A ghostwriter is someone who is contracted and compensated for writing something on behalf of someone else. Although there is some debate about the ethics of this practice, it is generally acceptable and even commonplace within the publishing industry. In fact, it is often strategic for a publisher to contract a ghostwriter for a project. By contracting ghostwriters, publishers are able to churn out a higher number of books under a lucrative author name. Ghostwriters can also allow the author’s brand to continue on and be profitable after an author reaches the end of their career. An example of this is the Nancy Drew series: numerous books in the series have been published since 1930 under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, even though various ghostwriters have contributed to the series over the years.
Publishers benefit from this extended lifespan in two ways: they are able to continuously churn out new titles at a higher rate and volume than they could with a typical corporeal author, and by doing this, they have a greater chance of establishing a robust evergreen backlist.
Nancy Drew is an excellent example of this principle. Although the NPD Bookscan data before 2004 is unavailable, we can see in the data after 2004 that The Secret of the Old Clock continues to see robust sales annually and consistently, nearly ninety years after publication. This is an example of how ghostwriters can buffer a publishing house’s success on frontlist and backlist titles alike.
When it comes to nonfiction titles and memoirs, another benefit of using a ghostwriter is that it allows a publisher to combine the marketability of a celebrity name with the writing skills of a qualified writer, thereby maximizing both the quality and popularity of the book. Associating a book with a celebrity name is a lucrative marketing move in terms of boosting sales: as Margo Strickland points out in Ghosting an Autobiography, “what the big name is famous for is largely irrelevant. Any well-known name is a trigger for sales.” By giving a celebrity claim to authorship, the marketing team can capitalize on their fame when promoting the book. Having the manuscript penned by a more qualified writer also allows the editorial team to capitalize on the superior prose. A ghostwriter allows a publisher to pick and choose strengths in order to strategically position a book for commercial success.
But there are drawbacks. Employing ghostwriters for a fictional pseudonym could render the PR team limited promotional strategies. Because the pseudonymous author does not exist in a corporeal sense, tried and true marketing tactics such as author tours, press tours, and personalized author websites are not an option—a fictional pseudonym can’t go on Good Morning America, nor can they do book signings at a local bookstore or even pop on Zoom. The inability to market a “real” author is a potential drawback to utilizing ghostwriters.
Though the ethics of ghostwriting may be debated, the fact remains that it is a common practice and one that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon due to the fact that each key stakeholder within the process of ghostwriting seems to benefit. The credited author receives a valuable and convenient service, bypassing the need to have substantial writing talent themself, the contracted ghostwriter receives reliable payment for services rendered, and the publisher can stick a marketable name on the byline of a well-written book, thereby maximizing potential profits and extending the lifespan during which they can publish books under a successful author brand. There are pros and cons to this method, but careful weighing of these pros and cons will help an individual determine whether or not ghostwriting is to their advantage.