Thursday, February 18, 2010

Literary Ghosts

If you're like me, then you were pretty disillusioned when you learned that many (prolific and) famous bestselling authors don't write their own books.  Instead, they are corporate-managed brands.  But what was once an open secret (acknowledged but not advertised, easy to miss if you weren't looking) is now just open without the secret part:
Literary Ghosts
by Miriam

The subject of ghostwriting seems to be in the air right now. The recent New York Times profile of James Patterson pulled back the curtains on something that was a fairly open secret within the industry: Of the 620 books (give or take) that Mr. Patterson publishes every year, most are collaborations in the loosest term of the word. As Andrew Crofts points out in his rather passionate defense of the practice, if it’s not the oldest profession, ghostwriting has certainly been around since writing utensils began to be used to make literature instead of just grocery lists.

So let's talk about it. On one hand, I see how secretly ghost-written novels are good for the people involved: editors, agents, and authors.  An author might not earn a lot of money from a novel, especially if the author is new, with a small press, just building a fan base, or otherwise not writing best-sellers.  (Even best selling novels don't always make the authors rich.)  The average advance for a novel is something like $3000, I believe.  And there's no guarantee of earning out the advance and racking up significant income via royalties.  With a ghost writer's contract, an author earns a flat fee for service.  S/he might not become wealthy, but has some guaranteed income.  Sweet.

The author whose name is on the cover but didn't do the writing probably receives something, too.  Even sweeter.

And the editors get to deal with a vetted, professional ghost writer who's used to turning in a specific product at a specific time and who won't require a lot of hand-holding.  Fabulous.

But . . .

Don't you feel a little tricked?  Cheated?  I think putting "James Patterson" (and no other name) on the cover of a novel written by someone other than James Patterson (Or Dick Francis or Nora Roberts, or whomever) hurts the publishing industry.  I think it trains readers to shop by brand, to seek out templated reading material, to be risk averse.  Wouldn't it be nicer if we readers were willing to pick up books by authors we'd never heard of but were published by reputable houses and blurbed by authors whose work we enjoy?

Of course, Patterson is a special case in many ways.  He works very hard to be and stay where he is, even if his hard work is more executive than literary.  From the NYT article (link above):
"TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course."

"The way it usually works, Patterson will write a detailed outline — sometimes as long as 50 pages, triple-spaced — and one of his co-authors will draft the chapters for him to read, revise and, when necessary, rewrite. When he’s first starting to work with a new collaborator, a book will typically require numerous drafts. Over time, the process invariably becomes more efficient. Patterson pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. On the adult side, his collaborators work directly and exclusively with Patterson. On the Y.A. side, they sometimes work with Patterson’s young-adult editor, who decides when pages are ready to be passed along to Patterson."

I once met a ghost writer who told a story of a talk he gave to school children.  "Do you know R.L Stein?" one young fan asked.

"One of them," the author replied.  The child was crushed.  Later I heard a story of a ghost writer sitting on his couch watching on TV as an author was awarded for a novel he - the ghost-writer - had written.

So, what do you think?  Does this practice bother you?  Or is all fair in love, war, and best-seller lists?  And is it different if the "co-author" is acknowledged on the book jacket (e.g. Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark)?

Edited to add: What about authors who write using pen names (Mark Twain)?  Co-authors who use a single pen name or use a mishmash of their real names (P.J. Tracy)?  Are those instances fine but would feel weird if not acknowledged on the dust jacket with an author photo?  And what about "authors" who are pure corporate inventions to unite a series of related books by different ghost writers (Carolyn Keene of Nancy Drew fame, Franklin W. Dixon of The Hardy Boys, etc.)?

Is all of this different now than it was thirty years ago?  Today we live in a world where celebrity is the most valuable commodity and we feel entitled to know nearly everything about the lives and work of the people who move and entertain us.


Anonymous said...

"Sometimes as long as 50 pages, triple spaced." What's that? About one paragraph per page? This is a very creepy practice. It's unfair to faithful readers to pass off someone else's work as the work of another author without more truth in labeling. Of course, with the types of books you cite, the readers' expectations probably aren't so high that the dashing will do much damage. Interesting post. (Full disclosure: I've never read anything by James Patterson, but I have read a couple of Mary Higgins Clark books - long ago.)

Sarahlynn said...

Yeah, I wonder why triple spaced. Perhaps they're hand-writing notes on hard copy.

Even with editorial oversight - and detailed plot outlines - I agree that it's misleading to fans not to mention the author who does the actual writing, regardless of genre. But it's an interesting industry development.

HiddenChicken said...

If I stretch my brain a little, I can understand this from a business perspective, but from the standpoint of an author who will likely never be a bestseller, I find this practice disheartening. One reason I enjoy writing is that I get a byline. Yeah, I know that's selfish, but I like getting credit for my work. It's depressing to think that it's common for authors, particularly of fiction, to do this. For what it's worth, I've actually ghost written a book before and it sucked knowing someone was making so much money off my work while I got a small flat fee.

And as a reader, I find it disappointing, primarily because it is dishonest. Also, I like finding new authors, which isn't easy if they're all being marketed under the same name.

Sarahlynn said...

"from the standpoint of an author who will likely never be a bestseller, I find this practice disheartening."