Book doctor, chameleon, scribbler— these are terms for someone known as a ghostwriter. Around 50% of the non-fiction books on the bestseller lists were ghostwritten, and those are just the ones we know about. So, what is ghostwriting, why do celebrities use it and is it ethical?
What are ghostwriters?
Ghostwriters are people hired to write literary works published in the name of another person.
Throughout the book's creation, the credited author and the ghostwriter meet multiple times to discuss the author's goals and ideas. The ghostwriter then uses the information from these interviews and writes a manuscript. Finally, the author receives the manuscript prior to publication and can make changes as necessary.
The book is published in the author's name, usually without directly crediting the ghostwriter.
The history of ghostwriting
It's debated how long ghostwriting has been common practice, but the concept of ghostwriting can be traced to ancient Egypt when scribes formally rewrote pharaohs' proclamations.
George Washington’s most famous speech, his Farewell Address in 1796, was actually ghostwritten by Alexander Hamilton. This was unbeknownst to the public until 1810, when Hamilton's private letters were released by his wife, Eliza. Now, it's almost unheard of for notable political figures to write their own speeches. In fact, almost every single president since Warren Harding has had a speechwriter.
John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage," was written by ghostwriter Theodore Sorenson. This fact remained unconfirmed until Sorenson wrote about his experience working for JFK in his 2008 memoir. JFK is the only known person to have won a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten work.
The term "ghostwriter" was created in 1921 by Christy Walsh. Walsh was an American sports agent who hired ghostwriters to write the autobiographies of popular athletes — including Babe Ruth. Walsh is famous for saying, "Don't insult the intelligence of the public by claiming these men write their own stuff."
With increased access to the internet and the demand for more books, the once-hidden secret of ghostwriting has slowly become an industry standard for celebrities.
Celebrities and ghostwriters
Let's go back to the 2010s, a time when YouTubers seemed to release books every single week. Many of these books hit the bestseller list, beating out other non-famous and upcoming authors.
In 2014, Zoe Sugg, or "Zoella," released her fiction novel "Girl Online." After selling nearly 80,000 copies and breaking numerous records, news emerged that Sugg had hired ghostwriter Siobhan Curham to write the best seller. Curham, who had never expected to receive attention or have her full name listed in the acknowledgments, was then subject to the slew of online abuse aimed at Sugg.
More recently, Millie Bobby Brown was also criticized for hiring a ghostwriter for her historical fiction novel, "Nineteen Steps." Ghostwritten by author Kathleen McGurl, this novel is a fictitious account of the Bethnal Green incident in 1943, inspired by Brown's family's experiences during World War II.
Celebrities using ghostwriters for fiction novels is a highly debated practice. These books are original stories and will compete with non-famous authors for spots on the best-selling lists. However, many celebrities don’t have time to sit down and write a novel, meaning that without a ghostwriter, their creative ideas would never be published.
Celebrities also use ghostwriters to write memoirs. Unlike fiction novels, memoirs are instances of the celebrity's lives and will usually compete on the best sellers list with other celebrity memoirs.
Recently, there has been a wave of celebrity memoirs entering the market, including Prince Harry's "Spare" and Britney Spears' "The Woman in Me." Both of these memoirs, though controversial in their own ways, have sold millions of copies and received critical acclaim. Both of these memoirs were also ghostwritten. At least three ghostwriters collaborated to write Spears' memoir. Despite this, criticism about the use of ghostwriters has not reached the Duke of Sussex or the Princess of Pop Music.
Although not as common, authors have also been known to hire ghostwriters. James Patterson and Tom Clancy used ghostwriters to keep up with the high demand for new books.
When working with a ghostwriter, Patterson will write the outline of the book and then let the ghostwriter do the rest of the work. This process has allowed the author to publish at least 200 books in his career. Patterson talks openly about his use of ghostwriters and is proud of his growing literary empire. Although there is some criticism of this process, Patterson's books continue to fly off the shelves when released.
The issue readers have with ghostwriting occurs mainly when celebrities who rose to fame, not as authors, publish a ghostwritten fictional book.
Is ghostwriting ethical?
Legally, as long as the proper precautions, paperwork and planning are put into place by the author and the ghostwriter, ghostwriting is ethical.
The ethics of ghostwriting are fairly well agreed upon in academic and medical writings. In these fields, ghostwriting can lead to conflicts of interest, misinformation, plagiarism and academic fraud. It can also be unfair for an author to receive academic or medical credit for work that a ghostwriter did. In most cases of academic and medical writing, it's best to steer clear of hiring a ghostwriter.
However, in cases of celebrity works, the debate becomes much murkier.
When ghostwriters sign up for a job, they know their name will not be on the book's cover and will likely not be acknowledged publicly for their work. Ghostwriters of celebrities are also known for being well compensated. Prince Harry's ghostwriter, JR Moehringer, was paid $1 million for his work on "Spare."
As a result, the real ethical dilemma comes down to the reader's knowledge of a ghostwriter. It's argued that as long as the audience is not being deceived and the ideas are originally the authors, then ghostwriting is ethical. However, it's also important for authors to take ownership of whatever is presented in the ghostwritten literary work, including taking responsibility if there is a mistake or inaccuracy.
Ghostwriting as an ethical practice does not have a yes or no answer or a simple solution. The debate on whether or not ghostwriting should exist boils down to individual opinions and specific occurrences.