Ghostwriting: lame or legit?

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A ghostwriter is a professional writer hired by someone to write a book that will feature the employer’s byline (for instance, Bob Jones would hire John Smith, a ghostwriter, to write a book. John would do most of the work, but the published book would say “by Bob Jones”).

Basically, a legal form of plagiarism. The way I see it, there are two types of ghostwriting – one is permissible, and one is not.

Society has an obsession with actors, musicians, politicians, etc., and they all have stories to tell. Very few of them have the skills to write those stories, but they all seem to be coming out with books anyway. This is thanks to ghostwriters, and it is a sensible way to fill a need. I object, however, to calling the celebrity an “author” and allowing the byline to include their name only. It should be classified as a co-authorship, and the ghostwriter’s name should appear beside the celebrity’s on the cover.

Famous authors
Sometimes an author of series fiction gets tired of writing one series, but the publisher thinks there is still money to be had. So they outsource future books to a ghostwriter, providing a basic plot structure the ghostwriter should follow (hence “formula fiction”). While the celebrity situation is acceptable, for an author to do this is disgusting. It goes against everything I believe in. The author is cheating his readers by paying others to do what he should do himself. He can’t put his soul into it because he is not writing it, and the ghostwriter cannot put his soul into it, because he is writing under someone else’s name. Inevitably, then, the book will have no soul. It will be a thin, runny, concoction of words without real feeling. It’s just empty entertainment.

This is no insult to the ghostwriter’s skills. As a copywriter, I have experience writing things for other people, and skill has nothing to do with soul. I work hard to make it good, but it is still not mine – it is the client’s. It will look and sound how the client wants it to, and do what the client wants it to. This is expected from advertising copy. But in novel form, it is the cheap fiction we read as children, the Nancy Drews* and the Babysitter’s Clubs, which we remember with vague fondness, but wouldn’t pick up again – whereas other children’s fiction, the Narnias and Borrowers and Winnie the Poohs, we gladly pick up again, because their authors actually wrote them, instead of farming the work out to be stamped with cookie-cutters.

What’s your take? Is ghostwriting a despicable cheat, or a legitimate business arrangement?

*Nancy Drew wasn’t technically ghostwritten; it was written by a group of writers sharing a collective pen name. It is still, however, formula fiction.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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  1. They don’t give a celebrity’s ghostwriter a byline? No, that’s not right. Most celebrities can barely speak a coherent sentence without reading from a script. (I’d love to be a ghostwriter though!)

    Though I haven’t read the books you mention in your second example, I can attest it’s wicked. I used to love Lawrence Sanders novels, one of his series was the Archie McNally books. When Sanders died in 1998, the books were so popular that they hired a writer named Vincent Lardo to continue the series. People thought he was great, couldn’t tell the difference. Wow, I sure could. They’re caricatures of the original books. It’s like when someone tries to write a Sherlock Holmes story like ACD, it can’t be done, the books come off as exaggerated mockeries.

    • They may be credited somewhere, but not on the cover. Justin Bieber’s coming out with his memoirs and his name is the only one on the cover.

      I never read Babysitter’s Club, but I was really into Nancy Drew for a while. There are 56 books, and apparently the formula stipulated she must be 18 years old and get knocked out in every book – which means she got knocked out 56 times in one year. If she doesn’t have head trauma, I’m the queen of England. Also, she apparently lives over a rift in the space/time continuum, because she meets her “special friend” Ned in one book, and a few books later she has known him for a couple of years – even though she is still 18. So, just a couple examples of what formulas do to fiction.

      What did you think of the latest Sherlock Holmes movie? My best friend is a huge Holmes fan and thought it was quite accurate. I have ashamedly not read any of the books, although I have the complete series.

      • I had to check to see if there was a new Sherlock Holmes movie after the Guy Ritchie one with Robert Downey Jr. I loved it, though it was not at all accurate—it mixed a bunch of different stories but somehow worked with Ritchie’s genius behind it. Lots of fighting and action and comedy. Maybe there’s another one I don’t know about yet? If there is, I want to know!

        I hate doing this, but here’s a link to a post I wrote about Michael Dibdin, who wrote a Holmes story that was unreadable. (don’t know how to make a link in a comment).

        • That’s the one I meant.

          I really need to read those books! There is just not enough time in a day for all the stuff I want to read!

          Hey, you’re a trusted colleague; don’t ever be afraid to shoot me a link!

  2. It bothers me that celebrities can pretty much buy their way to the top of the NY Times bestseller list, regardless of whether they put 5% or 99% into the book. But that’s the business world these days…

  3. I have a friend who is a ghost writer, and I myself do some consulting. I agree that when a celebrity puts their name on a book (especially fiction) probably very little of the actual work can be credited to them. I don’t think Celebs shouls author, and their are very few exceptions to this rule. My personal take on the issue though is as follows: making money as a writer is very hard to do without connections, Ghost Writing is a legitimate way to pursue the craft and get a foot in. It is also a way for a person who loves to write and do research, but who isn’t particularly creative to get to explore their craft. Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing.

    • I’m okay with paid writing in and of itself (that’s what I do) – but in the book world, for autobiographies, etc., writers should receive front-cover credit. Fiction ghostwriting I just can’t justify, though.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. It seems to me that the real writer of the book should get the credit. I respect the writer but would have a hard time respecting the “author” or celebrity that would use a ghostwriter and not give credit.

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