Thursday, June 19, 2014

My Problem With "Authors" Who Use Ghost Writers

My book signing for 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism' at American Atheists' Convention in April, 2001.

Let's admit that writing a book of almost any kind (perhaps with the exception of 'cartoon' works) is damned hard work. Many people profess they 'want to be writers', or they want to write this or that book (almost always of their grandest experience) but inevitably fewer than 1 in 100 attempt the effort. Of those who do, fewer than 1 in 1500 finish the effort. Fewer than 1 in 2500 submit it for any kind of publication.

It's not surprising,  really, because they discover once they get started they have to continue to fill up at least 150-200 pages to make their work substantive enough to count for anything. (There are, of course, excellent shorter works, but these are almost always written by masters of the trade such as the late Alan Watts, or Anthony Flew-  'Thinking about Thinking'). At some juncture, usually when they see consistency is missing or they can't summon enough words - they give up. Their would -be book is still born.

Evidently, celebs and politicos need not worry about these vagaries of writing according to a recent article in The Denver Post ('Ghostwriters haunt tomes', June 15, p. 6E). Singling out Hillary Clinton's new book, 'Hard Choices' the article notes:

"The former first lady, U.S. Senator and secretary of state had some help on her new memoir, 'Hard Choices'.  Clinton employed a phalanx of aides and associates in producing the just-released volume. But don't expect to hear much of Clinton's 'book team', as she calls those who helped her write the book which carries her name alone on the cover."

Which elicits the question: How much did she actually write?  Fifty percent? Thirty percent? Ten percent? Within that gnarly question (and its answer)  resides the issue of whether Ms. Clinton is really the author. According to the piece, Clinton's team included: Dan Schwerin, a former Senate and State Dept. aide to Clinton; Ethan Gelber, another State Dept. aide; and Ted Widmer, a Clinton adviser and Brown University historian.

According to the Post article, the trio bear at least a passing mention on page 597 of the 635-page book but their "exact contributions aren't spelled out."

This is disheartening, because we then don't know how much Clinton really wrote herself - and pardon me-  but I think that's important. The person who plunks down $21 or  $29.95 or  whatever for the hard cover version, ought to be confident that the person whose image is on the front cover IS the one who wrote it - not a trio of innominate 'ghosts' (in terms of credit).

My take here is simple: Either you wrote a book and therefore are its author, or you did not. In like manner, a thesis is either written by you or it isn't. (But if it isn't and has your name on it, you can certainly be expelled from your department!)  Going to find someone to write your thesis for you means, basically, you are not qualified as an expert in your discipline. You are a poseur, a pretender and you merit no post-graduate degree.

I believe the exact same ought to apply for book authorship and you don't get to call yourself an author unless you have written 100 percent of it.

Obviously, one must expect a raft of clever justifications to try to validate employing ghostwriters to write celebs' (or ordinary others) books for them. One of the most common specious excuses in the case of memoirs is that "well , the story is still theirs."  No doubt! And let them relate it as much as they want, perhaps even putting it on an audio tape for distribution.  But if they're going to have a book then they must take ownership of it and that means doing the writing - not fobbing it off on others to do for them. (Of course, the easiest path here would be to make the audiotape(s) then just do the transcription(s))

Other clever rationalizations have been offered by Kevin Anderson, quoted in the piece, who runs a ghostwriting firm (well, duh, of course he'd have ready made excuses!): Anderson insists:

"A client who hires a ghostwriter is still the author of their book. With the exception of some research-based projects, the content, ideas and concepts for ghostwritten books come directly from the client.....A ghostwriter is an interpreter and a translator, not an author, which is why our clients deserve full credit for authoring their books."

Clever  (and expected)  PR,  but it doesn't wash. IF the words aren't theirs but someone else's- irrespective of how many "concepts" and "ideas" were theirs, then they weren't the authors. Sorry! Having ideas, concepts etc. can apply to millions. I can't recall, seriously, how many people I've encountered in the course of my life who expressed to me that they had "ideas" or "concepts" for books. It must run into the low hundreds at least. But none of those would dare have the chutzpah to argue that if they had someone else write up those ideas or concepts it was their book. (In reality, only those with money - lots of it - can afford to have others write up their ideas for them. Which tells me it is money that creates the  ersatz authorship nothing else.)

My original literary agent, Mark Sullivan of NYC, is also quoted in the piece. Sullivan ca, 1997 was shepherding my book, 'Metacosmos' to assorted publishers and did find one (Zinn Communications). But at the cusp of publication and after sample galleys were produced, the specter of publisher insolvency reared its ugly head, and the book was stillborn. (Sections of Metacosmos have been integrated into my new book, Beyond Atheism, Beyond God- mainly in the Appendix).

Anyway, Sullivan - who now also operates a ghostwriting firm -  is quoted in the piece:

"Books are a huge amount of work. It takes a lot of experience. Some very capable people want books written but don't have the time or experience to do it."

Well, Mark, then they shouldn't do it and instead find some other activity to fulfill themselves. That's the whole damned point! If everyone COULD do it they WOULD! But in reality, only the schmoozer wannabes who have the money get others to write books for them (or hire 'word mechanics' (sic)  to alter style completely) and then claim credit.  Sullivan's fees (according to the Post article)  start at $15,000 per book for ghostwriting, mainly "doctors with thoughts about the healthcare system" and "businesspeople promoting investment strategies."  Have any of these ever heard of submitting an op-ed column to The Wall Street Journal, or a small note to a Health Journal?  Does it HAVE to be a book? Or is the book merely an ego trip, to brag on to their peers about?

I would say that the same basis for arguing why most people have no business going to college, also applies to why most people will never be writers - at least the actual authors of their own works- which means giving an account in their own words.    Just because you 'want' something, or 'want to be' something doesn't mean you can have it - and it is foolish to think you can just buy your way to being called an author, or a college degree holder.

People, pushed by PR and the Neoliberal news cycle, have come to believe they can have or be anything they want ....or at least buy their way to it. But ask Hillary how that worked out for her regarding her latest book, which currently is rated a whopping 2 stars out of 5 on Amazon. (This is out of some 735 reviews so far)

Have an idea for a book? Make notes and at some point compile them, index them and find the time to write it. But don't shell out thousands of bucks for someone to do your writing for you and then claim the book as your own. Even if you believe your style sucks and wording is clumsy, do your own writing! Let the critics cavil about style points after it's published, and on their own time and dime.

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