Ghosts lurking behind bylines

Not sure how they find you, but I assume the inboxes of all bloggers are filled with pitches from public relations firms. As someone who has been engaged in public relations, I am sympathetic. But I think I have only bitten once, accepting one book to review. Not that the reach of my blog could make many waves for their clients anyway.

The topic of ghostwriting caught my attention this week though. Through the years, I have been called upon to ghostwrite speeches, a guest lecture for a college class, letters to the editor, scripts for parades, op-eds for publications, tweets and, yes, even an essay for a book. I’ve never thought that much about it.

Someone whose expertise lies elsewhere or who is simply too busy with other work commitments engages someone else to learn his or her voice and craft words into something they are willing to endorse publicly. No one expects politicians to prepare all their speeches, or the volunteer presidents of nonprofits to understand the mission and message as well as their staffs.

Writers often obscure their identities when writing fiction, particularly if it is in a different genre. What about Carolyn Keene? If she had ever been anything but a ghost, the length and productivity of her career would appear miraculous. She published her first Nancy Drew book in 1930 in time for my mother to read it as a young girl and is still churning out mysteries today.

girl-onlineGirl Online flew off the shelves during its first week of publication. According to the Christian Science Monitor, that number shattered all records for a debut novel in the United Kingdom.

The book was released at the end of November under the byline of blogger Zoe Sugg, which is why it sold so well. Zoe is a hot commodity. Her blog and youtube channel, Zoella, enjoy legions of followers. Glam Media handles the ads on her blogs, and products compete for placement.

Zoe’s certainly perky, but you don’t have to read or watch much about “beauty, fashion and life” to leap to the conclusion she might benefit from help in writing a novel. But with the not at all surprising revelation Girl Online mainly was written by someone other than Zoe herself, criticism erupted. Both those who use ghostwriters and those who write anonymously are under attack.

So the following reaction to the Zoella imbroglio popped into my inbox, and, given my ghostly past, I found it interesting. The defense of ghosts post is written, or is at least appears under the byline of, Michael Levin, author of more than 100 books and CEO of BusinessGhost:

Michael Levin
Michael Levin

Stop Criticizing Ghostwriters
(And Their Clients!)

By: Michael Levin

Zoe “Zoelle” Sugg, a young woman who has developed a massive following in the online world for her fashion and beauty videos has just come under fire for allegedly using a ghostwriter to help her write her novel.

Her publisher, Penguin, all but threw her under the bus, failing to speak up in her time of need.

The novel only happens to be the fastest selling novel in the history of that publishing firm.

Her integrity has been shattered and her v-logging (regular video accounts of her life and thoughts, her primary means of communicating with her fans) has been temporarily suspended.

For what crime?

Books are hard to write. The learning curve is steep.

How do you choose and organize material in a manner that catches and holds the attention of readers for hundreds of pages?

It ain’t easy.

I know this is true because I run a ghostwriting and publishing company with more than 240 books to our credit.

That represents 240 individuals who needed a book, had developed through leadership in their respective fields, but didn’t have the time or desire to write it themselves.

We interviewed them, drafted chapters in their own voices, edited those chapters in accordance with their comments, and published the books.

As a result, readers have access to their ideas, which result in better lives, since we only do positive books.

Their finances, careers, health and fitness, relationships, and spiritual lives are stronger as a result of the books we created.

Did the authors commit a sin by hiring us?

Did we commit a sin by ghostwriting the books?

Did Zoella do a bad thing?

Let’s get real.

Most people who need books are better off having someone else “write” them.

They should be doing the things they do that make them useful to society, whether it’s being an entrepreneur, a CEO, a doctor, a chef, or a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I tell prospective clients, “We only work with people who are too busy to talk to us.”

Meaning that our clients are so successful and in demand that they don’t have the time to sit in a spare bedroom staring at a laptop screen and tapping out, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

…Society works best when people practice their unique ability and then offload all other tasks onto others better qualified.

I ghostwrite.

God gave me certain gifts:  the ability to write well and quickly; the ability to absorb large amounts of information and put them into a sensible order; and the ability to dial into the sound of another person’s voice and write in that voice.

Nothing wrong with any of that. As a result, our clients get books that extend their reach, brand them in the marketplace, and help them serve more people and make more money.

Their readers gain valuable ideas from books that are easy to read and understand.

And we get paid.

Sounds like a good thing to me.

Except for folks like Malcolm Gladwell or Lawrence Wright, staff writers for the New Yorker who also write books, a very high percentage of authors use ghosts or cowriters.

Even some very famous novelists, truth be told.

So let’s stop banging on Zoella, who may or may not have worked with a ghostwriter, but even if she did, she did nothing wrong.

We ought to be celebrating the fact that young people are buying and reading books instead of demonizing an author who doesn’t deserve the abuse.

Maybe we ghosts should hire a PR firm to increase our profile.

Here’s a proposed tagline:  “I don’t want to boast, but I hired a ghost.”

OK, fine.  If you need a tagline, call someone better qualified to write one for you.

But if you need a book, call a ghost.

We won’t tell a soul.

Evidently, Levin took his own advice and hired a public relations firm to enhance the image of ghostwriters and their clients or this wouldn’t have popped up in my inbox.

At first glance, I totally agreed with Levin, but his arguments leave me feeling conflicted. Saying everybody does it does not make it right. Suppose I had hired a ghost-mathematician to take my algebra finals? That would be called cheating.

Why don’t celebrity writers add “with major assistance from” so-and-so under their bylines? They really aren’t fooling many people and shouldn’t be trying to pull the wool over their eyes anyway.

The honesty would be refreshing.

If Zoe had done so, she probably would have sold the same number of books. Plus, her fans wouldn’t feel betrayed.

Perhaps the industry deserves its tarnish. The rich and famous who buy words to put into their mouths should openly admit it on the cover of their books.

There would still be plenty of work for wordsmiths like Levin, but ghostwriters could come out of the closet.

The same curious people will want to read their products, but celebrities would no longer be haunted by the fear of being outed by ghostbusters.