What's a Ghostwriter?
From celebrity autobiographies to medical journals and children's books, countless works have been ghostwritten.
Ghostwriters are people paid to either write or help someone write a book, but are not listed as authors or co-authors. There are ghostwriters behind personal memoirs, guidebooks and plays, as well as a bevy of fiction and non-fiction books on every topic imaginable. Even lyrics, poems and comic books can be ghostwritten.
"There's not a genre out there that hasn't been ghostwritten," said Larry Leichman, co-owner of Arbor Books, a major ghostwriting and independent publishing firm.
In fact, the work of ghostwriters in some genres has been viewed as disreputable. The prevalence of ghostwriting in the medical field has become a hot-button ethics issue, as journals have considered screening for and banning articles written by drug company-sponsored ghostwriters who attempt disguise their writing as that of impartial academic authors.
"Ghostwriting is not a new phenomenon," according to "Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research" (Harvard University Press, 2008). One of the studies of the now-infamous drug thalidomide, that was published in a prestigious journal and used to support the drug's FDA approval, was ghostwritten by the drug company's medical director, according to "Bending Science." Thalidomide, which was prescribed to pregnant women to treat morning sickness, was later shown to cause birth defects.
A story to tell
But it's not just celebrities and major pharmaceutical companies that use ghostwriters. People pay ghostwriters to write their articles, speeches, presentations, wedding toasts and personal correspondences – even love letters.
"My clients include celebrities and politicians but, more commonly, they are people with a story to tell or with information to impart," said Michael Collins, who owns the ghostwriting service Your-GhostWriter.com and has been in the profession for 10 years. "It's widely believed that 70 percent of non-fiction is ghostwritten these days. And a lot of fiction is too, although that would be referred to as a very heavy edit."
The beloved series about super sleuth Nancy Drew has been ghostwritten by more than a dozen authors under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene since 1930, according to "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006).
While ghostwriting contracts vary, most are bound by a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement that prohibits writers from taking any credit whatsoever for their involvement in the project. Most ghostwriters' salaries are based on their writing experience, and they do not receive royalties, according to Leichman.
All ghosts, no glory?
Why would someone want to put the time and effort into writing something that won't bear their name or pay them royalties?
"They are skilled craftsmen and artists, and have no ego that gets in the way of their writing for someone else," Leichman told Life's Little Mysteries. "So long as you're getting paid, the idea of needing credit is way overblown."
"I'm a ghostwriter because it's a very good living," Collins said. "I'm very well paid — often far better than any book earnings — I meet fascinating people and have the opportunity to live their lives. I work from home, set my own time frames, pick my own projects and don't have any of the hassle of book launches, promotions, signings, or concerns over sales figures. It's a great life."
If there's no way to find out whether a book has been ghostwritten — unless, for example, a celebrity decides to publicly admit that she didn't write their autobiography herself — how can readers tell if their favorite book was really authored by the person whose name is printed on the jacket?
"Sometimes it's obvious that a book has been ghostwritten," Collins said. "A high profile 'author' may clearly lack the intelligence to string two words together, or the 'voice' in the book may not ring true. Another clue may be in the acknowledgements – 'Michael, thank you, this book could never have been written without you,' is a good indicator that Michael's pen was very much involved in the process."
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