Why Does Ghostwriting Have a Bad Rep?

I have lots of clients, and what’s even better is that they are repeat clients. Some ask me to proofread, some want a developmental edit, others just want my opinion. I work with academics on their doctrates, and novelists on their latest fantasies. I work with businesses, too, checking over web content or letters or brochure text. I have clients that are with me at all times, and others that pop in and out of my working life when they require it. And I love each and every one of them for different reasons. Some tax my brain, some entertain me, some are even friends.

But did you know, I also write? Not just for my own enjoyment (although I do that, on occasion). I actually have contracts with two separate publishers, for whom I ghostwrite Regency romance novels. They’re steamy, too – bodice rippers, you could say, although there is very little ripping. Groping, perhaps, and thighs slick with desire. But not much ripping at all.

When I tell people about this, I get a mixed reaction. Some think it’s fantastic, laugh at the thought of me writing sex scenes in my pyjamas, bowl of crisps by my side and perhaps a beer (sexy, right?). One person even called it “little old lady porn,” and ever since, that has been my favourite description ever, even though it’s steamy rather than pornographic, and it’s not necessarily targeted at little old ladies.

Taking Credit

There are some, though, who don’t approve. Writers, so they tell me, should be credited for their work. This is not a sentiment I disagree with. If you have worked hard on something, the credit should go to you – and certainly not to someone else! Indeed, there have been some books I have written that I have been particularly proud of, ones that I wish I could show people and tell them it’s my work. Alas, I’m bound by non-disclosure agreements and a trusting relationship that I would not wish to break.

The thing is, I get paid for what I do, and – not wanting to brag – it’s not a fee to be sniffed at. Isn’t that credit enough? Some would say no, and I get that, too. Why should someone else get the ‘glory’ for my work? The thing about what I do, though, is that it is a collaboration. The books are released under the publisher’s name, rather than a specific ‘author,’ and the work is done by a group of people.

There is one who comes up with the idea for the story, another who plots it out chapter-by-chapter. Then it comes to me and I write it, each step of the way communicating with the plot-writer to check I’m on the right track, that I’m writing it how they envisioned it. And after that it’s sent to beta readers and editors, all who have played a part in getting this book ready for publication.

Can I really call myself the author of this book, when all I have done is connect the dots, added a pretty word here and there? What exactly makes someone an author, anyway? Surely, to be the author of something, you need to have been the one to create, or at the very least, be in control of the creation. Gustave Eiffel is credited with creating the Eiffel Tower, but I doubt he did any of the actual building. So am I just one of Eiffel’s minions? A block-builder?

Perhaps. It’s a contentious point, certainly. In my case, I honestly believe I am not the author. Writer, perhaps. But author? Surely all of us involved are the ‘author.’ Between me and the plot-writer and the person whose idea it originally was, surely we combined are the ‘author’? And that’s how it works, actually. That the books are pubished under a generic name shows that no one is getting the credit. Yes, maybe all our names should be listed, but none of them are, and that’s all right, too.

James Patterson

I think the thing that really gets to people about ghostwriting is when someone actively takes credit. I get that. What right does someone have to do such a thing? They don’t, that’s the answer. The one prolific writer who often gets mentioned when the topic of ghostwriters comes up is James Patterson. He churns out book after book but actually, since 2002, only around 20% of his novels have been written entirely by himself.

Is he a cheat? Again, there’s more to the story.

Actually, I was quite against James Patterson until I fully researched it. How dare he take credit for books that he didn’t write, even if he came up with the plot in the first place? That seems really unfair to me. He’s living this life of a rich, best-selling author off the backs of those who put in the grunt work.

But actually, in the very brief amount of research I did for this post (and I mean… a Google search, nothing more), it seems he’s not so bad, after all. The thing is, he’s never lied about his use of ghostwriters, and he’s always been entirely open about it. It’s not – and never has been – a secret.

He does what my publishers do. He writes the outline, which can stretch to 80 pages long. He gives them detailed character descriptions, and hints and tips. And after they draft the first version, he goes through it, works with them to redraft it again and again until it is right.

Patterson works with or has worked with 23 other writers, all of whom are credited on the covers of the released books. He’s not lying and saying their work is his; he’s collaborating, co-authoring. And actually, “the novice authors become instant bestsellers and often attract book deals of their own, if not royalties,” so they’re winning, aren’t they? He hasn’t used their work to make himself rich and famous, but rather used his name to help propell these writers into the spotlight.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no doubt that this is not an altruistic act on Patterson’s part. But is what he’s doing all that wrong, either? I’m not so sure.

Finding Balance

We get very precious about this thing, writing. As though it should something born of passion and a ‘need’ to write. All right, I can go with that. Artists of all kinds work hard on their own babies – their paintings and sculptures and photographs – all the while taking commisions to the pay the bills. My question is, if a writer genuinely wants to make money or a career from writing, is it really so bad to take a commision or two?

For me, I’d say keep your glory for your magnum opus, and in the meantime, use your talent to fill your bellies and line your coffers. And hey, who knows? That might just be your route to discovery!

2 comments

  1. Fascinating, Riley and something I didn’t know about you. My first thought was ‘It’s mine, I wrote it. I want the kudos.’ Then I remembered writing letters on behalf of bosses, putting together reports and manuals without any idea of claiming them as an author as they belonged to the business, and your words started to make sense. πŸ˜€

    1. Thanks Voinks 😁 and ya know, one thing I didn’t include is that this sort of stuff is not necessarily what I want to put my name to anyway. It’s not that it’s not good work, because it is, but I write fantasy, not cheesy romance, and I’d rather keep my name for that.

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