How Is Ghostwriting Ethical?

Published Categorized as Writing

A ghostwriter writes texts that get publicly credited to someone else as the author. Usually, that someone else is a politician in need of a speech, a musician looking for lyrics, or a public figure who wants to tell their story in a book—but doesn’t know how to put it in writing.

The truth, which not everyone in the publishing business likes to talk about, is that more memoirs, autobiographies, and nonfiction books than you probably think have been written by ghostwriters.

This makes many people in the industry ask, “How is that even ethical?”

Ultimately, it all comes down to the question of who owns a book, song, or speech: is it the person who wrote the words, or is it the one who lived and told the story?

As you can imagine, this question has been the subject of heated debate between authors, publishers, and readers for quite some time—and the only aspect of it no one can dispute is that it won’t come to an end any soon.

Some authors and their publishers are transparent, to one extent or another, about the fact that they work with ghostwriters. Such was the case with American novelist Tom Clancy, who practically invented the genre of military fiction.

In the early 2000s, the demand for Tom Clancy’s action novels exceeded his ability to write them. So his publisher hired ghostwriters to co-write with him, with his tone of voice and style of writing.

Many of his early books feature his and a second author’s names on their covers, with Tom Clancy in larger print and the other name in smaller.

“It really feels like a humongous honor to do it.,” Mark Greaney, who co-authored Clancy’s final three novels, recalls for Advisorpedia. “I get a pretty good billing. The Tom Clancy name is one thing you can put on your book that will make it stand out from across the room.”

Tahl Raz, whose Amazon profile describes him as “a storyteller of big ideas in business, technology and the social sciences,” has co-written a number of best-selling nonfiction books. His name appears on Never Eat Alone with entrepreneur Keith Ferrazzi, to name a few, and Never Split the Difference with ex-FBI agent and hostage negotiator Chris Voss.

Those of you quick to reject ghostwriting as a second-grade profession that came about in the 21st century thanks to the laziness of today’s public figures should think twice.

Two earlier examples of ghostwritten books include Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The 19th-century French nobleman and romantic wrote most of his books in collaboration with Auguste Maquet, a quiet professor, historian, and author who lived and died at the age of 73 in Paris.

Forgotten by history for more than 150 years, Maquet’s name became the subject of European-wide debate when a 2010 French movie spotlighted his role in creating Dumas’ most popular books (and shed light on the ghostwriting profession in general).

“Devotees of Dumas,” Lizzy Davies wrote for The Guardian, “insist Maquet was merely a dogsbody whose capacity for hard work was his greatest talent. (…) Others, however, insist that without Maquet’s creativity and precision of thought the erratic and uncontrollable Dumas would have been lost.”

As I said, this is not a debate that’s about to come to a definitive conclusion soon. Curious to know what side you’re on; let the rest of this post’s readers and me know by leaving a comment below this post.

Author, editor, and ghostwriter Greg Larson makes a compelling case for ghostwriting in a LinkedIn Pulse post titled, “How Does the Ghostwriting Process Work?”

“You want to write a nonfiction book. You see people in your industry becoming authors all the time, and they’re reaping the benefits. More attention, more clients, more revenue—they’re killing it,” he says.

Let’s face it: not everyone can write. And if someone has something to say, but they can’t put it in words, should that necessarily prohibit them from getting published?

“Writing a book takes time—usually hundreds of hours—especially if it’s your first time. Embarking on this journey on your own is risky: just because you start writing a book doesn’t mean you’ll finish.”

He goes on to explain how ghostwriters work and often save their clients hundreds of hours (and an overabundance of frustrations along the way) by taking the burden of writing away from them.

What about ghostwriters themselves?

Is ghostwriting, which basically comes down to one’s ability to emulate another person’s way of expressing themselves, in any way a lesser art compared to typing words that come from your tone of voice and style of writing?

Correct me if you think otherwise, but I wouldn’t say so. Cohesively telling a story—whether from the voice of a fictional character that you’ve invented or a real person you’ve agreed to ghostwrite for—still requires you to know how to write.

Also, how you set up the working relationship between you and your client is a matter of business agreement between the two of you. High-profile clients will probably want to keep the fact that they worked with you secret, and be willing to pay the higher price of confidentiality. Others will prefer to be transparent about the fact and print your name on the cover of their book (regardless of what print the publisher chooses).

Though the lines of ethics when it comes to ghostwriting are as blurry and controversial as always, experts will typically advise you to be transparent about it.

“If someone directly asks you whether you write your posts—or any content with your name on it—you should be honest about the process.,” Top 50 influencer and content marketer Steve Farnsworth recommends to readers of Forbes. “In the age of social media, the truth is compulsory. It is important to choose a process you feel comfortable sharing publicly because someone will ask you about it.”

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