Ghostwritten Books

Twitter blew up yesterday with Courtney Milan’s post that a reader had found significant evidence of plagiarism of one of her bestselling novels. Further digging revealed that the novel had complete paragraphs lifted from Milan’s work, cut and pasted into this new novel, and that she wasn’t the only author plagiarized in this way.

The author responded, apologizing to Courtney Milan as well as the other authors, saying she’d immediately removed the offending book(s) for sale and was trying to make amends to save her career. She claimed that the novel was purchased from a ghostwriter off Fiverr, and that this ghostwriter had since vanished.

There are all sorts of other dark alleys in this tale, such as questions about the authenticity of the author’s other works. I’m not going to go into the weeds of all this. If you want to check it all out, grab some popcorn and a few beers and head over to Twitter where the hashtag #copypasteCris will provide hours of train-wreck entertainment.

Instead I’m going to talk about the offending author’s claim of ghostwritten content, and why that set off a firestorm of fury among Romancelandia and other genre fiction writers.

A couple of years ago I joined a Facebook group of writers that was geared toward marketing tips, collaborations, and working to make a living writing full time.  The e-book market was (and still is) maturing, and writers who’d been in the gig for 5-6 years were finding it hard to maintain their previous levels of sales and income. New writers were finding it almost impossible to gain a readership with the speed they’d come to expect based on all the “Get Rich Writing Novels!” online courses, books, and YouTube vids. One of this group’s big take aways at that time were:

  1. Hire ghostwriters as inexpensively as possible and publish their work under your name.

This tip addressed a situation in the e-book market, particularly at Amazon. Both the algorithms (recommendation and search engines) and book rank favored authors who released “rapidly”. As in once a month, rapid. Actually, if you could put a book out every couple of weeks, that would be best. Many, many authors find writing at that speed near impossible and the solution was to hire ghostwriters.

First, I don’t believe there is anything wrong in doing “work for hire” in the writing industry. Ghostwriting is common in non-fiction and in autobiographies. Sometimes the ghostwriter gets credit. Sometimes they don’t.

A few years back I considered this business model. I thought about what criteria I might use to hire a ghostwriter, how much direction I’d need to give them in terms of plot and tone. I thought about what a fair wage might be. And when I ran the numbers it didn’t make sense for my business. First, in order to ensure the quality of the work I’d be putting MY NAME on, I’d need to pay a high enough rate, that if the book were a flop it would mean a serious dent in my cash flow.

Secondly, MY FREAKING NAME would be on this book. I’d need to read it. I’d need to revise it. I’d probably need to spend weeks on it making it to the point I felt confident to call it part of my “brand”. There was a risk I might pay for this book and find it completely unusable, not because it was bad, but because it wouldn’t fit in with the brand I’ve developed and what readers expect from me.

And I also felt ethically squirmy about putting my name as a solo contributor on something I didn’t completely write myself, even if the plot/characters/world were my brain child and even if I did significant revisions. I’d need to credit the ghostwriter as a co-author if I went that route. I decided any toe I put in the water in this direction would be as a collaboration or co-writing, instead of ghostwriting.

 So I initiated a co-written series with another author I know, respect, and admire. We worked together on plots, outlines, and series arcs. He writes the drafts and I revise, and the end product is something we feel proud to put BOTH our names on.

My time savings on these co-written projects? About 2-3 weeks of work. So much for speeding up my release process! Luckily I’m a very prolific author and my novels aren’t 1000 page tomes, so I’m able to release 11-14 novels per year if I hustle and eat a lot of take-out food.

So please don’t assume that every author releasing a book a month or more is using a ghostwriter. Perhaps they’ve written those novels and saved them up for a rapid release. Perhaps they just write fast. Perhaps they’ve gotten the rights back on some traditionally published books and are happily making them available again through a re-release. Don’t jump to conclusions.

DO let an author know if you see something you think is plagiarized. Courtney found out because a sharp-eyed reader let her know. We’ll thank you, check it out, and handle it if there is indeed a copyright infringement. Sometimes the other book just has similar tropes, and that’s all part of being an author, but it’s better to have a head’s up than have years go by and never know someone has stolen our work.

And for you writers who are using ghostwriters—be careful. At the very least run the novel you’ve just purchased through a plagiarism checker. Personally, I feel you should read and revise any ghostwritten novel to make sure it’s in line with your brand and something you can confidently put your name on. You owe it to your readers to provide the highest quality work—work that’s consistent to your brand in tone and style. If you’re just buying stuff and throwing it up on Amazon…well, I think you need to take a hard look in the mirror and figure out how the hell you’re calling yourself an author.

But that’s just me.

I’m back into the writing cave for now, working on the next Accidental Witches novel as well as Royal Blood— Book 5 in the Templar Series, so read on, my demons!

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