How do you know if a book is ghostwritten?

One of the questions a ghost is most often asked (right after; don’t you mind not getting the credit on the cover?) is: will readers be able to tell if a book has been ghosted?

The short answer is: no. In fact, I will add an ‘absolutely not’ to that. (However, if you want to flip to the end of this blog, I will share a professional secret to help you in ghost-spotting, if you are completely desperate to find out if a book was written by someone else).

Being a ghost is all about finding the named author’s voice. If I was lucky enough to ghost write for John F Kennedy, Tom Clancy, or Sweet Valley doyenne Francine Pascal, (all of whom employed ghosts, by the way) you wouldn’t know a thing about it. For the purposes of those books, or indeed any other collaboration real or imagined, I always become ‘my’ author. I will think like they think, use terms and expressions they favour and see the world from their exact viewpoint. It might sound a bit odd, but I have changed sex, nationality, profession and political and religious persuasions more times than I care to remember. It’s OK though, I do snap back to being me in my downtime.

Getting someone’s voice is crucial to being a good ghost. A book has to read like it is written by the same person that fans have seen on the television, or read about on social media, or even met face-to-face. As I often say to authors I work with: if I have done a good job, when their best friends read the book they’ll think: yup, that is him or her. They wouldn’t be able to see the join.

Ghosts capture voices well because they enjoy listening to other people’s stories. They fully immerse themselves in the life of the other person, rather in the same way as an actor gives themselves over to a character. They don’t just tell the story, they live it. This is how they do it in the author’s voice, rather than a flat one that could belong to virtually anyone. This is possibly also the reason why many actors have turned to ghosting as a career.

A book won’t get anywhere, and will certainly not hit the bestseller list, unless readers fully buy into the fact the author named on the front cover is the one behind the words. The success of a well-ghosted book, whether fiction or non fiction, is all about authenticity. The reader has to trust and understand that what they are being told reflects the feelings, experiences and views of the person describing them. (And they do when they are ghostwritten. The story is simply told through the pen/keyboard of a ghost).

But surely someone could tell? After all, we don’t exist in a vacuum today. Most people have an online footprint a (virtual) mile wide. Even presidents tweet their (tremendous!) innermost thoughts. A lot. If you look, there is tons of documentary evidence of the words any of us often use, the phrases we repeat, even stories we retell. Again, the ghost’s skill is to find the personality that is projected through the frequently written words. They need to find the voice behind them.

Don’t forget either, the written and spoken word have different rules. As you read this, you’ll have no idea of my accent, even if you are a frequent reader of my blogs and social media posts. What you will pick out though are differences in syntax and vocabulary that make my writing a part of who I am.

The most important driver to getting a voice just right is the chemistry between an author and his/her ghost. If the author’s voice doesn’t shine through loud and clear, I would venture that the match is not good. Finding a ghost the author is comfortable with (and vice versa, because it works both ways) is crucial to a successful co-authored project and never more so when it comes to getting the voice spot on. I always advise authors to speak to a few ghosts before they commit, to find the one they feel most comfortable with. That way, the rhythm of the voice, its quirks and characteristics will be spot on.

One solution that authors occasionally come up when trying to solve the authenticity problem is to get a friend to write their book. After all a mate, or even a best mate, knows them best, right? They’ll know exactly how they speak and the expressions they always repeat. Ergo: they will find it easy to capture the right voice. Now, I know I would be expected to say this, but here goes: don’t do it. There is nothing that makes a book publisher’s heart sink more than an author bringing in a mate who ‘fancies writing a book’. This really is a job that is best left to a professional writer. Have faith, a well matched, experienced ghost will find the voice and do a fantastic writing job.

I should add that finding an author’s voice is not always easy, even if the chemistry is good. When the subject in hand is difficult, or parts of the story are tough to articulate, it takes a certain amount of skill to tease the details out. Ghosts need to find the voice that an author may have denied for years, but by the very fact they have done so, means the subject matter may well be the crux of the story. It is down to the interviewing skills and empathy of the ghostwriter to help the author give their innermost feelings a voice. Very often, tackling this part of a story is best left until a few interviews into the process, so everyone feels comfortable and able to speak more freely.

And now roll the drums for the secret, ghost-spotting technique I flagged at the beginning of this piece. The most obvious sign is when there are two authors named on the cover or title page. As in: by Very Famous Person with Joe Bloggs. More likely than not, Joe is our ghost. However, if Very Famous Person is alone on the cover, take a look at the acknowledgements inside. Most authors are happy to disclose, albeit discreetly, that they have collaborated with a ghost writer. There is no consistency in how this is done though. Watch out for any of the following forms of words that subtly credit a ghostwriter: ‘advisor’, ‘editor’ or ‘Joe Bloggs, who helped me jog my memory’, or my personal favourite ‘Joe Bloggs, who helped me type my memoires’. It doesn’t always happen, but it is generally there if you want to know and you really look for it.

Happy ghost hunting!

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