So, Cristiane Serruya has been accused of plagiarising other romance writers. Her defence? It was a ghostwriter.
And suddenly this seems to have opened the floodgates to everyone who thinks ghostwriters, and those who employ ghostwriters, are the enemy within the writing community, deceiving the public and saturating the market with second rate rubbish that keeps genuine art from getting noticed.
Phew, so, where to start? I guess I should say right up front for those that don’t already know: I’m a ghostwriter. I started in this business writing gay male romance novellas that were then sold under someone else’s name, and from there I started ghostwriting other romance and erotica before I ever created any of my own. Like most ghostwriters I got paid an upfront fee, was sworn to secrecy, and will never see any of the profits. Unlike most ghostwriters, I wasn’t being exploited; I knew what I was doing, I weighed up the work exactly the same as I would any other job, I set my fees at a rate that I could live with and I only accepted work that met my ethical standards (I turned down two jobs that were close to my personal definition of icky).
If you want to hire me as a ghostwriter, I’m still available. As of the time of writing this article, my fees are USD 5c per word for novella length fiction, plus any commission taken by the freelance platform I use as an intermediary. I charge a little less for short pieces or sections, and I have separate charges for other related work. My clients have told me I’m bloody good value for money, too. Contact me if you want details.
OK, so with that confession and semi-advert out of the way (I feel like in the current climate I’m going to get bombarded with hate, but let’s see), I’d like to defend ghostwriting, both as a profession and as a service, and also make the case for why it’s a positive thing…
Ghostwriting is a way for folks to make money from writing
Let’s be honest, the only reason anyone considers ghostwriting is for the money. I’ll get onto the other benefits of doing it (and there are some!) but without money, nobody would consider it as an option.
There are good employers out there and there is good work for ghostwriters who are capable. As a beginner, you’ll probably get a lower fee because there’s going to be heavier editing needed, but as you improve you can negotiate more because the client is getting a better service. But it’s not regular work and you need to be slightly privileged to be in a position to turn down the thousands of offers that you’ll get once you start to advertise.
Because a lot of ghostwriting is exploitative.
I’ve been offered (and didn’t even respond to) fees as low as $100 for a full novel. Bear in mind that you’d need to write at least 50k words for it to be considered a novel, and a quick calculation tells you that’s 0.2c per word. Yes, you read that right, you have to write 5 words before you even earn a cent. Writing 50,000 words, if you’re doing it full time, will take you at least 10 days, so that’s 2 working weeks of full time employment for $100.
Under those circumstances, is it any wonder that some ghostwriters do indeed plagiarise work from others? It’s the only way to make a decent living.
Ghostwriting allows authors to increase their income exponentially
So here’s where I’m going to really get complaints, because I don’t have a problem with authors using ghostwriters either. To be clear, none of my work, whether it’s free here on my blog or a published book, is currently ghostwritten. The truth is, I’m not earning enough to make it viable, but it’s mostly because I’m a control freak. The idea of letting someone else write something that then goes out under my name is frightening.
But those writers who do are simply making a sensible business decision.
More books = more income. And the sales far outweigh the costs, even if you’re paying a decent amount, because the new books get seen by more readers, who then check out your other books and sales grow exponentially. It’s not about one book any more, it’s about dozens, maybe hundreds, every one of them boosting all the others.
Ghostwriting is writing experience
Starting out as a writer is hard. You want to put in the time to develop your skills, and you have to in order to improve. Some have suggested you need to have written at least a million words before you’re anywhere near a professional standard.
But life also has other demands.
Work, family, leisure. Sometimes writing gets pushed to the side just because it’s not the top priority.
But as a ghostwriter you get paid a fee for the work that you do. You’re earning an income while you write what are essentially practice pieces. It might not be a lot, but it means that writing is viable. For some marginalised folk, I know it’s literally the only way they can afford to spend time writing, and it’s improving their skills so that one day they might start earning in their own name.
If you want to hate on ghostwriters, I’d prefer you to aim it in my slightly more privileged direction than at those who are literally doing the only thing they can to make writing a priority in their lives.
Ghostwriters can be proud of their achievements
If you know who it is you’re writing for (and I know that’s often not the case), being a ghostwriter can give you a sense of pride. Imagine looking at the bestseller lists on Amazon and seeing a book you wrote holding one of the top spots for several weeks. It happens, and it’s a huge boost to your self belief.
Because, after all, if your words are good enough under someone else’s name, they’re good enough period. It’s just that you don’t have the same reach as your client.
A ghostwriter can fill gaps in an author’s abilities
Movie scripts are written by a team. Same goes for TV shows. Even comedians often use freelancers to write occasional jokes for them. Yet everyone seems to expect fiction authors to work in a vacuum. Real life just doesn’t work that way.
Writers aren’t machines. They don’t know everything, they can’t do everything, sometimes they get stuck. A decent ghostwriter can be a powerful tool in your writing toolkit.
Can’t write first drafts? Feel awkward writing sex scenes? Not sure how to get your characters from the events in Chapter 2 to the events in Chapter 4? Struggling to come up with ideas for your second novel after your first was such a success?
Pay a ghostwriter to do it for you!
Often, the thing you’re struggling with is the very thing a ghostwriter is excellent at. Personally, I’m very good at reading through (someone else’s) first draft that the writer thinks “feels off” and seeing where the problems are. I can then ghostwrite the bits that need filling in. It’s something I’ve done a lot and the results are so intertwined with what’s already there that you’d struggle as a reader to notice what I did even if you knew it was supposed to be there. Of course, I’m also very happy to write sex scenes. Another writer might be better at dialogue or fights or creating mythical creatures.
My point is, people think of ghostwriters creating the whole book, and this means they’re missing out on a potential assistant to their own writing. You don’t have to hand everything over, just the bits you don’t feel able to tackle. In terms of time saved, it can often more than pay for itself, and the resulting book is better for it.
In conclusion, ghostwriters are providing an important service. Yes, there’s exploitation out there, and of course it’s damaging when there’s a news story like Cristiane Serruya’s. If it really was a ghostwriter that plagiarised sections of other people’s books rather than herself (and that’s certainly not a given) then she should have been paying a decent amount for their services in order to avoid that possibility. Exploitative working practices always lead to quality issues – that’s a problem in every industry.