The Ethics of Ghostwriting

by Summer Griffin.

When we pick up a book we don’t tend to consider if the name on the front really is the author as they claim to be. We just assume that we can trust that this is the truth. Maybe in some genres, we wouldn’t be surprised to discover that a ghostwriter has been used. When reading an autobiography, for example, we don’t tend to be surprised that a famous golf player hasn’t suddenly developed the ability to build a complex narrative about their experiences. We read these clearly ghostwritten books not because we want to see how Richard Branson and Hillary Clinton write, but because they have interesting stories to tell. The tradition of ghostwriting in non-fiction has a long history. However, in recent years, ghostwritten fiction has become more and more common, to many people’s surprise and often disapproval. Why is fiction ghostwriting so controversial? Is it just another form of collaboration? Or is it thinly-veiled plagiarism?

First, let’s look at why people feel so betrayed when they discover a book has been ghostwritten. I’ll take an example from a few years back now: Girl Online “by” Zoella. This particular occasion of ghostwriting caused a scandal in 2014 after it was discovered that the book was not all Zoella’s own work. The YouTube entrepreneur was quoted saying “I’m sure a lot of you will have heard by now that I’m writing a book… I absolutely love writing and ever since I was a young’un, I have dreamt about my very own book, and so this is an absolute dream come true.” Considering what we now know about her use of a ghostwriter, this is a little misleading, right? Her fans thought so too.

Zoella’s army of young followers understandably felt as if their trust had been broken. When reports started to come out suggesting that Zoella was not the promising young author people now believed her to be, there was outrage. Many felt they had been cheated. They had paid to buy a book because they believed they were reading the words of their favourite YouTuber when in reality they were written by an unknown ghostwriter. What did Zoella’s name on the front cover even mean if she was not the author behind the narrative? To what extent was it her story at all? These questions have been left largely unanswered. It seems as if it were a collaborative process where Zoella gave ideas for themes, topics, and events she would like to see in the story, and then her ghostwriter, Siobhan Curham, put these ideas and themes onto the page. This sounds like a strong example of teamwork, but why, in this case, was only one half of the team given the full credit? 

Look at this definition of ghostwriting:

Ghostwrite (vb.): to write (material) for someone else who is the named author.

Now, let’s compare that with a definition of plagiarism:

Plagiarism (n.): the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

Do these not sound like two sides of the same coin? One could argue that the difference is the consent of the rightful author. We imagine that plagiarism happens without the rightful author’s knowledge, whereas ghostwriting is a more transparent business arrangement. However, if your friend lets you copy their coursework for uni, Turnitin is still going to report you for plagiarism. So, what is the difference? Some people don’t think that there is one. They look at ghostwriting solely as a big name stealing the work of an unknown author in order to appear talented in an art form that they have no real ability in. Everybody can agree that plagiarism is an immoral act. However, ghostwriting seems to exist in a grey area between right or wrong. 

But hold on a minute! Ghostwriters are not simply poor, underappreciated, exploited artists; they are businessmen and women who have a product to sell. If we look at this from the ghostwriter’s point of view, they are providing a service. This is a service that they are paid for and from which they can earn a living. Plumbers, builders, and electricians aren’t considered exploited when homeowners turn to their friends and say, “look at all the work we’ve done on our house.” They provided a service, and now their client may present the finished product however they like. The same applies to ghostwriting. For many writers, ghostwriting is a way of generating a stable income while being able to do the work they love. Being a novelist can be risky- you rely solely on the popularity of your books in order to make a living. As a ghostwriter, you can be salaried, or you can charge a set fee per page of writing, lessening the worry about where your next paycheck is coming from. The struggling artist lifestyle does not appeal to everyone. For writers, ghostwriting is a way of avoiding that whilst still working in a creative environment. Ghostwriting is an alternative way of pursuing a career in writing if the traditional route does not appeal to you. 

Another way of looking at the process is as a form of collaboration and teamwork. When Zoella turned to a ghostwriter to write Girl Online, it wasn’t because she wanted to cheat and lie that she was a better writer than she is. It was because she had a story that she wanted to tell and themes she wanted to put out there in the form of a novel, and she wanted it to be the best it could be. She knew that she did not have the professional writing skills required to produce a bestselling novel and therefore turned to her team at Penguin Random House for help. It is an old-fashioned view that the author is the only person involved in creating a successful book. There are a whole host of professionals behind the finished product. We don’t feel lied to when the cover artist, the production team, and the editor are not mentioned on the front of the book, so why do we feel so betrayed when the ghostwriter is not mentioned? It takes a whole team to create that finished product; a team in which the author is just one member. They just happen to be the one with their name on the cover. 

So, do I think fiction ghostwriting is acceptable? Yes, but I believe there should be strong guidelines for how the process is carried out in order to avoid people not being given the credit they deserve. There needs to be a certain level of collaboration between the named author and the ghostwriter so that the author earns their name on the cover- the ideas need to come from them. Also, the process needs to be transparent; readers should always be made aware that a ghostwriter has been used. This way, ghostwriters can continue to have successful careers doing what they love, and readers can rest easy knowing that they know the truth behind the book’s production.