Ghostwriters: The Industry’s Favorite Scapegoats

In February of 2019, in a series of tweets and a blog post read round the world (or, at least, romancelandia), Courtney Milan infamously broke the #CopyPasteCris scandal. In a truly dramatic fashion that ended up being more interesting than the plagiarized books in question, romance “author” Cris Serruya was outed for ripping off passages from over thirty authors (including industry heavyweights Nora Roberts, Diana Galbaldon, and Jojo Moyes), recipes, wedding websites, and more.

What was her first response?

“My ghostwriter did it.”

Even before Cris Serruya passed the buck to the individual she hired on Fiverr, a popular freelancing platform, being a ghostwriter was the equivalent to being a cheap imitation in many literary circles. Though some loudly and boldly advertise their ghostwriting services, others lurked in the shadows, quietly going about their work and cashing their checks without including the details on their resume. Though the ghostwriters in Serruya’s case were eventually cleared from blame, as people both rightly left the blame on Serruya for not holding her ghostwriters accountable and the ghostwriters stepped forward to demonstrate that Serruya was hiring them to unknowingly stitch together plagiarized content into new franken-books, it did leave an added sensitivity in romancelandia to the topic of ghostwriting, and, as someone who has ghostwritten multiple romance novels, I would like my moment of devil’s advocacy.    

Ghostwriters are the people that are hired to write what others either cannot or will not, whether that be because of lack of skills, patience, or time. Even if you consider yourself to be a purist who does everything in their power to avoid ghostwritten content, you are bombarded by it every single day as ghostwriters are behind many blogs, social media accounts, content marketing pieces, technical manuals, and, of course, books.

Most often in the literary world, you’ll find ghostwritten content from celebrity authors, memoirs, and genre fiction. In the case of the first two, it is because some stories need to be told, or will sell if they’re told, and they need a helping hand to be put into the world. This also applies to genre fiction, though, more often, it is a more complex situation that has been changing rapidly in recent years.

When Amazon stomped their way into the publishing industry, the way that the publishing industry had to face reader demand began to shift. At first, it was quick and easy shipping allowing for readers to get their hands on books even when they did not have the time or energy to get to a bookstore or library. Then, they upped the ante, creating a space where readers had unfettered and immediate access to new content through instant downloads and plans such as Kindle Unlimited. Whereas the burden to connect readers to new content used to fall onto stores or libraries and the readers themselves, Amazon and other digital book retailers shifted a large bulk of the burden to both publishers and authors who had to start compensating for an unprecedented level of demand and sales opportunities.

Like the gold rush brought hundreds of thousands to America’s west, a seemingly endless wave of self-published authors and new publishing organizations flocked to the new digital marketplace in the hopes of quick and easy fortune. But, as is the case with any rush, it creates a space where you have to be willing to move faster than all the rest.

In the case of Kindle Unlimited, it is stipulated that you have only thirty days to earn out on your novel. In part, this is due to the sheer volume of works uploaded to the program every single day. In another part, this is because 80.3% of romance readers finish at least one book a month, according to data recorded in 2013.

You want to know why ghostwriters have become so prolific? It is because a normal human being cannot write a book in thirty days. And, if they can, it probably isn’t any good. But, if you have thirty days to put out something new in order to keep earning money, you have to do something. So, many authors started turning to ghostwriters for a helping hand to try and keep to that publishing schedule. In some cases, those helping hands turn into whole business conglomerates, with one person at the top writing nothing more than an email directing their team of freelancers to create massive webs of content that they’ll profit from.

Both ghostwriters and the people that hire them are, at their core, gamblers. The ghostwriter is betting that the pay they receive for writing the book is going to be either equivalent or higher than any advance or royalty earned from writing the book, maintaining control of it, and then publishing it through more traditional channels. The one hiring the ghostwriter is betting that they will still make a hefty chunk of change even after paying out a ghostwriter and editor, knowing that they already have a “name,” marketing strategy, and existing backlist to promote continual income even if one book or ghostwriter proves to be a flop.

Now, is the money good? No, not really. But it is better than it could be. Going rates on the freelancing platform Upwork vary wildly, with offerings ranging from $.02 per word to $0.0083 per word, with some promising long-term working relationships and others asking for one-shot books. Some have detailed plots for writers to follow, others have loose guidelines, and others have nothing at all except for a genre, though the romance genre does come with its own strict set of rules that most writers should follow regardless of instruction.

Listen, I get it, none of this is glamorous. When you think about the literary world, or the hardworking author sitting in a leather chair while sipping simultaneously on tea and whiskey while they scribble into a leather-bound journal, it can be devastating to have the image altered to a business strategy covered in a haze of fluorescent light. But this is the reality of the current state of the romance genre, and this business model won’t be going away anytime soon.

Are the best books of the genre going to be written by ghostwriters? Probably not. But for $0.0083 per word, do you expect them to write the next RITA Award Winner? No. They are there to provide a few hours of entertainment for ninety-nine cents, fulfilling a need that a reader has while they wait the months, if not the years, that it takes their favorite “real” author to put out something new.

So, what I have to say is this: leave the ghostwriters alone. Let them fill the gaps in time between the books released by “real” authors. If anything, appreciate them for being willing to step into the marketplace and meet the demands of people that we, as an industry, just want to keep reading voraciously no matter what. That is, after all, how we fuel this big publishing machine.

Furthermore, I encourage anyone to take a stab at ghostwriting, especially if you have ever toyed with the idea of writing a book and releasing it under your own name. The people that hire and help ghostwriters will help you learn good writing habits, and I have worked with some really knowledgeable editors during my ghostwriting process that have helped me sharpen my own skills as a writer. Learn from them, study what they tell you about your writing and the industry, then take that knowledge and use it to craft books that you would be proud to put your name on (and send those books to us at Three Houses Press, because we love real writers).  

At the end of the day, I cannot force you to let go of any resentment you may have toward ghostwriters. The arguments against the practice, such as it detracting from other indie authors and creating unrealistic expectations about publishing speeds are certainly valid. My only argument to you is to remember that ghostwriters are still real people, writing real content that is typically unique, of reasonable quality, and entertaining. In my opinion, that is a far lesser evil than it is given credit for.