Ghostwriting exists throughout the publishing world–everything from memoirs to blog posts to speeches might be produced by a ghost. As social media and self-publishing grow, the demand for content also rises. It isn’t surprising, then, that in a world as busy as ours, ghostwriting is becoming more common. But many of us still wonder whether about the ethics of ghostwriting. Is it really okay to hire someone else to write your book for you?
The short answer, I think, is that the ethics of ghostwriting are complicated. Every project’s different, every client has different expectations, and every ghostwriter has their own way of working. To answer whether ghostwriting is ethical, I think we need to look at it from multiple perspectives.
Why does ghostwriting bother us so much?
Many of us who’ve never been involved in ghostwriting tend to hold negative impressions of the process. Ghostwriting just sounds wrong. The online Cambridge Dictionary defines the term ghostwrite as “to write a book or article, etc. for another person to publish under his or her own name.” Which sounds fairly deceitful from a bystander’s perspective.
When discussing the ethics of ghostwriting on her blog, the Professional Ghost mentions that there are three types of people to be considered in this issue: the ghosts, the clients, and the readers. I think these three parties highlight the three main reasons we tend to consider ghostwriting wrong.
Firstly, ghostwriting seems unfair because it doesn’t give writers credit for their hard work and ideas. On the flip side, it gives someone else credit for work that’s not theirs. Finally, ghostwriting breaks trust with the audience.
Let’s break down each of those issues and see how ghostwriters answer them.
1: Ghostwriting denies writers credit for their work.
For most of us, it feels wrong to ask a writer to toil over a project without being able to take ownership for what they created.
But we need to remember that ghostwriting is a professional endeavor. When a ghostwriter agrees to write a book for someone, they choose to enter a business transaction. They aren’t being swindled or cheated; from the start a ghostwriter knows the terms under which they’re writing.
Richard Lowe Jr. writes in his blog post “Is Ghostwriting Ethical?”, “When you hire a ghostwriter, you are hiring a person who is a trained, experienced writer. This is work-for-hire, the same as any other contractual labor. You’re paying someone with the skills you need to do the hard work of writing for you.”
Ghostwriters see a demand–a client wants a book written– and they offer a service to fulfill the need. While not everyone would be comfortable agreeing to work without receiving credit, it’s entirely within a writer’s rights to do so. If a writer is comfortable working without having their name on the book, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.
Even if it makes us as bystanders uneasy, ghostwriting isn’t unfair to the ghostwriter. It’s just business.
2: Ghostwriting gives a client credit for a book they didn’t write.
How can someone claim ownership of a book that isn’t theirs? In answer to this, many ghostwriters argue that the finished book does belong to the client.
The aforementioned Professional Ghost writes in her blog, “a ghost is simply helping an author voice what they want to say in a clear, engaging way. The knowledge/ideas/memories belong 100% to the person who has the name on the cover of the book and all I am doing is helping get it on the page.” She describes ghostwriting as being a collaborative process where the client provides the content and the writer provides the mechanics of turning the content into a written form. A good ghost, she argues, writes in a way meant to faithfully capture the client’s voice and meaning.
She also admits that the less engaged the client is in the process, the more it strains the credibility of the client. If the ghost does most of the creative work, it’s far less ethical for the client to claim complete ownership than when the client stays actively involved.
Laura the Friendly Ghostwriter also portrays ghostwriting as collaborative in her post “How to Effectively Work with a Ghostwriter.” As Laura gives an overview of common steps to expect in ghostwriting, we see that her clients are deeply involved in the content creation. Although the ghostwriter does the majority of the labor, the creative vision is the author’s. Laura interviews her clients to gather all the important details for the book and offers opportunities for the client to give feedback and approval.
From the perspective of these ghostwriters, and many others, there’s nothing wrong with hiring a professional to help you make your vision a reality.
3: Ghostwriting breaks trust with a reader.
This problem ties into the client taking credit for a book they didn’t write. If an audience believes that author X wrote a book they loved, they’ll feel deceived and even cheated to discover it was ghostwritten.
The Professional Ghost answers this saying, “If it is widely known that a particular genre of book is ghosted, then there is no surprise and no deception,” (Is ghostwriting ethical?) She uses her personal experience to illustrate that when we’re aware that ghostwriting is common practice for a genre, our trust won’t be broken. We’ll know to expect it.
Another point to consider is content published online. Many companies and even individuals use ghostwriters to help produce content for their websites and social media account. With this branded content, the credit for the work isn’t placed so much on an author but on the brand itself. As such, trust with the audience isn’t broken because the content still conforms to the expectations readers have for that brand.
So is ghostwriting ethical?
We tend to think of ghostwriting as similar to a student paying someone else to do their homework. However, when a person publishes a book, the primary purpose isn’t to demonstrate the author’s knowledge or skills. The main point of publishing a book is to deliver content. So I don’t think it’s wrong for an author to claim ownership of a book if the content consists mostly of their ideas.
I also don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being a ghostwriter. As a ghostwriter, you have the opportunity to use your skills to help someone turn their idea into a reality. A book requires a lot of effort, and sometimes collaboration is the best way to produce the best work.
My problem rests with the motivation behind keeping that collaboration secret. Why not just admit that someone else helped you write the book?
All the arguments above show that the client hiring a ghostwriter has fair reason to claim, “This is my book.” They own the rights. The book is made up of their ideas; it’s their story. And yet, it’s still not true for them to say, “I wrote this book.” If they had written it, they wouldn’t need a ghostwriter; they’d need an editor.
That tiny distinction, that fine line is enough to still give me pause.
The distinction between saying “This is my book,” and, “I wrote this,” is an issue of honesty that could cause further ethical dilemmas further down the road. What if I hire a ghostwriter, publish the book, and then someone comes to me asking for advice on the more nitty gritty parts of writing that I didn’t actually do? How would I respond?
For myself, I wouldn’t be comfortable putting my name alone on something a ghostwriter wrote. I also don’t think I’d be comfortable ghostwriting for someone who was going to claim sole authorship.
Whether ghostwriting itself is ethical I think depends on the project and on how the public author presents it once it’s published.
So what do you think about the ethics of ghostwriting?
Sources for The Ethics of Ghostwriting:
(Can you tell what I looked us to find these sources? 😉 )
Connor, Cheryl. “Is Ghostwriting Ethical?” Forbes, March 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2014/03/13/is-ghostwriting-ethical/?sh=fa806c340a35.
Lowe, Richard Jr. “Is ghostwriting ethical?” The Writing King, January 2021.https://www.thewritingking.com/ghostwriting-ethical-2/
Lyons, Teena. “Is Ghostwriting Ehtical?” The Ghost Writing Blog. https://www.professionalghost.com/ghost-writing-blog/is-ghostwriting-ethical/.
Sherman, Laura. “How to Effectively Work with a Ghostwriter.” The Friendly Ghostwriter. https://laurasherman.com/tips-from-a-ghost-writer/how-to-effectively-work-with-a-ghostwriter.
Wilburn, Jay. “20 Mind Destroying Secrets about Ghostwriting.” Lit Reactor, March, 2020. https://litreactor.com/columns/20-mind-destroying-secrets-about-ghostwriting