I’ve been a ghostwriter for twenty years now. I truly love my career. Although I am also a published author, there is something singularly satisfying about helping someone complete a lifelong goal of seeing their book in the hands of enthusiastic readers. However, there is a question that comes up routinely whenever I mention what I do. Many people ask me, “Is ghostwriting ethical?”
When it comes to ethics and morals, some things are very cut and dry. No, you shouldn’t steal that candy bar just because you’re hungry and broke. Yes, you should help a friend in need even if it might be inconvenient. Other issues might be less black and white. They are a personal choice. For instance, are white lies acceptable if it avoids hurting someone’s feelings? Some would say yes, while others would disagree vehemently. Still, I think most people have a good barometer for determining right from wrong.
Over the last twenty years, I have received a variety of responses when people hear that I am a ghostwriter. A smattering of people have actually wondered if I write ghost stories, but they are few and far between.
A lot of people wonder if what I do is really OK. Here’s a semi-typical conversation:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a ghostwriter. I write books for other people.”
“So you’re telling me that you write the book, but someone else gets all the credit?”
At this point, I usually give a polite nod. “That’s right.”
“But how is that fair?”
“I’m paid upfront for my work. I’m fine with it. Really, I am.”
“But…is ghostwriting ethical?”
Now, that’s a good question, one worthy of a blog article. Let’s get started!
Is ghostwriting ethical?
Of course, I feel strongly that ghostwriting other people’s books is ethical, or I wouldn’t be in this line of work. The way I see it, I’m helping people achieve their dreams by getting their books published. If they aren’t able to write the book themselves, why not hire someone to help them?
I do have one exception to this rule. Ghostwriting an academic paper is decidedly unethical. Once in a while, I get a Ph.D. student writing in to ask me to write their thesis. I think we can all agree that crosses a very clear line. Other students write me, asking for help with school papers. When I receive pleas from students, I contact the school and let them know what their students are doing.
To be completely candid, some writers I know have chosen never to work as ghostwriters because they feel it isn’t right. They don’t like giving up all the credit for words they’ve written. And some authors will not put their name on a book unless they wrote every word themselves. I admire anyone who sticks with their integrity. For these folks, ghostwriting isn’t ethical for them. I always say: Never be swayed by popular opinion. Stick to your guns and decide what is right for you.
As I said prior, ethics is a personal judgment call. Even though I feel strongly about my opinion, I can also see the other viewpoint. In the end, you must decide if ghostwriting is an ethical choice for you.
Ghostwriters are everywhere
Maybe it would help to know that ghostwriting is a common practice. Many published authors had help writing their books. There are tens of thousands of freelance writers, but most don’t make a living ghostwriting books. That’s a more elite group.
You might be wondering how you can tell if a book is ghostwritten. Well, that’s a little tricky because typically a ghostwriter signs a Non-disclosure agreement. However, if you look through the books at your local bookstore, there are a few indicators that the book was written by a ghost.
Look to see if there are two authors listed on the cover and if one’s name is preceded by “as told to” or “with,” these are both standard ghostwriting credits. Also, flip to the back and look at the Acknowledgment section. Many clients have mentioned me there, thanking me for my help (sometimes even mentioning my company name).
When you start looking for ghostwriters, you’ll start to see them more and more. It’s a bit like when you become a parent and notice all the strollers, car seats, and diaper bags in the world. They were always there, but now that you’re looking for them, they seem to be everywhere.
Plagiarism isn’t ethical
Plagiarism is when someone copies someone else’s work, doesn’t give him or her credit, and then tries to pass it off as their own work. This is illegal. It’s a misdemeanor, which can result in fines and possibly jail time. You can’t just steal other people’s work.
Some people confuse plagiarism and ghostwriting. They are very different because a ghostwriter is paid to write original work for an author. The contractual agreement states that the author will own the copyrights for the work at the end of the project.
Now if a ghostwriter plagiarizes someone else’s work and turns it in to the client, that is completely unethical and illegal as mentioned before. This can happen when authors pay ghostwriters very little and give them a minuscule deadline. They think they’re getting a good deal, but in the end, the author might be the one paying the fine and spending a few months in prison for the crime committed.
If you’d like to get a good idea of the industry standards for the price of a ghostwriter, please check out my article A Ghostwriter’s Fee. There are a lot of scam artists out there, so be careful. Only hire reputable, experienced ghosts.
Ghostwriting is similar to other industry practices
If you’re still on the fence and wondering if ghostwriting is ethical, consider that our agreement is not unlike others that exist in other fields. For example, large companies hire employees to write software programs or design equipment for them, asking them to assign the rights to them once the project is complete. The employees don’t usually get to keep the patents; the large corporation does.
How do you feel about this point? Is it ethical for an author to hire a ghostwriter to write a book for him or her? I’d like to hear your opinion! Please feel free to email me to discuss.
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