Ghostwriters in Disguise ~ by Merry Farmer
There’s been a lot of stress and confusion in Pioneer Hearts world lately over the concept of ghostwriters, what they are, and what exactly they do. I figured it was about time we had a quick tutorial on the subject to prevent any misconceptions and avert any stigma.
What is a Ghostwriter?
I’ll confess, the first time the concept ever dawned on me was years ago when Hillary Clinton published her book It Takes A Village. All politics aside, I blinked and did a double-take when someone explained to me that she hired a ghostwriter to pen it. “Wait,” I thought. “You can hire someone else to write a book and then put your name on it?” Yep! The concept blew my mind.
Since then, I’ve learned that a LOT of books out there in the world are ghostwritten. Do you know Sara Shepard, author of the Pretty Little Liars books that were made into the TV show? Well, last year she spoke at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, and among other things, she talked about how she got her start ghostwriting for a popular YA series. Lots of those great James Patterson novels? Ghostwritten. A bunch of Tom Clancy? Ghostwritten. Many of those Robert Ludlum Bourne Identity series books? Ghostwritten. A super large chunk of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books? Ghostwritten. There are a lot of books out there that are not written by the people whose names are in big print on the covers. (Although many authors these days will include their ghostwriter on the cover as a co-writer…in smaller print)
Okay, so why would someone have a ghostwriter write a book for them, and why would a writer want to be a ghostwriter?
Tons of reasons! James Patterson, for example, has confided that he’s much better at coming up with the story idea than he is at writing it down in all its nitty-gritty glory. Other writers reach the point where they would rather do everything else that comes along with writing books—like traveling to signings and appearances, and marketing—than lock themselves away to write. Still others reach a point where they are incapable of continuing to write (that point sometimes being death, like in the case of V.C. Andrews). Publishers want the name to live on, whether the author does or not. And some popular series were always penned by a number of authors under one name so that they could be churned out fast and in large numbers.
As for why people become ghostwriters, according to Sara Shepard, it was a good way for her to get into the business. She was able to learn her craft in a much more risk-free environment. The series she ghostwrote for had specific guidelines about plots and characters, so she learned about structure without having to write twenty books that ended up on the slush-pile. Other people do it because it’s a steadier source of income than trusting to fate when a book is sent out there in the world. Or—as rumors in my Philadelphia writers’ circles purport—because if you’re ghostwriting for a gigantic name like Tom Clancy, you can be paid about a million dollars per manuscript!
Most of the time, when a ghostwriter enters into an agreement with a professional publishing company or goes to work with a big name author, there will be an extensive contract. These contracts spell out exactly what the expectations between the author and the ghostwriter are. Oftentimes, the author will write a treatment or an outline, specifying exactly what the ghostwriter should write—like James Patterson does. Sometimes they will be given more leeway. These contracts will either specify how much credit the ghostwriter will get. They may contain a confidentiality agreement, which means the ghostwriter may be forbidden from disclosing that they have ghostwritten for a specific author.
Of course, all of this is the way things work in the traditional publishing world with old-school rules. But we now live in the age of digital publishing and indie authors. Just as those of us who self-publish can upload our manuscripts directly to vendors like Amazon and iBooks without having to go through a traditional publisher, so intrepid business people out there can seek out unknown writers, purchase stories from them, and publish them under a single pen name.
In these indie ghostwriting arrangements, the agreements can run the entire gambit from iron clad and professional to haphazard and crazy. I was reading just recently, in response to the scandal at Amazon over scammers who put together box sets with links that enable them to cheat the Kindle Unlimited system in order to log millions of page reads, that they often buy ghostwritten stories off of message boards to create their content. The scammers don’t care about quality, only page reads. Fortunately, Amazon has been cracking down on that!
The same message boards and forums where scammers go to play can also be fertile ground for more legitimate authors and publishers to connect. Lucrative and satisfying partnerships can be formed between those who have the creativity and talent and those who have the business savvy. In the best of cases, these indie publishers treat their arrangements with all the professionalism of the traditional publishing world, putting together contracts that spell out precise expectations and compensation. The author can focus on writing without ever having to worry about more technical or business aspects of publishing. And both parties live up to their obligations and responsibilities toward each other.
But as is the case in all aspects of the new world of indie publishing, there are also publishers who are unprofessional and can become predatory. Because there is no regulating body for indie publishing or ghostwriting, it is possible for these publishers to maneuver authors into a position where they are held hostage, not given fair compensation, and where the publisher engages in abusive retaliation when an author decides to sever ties and set out on their own. What seems like a satisfactory relationship in early days can quickly degenerate into a nightmare behind the scenes – nightmares that the readers will never know about, except to be suddenly confused when a beloved author suddenly has a drastically different writing style or public persona.
Fortunately, when all is said and done, the talent is in the hands of the author, and as long as the terms of a given contract are fulfilled and respected, they can walk away from a bad situation and set out on their own, or enter into a new ghostwriting arrangement as they see fit. And the publisher is free to find other ghostwriters to continue any given name, if they so wish.
There’s nothing wrong with ghostwriting or hiring a ghostwriter, as long as all parties involved are on the same page and treated fairly. For some writers, it’s the ideal way to work. For others, it would never work. (I’m one of those kind, by the way. Too stubborn to write for anyone but myself!) But in case you are now starting to blink and get a headache and wonder if the authors and books you love are really who and what they seem to be, let me assure you that a very small percentage of authors are actually someone else or a bunch of someone else’s. Writing is a heck of a lot of work, and unless someone out there is willing to offer you a brilliant contract with a lot of zeroes—and especially if you’re an indie author—it’s much more satisfying to write for yourself than to be a ghostwriter. So no need to panic! Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we are exactly who we say we are.
Although some of us are a little spooky…