A common relationship in the content marketing and book publishing community is busy CEOs and executives – probably poor writers to begin with – hiring writers to write in their name.
Here’s Rand Fishkin, CEO of MOZ, on ghostwriting:
“…If you’re a great communicator through non-written means and you need help to put your ideas into written language, then by all means, use a ghostwriter if you can find one with the talent to properly convey your message, and your brand.”
Not all ghostwriting is the same. Here are three common varieties:
- Their ideas and words: In this scenario, someone pays you to turn their ideas into an article or book. You listen to them talk or take their notes and develop that into content. Or they email you a rough draft. It’s your job to clean up that rough draft.
- Their ideas, your words: In this scenario, someone pays you to write from an outline or transcript they’ve given you. You do all the research, they approve the final draft. Or they might make substantial changes.
- Your ideas and words: Here, someone pays you to come up with the ideas yourself, create the outlines, and write the book or articles. Their only involvement is to approve your work. This would include social ghostwriters – authors who write for celebrities who hire them to run their Twitter accounts, for instance.
There is a fierce level of pride in being a ghostwriter. Yet for most, this pride is rooted in a desire to convince people what we do is not shady. It’s a sort of pride that encourages other members to resist shame.
The concern is: what would happen if your client’s readers discovered he or she did not write the blog posts or book they said they did? Would that tarnish their reputation?
When Guy Kawasaki admitted he used ghostwriters for his Twitter account, people shrugged and kept pushing forward. Business as usual.
However, when it was even hinted that Sister Souljah’s sequel to The Coldest Winter Ever, A Deeper Love Inside, was penned by a ghostwriter, people were up in arms.
Even those in defense of her speak about ghostwriting as if it is some shameful act.
Alwyn K. Wilson, author and founder of Diamond Publicationz, had this to say: “My favorite writer Sister Souljah has become the latest person accused of having a ghostwriter for her newest work, the sequel to The Coldest Winter Ever. That novel came on the scene damn near 15 years ago. I instantly fell in love with the street lit novel and it still resonates as my fav. Now blogs and websites are claiming Sister Souljah used a ghostwriter for the sequel A Deeper Love Inside: the Porsche Santiago Story because the style of the writing is drastically different. Look, writers’ styles change. That shows their growth in their talent.”
He goes on to say “…she has improved but I don’t think it is so drastic that I would accuse her of having a ghostwriter; I don’t know her personally but I don’t think that is her style. Why are we as blacks a hell of a lot more critical with each other than any other race? We love knocking each other down when it is unnecessary. But what do I know right? Ms. Souljah, keep doing your thang sistah! You are my inspiration!”
The fact that people jumped on Sister Souljah for apparently having a ghostwriter and that a fan and fellow author felt the need to defend her and try to prove Sister Souljah wouldn’t do something so ‘drastic’, shows that many in the Black community see putting your name on someone else’s work…work you paid for…as a shameful act.
It is due to the influence of Hip Hop on Black Culture and how we view ethics.
Emerging from the poverty and deprivation of New York’s South Bronx neighborhood in the 1970s, rap gave the voiceless a voice. Because of this, MCs have a unique reputation to uphold. They have to be authentic, telling stories about their own individual experience. They have to “keep it real.”
“It’s a travesty,” legendary MC, Grandmaster Caz (aka Casanova Fly) says. “…no way you can even stand in the same room as an MC if you don’t write your rhyme, plain and simple.”
Despite this, he became most famous for a song he did not perform.
The story goes back to when Caz was part of the group Mighty Force, managed by his friend Big Bank Hank of Sugar Hill Gang fame (“I’m here; I’m there; I’m Big Bank Hank, I’m everywhere”).
Big Bank Hank had borrowed money from his parents to improve the group’s sound system, and was paying back the loan with a job in a pizza shop. One day, while he was singing along to one of Casanova Fly’s tapes at the pizza shop, in walked the legendary Sylvia Robinson, from the influential Sugar Hill Records label. She was forming a new group and asked Big Bank Hank to audition for her there and then. This should have been his cue to say he managed one of the best MCs in the Bronx – but he didn’t.
“He just took the lyrics that were on the tape,” says Grandmaster Caz. “They loved it and they made him part of the group on the spot.”
Big Bank Hank’s use of Casanova Fly’s lines is obvious from the lyrics, which will be familiar to many:
Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A / And the rest is F-L-Y / You see I go by the code of the doctor of the mix / And these reasons I’ll tell you why / You see, I’m six foot one, and I’m loads of fun.
“He was so much not an MC, he didn’t even know enough to change the words around to spell his own name,” says Grandmaster Caz. “He just copied it word for word – he said: “I’m six foot one” – he’s not, I’m six foot one. Everything in the rhyme describes me. I’m unwittingly Hip Hop’s first ghostwriter.”
In the early days, the only thing at stake was a rapper’s street credibility, but as Hip Hop gained more currency there was a fortune to be made.
And big money inevitably changed how Hip Hop was handled and who was interested in being a part of the movement. It was an open conversation that certain acts didn’t write their own rhymes but they were making the hits.
In his 2001 song Bad Boy For Life, the Hip Hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs boasts “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks.” – thereby celebrating his money-making skills over his skills as an MC. It later emerged that Diddy didn’t even write that song.
One of the biggest hits of all time, I’ll Be Missing You – Combs’ Grammy Award-winning ode to Notorious B.I.G. – was the work of the ghostwriter Sauce Money.
After Biggie was shot in 1997, the hip hop world was in mourning and label-mate Combs – then known as Puff Daddy – was looking for someone to help him write a tribute. Jay Z felt too raw to do it himself so he put Combs in touch with Sauce Money, who had lost his mother a few years earlier and channeled his emotions into the lyrics.
Sauce Money remembers when Combs first heard the song. “He was blown away because it was everything he wanted to say,” he says. “It’s almost like being an actor. I became him; and once I became him I knew what he would want to say to Big in remembrance.”
Talib Kweli talked about how being a ghostwriter is usually every aspiring rapper’s first job; a time when they can hone their skills by writing rhymes for others, before moving on to writing their own material. “There was dudes in the neighborhood that would rap…my friends…and I would write rhymes, like, ‘try this out’.” He then went on to say that although most MCs grow out of writing for others, for some, the anonymity and easy money suits them better.
This has been Hip Hop’s “dirty little secret” since its inception. It is a secret among Black people because we have come to judge not creating a work you take credit for, whether you paid for that work or not, as “biting;” as a violation of trust.
Because we view MCs as our modern-day Djeli, or Griots, who deliver the truth about what Black life in the ‘hoods of America is really like. Throughout traditional Afrika, Djeli are charged with delivering the history and exploits of their people accurately and truthfully. As a priest in the Yoruba tradition of Ifa, if we recite a single word of the Odu – or body of knowledge – incorrectly, we are reprimanded.
Those who deliver our stories must always be found ‘keepin’ it real’.
So if a real person is claiming to be the author behind a book or blog but hires someone else to write the content, he or she is violating an unspoken contract. He or she is breaking a serious taboo and losing credibility.
However, I think the average person underestimates just how much of the content they consume is not actually written by the people they assume wrote it.
A significant percentage of books on any current bestseller lists will not have been written by the authors whose names appear on the jackets.
You may not know it, but literary ghosts are everywhere. In this golden age of reading, publishers will not hesitate to sign up surrogate authors.
But is ghostwriting ethical?
It usually is. What makes a work ethical is its authenticity.
Most ghostwriters work with the ‘author’ to ensure that the content is authentic. The biographies need to be told from that person’s point of view; their vernacular because any resulting public appearances, interviews and discussions about the content / book must ring true.
Authenticity only comes into question when there is little or no collaboration. That disconnect can be dangerous, because the content will not ring true and creates a type of juxtaposition – “You wrote this, but you’re saying something different.”
Collaboration with a professional writer is a wonderful concept and a tremendously effective means of getting the great thinking of a great leader into the words and format that will be interesting to readers, and will make the material memorable and compelling to share. In the world of communication, it’s an extremely valuable service, whether for a book, an article or a speech.
Creation of material without the participation of the represented author, or without disclosing having utilized a ghostwriter, is a terrible idea, and in my opinion, an ethical breach, especially when said ghostwriting is used to promote a person’s image or brand.
Transparency is a virtue, and great communicators and authors are happy to give credit due when there are other writers involved. Collaboration is a beautiful thing.
So, get that novel, autobiography, screenplay or graphic novel script done! You can’t quite find the words or the time? Then hire me.
I’m a ghostwriter. No shame in my game.
Just keeping it real.