Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Ghosting is not stealing...unless it is.

I don't know if you've been following the #cutpastecris mess. Apparently someone plagiarized several popular romance writers and sent the pieces to ghost writers to turn into stories she could self-publish on Amazon. This has brought up discussions about the ethics of ghostwriting.

I knew people used ghostwriters for autobiographies and certain series like Nancy Drew, but I'm hearing that some people are using ghostwriters to generate frequent new releases under one author name. Is this considered ethical? 

I can't figure out why it would be more profitable for an unknown to pay a ghostwriter and publish than for the ghostwriter to publish his or her own books, but they say it's happening. Supposedly frequent new releases increase visibility on Amazon, so maybe that's why? 

I have no plans to either take up ghostwriting or hire one, but I'm curious to hear what you have to say on this subject.

Well, let's start with the fact, ironclad, that the renowned James Patterson does not write the novels that are published under his name.

Several other well known crime writers do the same.

It's totally ethical to do this.

Anyone (and I don't mean you) who throws wild accusations around about ghostwriting being unethical is simply not living in the real world. Is Coco Chanel is still stitching every dress that bears her name? Does Michael Kors personally hammer the logo on that handbag?  Do Ben and Jerry stand over an ice cream maker?


Many MANY "brand names" started out as real people. That doesn't mean they're still in the trenches.

What they DO NOT DO is steal someone else's work.Ghostwriting isn't unethical. STEALING is.

There are several morally bankrupt ways to make money.
Stealing is one of them.

The reason the criminal justice system exists is because "it's wrong" isn't dissuasion enough for some folks.

And  then there are people who have no problem buying things that are stolen. Every "free" download of a book from an obscure website is proof of that.

Unfortunately, policing the brigands is now part of every writer's job.

As to why a writer would participate in this loathsome behaviour, I can't begin to guess. It's not like it's bank robbery that actually pays promptly and in cash.


Melissa said...

First of all, what that woman did was bonkers and so wrong. She plagiarized everything from a romance novel to a gardening book.

Second, I think ghost writing is more understandable if you think of the author as a brand and not as a person. This especially holds true in today's market where the same author may have multiple names in multiple genres. Each name is a brand in and of itself.

Our current market trends reward authors based on quantity. It's the Netflix effect. When a reader finds an author, they like they binge everything they've written and then move on to the next author and often don't return. To make any kind of money, especially as an indie, you need a robust backlist.

I hear people knocking ghost writers as somehow less than, but they're writing and making money. At the end of the day, some people see writing as an art form not to be sullied and some see it as a business. Either view is completely acceptable.

Janet's analogy is spot on. Some design for the masses, some design for the elite, and some design for a select few, and some's design never leave their person.

DeadSpiderEye said...

If you're pretending to be something you aren't, i.e. deliberately misleading people about who you are or what you do, then you're a hypocrite. People excuse themselves because they've tell themselves they've got a good reason, feed the kids or send the them to a decent school, replace the old charabanc, stuff like that. I thought the term ghost-writer applied to the kind a work an editor might do for a celebrity author, Studio Authorship, which I think what Janet is referring to is a different animal, it's essentially a marketing device. Which you might call dishonest, especially if you were to witness the disillusion when some innocent finds out there is no such person as Adam Blade, but is there any such thing as anhonest marketing device?

Yes I do think the industry has gone a bit Hollywood, in that people except hypocrisy and dishonesty a little too blithely. A little while back here, someone posed the dilemma they faced when asked to flatter a feckless editor by their agent, almost everyone supported the view that the author should lie. Hypocrisy has always been part of the publishing world, it's just that now, it seems ubiquitous.

Aphra Pell said...

Ghostwriting for a pen name "brand" isn't a new thing either - it was a big enough issue in mass-market romance in the 80s for Elizabeth Peters to base the plot of a cosy on it. It's just that self-publishing, and the way the model rewards quantity, has increased adoption of the approach.

In terms of why it pays, it gives the ghostwriter a regular income doing something they enjoy, with none of the risks or hassle of self-publishing (although obviously they don't get the potential rewards either). And the publisher needs to use ghostwriters because producing 12+ books a year is going to be extremely challenging (to put it mildly) for a single author.

Aphra Pell said...

[hit submit too soon]

Personally, I don't do ghostwriting for fiction because I want to keep all the story-telling space in my head for my own stories. But then I have other skills* that people pay me for, and an employed husband, so I'm in a fairly privileged position. I'm not going to judge anyone who pays their rent that way (plagiarism is different obviously)

*bare-knuckle platypus wrestling, ninja table-setting, and more prosaically, university teaching.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

OP I am so glad you asked about this strange case. The self-publishing wench who was stealing well-known authors words and then passing them off as her own- was that the case this referred to? Yes, ghostwriting is totally legit. Plagiarism not so much. I was curious about this case. I wonder if the harmed authors (whose work was stolen) were able to get restitution. Ok, back to the doldrums of the day job and revising at breaks.

Karl Henwood said...

Bank Robbery actually pays terribly too. Frankly, I'd much rather be a plagiarist than a bank robber, though neither job is on my bucket list... A few reasons to re-consider bank robbery as a career:

- Some portion of the cash payment typically explodes into indelible dye and pepper spray as the robber leaves the premises.

- The amount of cash on hand that can be grabbed during a holdup is usually quite small.

- In order to get a large haul a team and a great deal of effort is required since it requires things like cutting into a vault. The same investment and effort could easily pay just as well through legal activity.

- The kind of people you get to hang out with as bank robbers are not the greatest. They frequently demand cuts of the take, or are willing to snitch you out in exchange for favorable treatment on their own crimes. (Contrast this with the iron code of silence here at the Queryshark, the unbreakable 'thin toothy line').

- Due to a quirk of the law from the 1930s robbing a bank automatically gets the FBI after you. Robbing a non-bank institution for an equal or greater amount of money does not get the FBI involved.

Mister Furkles said...

Free downloads of books that are in the public domain is not stealing. Downloading a copy of a public domain book that includes editing or commentary other than the original might be stealing.

Willie Sutton had it right. He robbed banks "Because that's where the money is."

So, faking writing books by thieving the work of others is stupid.

nightsmusic said...

I have a friend with over 30 novels to her name who finally (some NYT bestsellers) gave up the game and is now ghostwriting. Not because she didn't want to write anymore, but because the peripherals of writing, the marketing, the constant online presence, the publisher demanding more and more as well as other things, got to the point, for her, that she didn't want to do that anymore. So now, she ghostwrites and puts short stories on her site when the mood strikes and she's very happy. And so are her clients. I don't ask who they are or what she's writing. None of anyone's business but hers and the client's and that's the way it should be.

That said, take a look at Nora Roberts blog and you'll have a perfect telling of the whole plagiarism/#copypastechris debacle, because she copy/pasted Nora. Nora wasn't the only one this happened to. Nora Roberts is one author I would never want to piss off. But she did...

lynneconnolly said...

It pays them because they pay peanuts.
I do a kind of ghosting - working with technical authors to smooth their stuff a bit, and the same with columnists. Non fiction, people who have something to say but don't really know how to say it. So I get the "calls" for these things.
The last one was $1200 for a full-length Regency romance. It was called a "business opportunity" and said it would become part of a large "collection" or series.
It's deceptive, to be kind. It's also shoving decent authors who want to tell a story and earn a little money into the background. They were asking for the books without checking where they came from. The copy/paste trend is also a thing, to defeat plagiarism checkers. If the content is a bit different, then it won't show in software designed to spot significan similarities. The people who sell essays have been doing this for years.
With the copy/paste thing, they pick a lot of books, then put them through a synomiser program, or use a computer to do the copying and pasting, producing a bunch of different, "new" books. Then they'll employ a ghostwriter to smooth it all over, or they will sell the jumbled books on the sites where ghosts and freelancers advertise. Then it's up to the "author" to make sense of it.
If you look at a lot of Amazon top tens, these fake authors abound. The ones that have real people as figureheads are harder to spot.
This woman was the tip of the copy/paste iceberg. There are so many people doing this, gaming Amazon's system to make money. They don't care about quality, they don't care what the book is like. And this is what is happening to our industry.

Brenda said...

According to Forbes I’m probably the only James Patterson fan who stopped buying his books when he started up the book mill.

MelSavransky said...

My favorite random fact is Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobsey Twins, and the Hardy Boys were written by a stable of ghostwriters run by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Syndicate helped popularize serialized books for kids and, rumor has it, tried to muscle rival kid sleuth books out of the biz. (I imagine Nancy Drew trying to drop a typewriter on Trixie Belden, but that's just me.)

P.S. Nancy Drew's head honchette, Mildred Wirt, wrote a Penny Parker series under her own name featuring an intrepid girl reporter. Book one is hot stuff; I don't know how the others hold up. They're on Project Gutenberg, I think. The things you learn doing research . . .

Beth Carpenter said...

Karl “unbreakable 'thin toothy line.” I love that!

Lynne, I’ve wondered about the economics. $1200 for a Regency probably isn’t even minimum wage, but it’s more than most self-published e-books make in a year. So I wonder how someone who isn’t a “brand” can pay $1200, plus the costs of a cover, proofreading, formatting, etc. and still make money. Is it because they can market the “collection” so much more effectively than an author can market one book?

Mel, I knew Nancy Drew books were written by various authors, but I didn’t know about the Penny Parker series. I’ll have to find that.

I understand that Da Vinci didn’t do all his own sculpting either, so I guess the idea of branding has been around for a while.

Kate Larkindale said...

I've ghostwritten in the past, mainly for people who had a story to tell, but didn't have the tools to write it themselves. It's hard work and doesn't pay that well. But I made a couple of great friends doing it, so I don't regret the time I put into it, even though the books never got picked up.

Aphra Pell said...

So I wonder how someone who isn’t a “brand” can pay $1200, plus the costs of a cover, proofreading, formatting, etc. and still make money.

Beth - the $1200 offers (I think I got the same one as Lynne) come from established indie publishers. They are businesses with existing pen names who are already making money.

The unknowns tend to make offers between $30(!) and $500.

Craig F said...

Publishing is a heartbreaking business. It is hard to get published and harder to keep getting published once you get there.

I know a couple of people that add lunch money to their budgets by ghost writing. A couple of them have enough reputation in memoirs that have been able to actually survive nicely on that.

For the rest, it is lunch money. They still have dreams to dream, though. They were not the cause of this kerfuffle, they just something technology threw together into a readable whole.

It was done because they accepted a ghosting job from someone and found out that it wasn't on the up and up. Someone else besmirched their reputations and all anger should go to them and to the type of technology that made it happen.

julie.weathers said...

Late to the party, but we had this discussion on the forum and I'm still a bit nervous about it. I use phrases and lines that people use in diaries, memoirs, letters, war orders, etc because they reflect the language of the time.

There's a different way of expressing things. The language is different the way it's used is different. It lends the flavor of the time.

Is someone going to accuse me of plagiarism if another person has used the same turn of phrase in their work?

Beth Carpenter said...

Alpha Pell - I see. That makes more sense. Thanks!