Release the ghosts

From The Bookseller:

When I worked at a library as a teenager, one of my duties was to unbox and process newly released novels, and I noticed something that has stuck with me.There were some authors who had a book out every couple of months. When I skimmed them, they were well-written, with tight plots and exciting characters. But even then, I knew there was no way an author could churn out a full-length novel at this rate, especially at this level of quality. And to do that while touring the country, giving book readings, interviews, and writing guest columns for various news outlets?

Having written novels myself and worked as a professional ghostwriter, I’ve realised what I guessed back then: these authors aren’t writing the books themselves.

It’s something of a dirty secret in the publishing industry. Some authors — especially big-name writers working in genre fiction — rely on a ghostwriter or a team of writers to help them churn out books regularly. Occasionally, hints of this will come out, and the press will react with feigned horror. The British actress Millie Bobby Brown was criticised for working with a ghostwriter on her novel. Prolific Swedish mystery writer Camilla Läckberg faced her own criticism when a journalist claimed she’d relied on a ghostwriter for some of her novels.

But while these stories make a big splash, and authors and publishers live in fear of them, there’s little evidence that the public cares. Each time the media raised the question of whether the author acknowledged it or issued a terse denial, the book kept selling. Like me working in the library, readers have learned that authors are getting some help, and they don’t seem to care. 

In the United States, ghostwriters have become more public about their work, and it’s accepted that any celebrity — whether they are an actress or a politician or even the second in line to the throne — did not actually write their memoir. Sometimes, they are even upfront about which ghostwriter they worked with. But novels remain a separate class. Perhaps because novels are considered more creatively prestigious than a mere memoir or non-fiction advice book, authors and publishing houses are more reticent to acknowledge the use of a ghostwriter.

There’s no real reason for this, however. While readers often think of a novel as the product of a lone genius working in their study, they are usually much more collaborative than this, as The Bookseller’s readers well know. An author may have a first draft or a few chapters of a novel before working with an agent, but once they have a contract, an experienced editor will jump in. In some cases, editors may suggest considerable changes to the storyline, cuts to entire chapters, or minor but consequential shifts in writing style, cutting unnecessary words or asides that slow down the action. If you want to see how this works most clearly, put the Harry Potter books in a row and see if you can guess when J K Rowling’s first editor stopped working with her. You can tell from across a room because the books are physically thicker as she adds more digressions to the main plot.

Beyond that, publicists and marketing teams will weigh in on the book cover, the title, and how it’s marketed — valuable feedback that will be in the author’s head when they sit down to write their next book. And there’s the audience, who will respond more to certain novels, leading some authors to churn sequels or write similar books while abandoning other ideas.

A team of ghostwriters adds more manual labor to the mix, but the book is still the author’s. An established author, especially one working in a genre, will have created the formula — the type of setting, the tone, the main character — which the ghostwriters then use. Often, the author will set out an overall plot and ask the ghostwriters to flesh it out, or they may do some writing and then hand it off to someone else to finish up.

The author, then, is more like a brand. You buy a Ralph Lauren suit not because Ralph Lauren personally tailored it for you but because you trust the name behind it. The same goes for a thriller writer, mystery novelist, or romance author. You know when you pick it up that it will meet your expectations. The fact that the author didn’t personally write every sentence of the novel doesn’t matter. Does it sound like their other books? Is it a good read? Is it the type of novel you like reading? Those are the questions the reader really cares about.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller and thanks to C. for the tip.

PG says the author’s name is a brand name. It’s not exactly like Cambell’s Soup, but there are more similarities than differences.

Without denigrating authors’ creative talents in any way, a great many people look for books from authors they have enjoyed previously. Agatha Christie is one prime example. James Patterson is another.

PG is highly confident that Agatha did not use any ghostwriter. James Patterson readily admits to using a great many ghostwriters.

——-Content Warning – Major PG Diversion Follows——-

After starting as a copywriter in a large New York City advertising agency, Patterson worked his way up to CEO while writing in his spare time. After he retired. he devoted all his energy to his writing. He supervised copywriters both before and after his retirement.

Undoubtedly, his expertise in advertising and promotion has played a role in Patteerson’s success. PG is not privy to Patterson’s relationship with his publisher, but an intelligent publisher would understand that Patterson knows far more about advertising and publishing than anyone employed by the publisher.

As further examples of Patterson’s marketing and promotion smarts, he has coauthored #1 bestselling novels with Bill Clinton (note that Patterson got top billing on both book covers) and Dolly Parton (Dolly got top billing).

PG isn’t certain whether it was Patterson or Parton’s idea, but in 2022, the year their book was released, she released a CD with the same title. Dolly knows how to market and promote herself very effectively, but that’s another story.