Is Ghostwriting Immoral?

Writing without a byline is a much more secure way to make a living than publishing in your own name. If fortune attracts you more than fame does, contract writing (which is writing on a particular subject without much input from your client) and ghostwriting (writing something in your client’s “voice” and which their own friends couldn’t tell wasn’t their own) should definitely be part of your freelance writing repertoire.

Of course, you may face the question I occasionally get: “Ghostwriting? Is that, you know, ethical?”

Ghostwriting in a Nutshell
From a contractual perspective, of course, ghostwriting is perfectly ethical: the writer and the author have a contract in which the writer creates anything from a short blog post to a full-length book which the author then publishes under his or her own name. The writer gets paid a nice sum of money and the author gets the credit—and, if it’s a book still in search of a publisher, takes the chance that the book won’t garner a large enough advance to cover what the ghostwriter earned. The ghostwriter signs a document transferring copyright to the author, usually for additional consideration (that means money), and the author then owns all rights to the material. The ghostwriter may get an “as told to” credit on the book’s cover, or may sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement and promise never to tell anyone who really wrote that book.

Is Ghostwriting Cheating?
Unless the ghostwriter’s client is under some pre-existing contractual obligation to produce original work, both hiring and acting as a ghostwriter are legal. Nevertheless many people can’t escape the suspicion that if you hire someone else to do your writing, you’re cheating in some way. Of course, there are those who feel that if they delegate any of their responsibilities, they’re cheating. (I blame the Puritans.)

Ordinarily, however, hiring a ghostwriter is no more cheating than hiring an accountant is. Successful professionals have certain highly marketable and valuable skills and knowledge, and they can usually charge more for providing them than they’d pay a ghostwriter. This holds even more true for celebrities.

The one case in which hiring a ghostwriter—or an accountant, lawyer, or scientist—would be cheating is if you’re a student. Paying for someone else’s expertise in that situation means not developing your own skills. The number of people who forget that they’re in school to learn, not to get grades, is disturbingly high, but they make up a very small percentage of a professional ghost’s clients. (While I like to think that this is because ghostwriters have scruples, it probably also has something to do with the fact that students pay a lot less than CEOs and celebrities.)

In the normal course of things, ghostwriting cheats no one. The readers get something better than they would have gotten without the ghost’s participation. The author gets the chance to reach a much wider audience and attract a higher level of client. Both author and ghostwriter get appropriate financial reimbursement.

Is Ghostwriting Lying?
If a celebrity biography has “as told to” on the cover, most people know that it was the tellee who put the celebrity’s story into writing. This practice is widely accepted, even expected. Very few people assume that film stars and sports champions will be literary or intellectual giants. Even fewer people buy a celebrity’s autobiography for its literary qualities. What the readers want is all the personal details and the first-person account of the glitter and excitement.

This also means that most people who buy the book won’t care what the ghostwriter’s name is, even if it’s on the book’s front cover and not buried in the acknowledgements. The only people who care who the ghostwriter is are others who might want to hire her. (Of course, those are the people one really wants to have notice one’s name.) Otherwise, even a publicly acknowledged ghostwriter may remain invisible.

“I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you.”
What about cases where the ghostwriter signs a contract promising never to reveal that she was the one doing the writing? This kind of work usually commands a higher fee, because the ghost can’t list the book among writing credits or get testimonials and referrals from the client. Other kinds of non-disclosure agreements usually pertain to the client’s proprietary information, trade secrets, and the like. The information which the contractor or employee is asked not to disclose is not necessarily incriminating—it’s just not meant for public consumption.

So if a client doesn’t want you to disclose the fact that he didn’t write his own book, it doesn’t automatically mean that there’s something unethical. It might, however, mean that it would be embarrassing for your client if her use of a ghostwriter became public knowledge. Authors may also include this kind of clause for self-protection. What if you spent your hard-earned money on having a book written and worked your tail off to market it, only to have the ghostwriter step up to take the credit and steal your thunder?

Ghostwriting Fiction
Because people read fiction at least partly for the quality of the writing, fiction is a gray area of ghostwriting ethics. In any case, most aspiring novelists really want to write, and not just to have books. So why would a fiction author hire a ghostwriter anyway?

In some cases, the would-be author has the germ of an idea and the kind of fame which would sell books, but no experience and not much skill. Such a person would find it well worth the investment to find an unknown but talented writer and pay him or her to write the book. For an aspiring novelist who hasn’t published much, ghosting such a book would provide a publishing credit—not with the public, but with the publisher who buys the book.

Another possibility for ghostwriting fiction is the case of the author who has actually written the first draft of the book and just doesn’t have the craft to make it salable. In this case, the author might hire a ghostwriter to rewrite the book. This kind of work might be called “book doctoring” rather than “ghostwriting,” but there isn’t always much difference between these two activities.

Not every professional writer will have the aptitude or inclination for ghostwriting. But if you write well, listen well, enjoy collaborating, and have the gift of mimicking someone else’s habits of expression, don’t be afraid to try ghostwriting. Invisibility has its rewards.

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