If you’re connected to the publishing world, you’ve probably heard about the plagiarism scandal this week involving an “author” (you’ll understand why I put that in quotes in a moment) named Cristiane Serruya. If you haven’t heard of it, you can read recaps from Courtney Milan here, Ilona Andrews here, and Nora Robert here. There’s also a #CopyPasteCris hashtag on Twitter.
To sum up, it was discovered that Cristiane Serruya’s books were Frankenstein-like compositions of plagiarized passages from over two dozen other authors’ books. When called out, Cristiane initially denied it. Then, in the face of mountains of evidence, Cristiane claimed that SHE didn’t plagiarize; someone in her stable of ghostwriters who actually wrote her books did!
You read that right. Her excuse was that she didn’t write her own books.
This didn’t get Cristiane out of trouble, of course. It also doesn’t appear to be true, according to more than a few of her ghostwriters who came forward. But, the appalling plagiarism aside – and the plagiarism is APPALLING in its breadth and scope – it also created a new discussion that I’m weighing in on:
Is it ethical to have ghostwriters write your books?
Before I unpack this, some disclaimers: I have nothing but respect for ghostwriters. They’re working hard for sometimes pennies on the dollar, all without getting recognition for their hard work. Also, sometimes, it’s understood that the author on the cover isn’t the author who wrote the book. Celebrities and politicians are notorious for using ghostwriters for their memoirs, for example. In other cases, an author dies but the family wants to continue that author’s works, like V.C. Andrews, whom Nora Roberts referenced in her post linked above. There are also many work-for-hire projects. One example is The Vampire Diaries, owned by Alloy Entertainment. L.J. Smith wrote the original books, but Alloy later hired other authors and ghostwriters to continue the novels. All that type of ghostwriting is NOT what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about fiction authors using their names as “fronts” for books they didn’t write. Cristiane was far from alone in this practice. Kindle Unlimited has given “authors” like this a place to thrive, though this practice sadly isn’t limited to KU. In order to keep up with reader demand – and to gain those coveted Amazon promotional algorithms – these “front” authors use ghostwriters to churn out multiple titles a year.
Is it legal to put your name on a book you didn’t write? Well, if you hired a ghostwriter who signed away their rights to the story, then yes, it’s perfectly legal. Is it ethical? That’s what some people consider a gray area.
Some say yes. What’s the big deal, they ask, if Author A doesn’t want to write the story? As long as it’s her story idea to begin with and it’s legal, why should it matter if she didn’t write the book?
I can understand why some authors would prefer not to do the actual writing. It is a hell, hell, HELL of a lot easier to write an outline than an actual book, and that is coming from someone who hates outlines with the fire of a thousand suns. But outlines typically take a week or two, whereas writing an entire book can take a few to several months (or longer.) Writing a book word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter is, after all, where the real work lies. It’s also where the story lives or dies. I could write a dynamite outline that resulted in a “blah” book, and readers will give me zero credit for the outline because the book is all that matters. Ideas, outlines, character boards, setting research and any other prep work might be an integral part of starting a book, but they are not the same as writing a book from beginning to end. (If they were, my backlist would increase by leaps and bounds overnight!)
But they’re not, so even if the author provides the idea or the outline to the ghostwriter, I fall on the side that thinks it’s unethical not to disclose to readers if a book was written partly by, or in full by, someone else. I’d add especially in romance, where the author’s name is often their brand. It’s very easy to add another author’s name on the cover, after all. Or mention it in the bio, or in the Acknowledgements page, or anywhere else in the book. Even if the ghostwriter preferred to remain anonymous, the publishing author could still disclose that there WAS another author involved in writing the book. If there’s no deliberate intent by the publishing author to deceive readers, why conceal the truth about who really wrote some/part/all of the book?
Nora Roberts, in her post linked above, put it this way: “The reader deserves honesty. The reader’s entitled to know she’s buying the author’s–the one whose name’s on the book–work, not somebody that writer hired for speed or convenience.”
I agree, and in case anyone wondered, I write all my own books. Every. Single. Word. It takes a helluva long time, and there are days when I would rather drill my own teeth than write, but it’s my name on the cover, so it’s my work on all the pages. Should I ever decide to collaborate with another writer (and there’s nothing wrong with collaborations, some of my favorite books are co-written!) you’ll know it, readers, because then you’d see my name and someone else’s name on the cover. Or, at minimum, you’d see it disclosed elsewhere in the book, if the other author insisted on remaining anonymous.
It’s what that other author’s hard work would deserve, and most importantly, I think it’s what you deserve too, readers.