If 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.
Sporting 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?
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?