Friday, August 17, 2012

Ghost Writing: Yay or Nay?

A month or so ago, I received an interesting question from a fan via e-Mail: “Would you ever ghost-write a book?”

We exchanged a few replies, starting with me clarifying what they meant by “ghost writing.” Did they mean collaborating with someone “famous,” where our names are both on the cover, but I do the bulk of the actual writing because their name is the bigger draw? Or, perhaps I might consider working under a “house name?” And then there’s the real, honest-to-goodness ghost writing, where I’d toil in secret, sworn to silence through a contract and a (hopefully) respectable payment while someone else’s name adorns the book I wrote on their behalf.

Common examples of ghost writing involve celebrities, political figures or other “well-known” persons. Maybe they’ve got an idea for a book, or a publicist advises them that a book on some topic is a cool addition to whatever else they’ve got going on. They end up needing the assistance of a professional writer to see that notion come to fruition, and it’s decided for any number of reasons that the book would sell better with only the celebrity’s name on it, rather than carrying a “with” or “&” credit.

I have to admit, when I see books being “written” by certain people—politicians, reality TV stars, and so on—I almost always end up making a joke about it. You know:

“So, __________’s writing a book? Has he/she ever even read a book?”

“I heard __________ is narrating the audio version of his/her book. It’ll be the first time he/she’s read it. BAZINGA!”

And so on.

And what about working under a publisher’s house name? Classic examples of this practice include the Victor Appleton and Victor Appleton II pseudonyms used as the authors of numerous Tom Swift books spanning a century. Then there are the Nancy Drew mysteries as penned by “Carolyn Keene.” Recent or current instances include the various authors published under the pseudonym “David Michaels” for the series of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell novels, or those who continue to write the ongoing Mack Bolan/Executioner books, even though series creator and original author Don Pendleton died in 1995. Several romance and mystery novel series also publish under a single name, with the individual installments written by a rotating team of authors.

I’ve never ghost-written anything, nor have I yet been approached to do so. Would I do it? As with so many other questions in this business, the answer is “It depends.” I’m a professional writer, so one possible way to view it is as just another job, and I should be happy so long as my name’s on a check somewhere. Other obvious considerations are the topic, the schedule, the projected effort weighed against the expected payment, the personalities of those involved, and very much on the “ghost writee.” As another writer and I discussed at the time, a ghost writing assignment is a job with certain constraints; the sort of atmosphere with which I’m already very familiar thanks to my work with licensed properties (Star Trek, etc.). I’ve passed on jobs in the past for other licensed works because I didn’t like the terms, so I’d definitely be giving similar consideration to a ghost-writing job.

Some people might be swayed by the money such an assignment offered. While money wouldn’t be the deciding factor for me, it certainly would play into it. It has to be worth the effort I’d commit, right? If the money’s less than I’d make writing a book with my own name on it, which I could promote as my work to my readers and discuss in interviews and other publicity-minded endeavors, then I’m likely to pass on the ghost-writing gig. Of course, this could be the first of several jobs working for a publisher once I get my foot in the door, so perhaps it’s wise to take a smaller fee on this initial gig and the promise of better-paying work later? Also, if the job offered me the chance to work with somebody I truly admired—one of the Apollo astronauts, to throw out an idea since we’re all friends just talking here—yeah, I could definitely be swayed. If it’s somebody where I could tell working with them would be a seemingly endless series of headaches, I’d likely decline.

Decisions, decisions.

As for writing under a house name? Yeah, I could definitely see myself doing that, were opportunity ever to present itself. For example, I’ve read a bunch of those Mack Bolan books over the years, so the idea of getting to play in that world definitely has its appeal, just for the sheer fun I know I’d have doing it.

Do we have any ghost writers/house name writers in the group, who are able to reveal themselves? Or, maybe you passed on such an opportunity. Even if you can’t name names, titles, or publishers, what factored into your decisions? Any stories you’re able to share, or just want to get off your chest?


Patricia Gligor said...

Well, I try to never say "never" but, in this case, I'm close to doing that. It bothers me that, when a writer of a popular series dies, someone else takes over and continues the series in the original author's name. Of course, it's all about money - that bothers me too. Some things shouldn't be for sale.
As to ghost writing for someone famous like the astronaut example you gave, I don't see a problem with someone else writing a book for him (after all, he's not a writer) but I think that writer should be credited with having done so.
Just my opinion. We all gotta do what we gotta do. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Given how pressed I am for writing time, I probably wouldn't do it unless there was a LOT of money involved, adn being that I'm not famous as a writer myself, that's unlikely to happen

Liane Spicer said...

I'd say nay. I can't imagine what combination of an irresistible subject and tempting remuneration would induce me to undertake such a thing. Not that anyone is asking me to...

KeVin K. said...

Not a problem. I write media tie-in for hire, which means many of my words are published with my name nowhere in sight.
I've also rescued two projects - which is to say finished up something the writer whose name is on the cover couldn't get in on deadline. Again my name appears nowhere except on the contracts and the checques, which is fine with me.

Dean Wesley Smith, an editor and writer you know virtually (if I'm remembering correctly he's bought your work but never met you) has ghost written several dozen books. The only one he can publicly acknowledge is The Abductor COnspiracy by Jonathan Frakes - and that's because Frakes blew his cover when a fan asked him to autograph a copy of the book. Frakes had never seen it before and evidently didn't know or didn't care about the rules of secrecy. He explained all he'd done was spitball ideas about the plot and also said nice things about Dean. (Dean's picture is on Frakes's author page at Amazon.)

Ghost writing is a lot like doing an impression - you have to sound like someone else while doing something they've never done. The sounding like someone else part is even more important in rescues because the finished product must blend perfectly. It's a challenge, and it's fun.

I write because I can't not write. Having my name attached is a fillip.

Dayton Ward said...

As I said, I'm not opposed to toiling in secret, but because I write as a "secondary vocation," I tend to be choosy about what I spend that time writing. Ghost-writing Neil Armstrong's first fiction novel? Yeah, I'd be all over that. Collaborating with an annoying reality TV personality? Eh, not so much :)