Ghostwriting: Is it ethical?

Everybody knows that books supposedly authored by celebrities are most likely ghostwritten. Ghostwriters are paid to write books, articles, and other documents that will be published under someone else’s name.

You can do a search for “ghostwriter” and find more than a million results. Some of the results are for sites that define ghostwriting or are about a book, movie, or software program by that name. But that’s still a lot of writers offering their services as ghostwriters.

Yet, I’ve read several articles lately that raise serious ethical issues about ghostwriting, especially in several specific situations.

The Ethics of Freelance Writing: What is Wrong with This Post? and The Ethics of Freelance Writing Part II at The Independent Journalist talk about a situation where a freelance writer is advertising for other freelancers to actually write the articles the freelancer has under contract. The author, KerriFivecoatCampbell, pointed out several serious issues with this scenario: the writer who is taking credit for the work is probably violating his contract that requires the article to be his original work; the ghostwriter is being paid far below the rate he would receive directly from the end client; and this could cause repercussions within the industry and cause editors to make contract terms tougher for freelancers.

I have rarely subcontracted part of a project to another writer when I was in a time crunch, but I agree that a writer should never have someone else ghostwrite an article or other project and claim credit for the work.

In Should corporate blogs use ghostwriters? at Scout, Stephen Turcotte addresses the issue of companies hiring ghostwriters for corporate blogs. He advocates that businesses blog in a transparent way, though he says there may be situations where a ghostwriter might be justified if that’s the only way the company can publish a blog.

I certainly agree that a company should not use a ghostwriter for a blog and claim it’s written by the CEO or someone else in the company. While it may not be unethical to use a ghostwriter if no false claims are made, using an anonymous blogger – or as I saw recently a blog supposedly written by the Director of Marketing but with no name or other identifying information – reduces the credibility of the blog and the company. I like to know something about the blogger I’m reading and would be much less apt to continue to read a blog that didn’t identify the blogger. But that would be preferable to claiming that the CEO was blogging when the CEO has no idea of what’s in the blog.

Devon Ellington generated quite a few comments from her Weekend Discussion: Why I Don’t Ghostwrite at Deborah Ng’s Freelance Writing Jobs. One of her main points is that celebrities who claim credit for ghostwritten books make writing a book look so easy that it decreases the value for all authors.

I know I don’t pay attention to what celebrities say about writing their books, because for me they taking credit for something they didn’t do. But as several commenters mentioned, the standard is different for material such as Web content. The writer is compensated for writing and receives no recognition for her work. However, the material is usually not attributed to someone else, so it’s not the same thing as writing a book that carries someone else’s name as the author.

However, someone who is a ghostwriter, Anne Weyman at The Golden Pencil, responded with a post of her own defending ghostwriting – Is Ghostwriting Legit? She points out that she is providing a service for people with great ideas but without writing skills.

Two blog pots, Ghostbusting on Angie Hunt’s A Life in Pages and Truth versus ghostwriting on Robin Lee Hatcher’s Write Thinking, specifically address ghostwriting in the Christian market. They, along with about 65 other Christian authors, recently sent a letter to Christian publishers stating their view that it is unethical and deceptive for Christian books to be ghostwritten. They make clear that they aren’t talking about collaboration between a writer and a celebrity (or anyone else) who doesn’t have writing skills, as long as both parties are given credit: By Celebrity as told to Writer, for example.

As these authors state, Christians should be held to a higher standard. I think it is especially egregious when fiction is ghostwritten because just about all the work is done by the ghostwriter, yet the public believes the “author” whose name is on the book wrote it. Nonfiction books may be substantially based on material provided by the “author.”

I have never described myself as a ghostwriter and don’t consider myself one. However, I often work with clients to produce a finished product – a newspaper column, a blog post, a letter – that is credited to the client, not to me. The difference is that I use the client’s ideas and information, I discuss the project with them in detail, and the client reads and approves it before it’s published to be sure it says what the CLIENT wants. And my clients acknowledge me as their editor; they don’t claim they wrote the piece without help.

Although I see the reasons for ghostwriting and know it is an accepted practice in publishing, I think it is something every writer has to consider carefully to ensure she doesn’t violate her own ethics.

Update: several blogs have picked up this topic and continued the conversation. Be sure to read the comments here and follow the links to other great posts on the subject. This has been an enlightening discussion.

[tags]ghostwriting, writing ethics[/tags]

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