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Essay Mills


section heading icon     overview

This note considers ghostwriting and other ghosted cultural production, which has included musical compositions, paintings and sculptures.

It covers -

It supplements the more detailed discussion of plagiarism and moral rights. It supplements an exploration of Essay Mills.

subsection heading icon     introduction 

Ghostwriting and other ghosting raises issues of authenticity, economics and moral rights.

A ghostwriter is an author who writes under someone else's name for that person. The text might be a memoir, a speech, a scholarly article or work of fiction. The ghost's contribution is either invisible - an invisibility generally sealed through a confidentiality agreement - or identified through a rubric such as 'with' or 'as told to'.

Until recently public awareness of ghostwriting centred on books 'written' by celebrities, in particular autobiographies by politicians, entertainers and business figures who are either too busy - or textually challenged - to provide a text of the requisite coherence and polish. Helen Brown claimed in 2003 that

Most ghostwriters are broke, young journalists. They do it once, for the money. Perhaps twice for the show: to see how the rich and famous live. Most never do it again, because celebrities take as much pleasure in sharing the limelight (and the profits) as journalists do in restraining their opinions. Yet as long as there are people with stories to sell and no time or no talent to tell them, the products of such precarious partnerships continue to sell. John Blake, of Blake Publishing, is responsible for many of the glossy tomes gracing the nation's coffee tables. He estimates that 80 per cent of celebrity books are ghosted or, euphemistically, "co-written". We still get a thrill from eavesdropping on these second-hand confessions without taking much interest in the cloaked confessor, hanging on for the gossip not the prose.

Ghosting is not new - accounts from imperial Rome for example feature figures whose writing was not their own - and is not restricted to text.

It has been identified in the composition of musical scores and in the visual arts, for example productions 'by' Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Mark Kostabi or Jeff Koons. Conspiracists picture teams of scribes generating the works of Shakespeare.

Charles Brifaut supposedly ghosted the 1851 memoirs of Lola Montez. Balzac concocted memoirs for one of Napoleon's chamberlains, the Paris executioner and the Duchesse d'Abrantes (1835). Less notable scribes manufactured the Memoires of Louis-Constant Wairy, Napoleon's valet (1830) and Memoires of Joseph Fouche, Duke of Otranto (1818). Alexandre Dumas used up around 70 'assistantes' (such as Auguste Maquet, whose unhappiness about rewards for work on The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo resulted in an 1859 lawsuit), to manufacture first drafts that were then tweaked by the master and published in Dumas' name. HP Lovecraft ghosted for a range of competitors. Herman Klurfeld served as ghostwriter for columnist Walter Winchell over 29 years, often manufacturing four newspaper columns a week. Sociologist Robert Park assisted Booker T Washington in works such as My Larger Education, becoming "for all intents and purposes, for the time, a Negro, myself". Sanford Dody ghosted Bette Davis' 1962 The Lonely Life: an autobiography. Earl Conrad ghosted My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Errol Flynn's 1960 autobiography. More recently Dorothy Jane Mills appears to have been responsible for much of the output of sports historian Harold Seymour. Memoires of Joseph Fouche, Duke of Otranto

Cricket star WG Grace was ghosted by Arthur Porritt, who lamented that

Getting material from Grace was almost heartbreaking. All he would say in recording some dazzling batting feat of his was "Then I went in and made 284".

Use of ghostwriters varies according to norms for literary and other genres. Using a ghostwritten speech is now considered to be unremarkable, unsurprising given that some politicians or celebrities deliver a speech a day. Delivery of a ghosted sermon - while once quite common - would be frowned on, as 'sincerity' has been elevated over eloquency. Appearance of a celebrity's 'autobiography' under that person's name has some acceptance among supposed authors and readers.

Geoffrey Hartman notes that employing a ghostwriter is an accepted status symbol in government and business. That was echoed by ghost Lucie Cave, responsible for Big Brother winner Jade Goody's 2006 My Autobiography. She commented that

All of these people who emerge from shows like Big Brother now know just how much they can sell their first interview for. They're far more clued-up than ever before. The celebrity autobiography is a natural extension of that. It's become the must-have accessory for anyone who's reached a certain level of fame. Obviously these people can't write their books themselves, so they need someone else to do it for them.

Big Brother personality Pete Bennett duly put his name to Pete My Story (London: HarperCollins 2006), an autobiography that provoked his publicist - mid-interview - to comment "You really should have read it, Pete" after the author expressed great surprise at the contents.

Other critics have noted that consumers are complicit in buying the work for the celebrity's name rather than for the work's merit. Publication of a ghosted scholarly or serious literary work is unacceptable.

Joe Queenan lamented that

in recent times a cloud has begun to hang over the deliciously vaporous world of ghostwriting. This is because greater transparency about the collaborative process has inadvertently led to greater confusion. Things started to take a bad turn when the basketball legend Charles Barkley complained that he had been misquoted in his own autobiography. This gave rise to a niggling suspicion in some quarters that ghostwriters were churning out books with only minimal input from their nominal authors. Shocking! Then, two years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton put her name on a vast, unprecedentedly uninteresting autobiography, waiting until page 529 before disclosing that her speechwriter was responsible for many of the words in the book, which, coincidentally, read like the world's longest speech. ...

Cynics may object that ghostwriters perform a valuable civic function by shielding the public from the authentically dimwitted voices of those they channel. To their way of thinking, no one would actually want to read a book written in Charles Barkley's own words; no one would want to read the unedited David Lee Roth; no one could possibly machete all the way through an unghosted Rush Limbaugh book. I disagree. Had Limbaugh written The Way Things Ought to Be start to finish, instead of collaborating with the sober John Fund, he might have been just feisty enough to print his unenlightened views on African-American football players years ago and laid all his race cards right on the table. ... It is by saddling celebrities with such sober professionals that agents, editors and book packagers come to stand between the public and some truly unforgettable reading experiences; I personally would welcome the unghosted autobiography of Keanu Reeves or Paris Hilton or the unghosted memoirs of Michael Jackson. And, without the mediating force of a ghostwriter, Geraldo Rivera's Exposing Myself might have been really disgusting, not merely nauseating. By strategically positioning a goodnatured hack between the celebrity and the public, the publishing industry is doing fans of the joyously cretinous a terrible disservice. Let us never forget: by their words ye shall know them. Not by their ghostwriters' words.

Journalist Scott Simon characterised ghostwriting

as old as literature and sometimes just about as reputable as the world's oldest profession.

US ghost Miriam Bloom disagreed, telling a US seminar that ghosting is an honourable and practical profession: ghostwriters get paid irrespective of whether the text is published (although may work for a flat fee and thus miss out on royalties), escape blame if the text is panned or attracts defamation action, and supposedly only need to satisfy the 'author'.

A Peter Senge 'consulting editor' proclaimed that

At its best, ghostwriting - like oral history writing - gives voice to people who deserve to be heard.

Unfortunately much of what is heard is not their voice, an issue if integrity is central to promotion/reception of what they (or their ghosts) say.

subsection heading icon     incidents 

Nobel prizewinner Camilo Jose Cela was accused in 2001 of regularly using ghostwriters throughout most of his career, with Tomas Garcia Yebra alleging that Marcial Suarez and Mariano Tudela supplied the plots and characters which Cela transformed in The Cross of Saint Andrew (winner of the Planeta prize) and Mazurka for Two Dead Men (winner of Spain's National Literary Prize). Suarez allegedly provided Cela with the stories and characters for his 1951 The Hive.

Samuel Johnson ghosted sermons, academic lectures and literary criticism, with an associate commenting that he

made no scruple of confessing, he was paid ... and such was his notion of justice, that having been paid, he considered them so absolutely the property of the purchaser, as to renounce all claim to them. He reckoned that he had written about forty sermons; but, except as to some, knew not in what hands they were - "I have", said he, "been paid for them, and have no right to enquire about them".

John F Kennedy was accused in 1957 of using a ghost for Profiles in Courage. Subsequent biographers have suggested that he received substantial help with that work and his earlier Why England Slept. Charles de Gaulle attracted similar, although arguably less justified claims that he had been substantially assisted by André Malraux in writing his memoirs. Henry Ford's My Philosophy of Industry (New York: Coward McCann 1929) was penned by Fay Faurote.

Much of the literary criticism by Italian poet Eugenio Montale appears to be attributable to US ghost Henry Furst. At the other end of the spectrum most of Jerzy Kosinski's fiction was ghosted.

Recordings by schmaltzy pop group Milli Vanilli (with sales of 30 million singles and 11 million albums) were exposed in 1990 as having been dubbed by anonymous studio singers. Ghosting extended to the stars lip synching during live performances, notoriously discovered when their recording went into a looop while they were on stage at a 1989 live concert in Connecticut. Over 100 recordings by Joyce Hatto (1928-2006), sometimes characterised as "a neglected genius" and the "greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of", appear to have been tweaked and unacknowledged copies of performances by her contemporaries. Why bother with talent and decication when you can pass off someone else's genius as your own ... and apparently concoct a few favourable reviews along the way.

More seriously, the UK Observer claimed in 2003 that hundreds of articles in medical journals that were supposedly written by ostensibly independent academics or medical practitioners were in fact written by ghostwriters for pharmaceutical companies. It noted suggestions that almost half of all articles published in the journals are by ghostwriters.

The Observer highlighted retraction of an item in the New England Journal of Medicine following a call by cardiologist Dr Hubert Seggewiss, one of eight listed authors, alerting the editor that he had never seen any version of the paper.

Editorial Assistant Susanna Rees, in a letter on the British Medical Journal site, claimed that

Medical writing agencies go to great lengths to disguise the fact that the papers they ghostwrite and submit to journals and conferences are ghostwritten on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and not by the named authors. There is a relatively high success rate for ghostwritten submissions - not outstanding, but consistent. ... One standard procedure I have used states that before a paper is submitted to a journal electronically or on disc, the editorial assistant must open the file properties of the Word document manuscript and remove the names of the medical writing agency or agency ghostwriter or pharmaceutical company and replace these with the name and institution of the person who has been invited by the pharmaceutical drug company (or the agency acting on its behalf) to be named as lead author, but who may have had no actual input into the paper.

US children's author Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) devised scenarios and series faster than he could write individual novels, accordingly inventing the Stratemeyer Syndicate - a team of ghostwriters that manufactured series featuring Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys and the Bobbsey Twins in over 1,600 volumes.

Working Partners - "where stories are born" - has manufactured some 100 plus titles in the 'Animal Ark' series, attributed to 'Lucy Daniels'. Global sales for that series are claimed to have reached 15 million copies in 2006. Working Partners supplies authors with a detailed synopsis (typically 25% of the overall book) as part of creating "highly defined series concepts, storylines, and cast lists for our projects" and keeps the copyright in the resultant work
. Publisher Hodder Headline disingenously claims that

Lucy Daniels lives in Yorkshire with her family and her two Russian Blue cats, Benjamin and Peter ... She is the author of the Animal Ark series, as well as Animal Ark Pets, Jess the Border Collie, Dolphin Diaries, Nine Lives, and the Perfect Ponies trilogy. As the author of more than 70 books, writing keeps her very busy indeed!


Virginia Andrews, author of the pulp Flowers in the Attic, died in 1986 but has merrily continued to publish from the big attic in the sky, courtesy of ghost Andrew Neiderman. Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlam and Clive Cussler are other thriller writers who have lent their names. Clancy's publisher famously explained that

Tom Clancy creates the ideas for these series, and the writers execute Clancy's ideas. All these titles are subject to Clancy's overall editorial supervision

Sales of Swan, a 1994 novel supposedly by supermodel Naomi Campbell, similarly do not appear to have been damaged by the author's apparent unfamiliarity with the text. The Washington Times tartly commented that

During an interview she admitted, "I just did not have the time to sit down and write a book" (although she did have time to promote it).

Campbell's agent insisted that although Caroline Upcher was the "writer" of Swan Campbell was the true "author". More embarrassingly, former US Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Bob Barr was sued by his ghostwriter over alleged non-payment of US$47,000 for Lessons In Liberty.

Ivana Trump reportedly paid ghost Camille Marchetta US$350,000 to write For Love Alone, subsequently announcing to Vanity Fair

To my surprise, I find I have a great imagination. I don't say I'm the Shakespeare, but it's not just about the beautiful people and the gorgeous yachts and the fabulous homes and lots of sex. I tried to put in more the feelings.

Surprising indeed. Entrepreneur Christy Walsh, founder of the Christy Walsh sports syndicate in 1921, advised

A new ghost writer has to learn a lot about style. He usually makes the mistake of thinking that he ought to write the way his celebrity talks. That is an error. He ought to write the way the public thinks his celebrity talks

and that the cardinal rule one was "Don't insult the intelligence of the pubic by claiming these men write their own stuff". One might also be wary of titles such as My life in baseball, the true record (Garden City: Doubleday 1961) the autobiography of Ty Cobb by sportswriter Al Stump.

subsection heading icon     statistics 

How much ghosting is there? There are no comprehensive statistics.

UK academic David Healy estimated in 2003 that up to 50% of "the drug literature" in lifescience journals may be ghosted. A 1998 JAMA paper by Flanagin et al on Prevalence of articles with honorary authors and ghost authors in peer-reviewed medical journals indicated that 11% of 809 articles in six major medical journals involved ghost writers, with a further 19% appearing to have 'honorary authors'.

A subsequent JAMA paper by Mowatt et al on Prevalence of honorary and ghost authorship in Cochrane reviews indicated that 9% of 362 reviews in The Cochrane Library for 1999 appeared to involve ghost writers and 39% involved honorary authors.

One UK freelancing site claimed that

Guess what? Approximately 40% of published books are ghostwritten... a difficult statistic to quantify given the opaque nature of ghostwriting but more importantly, it demonstrates a very real need in the publishing world

subsection heading icon     economics 

Ghostwriting - or merely its promotion - poses questions about authenticity, authority, covert hostility to the hired help who actually do the writing, and problematical marketing claims.

One service proclaimed that "You are the Author. We do the Writing", advising that

We Match Your Needs with our Ghostwriter or several of our Ghostwriters who write what you want to say. And the best part is that we remain in the wings while YOU get to claim authorship! It is YOUR letter, YOUR speech, YOUR proposal, YOUR book. We do the work, you get the praise!

Another service claims that

The truth of the matter is that many professional writers supplement their income by ghostwriting projects for others. Until now it's been one of the best kept secrets in publishing and finding a reliable and experienced ghostwriter has been a matter of knowing the right person or blind luck. Not anymore.

Your confidentiality when you use one of our ghostwriters is always assured. Perhaps you have a true story that needs telling. You may have suffered an injustice and require a ghostwriter to work with you, to walk you through the process of gathering the necessary information. The ghostwriter will then turn your story into a professionally written book. ...

If there is a novel burning within you but you don't have the time or way with words to write it, we have ghostwriters who can. If you've lead, or survived, an extraordinary life, this is your opportunity to document it.

An online guide about How to Hire a Ghostwriter to Pen Your Memoirs trills

Everyone tells you to write a book about your life because it would make a phenomenal story. You would, but your writing skills stink. Time to hire a ghostwriter to weave your stories, diaries and research into a best seller with your name on the cover. Next stop: Oprah!

High-profile UK ghost Andrew Crofts was similarly upbeat

Ghosting a book for someone is like being paid to be educated by the best teachers in the world. Imagine, for instance, being asked to ghost The Origin of the Species for Darwin, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for Gibbon. Imagine being paid to learn everything that is in the heads of these people and then turning their thoughts, words and notes into book form. Could there be a better form of education?

It might of course be more useful to imagine writing your own book, rather than that of Mr Darwin or Mr Gibbon, and then do it.

Richard Grady proclaims the joys of ghosting in How to publish an eBook without writing a word ....

one of the main disadvantages of selling your own eBook is the fact that you have to write it in the first place! ...

Many info-product creators are now opening their eyes to the opportunities offered by ghostwriters and are realising that it is perfectly possible to get someone else to research and write an eBook for them for just a few hundred dollars. Not only does this save an incredible amount of time but it also means that you don't have to write a single word if you don't want to.

Look at it like this, let's say you hire someone to research and write your eBook at a cost of $500. In addition, you get someone to write the sales copy for your web page at a cost of $200. You now have a complete new product for just $700. A new product that you can sell over and over again and retain all of the profits for yourself. Using ghostwriters it is perfectly possible to build up a large portfolio of products in a relatively short time period - certainly much faster than if you were to write the eBooks yourself. You can even have eBooks written about subjects that you know very little about since you can pay the ghostwriter to do the research for you.

Because of the incredibly high profit margins available with eBooks, it doesn't surprise me one bit that big-name Internet marketing gurus are starting to use ghostwriters to help build up their product portfolios. And given the ease at which you can hire a ghostwriter, there is no reason why you shouldn't consider this option too.

Lorette Lyttle's GhostwritingGoldmine is promoted as revealing

How You Can Use Ghostwriters to Become a Well Know Published Author or Self Published Author, Produce Highly Profitable Products (Ebook Creation, Article Writing) and Keep All the Profits

It trumpets

Follow These Simple, Step by Step Instructions And You Can Instantly Become A Well Known Author ... Without Writing A Word, And You Get To Keep 100% Of the Profits! Learn how to maximize your time and minimize your effort with the best kept "dirty little secret" in the industry that will supercharge your business, your wealth, and your life! ... GhostwritingGoldmine – a new ebook that tells Internet entrepreneurs how to create hot-selling information products and position themselves as successful authors – all without ever writing a single word. ... Most Internet business owners struggle with the fact that there just isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done that needs to be done. What the successful ones have realized is that it is OK to have ghostwriters do their product creation for them.

This way the business owner doesn't have to waste his or her time researching a topic and becoming a subject matter expert. Instead, they can come up with an idea (though you can get ghostwriters to do that for you as well), pass it on and get right back to concentrating on other important matters, such as growing their business. And yes the finished product is legally the business owner's. The business owner can call it his own and keep every penny that he makes from it.

Another site warns that a ghost is

the person who arranges everything on paper and makes the work sound exactly as if you had written it all by yourself. Ghostwriters are obligated to use the author's words, not interject their own thoughts and feelings and style. Ghostwriters should be paid a flat fee, and accept little or no part of the proceeds from the sale of the book.

Pamela Anderson supposedly asked her male ghostwriter to wear Lucite high heels to get in touch with the female protagonist of her story. Over-exposure to the author might be avoided: Lewis Lapham in critiqueing Ronald Reagan's memoir commented "he didn't write it. He probably didn't read it". (A variant of that anecdote has the former president say "I hear it's a terrific book! One of these days I'm going to read it myself".)

WG Grace read his autobiography, demanding deletion of 'inimicable' from the draft -

such a word cannot go in, why if it did I shall have the fellows at Lord's coming to me in the Pavilion saying "Look here, W.G., wherever did you get that word from?"

subsection heading icon     ghost blogging 

The fad for celebrity and CEO blogs has been reflected in reports that supremos are delegating their online appearances - blogs and social software publication - to ghosts, thereby subverting notions of the 'authenticity' and directness that is supposedly characteristic of blogging.

One BBC report thus breathlessly revealed that

I met somebody the other day who told me that online networking was so important, and he didn't have the time, he was paying somebody to be him online. To blog, network, post etc. £1,000 a month too.

Apparently it's a new occupation which he reckons already numbers hundreds of people, paid to be other people!

This guy is a busy entrepreneur and he says that wherever he goes, people marvel at the energy he still manages to put into blogging and networking - and he then tells them it is all being done by a guy he pays to do it.

One might well be sceptical of claims of "crowds of busy executives" hiring ghosts to "do the online dirty work for them" with a blog or Facebook entry but it is clear that not everything on a blog originates from (or even has been sighted by) the putative author.

One contact for example periodically gets blog fatigue and delegates the writing to his teenage daughter; her insights on his industry are perhaps more worth reading - and certainly more entertaining than his somewhat stolid prose. She has commented that someone writes his speeches and letters, so readers should suspect that what they are seeing on his blog is not from him.

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version of June 2010
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