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Invisible hands

Anyone can be an author nowadays, but knowing who wrote the book may be a different story

Illustration by Diego Patiño

Invisible hands
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Writer Angela Hunt works fast. In her 30-year career, she’s published over 180 books. “I may not be the best writer in the world, but I do try to be fast and professional,” she says. In the early days, she took whatever assignments she could. “I wrote magazine articles, catalog copy, you know, anything anybody would pay me to write.” One day a ministry representative asked Hunt to ghostwrite the biography of a famous preacher. She accepted the gig, and her career as a ghostwriter took off.

Ghostwriting is when one person writes a book, but it’s published under somebody else’s name. It’s an umbrella term that covers two big branches. In the first, the writer’s name doesn’t appear anywhere on or in the book; the writer is a true phantom. In the second, the writer’s name appears somewhere, usually in the acknowledgments or on the title page, but credit isn’t obvious (here, some prefer the trendier term collaborative writer).

Ghosts write for authors who don’t have the time, desire, or ability to craft a book. Ghostwriter Frank Ball says a lot of people have no idea what it takes to write a book: “They assume, I can write this in my spare time over the weekend.” But writing a book involves multiple drafts of obsessively arranging and rearranging words, agonizing over sentence structure, and thinking deeply to develop a narrative arc. A speaker who excels at verbal communication doesn’t necessarily have writing talent. Same with Biblical counselors—they might be great at talk therapy, but their writing can be bogged down with clinical language. Ghostwriting has long been the standard practice of the industry in both secular and Christian publishing houses.

You’ve probably heard of Gary Sinise, the Hollywood actor who played Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. But have you heard of Marcus Brotherton? Brotherton wrote Grateful American, Sinise’s book about converting to Catholicism and his military service work. Over the years Sinise poured his time and energy into founding Steppenwolf Theatre Company and honing his acting chops, not his English composition skills. When it came time for his book, he looked for help.

“It would have to be someone who could hear my voice and tune in naturally and easily to what I was trying to communicate,” Sinise says. Sinise and Brotherton had lengthy conversations over FaceTime and met in person four times so Sinise could talk out his story. Brotherton, who received title page and acknowledgments credit for Grateful American, has also written books for Atlanta megachurch pastor Louie Giglio. He describes his job as “taking a person’s work, whatever it is, and developing that into a written message.”

Not all authors are as transparent as Sinise, who talked openly with WORLD about the partnership. Literary agent Madeleine Morel works with about 100 professional ghostwriters, including a coterie of ghostwriters who specialize in what she calls “soft God” books in the Christian market. Her unscientific guess is that 60 to 70 percent of books on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are ghostwritten. Joey Paul, senior acquisitions editor for Thomas Nelson and Zondervan, thinks the practice is less common with Christian nonfiction books. (Paul defines ghostwriting more narrowly than Morel does and would exclude certain collaborative projects from the term.)

Adam Bellow, formerly of Broadside Books, the conservative nonfiction imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, says almost all politicians’ books are ghosted, and that Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz had ghostwriters for books he published. He notes that most ghostwriters earn about $30,000 to $60,000 for a book but that some may receive as much as $250,000 plus participation in royalties.

Having a skilled writer at the keyboard is smart, but critics of ghostwriting say trouble pops up when it’s unclear to book buyers that the author and writer are two different people.

Having a skilled writer at the keyboard is smart, but critics of ghostwriting say trouble pops up when it’s unclear to book buyers that the author and writer are two different people.

In other industries, supervisors take credit for the writing of underlings. Politicians use speechwriters. Law clerks draft opinions for judges, including U.S. Supreme Court justices. Our society has developed customs and expectations in these fields, but when it comes to most readers’ assumptions about the literary world, “I don’t think we’re there yet,” says Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor and the actual writer of On Reading Well. “We still understand books as having authors and authors as being the writers whose names are on the books.” Dan Gerstein, founder of Gotham Ghostwriters, an agency featuring 2,500 ghostwriters, said, “It creates backlash with readers when an author falsely claims they wrote the whole book themselves, and deny that they had any help, and then it gets out that they worked with a ghostwriter or collaborator.”

Tom Williams says people misunderstand the profession. He has worked on books for megachurch pastor David Jeremiah and counselors Henry Cloud and John Townsend. “I do not come up with the concept, the thrust, or the bulk of material,” Williams says. “My client gives me all this.” Williams might work off of sermon transcripts, presentation notes, or sometimes even some rough pages. “I meet with the author and spend considerable time helping him organize his material into a comprehensible form. Once he agrees to the shape of the book, I take his content, go home, and start writing.” Williams strengthens and expands the information. He might also conduct research, incorporate Biblical illustrations, and add nuance.

Kris Bearss, a former editor at Worthy Publishing and Thomas Nelson Publishers who now occasionally ghostwrites, thinks a better understanding of the process can correct misperceptions. “I and my peers do very much care about the integrity of our work, both Biblically and personally—and so do the authors and publishers I work with.”

Still, some believe the true writer’s name belongs on the book cover. “When the greater proportion of work done and number of hours invested in the book is not by the person whose name stands alone on the cover,” that’s problematic, says Randy Alcorn, a writer of nearly 60 books. He compares the omission to students turning in papers they didn’t write—a form of cheating that results in students being expelled. “Full disclosure is an ethical practice whether you’re talking about medicine, car sales, or book sales.”

Thirty years ago—before the World Wide Web and the cult of social media personalities—Cecil Murphey debated becoming a ghostwriter. He wrestled with the ethical and spiritual implications for a couple of days. Then he decided: “God, if I can use my gifts for you, OK.” Murphey ghostwrote 35 books for Fleming H. Revell Co., now Revell, a division of Baker Publishing. Two of those books won prominent awards, and the named author received the recognition.

But things changed when Murphey crossed paths with editor Penny Wheeler. Wheeler was a Seventh-day Adventist who hired Murphey to write Ben Carson’s book, Gifted Hands. She insisted Murphey’s name go on the cover with Carson’s. “She thought it was the ethical thing to do,” says Murphey, who detailed the nuts and bolts of his job in Ghostwriting: The Murphey Method.

Gifted Hands sold well. Murphey suspects the book squashed industry fears that including the name of an unknown person on the cover would negatively affect sales. Today, it has become more common to see two names on the cover. Musician Michael W. Smith shared cover credit with Tom Williams in A Simple Blessing, although Williams jokes that “the famous person’s name is in large type, whereas mine needs a magnifying glass.” (A number of people determine font size.) Mark Dagostino, whose clients include Chip and Joanna Gaines and Hulk Hogan, says regardless of whether he receives cover credit, “All of my books appear on my site. I believe in transparency.”

Angela Hunt received a call from an editor one day asking Hunt to ghostwrite a novel for a famous female Bible teacher. The teacher wouldn’t provide materials—or even the idea for the novel. “Anything with this celebrity’s name on it sold a lot of books, so the editor said, ‘Let’s get a novel with her name on it,’” Hunt recalls. Inventing characters and a plot felt different than bringing someone else’s message to the page. Hunt turned down the project. But the editor continued to shop around for a writer, and Hunt soon saw internet chatter about it in an online writing group.

Randy Alcorn was a member of that same group. Amid the banter, Alcorn posted a link to his article “Scandal of Evangelical Dishonesty” that included his views on ghostwriting. Hunt read it—and decided to stop ghostwriting unless she was named on the cover or title page. She realized it wouldn’t cost authors anything to reveal they had help. “It doesn’t belittle them to admit they’re not professional writers. Many secular writers refuse to ghostwrite for the same reason we Christian writers do—it’s not honest, and it disparages the work of the writer who has worked hard to learn the craft.”

Seventy-five writers from the group signed a letter and sent it to editors and publishers asking them to stop using ghostwriters for fiction. “We pretty much blanketed the Christian publishing industry,” Hunt says. The letter, finalized in January 2007, said ghostwritten novels are a form of false advertising and quoted Proverbs 20:10: “False weights and unequal measures—the Lord detests double standards of every kind.” Some publishers became defensive. Others promised to tighten practices.

But no industry standards exist.

Ghostwriting can be especially unpalatable in Christian publishing precisely because the book’s message often focuses on the Bible, a text that speaks against deceit. Karen Swallow Prior, the English professor, sees ghostwriting as misrepresentation plain and simple. “I don’t pretend to be a pastor giving sermons, so I don’t know why pastors pretend to be writers,” she says.

Alcorn makes the same point in one of his most popular books, Money, Possessions, and Eternity: “If we’re not telling the truth about who wrote the book—on the cover in large print—why should people believe what’s inside the book, in small print?”

Illustration by Diego Patiño

How can you tell if a book is ghostwritten?

Authors may have never written a word of their books. Who wrote the text, and to what extent, isn’t always easy to discern. Readers might be able to spot the true writer by scrutinizing a book’s acknowledgments page, but a ghost or collaborative writer can be incorrectly described as an editor, or thanked with squishy language, like for doing the “heavy lifting.” Practices are all over the map and range from bad to better to best.

Literary agent Sealy Yates works almost exclusively with celebrity authors and expects them to be honest about the involvement in their books—or lack thereof. “It doesn’t have to necessarily be on the cover, but it should be disclosed somewhere in the credits,” Yates says. Disclosure is done on a case-by-case basis and is often the author’s call. Books his firm has overseen: Kisses From Katie where Katie Davis Majors shares cover credit with Beth Clark; 5 Levels of Leadership by John C. Maxwell where the acknowledgments straightforwardly thank “Charlie Wetzel, my writer”; and The Theft of America’s Soul where Duck Dynasty reality television star Phil Robertson shares title page credit with writer Seth Haines.

If truthfulness to the reader is the highest priority, consider the approach in Forgiving My Father, Forgiving Myself by Ruth Graham with Cindy Lambert. Celebrity Graham is the big name on the cover, but Lambert’s name is also prominent. The dust jacket has a bio of author Graham that takes up two-thirds of the column, followed by a bio of writer Lambert who gets one-third of the space. —J.R.

Jenny Rough

Jenny is a WORLD Radio correspondent and co-host of the Legal Docket podcast. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law. Jenny resides with her husband Ron in Alexandria, Va.


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