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.




Where Is Your Mind?

Skye Warren has a great series of emails she sends out about writing. The most recent one was about how she doesn’t believe in outsourcing Facebook ads to someone else because it just isn’t effective since the advertiser would only have control over one aspect of marketing your book whereas you have control over everything from cover to blurb to pricing and you know the product much better. (I happen to agree with respect to AMS ads.)

But what caught my attention in that email was this:

…consulting can be a distraction. In my last set of emails I talked about shower time and how I guard it—if you’re creating ads for five clients, including studying their books and the market, including communicating with them, it’s going to use your brain’s quiet cycles. They’re going to get your epiphanies. It’s an opportunity cost beyond even a high hourly rate.

She has a good point.

I too tend to use my shower time to think about things. When I get stuck with writing, I will often go take a shower. (Assuming I haven’t taken one already that day, because taking five showers a day seems weird although there are days I want to do that for the ability to step away from what I’m writing.) Hiking time also works this way for me.

What I find, though, is that even when I want to be thinking about what I’m writing, if I’ve let something else get into my mind, that’s what I end up thinking about in the shower.

So, for example, I did a group coaching session on Strengths a couple weeks ago. And that day when I stepped away from my writing and took a shower that’s where my mind was. I was replaying that coaching session trying to figure out how it had gone and what I could have done better.

For the next two days my quiet moments were taken up with thinking about Strengths and coaching. Now, in that case, I was paid for that coaching so one could argue that it had earned a share of my mental space.

But my mind isn’t always focused on paying work. For example, I will sometimes play word games on my computer at night while I watch television. And when I do I find my mind using that period of time right before falling asleep to create word combinations instead of think about what I’m writing. (For example, what words can you make out of CONCATENATE? CAT, COT, TEA, TEN, EAT, ATE, CON, …)

So I find I have to try to protect those down times if I want to make forward progress with the writing. I can play chess on my computer instead. Or sliding tiles. That gives me back that time right before falling asleep because it doesn’t trigger my mind to loop through scenarios or “solve” the problem.

And it’s why, even though it wasn’t the smartest financial decision, I was willing to step away from consulting entirely to work on my writing. Even when I was on a consulting project part-time, it still took those thinking times away from the writing. Because I’m high Responsibility, I always want to do the best job I can for others. So any project I work on that’s for someone else, will always take priority over my own projects.

So if you’re stuck with your writing, I’d stop and ask, “Where is your mind?” When you have free moments, is it on the writing? Or is it on something else? And if it’s on something else can you address that other issue or somehow change things to get that mental space back for your writing?

It won’t always be possible. The first time I stepped back from consulting to write full-time I didn’t write for a month because the day after I returned to Colorado my grandma fell and broke her hip and shoulder and all that mental free time I would’ve spent on writing was taken up with family.

But if it is possible–if you can stop playing that video game and replace it with something that doesn’t continue on in your mind after you stop playing–then make that change. Those fifteen or twenty minutes a day are precious.



Good Writing Isn’t Enough

There’s a discussion on one of the writing forums right now about how many books are actually published on Amazon right now and how many authors those represent. And in that discussion someone mentioned that they knew an author who had published two brilliant novels and that those two novels hadn’t sold a single copy.

(My first reaction was, “You their friend who thought their book was brilliant didn’t even buy a copy? Or recommend it to anyone who bought a copy? Why not?” But I digress.)

That comment started me thinking, though, that oftentimes with a writing career, whether it’s on the trade publishing or self-publishing side, it’s very often not just about the writing. Yes, the writing needs to be there. You need to be able to write at a sufficient level to sell your book(s).

But oftentimes the difference between success and failure is in all the other choices you make. I had a friend who a few years back had two publisher offers for their debut novel. They were trying to decide which publisher to go with, but at that time there was really no visible difference between the two. The advances were the same, the royalty payouts were the same, and both were small presses.

Turns out one of the two didn’t do such a great job of paying their authors and that issue blew up right around when my friend’s book was being published. So choosing Publisher A meant a smooth first publication experience whereas choosing Publisher B meant having that book published while authors were vocally advocating for readers to boycott the publisher.

Some trade published authors were caught up in a Barnes & Noble dispute a few years back that meant their books never landed on the shelves of any B&N throughout the country. Others were caught up in the Amazon dispute that happened a few years back where entire publisher catalogs weren’t listed on Amazon.

Pick the wrong publisher, agent, or editor and your book publishing experience will be completely different from someone else’s. Happen to have your book published in the midst of drama and same thing.

On the self-publishing side it’s picking KU or not KU. It’s putting a book in audio or not putting it in audio. It’s publishing in print or not. It’s using that new distributor or not. It’s trying that new ad platform or not. It’s publishing one book now versus three at once two years from now. It’s pricing high versus pricing low. It’s trying permafree or not. It’s having a mailing list or not.

Any one of those choices can sink an author or make their career. And it’s not always clear which choice is the right one to make at any given point in time. You can take the exact same book, make very different choices, and have completely different outcomes.

Considering that author mentioned above who wrote two great books and sold no copies, think what advertising could have done for those books. (Assuming they had adequate covers.) Or think what asking friends and family to give it that initial boost could have done. (Yes, yes, I know that can screw up also-boughts so is not ideal, but if the alternative is no sales at all? Better to get a few sales IMO.) Maybe that was an author who should’ve continued to slog it out in the trade-publishing trenches.

It’s hard to say, but you have to think that there was another outcome for that author had they just tried something different.

We all makes our choices. Some of them the wrong ones. Some of them fatal ones–for that book or that pen name. (And some of them the exact right ones.)

A good enough book is just the beginning. (Which considering how hard that can be to master is a bit disconcerting, but there you have it.)

Perception vs. Reality in Fiction

If you’re going to write fiction at some point in time you’re going to have to tackle the accuracy conundrum. And I call it a conundrum because oftentimes it’s not actually about what’s true, it’s about what readers perceive to be the truth.

For example, someone recently posted a rant about medieval novels that include breakfast in them. I didn’t actually read their link, because I didn’t care, but the implication was that people who mention breakfast in novels set in medieval times are just money-grubbing hacks who don’t appreciate true historical accuracy.

As a reader of fantasy for thirty-plus years I don’t care if my novels mention breakfast. At all. I want a fun, action-packed story where the character confronts danger and overcomes it. Preferably with some good friends or a stalwart animal companion to keep them company. And, honestly, the less accurate terms there are, the better. I don’t want to have to keep a dictionary of medieval armor at hand while I’m reading.

That’s me.

For other readers, one little misused word ruins the experience and shows you as the hack you are. “How dare you call that a dirk? A dirk was a short dagger used in the Scottish Highlands and didn’t come into use until the 1600s and clearly your story (although it involves dragons and flying horses) is set in the 1400s because of the way you described the village.”

(And now queue someone coming along to correct that example, because that was pulled from a five-second review of Merriam Webster and Wikipedia and a true scholar would see at least three errors in what I just said about dirks.)

The best approach of course would be to be 100% accurate in all of your information and descriptions but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t highly knowledgeable about your subject.

That’s not going to happen, though. There will be times when being 100% accurate means that only a small group of your readers thinks you actually got it right. Because common misperception is so wide-spread that most people have wrong information on that subject.

And there will be times when what you said is true but that one reader will miss what makes it true. Or where what you said is technically true but not commonly true and that one reader will want to point out to you your failures.

I would recommend learning and taking to heart this phrase when those moments occur: “Not my reader.”

If you’re highly accurate and people say it’s impossible to read your novels without a dictionary at hand, they’re not your reader. Those people who love completely accurate novels are.

If you’re a little loose with the facts and someone complains that it’s not possible for that to have happened in Chapter 6 because of x, y, and z, they’re not your reader. Those people who value action over accuracy are.

Find your happy place and stick to it. And when you get that review or that email that mentions the flaws in your book, just repeat “not my reader” and go read the reviews or comments from the people who did love your book.


It’s Going to Happen With or Without You

I’m seeing less comments along these lines recently than I was a year or so ago, but I remember about a year ago when authors would make comments along the lines of “Well, I used to pay 10 cents for AMS clicks, so I’m not raising my bids.” Or, “I used to get sales without advertising, so I’m certainly not going to pay to advertise my books now.”

And I would always sort of shake my head when I saw those comments. Because they were missing a key point. And that’s that the business environment in which they were operating had shifted and that it didn’t matter what they’d been doing before, they needed to understand what to do now.

Of course, the world being what it is, I had to grapple with this one recently myself and I wasn’t very pleased to have to make that adjustment either. I’d been enjoying some very very nice profit margins in one of my publishing areas and someone decided to come in and take those away by being more aggressive than me.

This meant I was faced with a choice. I could either change what I was doing and give up some of my profit but maintain sales. Or I could keep doing the same thing and lose those sales. What I couldn’t do was keep doing the same thing and expect the same old result.

So I chose to adjust. It didn’t make me happy. I look back at six months ago and think, “Oh, why can’t I get that back? Why did that [“person”] have to ruin my little world?”

But looking back at what was doesn’t change what is.

I was reminded of this when I was reading a recent Knowledge@Wharton article, How Pattern-Based Thinking Gives Companies an Edge. Search for Mike and you’ll find the section that caught my attention.

I’m going to now butcher a paragraph from there to broaden what they were discussing. Words in brackets are my substitutions and are not necessarily accurate representations of what was there before the brackets.

The world is going to change either way; the status quo is going to vanish. The real question isn’t whether [we can keep doing what we’ve been doing]; that world is going to be gone. [This development has] changed the world forever. The real question is whether [doing this new thing] is better than not [doing it]. Getting the revenue is obviously better than not getting the revenue. But understanding that the world [has] changed, and that we need to ask different questions, is [the key].

Apply that to publishing.

KU is here to stay for the time being. You can’t wish it away. It exists and has a profound impact on all authors, self- or trade-published, wide or KU.

AMS is here to stay. You can’t wish it away. It too has a profound impact on all authors. Amazon is too much a piece of the pie these days for AMS not to be relevant.

Tomorrow something new will come along that shifts the game again. (If B&N gets their ad platform straightened out? That could be huge.) Whatever it is, that won’t be going away either.

Burying your head in the sand and pretending that change hasn’t happened doesn’t work. You have to look at the new reality, forget the old one, and make your decisions based on the now and where you think we’re headed in the future.

Holding on to what was can ruin you. (A nice cheerful thought to see you into the weekend…Haha.)

You Don’t Have to Share Everything

I’m reading a mystery series right now that is both addictive and fails me as a reader. And it was put on hold after the fourth book in the series, so I’m pretty sure it failed other readers as well. And I’m pretty sure I know why:

Great idea, bad sub plot that then shares way too much information.

Some of you will recognize this series, but I’m not going to specifically call out the author here because that’s not the point of what I want to discuss.

So the novels are mysteries. The main character travels the country and investigates various disappearances. All good so far.

But she travels with her brother. (Well, as it turns out, not her actual blood-relative brother, but her stepbrother that she spent the last decade thinking of as her brother.) In book one there are enough overly-intimate moments between them that it’s pretty obvious they’re going to become a couple at some point in the books.

As a reader, not something I would seek out. (Although there was a very big erotic romance trend around stepbrother romances about five years ago, so obviously many readers would.) So not my cup of tea, but I was willing to let it happen in the background so I could read the mysteries because I liked the premise of the books.

And then I got to book three and they finally got together and that relationship took over the books. There were sex scenes in book one but they were either alluded to without giving details or taken care of in a paragraph or two.

This time…

The author included more than one very detailed sex scene of the two of them together, one of which included the main character comparing the shape and size of her “brother’s” privates to those of other men she’s been with.

Ew. (It did not help that the main character continues to think of her new lover as her brother on a regular basis.)

But really. Any shift like that, without the relationship between the two to complicate it further, would be off-putting to a number of readers. You thought you were reading a gritty mystery and now you’re reading erotica.

I think this series highlights an issue many writers face when writing first-person novels. Because there’s no doubt that in new relationships that are sexual that the level of thought someone gives to sex and the amount of sex that happens become pretty central to that person.

So if you were really living in someone’s head there would be a lot of mental space given to sex and thinking about sex.

But it doesn’t have to make it onto the page. A novel is not a detailed accounting of every single thought a character has or of every single thing they do in a given day. That would make it incredibly long, incredibly boring, and provide way too much information about the character’s life.

As a novelist you have to pick and choose what you show to tell the type of story you’re trying to tell.

(By the way, book four was even worse. I had to start skimming. One because there were still these I-did-not-need-to-know-that sex scenes but also because the novel made the reader sit through the reactions of three sets of family members to this new-found forbidden love. Completely irrelevant to the plot, whatever the plot of this one actually is. I’m halfway through and still not sure at this point.)

This is a trade-published book so you’d think they’d have caught this issue. But no. The editor failed the author in this case, IMO.

So, to turn this from rant to writing advice…For all the authors out there, ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here? And does it need to be here in that level of detail? Am I keeping a focus on the story I’m actually supposed to be telling?”

(Especially when you take a left-turn from genre expectations like this one did.)

We Are Not All The Same

It seems I’m always blogging when I should be writing. But yesterday I figured out that the 13K words I’d written on the new cozy needed to be set aside because the book I was writing needed to be book three in the series, not the book two I was supposed to be writing. (Good news, it’ll take less time to write that third book.)

So this morning because I’m not in the flow yet on book 2 I was catching up with some old blogs. And I saw that an agent I used to respect had said something very disappointing. (After this comment and a post a few months back which caused me to stop reading their blog regularly because it was so full of vitriol towards self-publishing, I can’t say I do anymore. Which is sad to me. Because this person seems to be getting more and more narrow in their views. Or maybe it’s just showing more as time moves on.)


The comment was along the lines that anyone who writes three novels in two years must obviously be writing crap. It wasn’t quite that rude, but it was there. The post also included some comments about what a writer’s process is, like there can be only one writing process for all of us.

I have to say, as someone who has always worked faster than those around me, that I find that opinion very narrow-minded. My two hours of time is not someone else’s two hours of time. There are those who can work and create much faster than I can and those who need much more time. To say that the only thing that makes a good novel is the amount of hours spent with your butt in the chair is wrong.

We are not all the same.

And that comment forgets that different people have very different lives. That person this agent puts on a pedestal for taking five years to write a novel may have only spent a hundred hours on that novel over those five years because they had a family and a day job and other hobbies.

If someone has none of that, they could put in those same hundred hours in a few months. And that with downtime to think between drafts.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be about how long something took to write. It should be about whether the story in question meets the needs of the audience it’s meant to sell to. And different audiences have different requirements. Some people want the language to be as much a part of the experience as the story. Some people (like me) want the words to get the hell out of the way so they can enjoy the adventure without being distracted by the author.

(I used to love China Mieville and still love his ideas, but I stopped reading him after a novel that involved some very very specific word related to giant squid. It wasn’t the only word like that in the novel and I thought to myself as a reader, “Do I care enough to go look this up in a dictionary?” The answer was no. I could figure it out from the context. But for me each time I ran across a word that was one I didn’t know–and I know a lot of words–it threw me out of the story and stopped me cold. I’m sure there were other readers who thrilled with excitement to see each of those words. For me it was a “not my author” moment just like for many authors you have to say “not my reader” when someone hates your book.)

So anyway. After seeing that agent’s commentI figured it was time for a periodic reminder to write however you want to write and take as long as you want to take. It’s the end product that matters not how the sausage is made. IMO, of course.

(I will add that ironically this same agent made another comment around the same time that authors should be able to write the second book in their series in six months. It seems you’re a hack if you write your first novel in eight months but you damned well better be able to write your second in six. Seriously.)