I recently got to see the cover for a novel I had ghostwritten. This landed in my mailbox around the same time a big controversy broke over an indie author combining ghostwriters and plagiarism to churn out books, leading to lawsuits, scandal, and some not unreasonable outrage. It got me thinking about the strangeness of being a ghostwriter, how ghostwriters fit into modern publishing, and why I do this job.
First up, let’s talk definitions. Ghostwriting is when I get hired to write a book or article that will be published in someone else’s name, on the understanding that I can’t lay claim to it. Plagiarism would be me copying other people’s work without permission. The two are different, but can be combined.
Ghostwriting of novels – my main concern here – happens when someone with an established brand or a head for the business side of writing wants to put books out quicker. It’s a way of keeping the attention of readers and so making both the new and the existing books more profitable. At the moment, this is appealling to indie authors because it lets them game the Kindle algorithms and so increase their sales.
Some people see this as dishonest. Of course there’s some truth in that, but the same could be said of politicians and celebrities getting help with their autobiographies, and we’re OK with that. I suspect that what’s really upsetting some people isn’t the dishonesty so much as the breaking of their expectations. We’re socialised to see authorship as a work of solitary creation, when in reality that’s never true. Every book is a collaboration with editors, but their names don’t appear on the cover. We want a name to latch onto, so credit for books is a solo thing. Even when authors collaborate they sometimes adopt a pen name, as with James S. A. Corey, the author of The Expanse – actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. A single author name makes it easier to sell the books, so that’s what they do.
If an indie author wants to create a successful publishing brand, they build it around an author name, because that’s how people identify the fiction they want to consume, not by publisher but by a named author personality, whether that person exists or not. Yes, I’m sure some of these indie book mills are churning out crap, but that can also happen in traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that everything produced this way is garbage.
From my point of view, the process of ghostwriting works something like this. I see a ghostwriting job advertised on a freelancing site or am approached through one of those sites. I apply for the job like I would any other, demonstrating my skills and experience. We agree terms and set up a contract through the site. Then the person hiring me provides me with details of the book they want written – usually a plot outline and character descriptions, sometimes with a style guide. And then I write, producing X thousand words per week for Y dollars a time, providing the best work I can given the timescales and the pay.
That last part is important. Someone who gives me longer to work with and pays for more of my time will get a better result, because I’m not in a rush. But a lot of this work is done for a marketing strategy that relies on speedy releases, and that affects quality no matter who’s writing.
So why would I do work like this? Wouldn’t I rather be writing my own stories with my own name on? Isn’t it weird seeing stories I’ve written and not being able to tell people about it?
Well, yes to both of those last two questions. And in answer to the first one, because it’s a job I enjoy. This doesn’t take the place of my own writing. It takes the place of my day job, meaning that my working hours are more satisfying, more fun, and help me practise my craft. The feedback from clients is useful in sharpening my skills, and believe me, when things aren’t right a ghostwriter definitely gets that feedback.
In the best cases, ghostwriting fiction has let me take part in some marvellous collaborations, producing books that I’m genuinely proud of and would happily stick my name on given half a chance. In the worst cases, I’ve worked to outlines and themes I wasn’t entirely happy with but that the client was determined to have. It got frustrating, but it was still more satisfying than any other job I’ve had. And at the end of the day, I wasn’t the one putting my name to those books, deciding they were good enough to be associated with me. Maybe I was wrong about those plots, themes, and ideas. Maybe readers would love them and they’d become bestsellers. And if not, that’s on the person who hired and briefed me, the one whose business will depend upon these books succeeding.
Where does that leave me, as the interent gets up in arms about ghostwriting? It leaves me with a job I love, despite its lack of security. It leaves me developing my writing skills on a daily basis. It leaves me producing the best work I can in the conditions I’m given. Yes, there are problems with the way that some people use ghostwriters, and the current state of publishing is exaggerating that. But that doesn’t mean that ghostwriters as a group are the problem. Ghostwriting is a logical result of how we currently produce and consume novels. Until those structures change, it’s here to stay. For those of us who get a creative job out of it, and for the readers who get more of the stories they enjoy, that’s surely a good thing.