Demystifying ghostwriting

Being an anonymous ‘voice’ for another writer or Getting someone else to become your writing alter ego has its share of challenges and perks

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By Anjaly Thomas

Published: Fri 5 Nov 2021, 10:19 PM

t a recent pop-up market, I found Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Imperative (published in 2012) by Eric Van Lustbader. Up until that time, I’d never noticed another name alongside Ludlum on the cover — although I am sure I’d seen similar occurrences before on a few other books. But it was only at that pop-up market that I connected the dots, so to speak. And with it, I’d unknowingly unravelled the mystery — too late, but as they say, better late than never.

It wasn’t the ghost of Ludlum spinning stories from the grave — for he died in 2001, but his books continue to grace bookstores even today.

It was a ghostwriter who was doing the job.

I have been reading ghostwriters not knowing they were right there, in the spirit of my favourite authors, entertaining me in much the same way. I have a renewed respect for them now. Personally, I might not agree to ghostwrite anything, but I like a good book and would read one if it was written by Casper himself.

Turns out, you don’t have to be dead for a ghostwriter to be picking up the pen on your dime; you can be alive and kicking. Or maybe, you don’t even exist. Let me pull the plug on Carolyn Keene who, in reality, didn’t exist but a bunch of CK ghostwriters did keep me entertained through my childhood with Nancy Drew and her detecting abilities. Alexandre Dumas, the infamous French gentleman and one of the most popular novelists of the 19th century, was, well, not quite what he made the world believe: there’s a ghost of a chance (and a slight evidence) that the man who gave us The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers didn’t do it alone. He was aided by Auguste Maquet, a man who remained uncredited and died in obscurity. But on Maquet’s tombstone in a cemetery in Paris are etched these words — The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and La Reine Margot.

Then, there are a few of my other favourites, like James Patterson and Tom Clancy, who had clearly employed ghostwriters to churn out ‘five books a year’. I won’t even go into biographies just yet.

It appears to me that many ghostwriters may never have ever written their own book, but their knowledge on a subject helped others write theirs. But, these days, despite ghostwriting’s increasing popularity, people’s opinion remain divided on their role today.

Ghostwriting is a centuries-old profession

US-based Karen Cole, a prolific ghostwriter who also runs a ghostwriting service, maintains a very positive outlook on the trend. According to her, ghostwriting is a centuries-old tradition — it is neither new nor illegal. “It is perfectly ethical to write and be paid by other people. Even without any credit,” she says. “The writer gets to write stuff for a lot of different kinds of clients and for a decent amount of money.”

“As a professional ghostwriter, you are often asked to specialise. I do memoir assignments, especially for armed service members, but I like doing a wider variety of jobs, doing work on fiction novels of all types, life stories and nonfiction novels too, having done work concerning the Holocaust, Dr King, English horse racing, Russian private schools, the US Marines and Haitian voodoo zombies,” she says with pride.

Another merit, she points out, is the flexible work hours and freedom to work from anywhere you like. However, a professional ghostwriter must be prepared to take on unusual assignments.

“Sometimes, my clients don’t even use a computer [even in this day]… for example, a Vietnam veteran I’m currently working with who needs me to contact his stepson to continue our work. In such cases, I often work from tape or CD transcripts prepared by the client, so that I have the background materials for the manuscript in progress. I only do book ghostwriting and editing, but often professional ghostwriters also handle screenplays and scripts, music and music lyrics. It is a global phenomenon.”

The best ghostwriters, she says, have a process for getting the author’s voice through their writing. “They might not have ever written their own book but may have been associated with the field differently and took that knowledge to help other people write their books. This gives them a strong perspective from the publishing side of writing a book more than the writing side.” According to her, as a professional ghostwriter, one must be willing to communicate and interact closely with the client, using any form of communication, because it is a matter of living up to one’s title.

But the best part of ghostwriting, Karen says, are the terrific work hours because the writer sets all boundaries themselves. “You are not bound by the usual bonds of time and space; you are your own independent agent.”

The heartbreak of ‘anonymity’

New Delhi-based publishing professional Bidisha Srivastava says she always wondered why ghostwriters contributed to something they never got credit for, until she found herself in their spot. “My heart broke completely,” she says. “Now I feel very differently about it.”

“I was asked to help an author put his thoughts together and fill in the blanks of a book that had just the structure, and about 50 per cent of the content haphazardly put together,” she elaborates. “After a long toil and much turmoil, the work was completed, and my only reward was a hefty sum of money! No name anywhere. That’s it!”

She admits that not seeing her name mentioned anywhere bothered her for a while and she swore never to do it again — not for all the money in the world. “I understand what a ghostwriter goes through — but if one is in it for the bucks, then it’s another story. But one this is certain: when a ghostwriter takes on a ghostwriting project, it will be completed.”

There is another side to this business that might work, Bidisha explains. “An author can benefit from the services of a ghostwriter in several ways. Even if the author has only an idea, the ghostwriter will do research based on the idea. He/she dives deep into the mind of the author and creates a story. In this case, the ghostwriter might or might not have knowledge of the subject. If the author is an expert on the subject, s/he can work together with the ghostwriter and turn the idea into a brilliant piece of work. Sometimes authors engage ghostwriters because they might not have the time to stitch together a full book or because they are not confident of their own writing skills, or are not conversant in the language the book is going to be published in.”

She clarifies that writing is an art, a creative process and requires complete involvement and attention of both the parties. So, no matter who is writing the script, if one is detached, the work is doomed from the start. “It is a collaboration after all, and, of late, an increasing number of writers are reaching out to ghostwriters to help turn their germ of an idea into a piece of art.”

A good script is important

Every ghostwriter gets into ghostwriting for a different reason or through a different way, says UAE-based founder of Arif Books

Madhavan Menon. “In many cases, ghostwriters started off as authors who then found that they could help other authors write their books. After all, once you’ve written a book, you are in a unique position to be able to help someone who has never done to be able to do it. So, in a way, that’s a very natural progression.”

Menon says they do take on projects knowing well they are ghostwritten, especially biographies or memoirs. “Unless specified, it is hard to tell whether the script has been ghostwritten or not and the quality of the final product depends on the writer. But before hiring someone to write your story, it is important to ensure their skills — keeping in mind that ghostwriters are paid for their time and not to be imaginative.”

He clarifies that in many cases, especially with biographies today, the ghostwriter does get a mention and shares the fame equally. “Sometimes publishing houses employ ghostwriters just to ensure that a story is delivered on time. There are so many aspects to ghostwriting that are still uncertain, but it is a reality that we live with. In some rare cases, the ghostwriter prefers to be just that — invisible. Like the ghost,” he says.

Meanwhile, UAE-based author Bashayer Arif talks about the transition of ghostwriting from being considered a ‘stigma’ to a service that is fashionable and in demand today. She says she is amazed by the number of traditional publishing houses employing ghostwriters, especially when it comes to celebrity books. “Easily, over 90 per cent of celebrity books are ghost written,” she says. “There are questions about the ethics of ghostwriting that haven’t been resolved. I understand that it’s a perfectly legal profession today, but to me, personally, it is a complicated issue; I don’t necessarily see it as black and white, but it can be confusing. It is rather contradictory.”

“In the world of academics or journalism, plagiarism is a serious offence. On the other hand, when you are a celebrity, it is somehow fine to come out with someone’s written work and pass it off as your own. Much of the time, that ‘someone’ doesn’t even get credited for their hard work. Sometimes, though, ghostwriting is resented as a collaboration and I believe approaching these situations with transparency is the more ethical choice. If you are getting your book ghostwritten, why not be honest with your audience? That’s important not only for the original writer who is hiding in the shadows, but also for the reader.”

She adds that a reader forms a bond with the central figure (especially in an autobiography) and responds emotionally to the text but is oblivious to the fact that the script is ghostwritten. “When he learns the truth, won’t he feel deceived? Acknowledging the author that has helped present your ideas is the right thing to do. Personally, as an author, I would be uncomfortable if anyone questioned my ethics. I would therefore never retain the services of a ghostwriter,” she concludes.

Can ghostwriting be ‘deadening’?

Indian author Dr Ampat Koshy says he wouldn’t ever want to be a ghostwriter or consider hiring one. “No matter what is said of it, I believe it is hack work — something good to keep the pot boiling but lacking satisfaction from the creative point of view.”

Koshy laments that plenty of people want to write (particularly English) but lack the skills. As a result, “as told to” has become a common phrase on book covers which basically kills the curiosity in the reader from the word go. “Ghostwriting can be a highly paying job, but it only for someone who has no desire to be known as a writer oneself.”

He says he’d rather have his name even on a badly-written book than be anonymous. “That way, I know I have tried. What is the point in having a bestseller that I have not written?”

“If the primary aim is for someone to make money with the requisite skills, ghostwriting might be a good option, considering that today there is a huge market for this, but personally I can’t imagine anyone I know in the role.” Koshy says the one person he knew who ghostwrote books, has switched to writing for himself because he found ghostwriting “deadening”.

Should you? Shouldn’t you?

Today, ghostwriting has moulded itself as a profession with multiple benefits — firstly aiding a busy author by taking on basic research stuff before going on to shaping their thoughts into a readable and marketable format and being acknowledged for it too.

I agree there are benefits of using a ghostwriter, especially for hard-pressed but aspiring authors for it can clear the initial groundwork. The truth remains that no matter which way your opinion swings, the result is the same: the book needs to sound like you. As Karen Cole puts it, “Your book needs your voice. Your reader must recognise you in your work.” The process of ghostwriting itself varies — sometimes entailing a series of conversations, sometimes interviews or, sometimes, simply watching a thing repeatedly.

Two weeks ago, I was asked if I’d be willing to ghostwrite an autobiography of a vlogger — an offer I politely declined for the simple reason that the process involved watching endless TikTok videos. I spent a week trying to un-hear that proposal. Ironically, in the same week, I was asked if I needed a ghostwriter for my autobiography!

I think I’ll pass.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. She tweets @ThomasAnjaly and her Insta handle is @travelwithanjaly)

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