Is ghostwriting ethical?

Ghostwriters frequently get asked about the ethics of what they do. Isn’t it 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 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 resulting collaboration.

I’ll take the ghost’s side first, because this is by far the easiest bit of the trio and I have a bit of a vested interest. Ethics are a bit of a non issue here. Ghostwriting is a business transaction. I’m selling a product: my writing skills. When I make an 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, the situation might appear a little bit more complicated. 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 write their own book. 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. (See above ref the business transaction).

Where the lines might 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 expect 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 starts 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 this revelation. 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.

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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