I’ve always been a fan of a good problem page – aren’t we all? (OK, probably not, but I think there are more of us than might care to admit it!)
For this reason, one of the many things I look forward to on my regular trips (pre-lockdown, that is) with my American husband to see my mother-in-law in New York is the New York Times Sunday Magazine, with its regular column, The Ethicist, compiled and written by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Every week, the NYU Professor of Philosophy and Law selects one or two ethical dilemmas from a plethora of emails sent in by readers who are struggling with the moral implications of various real-life situations; he then subjects these to the rigorous analysis only a world-renowned academic in moral philosophy and law would be capable of.
This is one very classy problem page – although Appiah himself might not approve of the suggestion that his role at the magazine is essentially that of resident agony aunt . . .
It’s fascinating to see how such conundrums as, ‘I recently caught my best friend’s husband in bed with another woman, and don’t know if or when I should I tell my friend’ or, more recently, ‘I got a trial Covid-19 vaccine – do I still have to wear a mask?’ are reframed under the steely scrutiny of Professor Appiah. Part of me – if you’re an academic, look away now! – delights in the earnestly pedantic way he approaches his task. Part of me admires his willingness to get his hands dirty, so to speak, as he applies the beautifully pristine principles which are the distillation of centuries of human thought to the messy, banal old business of everyday life in the 21st century.
I’d love to some day have the opportunity to get The Ethicist’s take on the ethics of ghostwriting and the business of hiring a third party to write your story and then publishing it under your own name.
In my work in this field over the years, I’ve found that this issue is raised quite frequently by prospective clients – generally just after I’ve explained that a key tenet of any contract between us will be the understanding that when it comes to publication, it is, unless they decide otherwise, they who will be credited as the author of the book – rather than me as the writer.
‘But I like to think of myself as an honest person,’ a client might say, ‘and that kind of integrity has always been really important to me . . . Isn’t there something a bit dishonest about having you write my book and then passing it off to the world as my own work? Also, it doesn’t seem very fair to you. And what happens if people actually find out the truth?’
Clients are usually reassured once I make them aware of several key considerations.
First and foremost, as I’ve said above, this is how we as ghostwriters ‘roll’ – it’s a fundamental feature of the job and something that is embedded in the contract and the relationship. We provide a professional service – which happens to be writing a book – in exchange for a fee; after we’ve delivered the final draft, our involvement with the project ends. Being credited as the author is not part of the deal.
It’s important to remember, too, that your work with a ghostwriter is essentially a collaboration, and as such the question of creative ownership is not a one-sided thing. The writer brings to the table their skill with words, transposing your story and your take on the world into the most compelling, readable form for your intended readership. You, meanwhile, are the chief generator of the ideas and the key source of the unique content; it’s your vision for the project which determines the shape of the final book. My UG colleague, the distinguished ghostwriter and author Ian Shircore, summed this up beautifully in his blog last week: ‘Your book is your creation, not the ghostwriter’s. You are the playwright; we are the producers, directors and actors who help you bring your work to the public. You are the composer; we are the orchestra.’
Another key point is that, while there might be a tradition in journalism that you should never represent as yours something which hasn’t been penned personally by you, the world of ghostwriting – just as in the realms of business, politics and elsewhere – is governed by different rules.
When it comes to politicians, for instance, it’s common knowledge that many, especially the high-profile ones, regularly rely on the services of a good speechwriter. (The notable exception here in recent years is Donald Trump, who frequently goes ‘off-message’, but if anything highlights the importance of having people who can write – and think sequentially – on your team, it is surely these unscripted, stream-of-incoherent-consciousness rantings from the President.)
Lastly, if your greatest concern is less about the ethics and more about the potential for embarrassment if people find out you didn’t write your book yourself, do remember that we ghostwriters are as a rule legally bound by the terms of our contract never to disclose the exact nature of our involvement in your book. And even if the facts get out there – and in today’s world, as we know, these things can happen – the truth is that it’s really not a big deal. The increasing popular use of ghostwriters is one of the biggest open secrets in the book industry these days.
In the last ten years particularly, and very much in keeping with our current culture as a society of full disclosure on all fronts, the practice of ghostwriting has largely emerged from the shadowy corners of the literary world to now enjoy the full light of day as a perfectly acceptable, and increasingly common, route to publication.
Given all of these points, I am guessing that even The Ethicist himself would conclude that there is nothing morally dubious about hiring a ghostwriter and that you are not doing them a disservice by not publicly crediting them as the author of your book.
But a small insider’s tip here, if I may – although we ghostwriters do not expect, or have a legal right to public acknowledgement for our work, it is always very nice when clients offer us some kind of recognition of the part we have played – a phone call, an email, a card or some other gesture of appreciation in a private context. (Only, of course, if it is deemed to be well deserved!) It’s also usually possible to find some way of including the writer’s name in the Acknowledgements or elsewhere in the finished book – there are plenty of simple formulations which can express recognition and thanks without divulging all. And if you’re struggling to find the right words, my guess is that your ghostwriter will be happy to assist you . . !