The Allure of the Ghost Writer (A Response)

My good friend and writers group companion, Josh Mosey, posted an interesting article called “The Allure of the Ghost Writer.” Rather than write a lengthy response on his site, I thought I’d write something a little longer here. In his post Josh mentions that having a ghost writer work on your project is alluring because then you can more quickly see your novel ideas realized on a page. Many writers (including me) struggle with finishing projects. A ghost writer is someone that writers hope could fill that gap. Josh then goes on to say:

“I just don’t know if I could accept a ghost writer. I mean, I really want to read the stories that are rolling around in my head, but I would feel downright lazy if someone else were doing the work of writing them down. That and, if I didn’t actually write the words, is it my book?”

This tension is one I think many, many writers feel. If I don’t actually write the words, is it really mine? 

Josh’s post reminded me of the various ways I’ve seen ghost writers and contracted co-writers employed (there is a distinction) while working in publishing for the last few years. While I don’t propose to have an answer to this tension, I thought it might be beneficial to just jot down how I’ve seen ghost writers used before.

  • I’ve seen ghost writers hired because someone with a platform and a unique message (imagine a TV actress who publicly campaigns against human trafficking on social media) is approached by a publisher. The publisher tells the person that putting their message into book form will be beneficial for both the publisher and the actress and even for their given campaign. The actress hasn’t ever written anything, so a ghost writer is hired to take her content (public statements, personal stories, social media) and turn it into a book. This sort of thing happens all the time.
  • I’ve seen ghost writers hired when an author turns in an un-publishable manuscript. Rather than cancel the contract, it is sometimes better financially and relation-ally to hire a ghost writer. Note, it is not always the publisher that does the hiring. Sometimes authors pay for ghost writers – sometimes quite willingly if they are dissatisfied with their own work – and sometimes out of their advance. It all depends on the contract.
  • I’ve seen contracted co-authors hired because an author can’t finish a work, or because going into the project the publisher and author realize that the author will need help (for any variety of reasons). These co-authors are typically acknowledged on the front cover of the book as a co-author, even if their names are smaller. The size of the name indicates only one thing: who really owns the ideas found within the book. It does not indicate how much of a book was written by whom. If we co-wrote a book together and my name was 40 pt. font and yours was 10 pt. that would not mean that I worked on the project 400% more than you did. It doesn’t work that way. The larger name is the person who is credited with generating the ideas of the content. Their name is larger also because they are more likely to get the consumer to buy the book than the other name (which is a function book marketing). 
  • I’ve seen co-authors contracted because their name (even if it’s smaller on the cover) brings a bit of marketing clout along with it. Consider major league baseball player Josh Hamilton and his book “Beyond Belief” which was co-authored by Tim Keown. This book details, in first person, Hamilton’s well-publicized story of going to the big leagues, dropping out because of drugs, finding faith in Jesus, coming clean, and becoming an all-star baseball player again. That’s why people bought the book. However, if you’re an avid sports news reader then you might know the name Tim Keown. Not only has he co-authored a number of sports bios (most notably, Dennis Rodman’s “Bad as I Wanna Be”) but he’s a contributor to ESPN.com – the best known sports media brand in the world. I have no doubt that the publisher of that book saw it as a boon to put Keown’s name (even if it was small) on the cover of the book.

The truth is, ghost writers are hired for any number of reasons. More than what I’ve listed here. It’s important to remember that books are a product with financial implications for author and publisher (so they want to be careful not to mess it up), and that books are a humanly made creative effort that are often treated like one’s offspring. Put that all together and you have a million factors that might make an author or publisher seek either a ghost writer, or a co-author.

Back to the tension Josh originally brought up in his post: Is it really my book if I don’t write it?

This is a pride issue. It’s one I struggle with too. I want to write great stuff and have people marvel at my mind and ideas the way we all marvel at great writers of the past. But I’ve got to get over that. I bet that you do too.

Imagine yourself finally getting to write the book you’ve always wanted. Three quarters of the way through the writing process you are diagnosed with cancer and need to begin weekly treatment immediately, or your child needs hospitalization, or your parent passes on, or your business fails and your forced to go back to work, or a tornado sweeps your house away, or your spouse gets laid off, throwing your lives into stressful turmoil, or whatever … are you going to let pride stop the book from coming out? If this ever happens to me, I hope I can say “no.”

Now imagine that you’ve built a great platform, you’re a sought after speaker, you finally land a big book contract, you slave over the book, you turn it in – and the publisher sends it back saying, “you need to hire a writer.” Are you going to rip up the contract and go somewhere else? Are you going to trust them and seek their help? Those are question no real writer – someone who loves to write just for writing’s sake – ever wants to face. But I might have to. You might have to.

I encourage you (and myself) not to let the help of someone else (a ghost writer) or someone else’s name on the cover (a contracted co-author) stop you from getting that book out and to your readers. If you do that you’ll definitely be able to say “every word ever published by me is truly mine.” But you may not have any words published to say that about.

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4 thoughts on “The Allure of the Ghost Writer (A Response)

  1. joshmosey

    Great response and a good reminder not to let pride get in the way of progress. My only point of disagreement is that, for someone like me who has virtually no platform, it would almost always be smarter on the publisher’s part to simply reject my manuscript rather than move forward to a contract, then inform me that I need a ghost writer. I suppose I should just work on becoming famous by other means so publishers will want to get my name on a book cover (even if someone else actually writes the book).

    Reply
  2. Amelia Rhodes

    Andrew, This is a fantastic post with an insider view. I’ve felt the tug for years to help other people tell their stories, and have often wondered (and asked these questions to a professional at a conference last weekend), how you get into ghost writing and co-authoring. “Ghosting” it’s definitely a servant-hearted oriented position. It’s interesting to see all the various reasons that a co-author or ghost might be called for.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      I’m glad this was helpful, Amelia. I’m sure you’ve chatted with Ann and Lorilee, but if you haven’t yet I encourage you to do so. The ghost writers that are well-liked by the folks I work with are the ones that make reasonable requests regarding payment, meet their deadline, and turn in a clean manuscript. It’s not easy, but if you are good at writing clean copy, working with someone else’s ideas, and meeting deadlines, you could probably be really good at ghost writing. Oh, and pride has to go out the window. Most ghost writers are invisible to the public, and most are contracted “work for hires” (meaning they receive no royalties no matter how good the book does). That last part is always negotiable though.

      Reply

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