Is Ghostwriting Cheating?

In case you’ve had your head buried under a rock for the last few days there’s been a big scandal occurring in the romance genre where an author appears to have taken large chunks of other author’s books, handed those chunks off to ghostwriters, and said, “hey, turn this into a book for me” and then published the results. The results were still blatantly easy to tie back to the original sources with whole paragraphs untouched. A clear case of plagiarism and that author will pay because they were stupid enough to plagiarize a former Supreme Court clerk with a specialty in intellectual property as well as Nora Roberts.

Google and you will find the info including some great posts from Nora Roberts about how unacceptable that crap is.

But it’s raised some interesting debate around the use of ghostwriters and writing teams and what is and isn’t okay. For those who aren’t in the know, these are the various iterations I’ve seen:

1. Author never actually existed. Company created that author name and then hired individual writers to write the books in accordance with a series bible. This is The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew model.

2. Author did exist, but then died and the publisher continued publishing those books using ghostwriters. This is the V.C. Andrews model.

3. Author did exist, but then died and the publisher/family continued the series with another writer finishing it. This is the Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson model. It could also be the Tom Clancy model.

3. Author never really existed. A team of authors decided to work together to write books together under one name. (Often happens in a hot genre like reverse harem.)

4. One author created a story universe and then allowed other authors to write in their world with attribution to those authors. (James Hunter did that with his Viridian Gate series this year. Mercedes Lackey does this with Valdemar and the short story collections she publishes in that world on occasion.)

5. One author created a story universe and wasn’t going to go back to it anytime soon so they hired a ghostwriter to write in their world but published under their own name.

6. An author had more ideas than they knew what to do with, so they brought on a co-writer, gave them a detailed outline, extensively edited the output, and then put the book out under both names. (This is the James Patterson model.)

7. A marketer saw a title or group of titles doing well, read the title(s), pulled out the essence, and then hired a ghostwriter to create a book similar to the existing title. (Happens often in non-fiction but in fiction as well.)

So when is it cheating and when is it just business? What about fairness? And when does it serve the reader versus leaving them feeling betrayed?

As a reader, I had no issue with the Nancy Drew books. I didn’t realize those books were written by different writers. I found them all equally enjoyable. Someone had taken responsibility at a high level to create a consistent, uniform product and they did it well.

Also, as a reader, I was glad to see them finish the Robert Jordan series, because I’d hung in there with it for years and not finishing it would have been worse. However, I didn’t actually read the last book in the series because I found the new author on that series personally disappointing and those books were just too long for me to want to give that author my time. But I had the information I needed to make that choice, so it was okay with me.

Also as a reader, I find the letting others play in a story world mostly disappointing. I’m reading one of those Valdemar short story collections right now. My mom bought it, I wouldn’t have. And about half of the stories just didn’t work for me. But again, they have the individual author names on them, so I at least know what I’m getting and that is not a story by the original author.

I think for me as a reader where I would feel cheated and disappointed is if a series started with a specific writer and they then hired a ghostwriter to continue that series for them without telling me. Or if a group of writers wrote under one name and made no effort to smooth out the differences across books.

As Nora Roberts pointed out in one of her blog posts and as Donald J. Maass has pointed out in 21st Century Fiction, each author brings to their novels who they are.

For example, the cozies I’m writing right now are 95% voice. I could not authentically hire someone else to write those books for me, they are too uniquely me to do that. And if I did that to readers, they would notice.

If I’d started those books with one ghost writer and kept them going under that name? Fine. Readers would get what they expected. But to change up halfway through and not let them know? No. That’s bad form.

I also believe that in this day and age of social media pretending to a persona to support a book is wrong. So if you hire a ghostwriter to write a series under pen name A? Fine. But if you then have a FB page for that pen name where the “author” talks about their personal life? Or asks readers to interact with them? No. That’s bad form. (This has been especially gross to see in steamy romance where the packager is a man pretending to be a female author.)

Now, that’s how I feel as a reader: I want a certain experience from the authors I read and I expect the authors I read to provide that consistently and to not lie to me.

As a writer, I draw the line a little differently.

I have a certain disdain for people who wait for someone else to find success and then piggyback on that success. I’ve seen this personally in non-fiction and it sucked. (Especially when it was paired with shady marketing tactics.)

Part of the challenge of writing a non-fiction title is in organizing the information you provide. How do I share this with you so that you learn it and aren’t overwhelmed? How do I structure this to make it easy for you? What do I include? What can I leave out?

Doing that well actually takes a lot of thought and skill.

But once that’s done and the book is out there, any old bum off the street can take what the author has done, jot down an outline and key points on a piece of paper, and hand it off to a ghostwriter to replicate. And then if they have better marketing chops or deeper pockets, they can take the market away from the person who did the original hard work of figuring out how to present that topic effectively.

It’s not technically cheating. And as I’ve said before, there are many people I know who’d say that’s just good business to wait for something to hit and then create a knock off and out-market the original.

It’s certainly not a strategy that’s limited to books.

It’s not limited to non-fiction either. Think how many books have hit–Twilight, Harry Potter, 50 Shades, Lord of the Rings–and then there were eight million look-alikes published. Some were from the heart. “OMG, I loved that book so much I want to write my own version”. But some were just cynical as fuck. “So women want to get spanked do they? I can write about that. Or pay someone to.”

I also hold in disdain those people who see a successful non-fiction book and then write a summary version of it. There was that Stanford brain surgeon who wrote a memoir when he was dying of cancer, and some little shit came along and published a “summary” of what had to be a hundred and fifty page book. Really? I mean, really?

(And then, of course, Amazon recommended the summary book to me in an email because I’d bought the original book. Ugh. Amazon, I swear.)

That kind of thing is bottom-feeding IMO. It’s publishing of books by people who could not publish without someone to copy off of publishing first.

But it’s not cheating.

And those people are never going to care what others think of them as long as they’re making money off of it.

It’s up to readers to hold publishers to some sort of standard. If readers accept derivative knock-offs with inconsistent style and voice (for fiction) or worthless content (for non-fiction) this will keep happening because there’s good money to be made faking people into buying an inferior product.

All I can say  to readers is think before you buy. Don’t give people the ranking boost of buying or borrowing their books before you determine that what you’re getting is worth something. The Look Inside is your friend.

Anyway. My two cents. I’m sure I offended someone with that, but oh well. Just one person’s opinion.




Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at]

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