Ghostwriter versus co-writer

A couple of weeks ago the theme of my blog was the ethics of ghostwriting, discussing whether or not it was OK for a ghost not to get the credit for their work when someone else does. I received a response which questioned whether this was the case with novels, where an unnamed writer is largely responsible for the plot, structure and flow while the author, who is often famous for their writing, has their name emblazoned on the cover.

My response was that my initial blog was mainly about non fiction works. Ghostwriting is a business traction, where people like me sell their writing skills to an author. The author may have many reasons for writing their book, be it a record of their life, a how-I-did-it style biography or an explanation of their particular area of expertise, such as leadership or people management. The author may not have the time, talent or patience to finish a book and so it makes perfect sense to contract an expert.

When it comes to fiction, I accept the lines are not so clear cut. Here you have a famous name who is taking the credit for their ideas and creativity. If they work with another writer to write a book though, is it right that the other person stays in the background?

Reflecting on it now, I can see the difference is quite subtle. Appropriately enough, it is in the language used. In this second case, the person that helps the author to get their story written is a co writer, not a ghostwriter.

If you dig around, it is not hard to find a proliferation of co writers in the bestseller lists. One of the best known today is Tony Schwartz who co wrote Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. His name is on the cover, in equal billing: Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz. It’s not a subtle collaboration either: Schwartz regularly pops up as a commentator on what the President may or may not be feeling or thinking. I should say that, thinking as a ghostwriter, this is something I would be deeply uncomfortable about doing. My relationship with the authors I work with and my opinions of their views remains confidential forever.

Other well-known authors who openly use co writers include Wilbur Smith and James Patterson. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone, even if the authors were not so candid about it. Patterson, for example, has written more than 70 novels in 33 years. In one of those years, he wrote tenbooks, earning $84 million. It doesn’t take a genius to work out he had help. No writer can be that prolific, however good they are. Patterson says he teams up with other writers to deliver his manuscripts because he is more skilled at coming up with intricate plot lines, rather than being concerned about crafting each and every sentence. Co authors pen the first drafts and then he takes over for the second one. There is no dishonesty here either: his books all feature his name prominently, but the co author is also credited, albeit in a smaller font.

This sort of collaboration in fiction is not uncommon. You can pretty much take it as read (excuse the pun) that any author who bangs out more than two bestsellers a year has most likely had help. More often than not, their co writer is fully acknowledged too, albeit with less fanfare. Essentially, it is a marketing process: the author brings their name to the table (or bookshelf) as well as the plot, and the co author sells their writing skills. It is not very different from a celebrity putting their name to a new perfume. It is fairly unlikely that they’ve carefully blended the new scent. In this case the blender gets no credit whatsoever.

So, while the roles of ghostwriter and co-writer are very similar there are differences. Ghostwriters will write books, mainly, but not exclusively in non fiction, but not be seen as the author. They work closely with the named author, aiming to satisfy their vision and faithfully record his or her story/idea. It is a confidential arrangement and there is no presumption that any sort of credit is required, although it is often given, or noted in the acknowledgements. Ghostwriters are invested in the client, not the book.

When a co author works with a named author, their main emphasis is on the book, not the client. The co author will bring an element of their own vision to the finished work and their own voice too. They may even try to steer the book into a direction entirely of their own choosing. Co authors will quite rightly expect some sort of acknowledgement for their efforts and the resulting book will only be partially ‘owned’ by the main author.

Like anything creative, the division between the two skills of ghostwriter and co writer is never black and white. I have done both and I know many of my colleagues in the business have done so too. Often, when an author works with a ghost they’ll credit them on the cover with something like: ‘as told to Ms Ghost Writer’. This implies partial co writer status and makes it more difficult to tell who did what.

Ultimately, any book you read will have had dozens of eyes on it before it goes into production. It really is a team effort which, as well as the named author, may include a co writer or ghost, editor, proof readers, publishers, artists and so on. Sometimes the list can be pretty long and not everyone will get all the credit they may well deserve. The important thing is that you, dear reader, will never notice. But: you are not supposed to. Just enjoy the product.