Friday, December 12, 2014

Ghosting Stories

By Russel D McLean

If, like me, you were only vaguely aware of Zoella (The online name of Zoe Suggs) through TV ads for Youtube (I honestly thought she was an actress showing an example of what could happen, which shows how desperately old and out of touch I've become), chances are that this week you know far more about her than you did before thanks to the storm in a literary teacup that is the revelation she may have had "help" writing her first novel. Or, in plainer language, some people have said she may have used - shock, horror, etc - a ghostwriter.

Ghostwriters, for those not in the know, are not literally ghosts, but the unseen hand in a novel. They typically remain un-named or un-acknowledged and they usually do the majority of work on a book. So, that Katie Price book you thought was all from her hard-typing fingers, it was ghost written. And lest you believe this terrible, immoral (please not the sarcasm here) dishonest practice was a sign of times, its worth noting that "Carolyn Keene", the "author" of the Nancy Drew Mysteries was in fact a cover for a slew of ghost writers creating fiction to the house style, as was "Franklin W Dixon", creator of the Hardy Boys. Personally, I had to sit down and take a very deep breath when I realised that Alfred Hitchcock was not in fact writing those introductions to - or indeed even writing the text of - the Three Investigators mysteries. And, of course, many autobiographies by non writers (sports-folk, actors etc) are ghosted, too. Sometimes for very good reasons: to make an interesting story more readable (and sometimes for bad: to rush out a book to capitalise on five minutes of fame, but there's always a downside to any part of the industry and let's take the good with the bad). So I don't see why there's all this fuss about Suggs's book being ghosted: its not something that thousands of others haven't done before.

Look, my point is this: ghostwriting has always been around in one form or another. Its another form of marketing, and marketing in literature is not some dastardly new invention of greedy capitalist publishers. No, its something that is - as distasteful as this may be to "purists" of a literary bent - absolutely essential to keeping the health in book sales. I would gladly, tomorrow, claim that all my books were written by James Patterson if a) he offered that and b) it meant that my book sales went up by more than three thousand percent.

The issue with ghostwriting, of course, does come down to one of money. Zoella's book - allegedly written in whole or in part by bestselling children's author Siobhan Curram - sold somewhere in the region of  78,109 in its first week alone. Reports (cribbed from this article in the Guardian) estimate that ghostwriters up for the position of working with Zoella/Suggs were offered between £7,000-£8,000 flat fee. Now, in that same report in the Guardian, Andrew Crofts - a professional ghoster - implies that this is a bit of an insulting amount. But the fact is that some writers (such as me) would kill for an amount like that (most of my money is currently brought in doing reviews, editorial reports and so on - the books help, but by God, advances at my level don't come anywhere close to even that) even at a flat fee. And I admit I think that is a bit stingy - to write (allegedly) 80k words in six weeks is a tall order. But in a world where so many writers are asked to work for "exposure", the knowledge that you a) wrote a succesful book and b) got paid a semi-decent amount for it (Having worked in retail full time, I think eight grand for six weeks work is actually not bad) is enticing. I would, if offered, have no real issues with ghosting. I wouldn't think it beneath me. In fact the challenge of being a writer is stretching and disguising your style; experimenting with different voices. But I'm drifting from the point here. And the point is this:

Zoe Suggs is no different from James Patterson, if she did indeed use a ghost (and we're not sure - nor do I think we really need to know - how much impact Curram had on the final product: Suggs refers to her more in mentor terms than stating she wrote the whole book, and that's fine, because Suggs is not a writer by training, but someone starting out and of course at that stage its a good thing to have a mentor who knows the industry etc). Yes, Patterson puts the other author's name on the front of the book, but very few of his readers really care about that: they just see the name Patterson and they buy the book. Yes, many people (and I've been guilty of this) mock Patterson for his conveyer belt of releases, but you cannot deny that they sell and that people read them. And this happens because of marketing. And sometimes it means that they move on to other books, too. I'm still pleased to have seen Patterson recommending Ken Bruen for people to read a few years ago; he wants people to move on from his books and into other authors, too (while still buying his, of course). And that's a pretty admirable thing.

In one of the articles I read, a parent complained that "young girls" were buying Zoe's book and that they were being lied to and that this was a bad thing. So let's go all the way back to the top of this entry and look at The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators. I read all of these as a kid. I later realised they were ghosted. It didn't change my love for the books themselves. And it didn't stop me reading anything ever again. It didn't change the words. It didn't change the fact I bought the book. And it didn't make me burn the ones I had bought. Yes, ghostwriters go as the unsung of writing, but I don't think its a dishonourable thing to do. In the same way that exec producers in TV don't write all the scripts themselves, I see nothing wrong with someone having a marketable idea and bringing in someone else to write for hire. Do I think they should be paid well for this? Yes. More so, I think, if they are never going to be acknowledged and have to work fast. But given that authors who write under their own name are often paid so little anyway, if all parties are amenable to the idea of ghosting, then I think we really need to stop acting like its the crime of the damn century. If people are buying and enjoying the book, then that's the only result that matters.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I agree completely, though I'd add one thing, which Curran apparently did not receive: the ghost should get a taste of the sales, too. Maybe not much--maybe only 1%, whatever's fair--but if someone ghostwrites a book and it blows up, it shouldn't only be the beard who profits.