogger challenged me with this question. Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter? (Why would anyone ask me this? I have a secret past.)

And just this week, John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors wrote about the ethics of ghostwriting, how he was initially doubtful but is now using a ghostwriter for books of his own.

So here’s the short answer. It’s complicated.

Who wrote that book? Maybe more people than you think.  

Publishing has always been a team effort. This is often a surprise to readers, and also to inexperienced writers. There’s a belief that the published book is exactly what the author first sent to the publisher.

The reality is different. Your manuscript is only the start. It becomes a patient in a long and intricate operation. It will have editors, of several varieties – some for the big picture, some for the detail goofs you didn’t know were possible (how many Tuesdays did you put in one week?).  There are also designers, marketers and publicity folk.

Your book may have germinated from just you, but by the time it greets the world, it’s had many midwives.

With ghostwriting, you add one more midwife. The writer splits into two people – the person with the life, ideas and experience, and the person who crafts that into text.

But… (I hear you say…) all those editors, designers etc are assistants. It’s the writer who’s at the helm, who ‘invents’ the book. The writer might have guidance, sometimes heavy guidance, but they do the most work.

Up to a point, yes. But sometimes a person has the raw materials but can’t turn them into a book. Maybe they could learn; maybe that would be impossible. Maybe they could write but don’t have enough time. But when publishers spot a commercial opportunity, they are chasing an immediate market. They need it done fast.

Commercial

This is a crucial word: commercial. Ghostwriters are generally used in the high-volume sectors of publishing, The books are usually fronted by a person who is marketable because of fame or life or expertise, but doesn’t have writing-fu. Or perhaps they’re too busy running businesses, winning grand slams or saving the world. So a ghostwriter is brought in – who can write exactly what’s needed and in a timely way. If all goes well, everyone benefits.

But.. (I hear you say…) isn’t it a cheat? To imply that a person can write a book when they can’t?

Qualms

I agree with your qualms. Morally it is questionable. It might undermine the skills of real writers. We have a myth that anyone can write a book, probably because everyone seems to. Mumble-minded sports stars can do it, so it cannot be very difficult. Indeed, they apparently dash off a memoir or tome of life advice without pausing their all-consuming day job.

Thus the use of ghostwriters might make the public (and your aunt) assume that anyone can toss off a book. In their spare time, indeed.

There’s also an issue of trust. The byline is sacred, isn’t it? It’s the promise on the tin. It should be the name of the person who sweated the book personally onto the page.

Well, the ghostwriter’s sweat doesn’t go unacknowledged. Money is a good acknowledgement. Ghostwriting is paid at a commercial rate and there might be royalties.

Ghostwriters aren’t always invisible. Sometimes we get a co-credit. That depends on the individual deal and whether it looks ‘bad’ for the ‘author’ to have had help. Getting murky again…

Murk

Oh yes, there is murk. Sometimes the ‘author’ isn’t co-operative, or isn’t as interesting as the publisher hoped, or some of their content can’t be used because of legal issues. The publishing team must salvage what they can to get a book on the shelves. Usually no harm is done. Usually.

I can see you’re itching to mention Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. Its ghostwriter has gone on record to say the book contained hardly any Trump, yet helped create his reputation (full story here ).

What other murk is lurking? Oh yes, the kinds of books you think should not be ghostwritten.

But surely not novels…

Do you assume ghostwriting is only for non-fiction? Memoirs, business books, self-help, autobiographies? You’d better sit down. A sizeable amount of fiction is ghostwritten too. (Writing fiction for others used to be my speciality.  Shhh.)

Remember: in commercial publishing, books are sold by names and notoriety. Verily, even in fiction. Put another way, if a celeb needed help to write their memoir, they’ll sure need help with their novel. Some are entirely up front about this.

Even among the ‘genuine’ authors, there are books that have many midwives. James Patterson makes no secret of using other writers to help him meet demand. Others keep their ‘assistants’ a secret, or possibly don’t realise how much is done to make their book respectable. Many editorial staff in big publishing imprints have had to rewrite a manuscript because the author reached the limit of their craft or the clock was running down. Editing and ghostwriting are two ends of a long and blurred spectrum.

Does that worry me? Yes and no. As a writer who works hard at their craft, I’m not thrilled if a book that needed substantial rescuing gets a good reputation it doesn’t deserve. But that is commercial publishing.

If that irks you too, you’d better sit down, because I’m about to reveal something bad. No, lie down; it’s thoroughly grubby.

Are you lying comfortably?

There are authors who are offered novel deals with en-suite ghostwriters because they are distinguished in other areas of life. If those novels do well, those authors become literary pundits, judge literary prizes etc.

With most ghostwritten books, the deception is largely harmless, because the writing is not the chief draw. The content is. But where the writing is the thing… Any writer who is struggling to be recognised for their skill and quality will find that hard to stomach.

And breathe.

But…

Before we write ghosting off as evil and underhand, we should consider one defining factor. For the writer (the actual wordsmith writer) a ghostwritten book isn’t the same as your own.

The ghostwriter creates a book that someone else would write…. If they could. They don’t write a book and have it torn from their hands. They create a book to a contract, for a purpose. They apply their craft and skill to raw material from another person – a life story, technical or business expertise, a special world. In that respect, the name on the cover and the face in the author pic are honest. They are the true soul of the book. (Though see the caveats above.)

Perhaps ‘ghost’ is the wrong term. Perhaps it should be ‘medium’.

Business

Ghostwriting is also a business arrangement, like any professional service. It has to be, in order to pay both ‘author’ and ghost – and at a decent market rate. Ghostwriters are hired by publishers or by people who’ll get a good return on their investment, and many writers use it as a second line to help fund their ‘real’ books.

Which means that, amid the chicanery and shadows, there is an honest living to be made by the ghostwriter.

Thanks for Venice carnival mask picture, Sweetaholic on Pixaby. Thanks Olivander on Flickr for the monkey. Thanks Actualitte on Flickr for the London Book Fair.

If you’re interested to know more about how to break in and how the industry works, I have a professional ghostwriting course.

And if you’re curious to know what I’ve been up to in my genuine writing life, here’s my latest newsletter

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  1. #1 by bamauthor on January 12, 2020 - 8:40 pm

    Ghostwriting still does not sit well with me.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 12, 2020 - 11:24 pm

      I know it’s a difficult concept for many people. But that, unfortunately, is one of the realities of very commercial publishing! Thanks for speaking up.

  2. #3 by acflory on January 12, 2020 - 9:38 pm

    Mmm…there’s a lot of truth in what you say, Roz, but even when ghostwriting allows the writer to make a living, always a good thing, those who hire the ghostwriter are still exploiting the writer’s /need/ to make a living. Given how beautifully you write, I know the trad. publishers you worked for received a great deal more than they paid for. :/

  3. #5 by Sam "Goldie" Kirk on January 12, 2020 - 10:35 pm

    I’m with everyone who responded before me.
    While I do see the advantage (you actually get paid to write and maybe you will be named a co-author), I cannot overlook the disadvantage. It’s not that I feel bad for the ghostwriter. It’s their choice, after all. What leaves the sour taste in my mouth is the author whose name is on the book. To me, that’s a lie. Would I read a book that clearly stated that the author is not the actual person who wrote the book? Probably not. Would I be disgusted to find out that the author that I admire did not write a single book? Most definitely. I’m super glad to not be looking up to any of the star authors. Ultimately, it comes down to a business deal between the ghostwriter and the author. If they agree, then more power to them. But as a reader, I feel deceived. As a writer, I would love to have someone write a book for me while I try to catch up on life.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 12, 2020 - 11:29 pm

      Thanks for continuing the discussion, Sam. As you no doubt saw, one of my concerns was the trust in the byline. To readers, the byline has to be true. Behind the scenes, though, it might not be.

  4. #7 by cagedunn on January 12, 2020 - 10:56 pm

    Now for the other side … when I’ve written tomes for employers, they own the material and my name doesn’t get a look-in. They supply the information and pay me to put it in order. It’s in the contract.
    I’ve been asked to ghost-write, but when I start asking questions about what the subject matter is, how much information they have to work from, and the cost, it stops the query dead. Usually. There are some people who have so much information, so little time (elderly, infirm, etc.), but want to get it done for family or posterity (war stories from old soldiers) – these can be good candidates, but they don’t have much money.
    A ghost-writer does the work from what they are supplied with, they don’t start from scratch (usually – but those other ones are farms).
    I think part of the misconception is that the ghost-write starts with someone giving the writer an idea to play with, but it’s not that at all. If there’s not enough information and primary sources to call on, it’s not a good candidate for a book, whether ghost-written or not.
    Anyway, that’s my opinion.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 12, 2020 - 11:33 pm

      Thanks for raising this point about the amount of work involved. A ghostwriter needs plenty of material to write a book, and plenty of time to make a good job of it. All this costs money – and should translate into a proper payment for the time spent. And the skill! It also gives an idea of how much work any writer has to do to create a book. Often, writers are very poorly paid for the time and expertise spent on a book.

  5. #9 by Valentina on January 13, 2020 - 4:31 pm

    I would feel deceived if I knew the book I am reading was written by the author on the cover. Maybe the ghostwriter can only follow the idea of a writer and can’t create his/her own plot, theme or discussion for his/her own book. Ghostwriting to me is another form of getting work and if the pay meets the expectation of the person actually writing, more power to him/her.

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 14, 2020 - 6:43 am

      Well, actually, the ghostwriter creates as little or as much as is needed! But I see what you mean.

  6. #11 by V.M.Sang on January 14, 2020 - 11:54 am

    It’s quite simple, as far as I can see. A well-known person has an idea for a book–or not, as the case maybe– but doesn’t have the skills to actually write it. They get a ghost writer to write it for them, and put the personality’s name on the cover.
    Most people don’t know about ghostwriters, and assume the personality has written the book, and they buy it. Solely because a person they admire has ‘written’ it. They have had the wool pulled over their eyes. What they believe to be true, isn’t. They would not have bought the book if it didn’t have the famous person’s name on it.
    It might be a good read, but to me it’s fraud. It’s all in the interest of making money.
    Now, if the ghostwriter’s name is on the cover as a co-writer, that’s a totally different kettle of fish. At least there’s honesty there. To me, it’s dishonest, all in the name of making money.

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 14, 2020 - 6:32 pm

      It’s so interesting how many people are upset by this! If I didn’t know the industry as well as I do, I would be upset too. Thanks for commenting!

  7. #13 by Bryan J. Fagan on January 15, 2020 - 3:11 am

    This is an interesting topic. Getting my book published was a team effort. I had certain places where my editor wrote the lines instead of me. I needed a woman’s point of view and knew I couldn’t pull it off. Is that ghosting? Sure. Unless we are the only reader, every piece or work written with the public in mind has some form of ghosting to it.

  8. #15 by Michael W. Perry, medical writer on January 15, 2020 - 2:55 pm

    I’m no fan of either the content or the style of James Patterson’s writings, but I do respect him for not having ‘ghost’ writers. When someone assists him in the writing, that person gets full credit, including on the cover. A quick check online revealed that at least two-thirds of his currently selling books have co-authors. Some have books of their own, perhaps assisted by their association with Patterson.

    What’s most wrong with ghost writing is that it typically cheats the hidden author. Their efforts and any talents they display go unrewarded. I’ve heard grim stories of celebrities who wrote almost none of their books, profiting handsomely while the ghost writer struggles in obscurity, ill-paid and unrewarded. Denied the chance to make a name for themselves as an author, they suffer.

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 15, 2020 - 6:22 pm

      It’s interesting that you raise the lack of a byline, Michael. There are some prestigious magazines that never credit their contributors – The Economist, for instance. They are, effectively, hidden. Many journalists don’t like this, but it’s just the way that title has always operated.

      Is that cheating the real author?

      And your point about the ghostwriter struggling in obscurity…. that’s not strictly true. They are definitely known about behind the scenes; they’re just not known to the public.

  9. #17 by Marialena Gallagher on January 16, 2020 - 6:07 pm

    I’ve always wondered about this. Maybe it’s because I can’t imagine not writing my own stories.

  10. #19 by Davida Chazan on January 18, 2020 - 4:45 pm

    Look, if someone has a great idea for a book, a good plot and some good characters, but can’t get the thing to gel right, why not use a ghost writer? I just feel it is a shame you don’t get any (or much) recognition (aside from pay). Good thing you’re writing your own books!

    • #20 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 18, 2020 - 6:35 pm

      Hi, Davida! The recognition issue can be difficult at times. For instance, when you pass a poster at a bus stop and you realise it’s the book you created… and still have on your hard drive.

      • #21 by Davida Chazan on January 19, 2020 - 6:43 am

        Oh… that’s sad.

        • #22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 19, 2020 - 9:44 am

          A bit harsh, isn’t it? I have loads of stories like that!

          • #23 by Davida Chazan on January 19, 2020 - 10:18 am

            I mean… seeing that poster would make me sad, but it might also make me a bit quietly proud. Like, no way that book would be on that poster if it wasn’t for me – but no one but I know that. I can only imagine that the mixed emotions are enough to make you schizophrenic, Mind you, it might be a bit the same as when I write a grant proposal and it gets funded; the donors don’t know that I was the one to convince them (although my boss and our team do know, so that is something).

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