What do Katie Price and Donald Trump and Alexandre Dumas have in common? That’s right, none of them wrote the books that carry their names.
In the aftermath of the #copypastecris controversy I got to musing about ghostwriting and the nature of ghosts. Now I should say that I’m currently leaning in favour of the ghosts in that particular plagiarism case and I’m not here to launch a diatribe against the practice. But, as a writer, I’ve never really understood why people (who aren’t celebrities, at least) hire ghosts.
And then I realised: I know a ghostwriter and she knows others. Why not ask her a little about the industry? Hell, I hardly ever do anything original on here. Why not use my powers for good and not fall back on my usual trick of lukewarmly microwaving other people’s leftovers and passing it off as original?
So, without further ado, here’s Ben Jeapes and Jan Greenough – excellent authors in their own right – to tell us a little about how they work. Jan works mostly in non-fiction and Ben in fiction:
Can you tell us how you got into the industry? I take it you didn’t start out with an advert on Fiverr
Ben Jeapes: Pure fluke. I did some work with Working Partners, which is sort of like ghostwriting. Their business model: think up a series; sell it to a publisher; hire an author to write the thing; everyone shares the profits, so no one loses out if you accidentally write the next Harry Potter. Publishers are fine with this because they know they’re getting quality work straight up that will require a minimum of work at their end. Then my Working Partners editor changed jobs and inherited a series by a well-known celebrity which needed a writer, and she thought of me.
Jan Greenough: I started out as a copy-editor in a distant outpost of the Pergamon empire – an educational publisher called Wheaton in Devon. When we moved to Oxfordshire and started a family, I needed freelance work I could do after baby bedtime (no nurseries in those Jurassic days). From contacts made when I was properly employed, I picked up copy-editing jobs from Hodder & Stoughton and a couple of religious publishers, one of which eventually emerged from various takeovers as Lion Hudson.
Gradually I established myself as a safe pair of hands, which meant that the commissioning editors sent me worse and worse manuscripts to pull into shape. I was the Department of Silk Purses. You might ask why the publisher had accepted these nightmares in the first place, but religious publishers work to their own rules. They are more interested in people with an inspiring story than in whether the author can write. Writing can be fixed – but in the realm of ‘how my faith helps me’, the valuable commodity is the real-life experience.
In the end the job changed from ‘Please can you rewrite this poorly-written MS?’ to ‘Oops- there isn’t a manuscript at all. Can you go and talk to this missionary/reformed drug addict/survivor of the Killing Fields and write the story for them?’
Welcome to the world of ghostwriting.
How do you get work? Do clients come to you directly or are you commissioned by agents/publishers etc?
JG: The above explains it, really. As a publisher’s pet poodle, I am sent opportunities and asked to meet an ‘author’ and get the story out of him/her. Sometimes I report back that there isn’t a worthwhile/original story at all, and the project folds. More often, I submit a brief outline and the publisher goes ahead and draws up contracts. These are almost always ‘autobiographies’, and mainly conversion stories.
I have been approached many times by authors wanting a ghost writer. Usually I assess the chances of their story being of interest to a publisher as negligible, so I decline. They can seldom afford to pay properly and think you should share the risk with them. DON’T! At one stage I kept a file called ‘Loopy Requests for Ghostwriting’.
BJ: So far I’ve almost always been commissioned by agents and publishers, though I am trying to drum up business with adverts and a dedicated website. The one exception is an autobiography for Lion Hudson that I helped with last year, where the original ghostwriter had dropped out. I had to hustle for that one, but I was still hustling at the publisher, as I also know the Commissioning Editor socially and he had mentioned the project. The author still had to approve me.
How much input does the client have? Do they give you character notes, plot outlines and so on or do you just have a brief to ‘write a novel’?
BJ: I started by being given character notes and outlines, though I was always able to make my own suggestions. Everything I wrote went back to the client for the final say.
As my familiarity with the serieses I’ve written has developed, so I’ve been given more and more leave to do my own stuff, and hence the amount of work and concomitant income has risen to the point where I can make a living out of it (see below). So, of late, it really has been a case of ‘write a novel’: but I still have to prepare an outline, get it approved and so on, and I know the kind of thing they’re after. And the client still gets the final sign-off.
JG: It’s generally someone’s life story, so I interview them at length, generally one visit per chapter, which I write up and return, so they can check that I haven’t got the wrong end of any sticks. I’ve also written some non-fiction Christian books where I have had more creative input, but everything is shared and discussed at length.
How do you feel about seeing your book released with somebody else’s name on it? Do you think it’s fair that they get the acclaim whilst you’re forgotten?
BJ: None of the series I’ve written would have even existed without the clients asking for them – they’re certainly not the kind of thing I would have written off my own bat. One series happened because the client had fond memories of the Willard Price series he had enjoyed as a child, and wanted something similar in terms of good, wholesome, moral adventure for his own kids to read. I also enjoyed Willard Price, so it was a pleasure to be doing this kind of thing for a new generation.
All the series trade on reputations the clients have built up in other spheres through their own hard work, and they incorporate the clients’ own hard-won knowledge and experience. For instance, one of my publishers also does a series – not by me – by Sir Chris Hoy about a boy with a magic bicycle. You automatically associate Chris Hoy with bicycles, and you know a book about a magic bike will do a lot better with his name on the front than with yours.
So, long story short, I think it’s quite fair that they get the acclaim.
I’m adequately paid, and – equally important – everyone who actually matters, i.e. agents and publishers, knows it was me. I have to admit I did feel a little odd when the Willard Price fan started dedicating ‘his’ book to his kids. He was essentially saying “this is how much Daddy loves you, he hired someone to write this book for you!” And then there are clips of him reading it on YouTube. But hey, I could smile and shake my head and get on with my life.
I have a client with an absolute tin ear for dialogue, and his edits always take precedence over mine – so there are times I am actively grateful not to have my name appear anywhere, in case anyone actually thinks I wrote that.
And, ultimately, I would rather be writing than not writing. It’s very hard indeed to make a living writing science fiction, which is where I came from, so if I wasn’t doing this then I’d probably be writing blog articles for a technical company, and I know which is more fun. However, if I was ever hired to ghost write science fiction then I would damn well insist my name was acknowledged!
JG: Christian publishers have an oversized sense of fairness. Almost all my books appear as ‘By A. N. Other, with Jan Greenough’ – after all, it’s their story. Occasionally, where I’ve had lot of input, it appears as ‘A. N. Other and Jan Greenough’.
Without going into too much detail about fees and costs, is ghostwriting worth it? Can you make a living as a ghostwriter?
BJ: I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. At first it was just handy pocket money, in parallel with the day job, which was a handy cash reserve for a man with a new family. Because I started doing the plot outlines as well, as mentioned, it became liveable-off just as I was badly needing to leave a terrible job anyway, and I’ve had an amazing 3.5 years since. Now that all the contracts that lured me out of full-time employment have expired … well, we’ll see, won’t we?
The doyen of ghostwriting is Andrew Crofts and I strongly recommend his books on the subject as a reference for anyone wanting to get in on the trade.
As shown in Robert Harris’s The Ghost, ghostwriting can also be positively lethal, but that kind of thing is probably rare …
JG: No, I couldn’t make a living from ghostwriting alone, but then I was swimming in a very small pool. Most of my books covered their advances, but except where the author was famous (Fiona Castle, wife of Roy Castle) or did a lot of speaking tours (Angus Buchan), royalty payments were minimal. It’s vital to get a decent up-front fee. Even then, you’d be better off (though more bored) filling shelves at Tesco. I supplemented the income with copywriting for a marketing agency, copy-editing and content-editing fiction. And I’m still not rich. But if you make your name, and write popular mainstream books like Andrew Crofts (author of Ghostwriting), you can make a living.
Is it harder to motivate yourself to write someone else’s work than it is your own?
BJ: I’ve never found it so, since I always go into a contract with money and deadlines and outlines all settled, so I know exactly what and when I should be writing.
I’ve worked in publishing, so I’ve seen deadlines from the other end, and I firmly believe in sticking to them. Douglas Adams famously said that he loved deadlines – he loved the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. Ha ha, goes everyone, forgetting that this is a man who could have sold his shopping list and got it published. There’s people at the other end who aren’t multimillionaires and are depending on your deadlines for their own living – so I’m afraid that remark has always dented my otherwise very high regard for him.
JG: Nothing motivates a writer better than an electricity bill.
Do you think ghostwriting is ethical? Do you think legal steps should be taken to ensure that the ghost’s name should be on the cover?
BJ: You won’t be surprised to know I’ve thought long and hard about this … and come down in favour of it being ethical. Mostly.
For the kind of fiction I’ve always written, where I’m presenting the client’s experiences in different ways, or for autobiography – I think it’s fine. They are hiring my voice for their own thoughts. A positive worldview is being presented; customers are getting value for money; I’m supporting my family; I am telling stories exist that should, and otherwise wouldn’t, be told. There is no bad here.
I am surprised at one client’s insistence that my name not be mentioned anywhere. The artist, the editor, all fine – but not me. Again, I’m adequately paid, but it does leave an odd taste in the mouth. I think he just has overzealous, showbiz-type lawyers, and lives such a cossetted existence with ‘people’ who do everything for him that he thinks this is normal.
I’m not sure what ‘legal steps’ could be taken, but if, say, the Society of Authors pushed for all publishers to at least give the ghost a ‘With thanks to …’ in the front matter, I wouldn’t complain. For the Chris Hoy series that I mentioned, he apparently has no trouble at all about acknowledging the writer, and goes on tours with her and the artist. So, win some, lose some.
Some ghostwriters clearly behave very unethically. For a start, some people looking for a writer are clearly complete newbs who don’t know what they’re doing. I regularly peruse Freelancer.com (not Fiverr …) for writing opportunities, and time and time again I see someone looking for a writer for their novel, for which they will pay peanuts. These people obviously think that the idea is the big thing in a novel and the writing is just a tedious formality, when a (good) novel is in fact a combination of the writing and the idea. I’m sure there are ghostwriters who take the gig and just churn out text that is worthy of the sum being paid. Okay, you could say both parties are grown-ups, it’s not illegal and no one is being hurt, but the writers in that case are taking advantage of fools who are easily parted with their money.
Even worse is plagiarism. I hadn’t heard of #copypastecris until you mentioned, it but, now I’ve looked it up, this kind of thing isn’t new.
TL;DR – the ghostwriter for a fantasy novel simply copied the entire first chapter of a David Gemmell novel, changing the names … and (as, allegedly, in #copypastecris) the client didn’t notice. So what have you here is a perfect storm of unscrupulous shark meeting complete ignoramus who has no idea of how this business actually works.
There’s no regulating body for ghostwriting, but I suppose an advantage of always having dealt with agents and publishers is that I am dealing with professionals and – in the unlikely event of my copying and pasting David Gemmell, Courtney Milan or any other writer – they would put a stop to it pretty sharpish.
JG: Worthy Christian publishers ensure that both names are on the cover and copyright page. This is important when you claim your PLR and ALCS (you do, don’t you? Register your books at once!) No, I don’t believe it’s ethical to hide the ghost’s name – and the published book is your advertisement for getting more work.
Is there a point, legally, when a work is determined to be co- and not ghost-written? What’s the minimum contribution a ‘writer’ can make before it becomes not their work?
BJ: If I ghostwrite, I sign a contract drawn up by publishers and agents that clearly delineates exactly how much of this work will be reckoned to be mine (none) and what my rewards for it will be. So, I don’t believe there is a maximum or a minimum. You’re being hired to do a job, and you do it.
If I was working on the basis of an informal gentleman’s agreement then that would be another matter. But it would also be the sign of a rank amateur. I will help family members and good personal friends of long standing out with writing work: anyone else, it’s the contract.
JG: Interesting. In my experience the terms are exchangeable – my publishers stopped mentioning ‘ghostwriting’ and started calling it ‘co-authoring’, but as I say, ours were non-fiction, and the ‘author’ was the one who lived the life, often of considerable hardship and trauma. I have always wondered how ‘authors’ live with themselves when the book is fiction, to which the author has contributed nothing.
Why, in your experience, do people hire ghostwriters?
BJ: For reasons stated. They have a story to tell but don’t have the voice, or the time, to tell it. (I’ve recently taken on a sequel half-written by an actor whose burgeoning career means he simply doesn’t have time to fulfil his contractual obligation to the publisher. The first book was genuinely all his own.)
If you’re already famous then of course there are commercial reasons: for the publisher it’s a guaranteed sale; for you it consolidates your brand.
And some people just want their name on the cover of book, and aren’t fussy about how it gets there.
JG: My publishers hired me – not the authors. The publishers knew they had located an individual with a good story to tell, but the person lacked either the time, the inclination, or the education to write. They were persuaded into print by the offer of someone to shape the story so it read well, and to put in the tedious hours at the keyboard.
What do you do if you think that the brief you’ve been given is… um… dumb?
BJ: Thankfully I’ve never been there! There have been glitches in the plot that didn’t make sense, or the plot develops in such a way that a previous idea will no longer hold, but editors are amenable to logic – whenever I’ve pointed out something like this, they’ve always been happy to go with my suggestion. Again, an advantage of getting the outline signed off first is that it minimises this kind of thing when it comes to the actual writing.
JG: I was always free to reject a job. It sometimes happened if I really thought I couldn’t get on with an author – for autobiographies you’re going to live inside their head for the best part of a year. More often I found that the story was dubious or boring. One author who had been in the backing group for a Famous Name wanted to describe a tour, but since he was fairly grumpy, it would have amounted to a long moan and was definitely not inspirational. It was never written.
And there we have it. A little insight into the world of ghostwriting. Hope it’s been interesting and informative. Huge thanks to Ben and Jan for answering my hopefully-not-too-dumb questions; if it’s peaked your interest, Jan is retired but check out Ben’s website for ghostwriting at http://www.oxfordghostwriter.com/, or for his (excellent) fiction go to https://www.benjeapes.com/
And, just a tiny reminder, Night Shift is out now and is totally ghost-free! Unless one counts the input of all the beta-readers, editors and freelancer commentators who helped bring the damn thing to publication.
All my own work? Don’t make me laugh!