Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian ghostwriters

John Friedrich, Codename IagoIf you’ve read my blog recently, you’ll know exactly what inspired this post. Yes, Richard Flanagan’s novel First person (my review), which was inspired by his experience of ghostwriting Australian fraudster John Friedrich’s memoir. The book was called Codename Iago.

You probably all know what a ghostwriter is, but just to make sure, here’s the definition from the editors4you blog:

A ghostwriter is a writer who writes books, stories, blogs, magazine articles, or any other written content that will officially be attributed to another person – the credited author.

So, how much do you know about Australia’s ghost-writers? Did you know, for example, that crime-fiction bestseller Michael Robotham once made his living as a ghostwriter, or that published author Libby Harkness currently spends more time on ghostwriting than her “own” writing? Did you know that Anh Do’s best-selling memoir started out with a ghostwritten manuscript? Or that the two biographies of Hazel Hawke, Hazel: My mother’s story and Hazel’s journey, were written by her daughter, Sue Pieters-Hawke, with the assistance of ghostwriter Hazel Flynn. As I started to delve into this shadowy – ghostly, let us say – area, I uncovered a fascinating world of professional writers who help people who have stories to tell to, well, tell them.

My focus here is Australia, for obvious reasons, but I’ll be including information from further afield, starting with an article in The Guardian from 2014. Titled “Bestselling ghostwriter reveals the secret world of the author for hire”, it’s about English ghostwriter Andrew Crofts who at the time had written 80 titles over 40 years, and sold some 10 million copies, but mostly under “more famous names”. The article, which you can read at the link, names many of them. That year, he published his “own” book, Confessions of a ghostwriter.

Rober McCrum, the author of The Guardian article, says that the term

was coined by an American, Christy Walsh, who set up the Christy Walsh Syndicate in 1921 to exploit the literary output of America’s sporting heroes. Walsh not only commissioned his ghosts, he imposed a strict code of conduct on their pallid lives. Rule one: “Don’t insult the intelligence of the public by claiming these men write their own stuff.”

American ghostwriter David Kohn was interviewed by the ABC Book Show in 2009. He said it suited introverts like him. He doesn’t have to go to book signings or do promotional tours!

Not just memoirs

McCrum notes, as we probably would all guess, that the types of works best known for being ghostwritten are the “misery memoir, sporting lives and celebrity autobiography”. We have examples of all of these in Australia.

Jelena Dokic, UnbreakableSporting lives, for example, to pluck out just a few Australian examples, include footballer Wayne Carey’s The truth hurts, which was cowritten with Charles Happell who is credited on the cover; cricketer Brad Haddin’s My family’s keeper which Hazel Flynn “helped” write though she is not on the cover; and tennis player Jelena Dokic’s Unbeatable (my report) which was cowritten with Jessica Halloran who is credited on the cover.

However, another area well known for being ghostwritten are the “how-to” books, including cookbooks. Google “ghostwritten cookbook” and you’ll find articles galore. And, apparently, as I found on a comprehensive American website on ghost-writing, medical ghostwriting is a big thing. I also found references to ghostwriters doing fiction, too. Fascinating, eh?

Crediting ghostwriters

Sue Pieters-Hawke, Hazel's Journey

Hazel Flynn credited on the cover

Not all ghostwriters are credited. Some appear on title pages, or even on covers, and some might be mentioned in acknowledgements (as happened with Anh Do’s book), but others are not mentioned at all. Where credited, their names are usually preceded by “and” or “with” or “as told to” (with the ghostwriter’s name less prominent to indicate the “lesser” role). As the editors4you blog says, credit depends on the nature of the ghostwriter’s contract with their client. They note that the client can ask the ghostwriter to sign a nondisclosure contract forbidding them from revealing their role. This is fair enough I suppose. It’s a fee-for-service business deal. However, as a reader, I’m another sort of client of that service, and I’m not sure I like the idea that I don’t know who really wrote, or contributed significantly, to the work I’m reading.

Reading around the ‘net, I found, not surprisingly, quite a bit of sensitivity about this issue. Read, for example, this article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks. There’s sure to be ego involved, but also, just plain lack of clarity.

Finally, some Australian ghostwriters

Here are three of Australia’s “top ghostwriters”, from the 16 in this article):

  • Michael Collins has had various jobs, including undercover cop and photo-journalist before turning to full-time writing around 20 years ago. He has written in several genres, he writes on his blog, including self-help, fiction, biographies and memoirs, though I’m not sure whether all these are ghostwritten. One of his recent books is Carolyn Wilkinson’s Blood on the wire about prison escapee Daniel Heiss.
  • Libby Harkness has been ghostwriting in several non-fiction areas since 1992, and in 2013 was a guest at the first international ghostwriters conference in California, as she writes in this blog post for the NSW Writers Centre. Her most recent book, for which she is credited on the book’s cover, is Simon Gillard’s Life sentence: a policy officer’s battle with PTSD.
  • John Harman is English-born but West Australian-based now it seems. He has written crime fiction, television and film scripts as himself. However, ghostwriting is a major part of his work. On his website, he says that he has ghostwritten “a number of books, from popular romantic fiction to corporate histories, biographies and autobiographies.” His most recent ghostwritten book is Arthur Bancroft’s WW2 memoir, Arthur’s war, on which Harman is identified on the cover.

Many of the ghostwritten books I found were published by the big publishers like Allen & Unwin, HarperCollins, and Penguin, indicating it’s a well-entrenched segment of the industry.

Are you aware of having read ghostwritten books? Does it matter to you whether the book you read has been ghostwritten or not – and do you like to know?

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian ghostwriters

  1. I was friends with a ghost writer, professionally she was an editor, who wrote a best seller more or less in the style of Strength to Strength, uncredited from memory. I was with her one time at the lady in question’s country property. When we left my friend was laughing at the words she had invented for a love scene between the protagonist and her prospective husband.

    • Oh, that would have been fun to talk to a ghostwriter, Bill. I read a few articles (or listened to interviews) by some and they talked about two things – having chemistry with the client and getting their voice. Do you think YOUR ghostwriter was getting the voice when she created the words for the love scene?

        • Oh yes of course! As for enjoying herself, I gather this is what ghostwriters generally get out of their work. They enjoy the stories and connections with others, and then bringing their stories to life.

  2. The most famous ghostwriter book I can remember is JFK’s Profiles in Courage! John F. Kennedy is the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten for him by his speechwriter Ted Sorensen. In Sorensen’s autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, he said he wrote “a first draft of most of the chapters” of Profiles in Courage and “helped choose the words of many of its sentences.” Thanks for the musings….!

  3. I have a friend who has made a decent living from ghostwriting for years but he’ll never give any information on the books, he would probably be dropped fast if he did. He also writes under his own name but couldn’t make a living from doing that.

    • Thanks Katrina. From my reading, that’s what most ghostwriters do for the same reason… Unless they have an agreement that it’s not secret. If they’re acknowledged in the book of course it’s a known fact. (Though some acknowledgements can be vaguely written as to their role!) But as one said, you need to be able to show potential clients your work in order to get work, so you need to have some examples you can show! I was thinking that this work must be a bit like being a spy in that you often can’t talk about it. I would hate that aspect.

  4. Hi Sue, I like to know if a book is ghostwritten. It doesn’t worry me if it has but I think as a reader I have the right to know who wrote the book. The ghostwriter should receive some credit for assisting in the creation of the story.

    • Yes, I’m with you Meg. I’d prefer to know. I would hate to go to an author signing and find the author hadn’t written the book. Sure, it might be their story but how it’s written is critical isn’t it. I can’t imagine pretending I’d write a book in fact…

  5. Though I knew what s ghost writer was, I had no idea about many of the details That you mention above. This sounds like something that I would like to read more about. I will start by looking into some of the links that you have posted.

    • Thanks Brian. I found researching this fascinating… One of those links points to multiple other articles and sites but I only read a couple. I’d read more if I had the time.

    • Oh yes, Lisa, I agree. I think the best ghostwritten ones are those with important stories to tell but where those stories would not come out otherwise. I think this is where publishers sometimes play a role in putting the two together, but I don’t know.

  6. My wife told me about a group who write biographies for patients in nursing homes etc. “Oral Histories Project,” or something like that. The ‘history’ is often displayed above the patient’s bed. Gota feeling that one of the universities is involved. Also, had the pleasure of listening to Michael Robotham talk about his experiences. A fascinating part of our profession.

    • Ah that’s interesting Araneus – and a lovely thing to do. Provides company for the patient when it’s being done and then talking points for those who visit or care for them. Wunderbar.

      How great to have heard Michael Robotham talk about his experiences.

  7. Hiya Sue,

    John Harman has been a bulwark of the literary landscape over here in the West for years now; he regularly runs writing courses, in between assessing manuscripts and, yes, ghostwriting.

    I heard Michael Robotham speaking alongside Garry Disher and Leigh Straw at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival last weekend. He had a professional connection (probably ghostwriting-can’t quite remember) with the real-life antecedent of Jimmy McGovern’s Eddie Fitzgerald (i.e. “Cracker”, one of my all-time TV faves) and his involvement with the Jamie Bulger case (he had access to the still-classified files, and he says they are truly horrific). He also recalled working on a project with Rolf Harris, who was apparently morose and uncommunicative throughout. When Rolf went to trial a decade later, Robotham was able to deduce that he was working with him at the time that his wife and daughter learnt about his dealings with his daughter’s best friend. What had seemed to him, as an outsider, like an episode of the depressive end of manic-depression suddenly made complete sense to him…

    • Thanks for all this Glen, and for the info re John Harman. It sounds like a similar story for many of the ghostwriters I’ve read about.

      That’s fascinating re Robotham. I read somewhere that Rolf Harris had been one of his clients … but that story is interesting as you say, in retrospect. I wondered when his wife and daughter knew or if they’d known in advance. What stalwarts they’ve been. I feel really sorry for them. Though I’m not so naive that I think it’s at all simple.

  8. Fascinating post, Sue. I did a podcast episode on ghostwriting (unfortunately couldn’t get an interviewee lined up in time), but I was astounded at how many books at your average bookshop are ghostwritten! Very pervasive practice. I found of one of my favourite series of books as a kid, Animorphs, was mostly ghostwritten and even the book behind that film Lion was ghostwritten (though more publicly acknowledged). While I had excepted sports biographies would likely be ghostwritten, it was the crime novels (James Patterson, anyone?) that really surprised me.

    • Thanks Angharad. Yes, I think we all know that a lot of those sport and celebrity memoirs/autobiographies are ghost-written or co-written. I’d also been aware that a lot of those big children’s series are ghostwritten and also cookbooks, but like you, I was surprised to find that more fiction than I’d thought is also ghostwritten. Again, I guess it’s those popular series where it happens.

    • PS Sorry I didn’t hear the podcast. I don’t listen to podcasts much at all – I’m lucky if I hear one or two a month – so it’s not just yours! The only listening I really do is Radio National, realtime.

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