Is ghostwriting ethical?

Ghostwriters frequently get asked; is what they do ethical? The clear implication is that helping an author write their book is somehow cheating. OK, generally the question is usually framed in more polite terms, such as: don’t you mind not getting the credit? However, the subtext is almost invariably: is it legitimate that someone else gets the credit?

Whenever the inevitable ethics question arises I usually say something along the lines of: a ghost is simply helping an author voice what they want to say in a clear, engaging way. The knowledge/ideas/memories belong 100% to the person who has the name on the cover of the book and all I am doing is helping get it on the page.

Perhaps, since the same question arises again and again, I should invest some time in providing a more detailed answer. So, here goes.

Ghostwriting is, by definition, a piece of work written by one person, but credited to another. When it comes to ethics, there are three interested parties in this set-up: the ghostwriter themselves, the author they’re writing for and the reader of the book that results from this close collaboration.

I’ll take the ghost’s point of view first, because this is by far the easiest of the trio and, of course I have extensive experience here. From my perspective, ethics are a bit of a non issue. Ghostwriting is a business transaction. I’m selling a product: my writing skills. When I make a commercial agreement with an author, I sign over all rights to what ever I produce. The outcome is no different than if someone buys a guitar on eBay. They can play any tune they like with it after our transaction is done: they paid for the right to do with it what they wish.

When it comes to the author, I agree that at first glance, the situation might appear a little bit more complicated. Again though, it is purely a commercial arrangement. The way it should work is a ghostwriter faithfully and authentically reflects what the author would have said if they had the time/talent/patience (delete as appropriate) to sit in front of a computer screen and write their own book. Let’s take each of those elements in turn. It can take a professional writer up to six months to write a full-length book. There are not many authors who have a spare six months to devote to their writing. They need to get on with the day job. Then, there is the question of talent. This is not to say the author cannot write well. In many cases they can. However, writing the odd letter, or email, is not the same as writing 70,000 or 80,000 words. Not to mention that those thousands of words need to follow a compelling narrative that engages the reader and keeps them reading chapter after chapter. That is something only an experienced professional can do. Finally, patience. This is closely linked to the previous two points. Countless books are abandoned by would-be authors after just a few chapters. They thought they could overcome the time and talent issue, but didn’t have the patience to stick with it. From an author’s point of view then, there is nothing remotely unethical about hiring a ghostwriter. A book produced in this way is a perfect synergy between a professional ghost and an author.

There is one caveat here. It is possible for the lines to become a little blurred is when there is a degree of mismatch in the ghost/author relationship. This might be when, for whatever reason, the author may not entirely engage with the process and therefore expects their collaborator to fill in the blanks, or create some, or even a great deal, of the key content. If the ghost doesn’t get a credit for their creativity, then this might seem a little unethical. Similarly, if an author fails to carefully read their manuscript, checking it for accuracy, voice and references, this also stretches the credibility of the ghosting relationship. It begins to seem more like an abdication, rather than a delegation. All ghostwriters endeavour to be 100% accurate, but it is possible to misinterpret what an author meant. Again, this arms length collaboration stretches the boundary of ethics if an author wishes to claim a book as all their own work.

Last and by no means least, is the reader. If there is any perception of deception, this can be tricky. Years ago, I remember being told that a cookery book by a household name chef had been ghosted, right down to the formulation of the recipes. The revelation was pre my ghosting days and I felt profoundly shocked, even a little robbed by it. I had no idea that this sort of book was ghosted and, having seen this person on television many times, thought they were hugely creative in the kitchen. It seemed wrong that someone else entirely had formulated all those lovely dishes. Interestingly though, I have always been fully aware that most political and business books were ghostwritten and I was cool with that. The point I am trying to make here is; if it is widely known that a particular genre of book is ghosted, then there is no surprise and no deception. The majority of non fiction works, including biographies and business and political books are written in collaboration with a professional writer (more than 75% I’ve been told). If the reader is aware of this, as most are, I believe the ethics are sound. (If you want to check if a book has been ghosted, you might like to read this blog: How do you tell if a book has been ghostwritten)

There is a reason that the idea of ghostwriting has progressed to become a commonly accepted job with no embarrassment attached. As long as it is a true collaboration with no trace of deception it is a tremendously effective way of getting the story of one individual onto the page in a memorable and compelling way. So no, I don’t mind getting the credit and, yes, the ethics are sound.

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