When Ghostwriting Hurts
by Jarold Imes
I found myself doing a book signing with an author more popular than I one evening. A fan had come up to the author and asked them about an interesting plot change that happened in the book. I remember the plot change myself, having read the book, and I also remembered that I did not like what the author did with the change. I, myself wanted to hear what the author had to say about the change. The response I got was a surprise:
“What chapter are you talking about?” Umm… before I could get my next thought together the author replied “There was no plot change.”
The fan looked puzzled and I tried my best not to show that I too was concerned. This particular plot change made an impact on how the reader interpreted the rest of the book. When the fan left, the author, who knew I had been listening revealed to me what I had begun to suspect.
“The publisher made so many changes to my book until I can’t recognize what’s mine and what they changed.” This author complained, “About ten percent of this book is mine, the rest of it just has my name on it.”
Damn. Every author’s worst fear had just come true. Part of the reason as authors we tend to shy away from editors and even the reason some of us stay away from large publishers is because we don’t want our stories changed. We’d rather have our work rejected a million times before we’d let a publisher have their ghostwriters and editors change our work. We value the name we are trying to build as authors and we don’t want a publisher or editor changing that. Yet, this is not a new phenomenon, and it happens more than people think.
Let’s try this scenario. A popular and controversial Essence Bestselling Author releases a long anticipated novel through a major publisher. Within a month or two of the release, this long anticipated novel enters the Essence Bestsellers List again. It’s not a surprise for the author, publisher or other conscious book fans since the reviews for this novel have been great for the most part. In fact, the only negative review said book had been getting is that it appeared that perhaps two or three people collaborated to make the book possible. At first this accusation is blown off as a form of hateration as Mary would say. Everyone tries to take out the author on top. However, three months or so after first appearing on the Essence Bestsellers List, excerpts from another book by another respected author begin popping up on the net. This excerpt closely matches the excerpt in Essence Bestselling Author’s book; in fact, it is the same excerpt change a character’s name and a few identifying details. Oops!!! This Essence Bestselling Author had just been ousted as a fraud by its ghost and now everyone doubts that this person wrote the first three books as people now know that they didn’t write all or perhaps none of the book currently on the list now. And the bad part is when you read the ghost’s work and then Essence Bestselling Author’s book…the ghost’s work actually makes more sense and is more logically put together than the one on the list. I’m being nice by not naming names, but everyone knows who I’m talking about in this paragraph. See, I do have grace and mercy.
Readers who have become fans of these people (they’re not authors) feel cheated. The real authors and aspiring writers who once looked up to the person now look at that person with contempt. That person doesn’t know what their publisher is or is not going to do and they know legal action is an option they have against them. Dread the thought of paying back that six figure advance they bragged about getting.
As a black author, one of the things that had always worked in our favor is that there weren’t too many times when people question the authorship of our works. Up until now, it’s something that has only happened with non African American authors. It’s common knowledge that quite a few non African American bestselling authors will put their name on a promising writer’s work just to give that writer a foot in the door and to help them get a good contract with the same publisher.
As an author, we are supposed to create the story. Some of us type off the top of our heads; some of us write an outline first then fill in the blanks. Some of us tell the story to a tape recorder first and then hire a typist to type everything out. Nothing is wrong with any of these methods because we are the creator of the story. We did what the author was supposed to do.
A ghostwriter’s job is to come in and help the author in most cases fill in the details. Supply words, phrases and pages that help make the book flow. What is added to the book is supposed to look like what the creator of the story had in mind. The ghostwriter is supposed to forget about how they would write the book. The ghostwriter is allowing whoever’s name appears in big bold print to claim authorship of their work. Sometimes, the ghostwriter gets a fee for the work they’ve created; other times, they get a percentage of the sales of the work. Some ghosts give the work freely out of the kindness of their hearts. There is nothing wrong with either as I have done all three at one point of my literary career. In some ways, ghostwriting allows me to write in genres I normally wouldn’t set foot in, or write in genres I don’t want this name or my other penname attached to. Ghostwriting for me has been my something to do to get away from the norm… whatever that is.
Ghostwriting for a major African American name can harm both you and the name you are writing under in the long run. Part of being considered a great American author is the knowledge that you wrote your book. Yes, it’s okay if someone helps you out of a rut or makes suggestions, but when your name is in big bold letters, the reader expects to know that you did indeed write your own book. In serial writing, such as the Nancy Drew series, it’s okay to ghost write for it because you want your own story to be told in the series. However, it is often frowned upon for a writer to put their name on a project they know they didn’t write or had significant help in writing. Some authors get out of this by doing what many celebrities do; share credit with the ghost. This way, you know it is the ghostwriter’s words but often times, the celebrity’s story.
Part of what makes the street genre what it is, is that we believe the author whose name appears in big bold letters actually lived the tales they wrote about. You know that the author really used to sell crack or has a criminal record or is still in the hood in spite of their deal. Being a ghostwriter for an author in this genre is like telling a lie.
As ghostwriters, we do more harm than good when we write a tale for an author already on the bestselling list. We give them work that belongs to us and often, no matter what the payment, it is small compared to the recognition and opportunities that should be ours. We enable them to become great writers on their own. Every writer struggles at one point in their career and by writing their books for them; we deny them the right to experience and grow from it. In many cases, sales for that author decrease over time because readers don’t want to give that person or their new ghost another chance. It’s almost like forgetting to teach a baby how to walk because they can’t get around without us. And that’s when ghostwriting hurts.
Jarold Imes is a contributing writer for The Urban Book Source and author of Hold on Be Strong; he is the creator of online soap opera: Hold on Be Strong (www.holdonbestrong.com), send emails to:firstname.lastname@example.org
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