Ghostwriters In The Sky

That revelation changed how I viewed the book. I still love it, but some of the luster dulled in the feeling of having believed a lie.
on Dec 17, 2013 · No comments

Ghost_rider_in_the_mistThe first science fiction book I read as a young teen was Lester Del Ray’s novel, The Runaway Robot. A fun and enjoyable read, even as an adult. A few years ago, I discovered Lester didn’t really write that book. It was ghostwritten.

That revelation changed how I viewed the book. I still love it, but some of the luster dulled in the feeling of having believed a lie.

Of late, accusations of plagiarism by Evangelical leader Mark Driscoll have turned toward accusations of using ghostwriters. This has spread to other leaders who are suspected of the same. At first, I wondered what the big deal was. Ghostwriters are an accepted part of the publishing world.

People are responding as if this is new.

Christianity Today back in March of 2002 ran a reprint of an article that originally ran in September of 1982. The subtitle tells the story, “The evangelical world is being plagued by ghostwriters in the sky.” The big difference is that article doesn’t name any leaders, using fictional characters to illustrate the story instead.

What is a ghostwriter? “A ghostwriter is a writer who writes books, articles, stories, reports, or other texts that are officially credited to another person.” Usually ghostwriters write knowing this will be the case, and are paid well for it since they are giving up all rights to their work. Such isn’t always the case.

The problem is for non-fiction, especially Christian, it often has the person’s name on the cover because they are perceived to have some expertise on the subject. People buy his book because they want to hear what the expert has to say on the subject, not an unknown person he hired.

But what about fiction?

If a ghostwriter can match the author’s voice and style, what does it matter? As long as it is well written and a good story, does it matter?

We’ll, there’s that pesky “Thou shalt not bear false witness” commandment (Exodus 20:16). Then again, that’s not the full commandment, which adds, “. . . against thy neighbor.” Ghostwriting would be bearing false witness against yourself.

However, we could all find Scripture verses to support not lying about such things. I’m sure some of you will quote a few in the comments. There are plenty to pick from.

What I’m more curious about isn’t just whether it is a sin or not on the part of an author to attach their name to a book they didn’t write (a solid case could be made for that point), but what you, the reader, feel when you suspect or discover a particular book you like or love was ghostwritten? Especially a speculative fiction book.

Does it sully the author and book to learn that?

As a young teen, R. L. Copple played in his own make-believe world, writing the stories and drawing the art for his own comics while experiencing the worlds of other authors like Tolkien, Lewis, Asimov, and Lester Del Ray. As an adult, after years of writing devotionally, he returned to the passion of his youth in order to combine his fantasy worlds and faith into the reality of the printed page. Since then, his imagination has given birth to The Reality Chronicles trilogy from Splashdown Books, and The Virtual Chronicles series, Ethereal Worlds Anthology, and How to Make an Ebook: Using Free Software from Ethereal Press, along with numerous short stories in various magazines.Learn more about R. L and his work at any of the following:Author Website, Author Blog, or Author Store.
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  1. Adam Graham says:

    It really does depend. The main times I’m aware of Christian Fiction using a ghost writer is in the case of prominent Christians who aren’t novelists themselves. Usually, the process isn’t totally Ghosted as the name of the author is on the cover but in much smaller letters such as in the Charles Colson novel <i>Gideon’s Torch</i> which has Eileen Vaughn below Colson’s name in smaller letter, although I’d be surprised if Vaughn weren’t the primary contributor in terms of the amount material written. 
    Ghost writers serve a purpose in such cases. A christian leader may have the idea for a good novel in terms of a plot but lacks the time and talent to hash it out. Ghosting can be a good partnership that benefits both the person who has the plot idea as well as the ghost.  Savvy readers are aware this type of thing happens. 
    So while I’ve never hired a ghost writer, I think it’s a legitimate practice.

  2. When I found out at the age of thirteen that the famous series, Nancy Drew, was ghost-written, I felt betrayed. I loved Nancy Drew, wanted to be Nancy Drew, I even tried to dress, act and look like her, lol. I loved her adventures and really admired how the author could come up with such brilliant escapades book after book. Reading Nancy Drew books made me want to be a writer, to be able to inspire that kind of joy into a reader. One redeeming factor to come out of the writing syndicate known as Carolyn Keene is that there was at least one writer who wrote most of the stories…Nowadays, I look at the copyright page to see if the author is the author–not always helpful, ie, Agatha Christie’s later books had a ghostwriter or two. Also, I feel like certain Stephen King books were ghostwritten because the writing is SO different (bad).
    It’s one thing for fiction books to be ghostwritten and maybe worldly non-fiction books, but when it comes to Christian pastors and teachers having books ghost-written, I think it’s downright wrong–it’s lying, deceiving and betraying–can’t see any way around it. Totally akin to spiritual abuse.

  3. notleia says:

    I think the person who did the work ought to get some form of recognition, even if their name is second to the recognized one that can generate sales, like all of Clive Cussler’s recent output. But if, like the Nancy Drew analogy, people are going to create a sort of community pen name, that’s a different ball of wax. 
    As for Mark Driscoll, he is such a [bleep] already, but if this is the straw that breaks the back of his credibility for everybody, I won’t complain. But that’s a thoroughly optimistic outlook, since he still has a following after his misogynistic and insecurely macho bullcrap has been made perfectly clear.

  4. Ghostwriting is certainly questionable, at best.

    At the same time, I wonder if it counts as “ghostwriting,” per se, when there were no such people as “Franklin W. Dixon” or “Carolyn Keene.”

    It’s still deceptive. But technically it’s a syndicate scandal.

    Of note: there was a giant scandal involving the Stratemeyer Syndicate (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, etc.) some years ago. It’s fascinating to read of it in Wikipedia. Or see Gene Weingarten’s column for The Washington Post about the real author of many of the Hardy Boys stories. It’s at once amusing/saddening.

  5. Mirtika says:

    It matters to me. It’s dishonest. I think anything a person of integrity put out under their name should be theirs and theirs alone. If they get someone to write it, but they provide the information for it, then it should have their name AND their co-writer/writer’s name. Otherwise, it’s taking credit for the work of another. And that is NOT honest. I would not NOT buy a book because a credit is given to a second or third or however many parties. I mean, really? It’s all about ego to take all the credit. Pen names/Community pen names, I’m fine with, if it’s general knowledge. The problem with–especially people of God–getting their name there without the actual WORK is that it’s a lie and it smacks of one of those deadly sins.

  6. Kirsty says:

    Definitely don’t believe in Ghostwriting when it gives the impression it was written by someone it wasn’t.
    A lot of Christian autobiographies have the person whose story it is written large and then afterwards ‘with ‘So-&-so’ or ‘as told to So-&-so’ – i.e. the person who did the actual writing. That seems a much more honest way of doing things.

  7. Julie D says:

    While I’m wary of ghost writing in any field, it seems especially suspicious in nonfiction,  where the author’s expertise is supposed to be a big selling point.

  8. bainespal says:

    Just a thought: individual television episodes rarely display the individual writer or writers of the screenplay for each episode, at least not prominently, but the information about who worked on which scripts is open and public. Maybe that’s how franchise series novels could do it, too, more ethically. Books are traditionally single-artist creations; collaboration either in the same book or across a franchise complicates matters.

  9. I have mixed emotions about this. I heard one person at a writers conference “out” some big name ministry personalities as not having written the books that bear their names. The problem is, he named my former pastor, Chuck Swindoll, who I know generated the material for his books. They were essentially his sermons. If fact, I stopped buying his books because the material was so familiar.

    I talked with his wife once about writing, and she said Pastor Swindoll’s secretary did the transcribing from sermons to books. Does that mean the secretary wrote them? I don’t think so. Part of this goes to the meaning of “wrote.” The secretary didn’t develop the ideas or organize them. Rather, the job, in my opinion, was a lot closer to editing because it was “cleaning up” the material, in this case to change the parts that are unique to speaking versus writing.

    So how many of these other famous people have similar situations? The ideas are theirs, the organization, the voice, the examples, the experiences. But someone else transcribed them. Should editors get equal billing with the writers? Or share in the royalties?

    After 9/11, I heard Lisa Beamer speak. At the event they sold her book Let’s Roll, which I felt confident she did not write. At that point I knew enough about writing that I was certain she didn’t learn how to put a book together in six months. Did I feel as if she was being dishonest? No. It was still her story.

    There was one person I saw interviewed on Oprah about her book though, and Oprah asked her about a certain event. The guest seemed confused. Oprah went on and gave more details and still the “author” was confused. Oprah laughed and said something like, I know your book better than you do. Which is when I realized, the guest probably hadn’t written the book. And I wondered how much the writer had elaborated on the story if the guest didn’t even know what Oprah was referring to. She eventually recovered and carried on, but being a pre-James Frey incident, I now wonder if what the ghostwriter put into that woman’s story was even true.

    I guess for me that’s the real issue. If the source of the material has his or her name on the cover, and someone else put it together, I don’t see it all that different from editing. If, on the other hand, the ghostwriter is generating information, then it seems like a different kind of collaboration and leaving out that fact is giving readers the wrong idea.

    In fiction, I suspect some novelists such as Ted Dekker rely heavily on co-authors for their material and their writing. But the familiar name sells. I actually feel that is less honest. It’s the same kind of franchising as the Nancy Drew example mentioned earlier, but readers don’t know it. They think they are buying something with an expected level of writing and may get something quite different.


    • I’m fine with a creator’s name — such as Tim LaHaye or Ted Dekker — being on the front cover of a novel that someone else essentially wrote — such as Jerry B. Jenkins, or Kaci Hill. But as far as I know, other novels on which their names appear solo are essentially their stories. Even editors or research assistants are credited within. But ghostwriters receive no credit for the published work — as far as I know, not even in the acknowledgements. That’s what led to the Driscoll scandal, by the way: someone, apparently a ghostwriter, simply copied material and included it under Driscoll’s name, sans credit for ghostwriter or original writer.

      I didn’t know your pastor was the fine pastor Chuck Swindoll, Becky. While I’m familiar with that author’s “outing” (I think), and understand his perspective and agree with his criticism, it does seem odd to include a book of, essentially, re-edited sermons. Did the secretary/transcriptionist/editor get some kind of credit inside? If so, no harm, no foul. It’s still essentially all Swindoll’s material.

      At the same time, given the current controversy and the desire to remain above-board, it might be wise for those publishing re-edited sermon series to be more up-front about the origin. A “with” credit would not be amiss on a book like this, and certainly the transcriptionist/editor/coauthor deserves credit inside — at the very least, for copying the sermon documents into the word processor and rearranging them and editing them into a book-with-chapters format.

      That related issue, however, is far different from untruthfully simply leaving the primary, or even sole, true author’s name out entirely — as was at first the case with The Prayer of Jabez (source: World magazine in 2003).

      […] Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.

      Rom. 14:16

      [A church elder] must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

      1 Tim. 1:7

  10. R. L. Copple says:

    By definition, a ghostwriter is never credited. The moment their name appears anywhere in credits, title page, or cover, it is  not a ghostwriter. Same goes for an editor. How much of their work involved creating the words on the page, even if it is the author’s idea, could be considered ghostwriting.

    For instance, James Paterson creates outlines of stories, then gives them to someone else to write. As far as I know, only James Paterson’s name appears as the author.

    Dean Wesley Smith last year publicly blogged his progress on a novel he was ghostwriting. He came up with the full story, though I’m sure he had some constraints. But by contract he was not free to divulge who he was ghost writing for, or even any details of what the story was about. His name would appear nowhere on the novel. Barring getting outed, few will ever know he wrote that story. He also was paid around 100 grand for the job, if my memory serves me correctly.

    Once any credit is given, it is no longer ghostwriting. It is co-authoring, or something similar.
    Interesting responses so far.

  11. I’m a lot more familiar with the concept of ghostwritten books these days, so it probably wouldn’t feel as much of a betrayal as it did when I was a teen first encountering it.
    So, how I would feel about it? It depends on the situation. I would wonder, “Why?”
    Why did they hire a ghostwriter instead of writing it themselves? If it’s an autobiography, then that makes perfect sense to me. If it’s a fiction series, and they just wanted the notoriety of being considered a published author… that’s pretty dumb.
    But I don’t know that there’s anybody I idolize (or identify with) enough that it would impact my opinion of them or the books to find out someone else wrote their books. If I’d held a lifelong desire to meet them and discuss their work, then yeah — I would be disappointed and strike them off my bucket list.
    If the book entertained me, then it did so regardless of who wrote it. So I might still enjoy the book, even after discovering it was ghostwritten.
    If the book was non-fiction and professed to be written by one person but was really the thoughts of another (not just edited or transcribed but completely thought up), then I would lose respect for the professed author. That’s a lack of integrity, that’s intent to deceive for self-gain.

  12. Leanna says:

    Finding out that a book was ghost written wouldn’t bother me. My admiration would simply have a different name to attach to.
    Ghostwriting to me is simply the means by which someone with a story but no writing skills is able to share the aforementioned story. I would totally ghostwrite for a friend, family member, or even a stranger if I thought the story they wanted to tell was compelling. Editors don’t usually get credit on the covers of books. Ghostwriting doesn’t seem that different to me.

  13. R. L. Copple says:

    Teddi asked why a fiction author would use a ghostwriter. I’ve never used one, not well known enough to do that. This would be my best guesses.
    Probably the biggest reason is if an author has name recognition and a big platform. Maybe the author struggles to get one book a year, but the publisher knows the fan base is big enough to handle three books a year, so the publisher hires a ghostwriter. I’ve not viewed traditional publishing contracts to know, but it an author signed a contract allowing the publisher to do that, the author may not have any say in the matter. Not all authors go through the contract with a fine-tooth comb to know what they are signing.
    Another possibility I could see is a life-event gets in the way of a big-name author meeting deadlines. Maybe he’s in an auto accident and laying in a hospital bed for two months. The publisher may decide they’d lose too much money and opt to hire a ghostwriter. The author in such  a situation may not want any slow down of their books coming out for fear of negatively affecting their income.

  14. Kirsty says:

    Really cool post title by the way!

What do you think?