Ten days ago, in a post titled Why I’m Opting Out, I wrote this:
Today when I hear a publisher complaining about how books are sacred and how we need to protect the publishing industry, I’m reminded of the same talk from news executives about how critical hard news and investigative journalism are to the health of our democracy. Yet in both instances these are often the same people who are putting crap on the front page or front shelf, making crap physical products, and marketing the most sensationalistic crap they can get their hands on in the desperate hope that it can compete favorably with the crap on TV and the crap on the internet.
In the middle of writing that rant, however, I had a nagging feeling there was something else I didn’t respect about publishing. Yesterday, after running across this story, I remembered what it was:
Less than three months after resigning as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, the onetime vice presidential candidate, has completed her memoir.
HarperCollins Publishers, which signed a multi-million dollar deal with Ms. Palin in May, said in a statement on Tuesday that it had moved up the publication date from the spring of 2010 to Nov. 17 of this year.
The book will be titled “Going Rogue: An American Life”; the publisher has announced a first-print run of 1.5 million copies. Ms. Palin worked with a collaborator, Lynn Vincent, the editor of World, an evangelical magazine.
To the publishing industry’s determined self-abuses please add: lying about authorship, devaluing authorship and generally treating authorship like a rented mule. Because I can think of no other industry where the practice of lying about authorship is so completely codified and accepted as it is in the publishing world — which, you might think, would be the last place that would tolerate such a thing.
And you might be right, except the publishing world is not genuinely concerned with ideas and authors, it’s concerned with selling objects (books, magazines, etc.). To the extent that hyping specific authors is done at all, it’s done to create bankable stars in the same way that Hollywood wants, needs and hates bankable stars because they attract customers. In the publishing biz these stars might be literary stars (proving the industry cares about artistic authors), or genre stars (proving the publishing industry cares about entertainment authors), but in all cases the caring is ultimately sales-based, not author-based. Proof of this, if it’s needed, is found in the simple fact that when it makes sense to lie about authorship in order to increase sales, the entire publishing industry eagerly turns a blind eye.
Despite all the lip service about supporting writers and their careers, the meaning of authorship is routinely hacked off at the knees by publishers happy to put a fast buck ahead of integrity. Again, the very people who insist that publishing is sacred are the same people who are now trying to create the impression that Sarah Palin wrote a 400 page book in four months.
But why wouldn’t they, when the publishing industry routinely gets a free pass on this sort of thing from both the press and the gossip-guzzling public. Here’s a typical bit of water-carrying from ABC News:
“Gov. Palin has been unbelievably conscientious and hands-on at every stage, investing herself deeply and passionately in this project,” Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins told the Associated Press. “It’s her words, her life and it’s all there in full and fascinating detail.”
The Christian Science Monitor, perhaps a bit more uncomfortable with promoting lies to its readers, presents their version of the same wire-service report this way:
“Governor Palin has been unbelievably conscientious and hands-on at every stage, investing herself deeply and passionately in this project,” says Jonathan Burnham, publisher of Harper. “It’s her words, her life, and it’s all there in full and fascinating detail.” Palin has also had the help of ghostwriter Lynn Vincent.
To be fair to ABC News they do note later:
While in San Diego, according to AP, Palin collaborated with Lynn Vincent, an author and features editor for World magazine, a conservative Christian publication. Vincent’s titles include “Same Kind of Different as Me,” “The Blood of Lambs” and “Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime and Corruption in the Democratic Party.”
So it’s her book, all in her own words, but she collaborated with someone else. Wink wink.
Apparently unnerved by this bit of candor, the ABC story rushes back to the Palin-as-author narrative (irony intended) in the next paragraph, reminding readers that this collaboration does not mean she did not exert herself mightily:
Once the manuscript was complete, Palin then reportedly spent several intense days in New York working with her editors at HarperCollins.
Powerful stuff. And also double-duty fraud.
First, the intent of that graph is to get readers to believe that Palin was ‘intensely working on the manuscript’, when what she was probably intensely working on was a double-secret plan to combine PR-driven hype with a juicy talk-show-circuit revelation just as the book is getting ready to hit store shelves.
Second, note the inclusion of the word ‘editors’ in the quote: as if an actual editor was working on the manuscript with Palin herself in the room. Because I’m betting nothing like that actually happened, or came close to happening. In fact, if Palin, anyone with content-editing experience, and a copy of her manuscript were all in the same room at any one time I would be shocked.
And note that no one at HarperCollins, publisher of Palin’s book and subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire News Corp., needs to call anyone at ABC News, which is owned by CapCities ABC, or online tabloids like The Huffington Post , and ask them to minimize the question of authorship. (If you’re wondering why the press — by which I do not mean the hard-news press but rather the celebrity-sells press — is interested in perpetuating this kind of fraud on behalf of fake authors, it’s because the celebrity-sells press knows that good clean non-fishy celebrities sell best. Pointing out that a celebrity is also a liar tends to diminish a celebrity’s status, so the celebrity-selling press tends to avoid such things. At least until it’s time to tear the person down brick by brick because the iconic stuff stopped selling.)
This kind of fraud has become so institutionalized in our pop-culture brains that everyone knows the one thing they are not supposed to say is the obvious: that Sarah Palin did not write the book that will be coming out with her name on it. (Will Palin’s book include shared credit with her collaborator? I don’t know, but I hope so. What I do know is that HarperCollins doesn’t think anyone but Sarah Palin wrote the book.)
But I digress. And you know all this anyway, don’t you?
My point is not that the publishing industry would change even if it was asked to change. It’s actually that the publishing industry is never going to change. Which is why the nascent online/independent/self-publishing industry needs to take a clear stand against ghostwriting.
Let me stress that this is not a moral argument, but rather a practical one. Independent authors need to establish credibility. It’s the key component that will allow consumers to move away from chain-driven, brand-driven points of purchase to less centralized forms of distribution. And yes, I recognize the paradox: the bookstores are already happy to sell this kind of fraud, so why can’t online authors engage in the same sort of duplicity? The answer is that online authors need to err on the side of honesty and integrity in order to support not only their own work, but the internet as both a medium and distribution platform.
If it only takes one James Frey to blow up an entire budding literary genre, it will only take one fraudulent online success story to taint all online/independent authors with fraud. I think many of the early fraudulent fiction blogs and character blogs — written either by people pretending to be someone else or by corporations looking to exploit intellectual property and brands — undermined that medium before it could become established. It’s a literary form that I’m particularly interested in, but it’s also clear that the promise of the form was cut short in part by uncertainty about who was writing what, and whether or not the content was ‘real’.
Speaking of frauds, do you remember Milli Vanilli? They’re a Grammy-winning singing duo who had to give their Grammy back when it was revealed that the people singing the Grammy-winning song weren’t the stage-act duo who accepted the award. C+C Music Factory got into the same kind of hot water when they replaced a full-figured singer on one of their hit songs with a shapely non-singer for that song’s music video.
If this kind of fraud is not okay in the music biz — the music biz! — why is it okay in the culturally-sacred publishing industry? Celebrities (and everyone else) should write their own books or acknowledge that someone else wrote or helped write their books. It’s the height of absurdity and hypocrisy that ghostwriting is still happening, and I think it’s something the online/independent-author community should publicly repudiate.
To be clear, I have nothing against ghostwriters per se. I even understand the value in a non-commercial environment — say, when a speech is ghostwritten by staff for a politician who simply doesn’t have enough hours in the day. But in that instance ghostwriting doesn’t devalue politicians or speechwriters because nobody’s claiming or denying authorship in exchange for cash. (Wait for it: I come back to the politicians.)
I also want to say here that I seem to be seeing more celebrity books these days which include an “As told to” or “With” credit naming the person who did the heavy literary lifting. Given that most people assume celebrity authors (including politicians) are using ghostwriters, why not do away with the practice entirely? There’s no downside to anyone, except the celebrity who really is trying to profit by passing themselves off as the author of the work. Aren’t those the people we most want to stop?
Back to Sarah Palin, is taking credit for something you didn’t do what we want from people who aspire to leadership positions in our society? Aren’t politicians the last people we want lying about what they wrote? In the 1988 presidential race Joe Biden rightly got into serious trouble for plagiarism and serial exaggeration about his academic accomplishments, driving him from that contest. And what is ghostwriting to a politician if not custom plagiarism before the fact?
Note, too, that we all get something in return for abolishing ghostwriting. All writers will be respected more because the craft will be respected more. And any celebrity (including politicians) who does not use a ghostwriter will attain more respect for having written the text on their own. During the last presidential election cycle I can still remember pundits and reporters saying, almost incredulously, that Barack Obama was known to have actually authored the books that had his name on them. Apart from his politics, didn’t that say something meaningful about the man? (And doesn’t the incredulity of the press say something about how commonly ghostwriting is used to deceive the voting public, and how willing the press is to participate in that fraud because it helps sell politicians as celebrities?)
Back to practicalities. To what extent could the online community outlaw ghostwriting? How effective could it be at preventing this sort of lying from becoming accepted on the web?
I actually think this could be done with only a few committed opinion leaders, provided those opinion leaders don’t also have a vested interest in the economics of the various new publishing models. The more likely leaders will be found among writers themselves, as well as in the online reviewing class which will grow over time. If the response to ghostwriting from these people is a flat assertion that the person claiming ownership is a fraud, I think that might carry some weight — in the same way that independent online voices have attained influence in arenas such as politics and business.
In any case, the goal remains simple. We need to grow consumer confidence in independent authors by treating authorship as something meaningful rather than economically expedient. The best way to do that is to protect the online/self-publishing/indy-author brand by self-policing and calling out ghostwriting when it rears its ugly head.
Ghostwriting is lying, and it’s the kind of lying that devalues every author. It’s time to give up the ghost.
— Mark Barrett
Jan Elvira says
That’s the best piece I have ever ever read. It’s just brilliant. Thanks so much. Now, WTF do we do about it??
Thanks for the compliment.
My hope is that there is some break with tradition as publishing comes to terms with the internet. It’s not a strong hope, but the tendency of the web to lean (at times too strongly) on anonymity may be a silver lining in this regard. In effect, there’s an extra burden on the internet to be who you say you are precisely because it’s so easy to lie about that.
Ghostwriting is an artifact of a forgotten time when people really did manufacture heroes. I think that time is past, but the machinery just keeps chugging along….
Henry Baum says
Great post. One of the weirder developments recently is Outskirts Press offers ghostwriting in addition to self-publishing. So you can have a book instantly published and not even write it. Bad idea.
But on the dubiousness of writers faking it online – I once wrote a blog in another character’s voice. This was pre-Fry when blogging was still a new medium. It got very popular and I might have contributed to the lack of credibility in blogging that you mention. But the issue of authenticity was part of the blog’s allure – people kept asking, “Is this real?” It was part of the story. I do think the web is a different beast than publishing, more of a free-for-all, offering the kind of freedom that allows a writer to enter into a character’s skin – beyond the process of writing itself. Not just justifying my project here – I think it’s an interesting development, and not corrupt in the same way as, well, anything having to do with Sarah Palin’s authenticity.
Thank you for the pointer to Outskirts. It took me a while (and several directed searches) to find the ghostwriting option you mentioned, but you’re quite right: they do offer it as a custom choice in their publishing services. I can even understand why they offer that solution: it’s simply another revenue stream among a dozen (actually more) that they are prepared to profit from by offering services that their customers need.
What I would not want to see, however, is someone using those services and then passing themselves off as the author of the book. If you want to lie to your friends and family, okay. But I don’t want you lying to me or my friends and family. 🙂
As to the character blog you describe, I can certainly understand the allure of that kind of mystery, and I don’t fault you for giving it a go. In my own deliberations about such things, however, I have concluded that even if such a mystery would generate interest, the interest would not be on the subject matter that mattered to me as a writer. (I’ve really given this a great deal of thought, and plan to try to initiate something that might obviate such confusion in an otherwise serious character blog.)
None of which should be taken to mean that I am not fascinated, as you seem to be, with the free-for-all on the internet. Not a day goes by lately where I’m not intrigued by someone’s approach to all of these new tools.
It is not true that Sarah Palin wrote her 400 page book in 2 months. Actually she wrote it in 2 weeks, but it took her 6 weeks to number the pages.
I have to admit, even from a logical point of view, the four-month angle doesn’t hold up — but my analysis wouldn’t be as funny as that joke. 🙂
Everyone started talking about a Palin book right after the election, do you honestly think she sat on her hands from November until the date she signed a contract? Sure, like more famous people, she did have the help of a professional author, at least she admits it, unlike most, 0bama included, who claim that they wrote their book or books all by themselves. JFK’s Profiles in Courage was ghost written, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barry Goldwater, all had ghost writers. So what is your beef with Palin having one? If you want to engage in an anti-Palin rant, don’t try to hide it behind a feigned disgust with the publishing industry.
You’re quite right. It’s entirely possible that Ms. Palin has been working on her book for a long time — perhaps even longer than you suggest. I confess I drew my conclusions based on the following quote in the ABC write-up of the wire service reports (noted above):
If you start the clock in July — say, July 1st — that’s three full months until today. But the quote says ‘most’, so perhaps she did another month’s worth of work after she decided to quit, but while still in office. That would be four full months: still, quite a feat, even with her ghostwriter’s help.
My ‘beef’ with Palin having a ghostwriter is relevant only to the question of ghostwriting. I don’t respect any of the other people you cited for having used a ghostwriter, if indeed they did. (I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m simply indicating that I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m willing to take you at face value.)
The claim that Barack Obama had a ghostwriter stems from an election year rumor trying to tie him even more to Bill Ayers, after most of their charges had fallen through, either having been shown to be lies (like the claim that he launched his state senate run in Ayers’ home) or because people simply didn’t care about them (like the fact that their paths crossed at Annenberg Challenge board meetings). There is no reason to believe it’s true, unless pure partisanship is considered a “reason”.
However, there is good evidence that JFK’s Profiles in Courage was ghostwritten by Theodore Sorenson and that Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative was ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell Jr. I can’t speak to whether there’s evidence that Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton had their books ghostwritten. On the one hand, it wouldn’t surprise me, but they also both strike me as eminently capable of writing their own stuff. I also don’t know why any ghostwriter would want to create a lugubrious 1000-page doorstop like Bill Clinton’s memoirs. I picked it up in a two-volume paperback from one of those large convenience stores along the interstate that is the size of a small Walgreens and sells nearly as much stuff. I was on a cross-country bus trip and needed reading material, and I thought this was the most interesting thing they had on offer. I couldn’t have been more wrong. If Clinton had a ghostwriter for this, he must have looked for the most pompous, long-winded gasbag he could find.
I think it’s worth pointing out that ghostwriting in medical journals has come up in the news recently (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/business/18ghost.html). Though this type of ghostwriting obviously has more serious implications (usually a pharmaceutical company or other biased party doing the ghostwriting), I was a little surprised to see that even Republicans like Senator Grassley are looking into this.
I remember that story, and yes, it’s particularly problematic because it directly involves health issues. But precisely because the abuse is so obvious it makes the fraud that much more obvious as well – and that’s what any misattribution of authorship is: fraud.
Putting your name on something you didn’t write is lying. I understand why celebrities do it, but it’s still lying. And at the higher levels — say, at the presidential level — who’s to say that a fraud which helps a person win the White House might not be just as damaging to the health of individuals as fraud in a medical journal. (To say nothing about damaging our country or the world.)
I agree with comments above that I’m being idealistic. But I see no advantage in staking out a position which accepts this kind of abuse. It’s wrong. I can’t stop it, but it’s still wrong.
Where were you when Bill Clinton “wrote” his memoirs or when John McCain “wrote” his books or when any other public figure “wrote” their books?
Or heck, where was anyone when Winston Churchill “wrote” his books or Davy Crockett “wrote” his COMPLETELY TRUE memoirs or maybe we should go straight on back to the Romans and Greeks who probably weren’t writing their stuff either.
Yes, hooray Barack Obama for writing his books. There is only one Barack Obama.
Let’s get this straight: I hate Sarah Palin. Hate her. Total Satanic bitch. But it’s so ridiculous to chide her or the publishing industry for using ghostwriters or for pushing her book when people want the damn thing. Osama bin Laden’s writings got published, for chrissakes, in the name of public service. You can readily buy Mein Kampf. What, the publishing is supposed to suppress its publication because the, yes, liberals and gays who populate the industry don’t agree with her politics? Give me a ******* break. Isn’t this supposed to be a free, capitalistic society?
Publish it, dissect it, criticize it. But it’s a free country. What is there to be scared of?
And besides. The literary books that HarperCollins publishes sure as hell aren’t making any money. Might as well let Palin pay for them.
I’m really only speaking to two narrow points.
First, ghostwriting weakens the credibility of authorship, which, if you’re an author, is important because it’s your main salable skill. Second, the publishing industry wants to have it both ways: authorship is sacred on one hand, disposable on the other. This seems to me, at the very least, hypocritical — which further undermines the business of authoring texts.
Clearly there is always money to be made if you’re willing to ignore anything but the pursuit of profits. And there will always be ghostwriting. My hope would be that online or independent authors would stay away from it — and be repudiated for it — precisely because it could taint all online/independent authorship as that avenue of publishing takes hold.
First, I apologize for the needless snarkiness of my first post. Probably not the best tone. I was inflamed! Passion is dangerous.
Second, I don’t know how concerned the publishing industry really is about the sanctity of authorship. There are new Jason Bourne and Hitchhiker’s Guide books coming out and the original authors are dead. There have always always always been ghostwriters. There are plenty of apologists in the industry for James Frey.
While I agree in principle that we should credit and celebrate the public figures who really write their own works, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to pin it on the industry when these figures hide behind a ghostwriter.
Books really are products that are meant to be sold, brands have always been more important than authorship, and just as James Patterson didn’t write that latest James Patterson book, I bet Tiger Woods doesn’t really use that deodorant either.
So I think your post betrays an idealism about publishing that doesn’t mesh with present or former reality.
Ultimately I agree with you – let’s celebrate those who write their books. But the “publishing industry” isn’t the problem. The industry’s job is to produce the products. I don’t think there’s a moral imperative to prevent something like this from happening – if anything the moral imperative is to publish EVERYTHING and let the public decide.
Declining to publish Palin’s ghostwritten POS because of politics or propriety would have been worse than letting the POS just fester its way to #1 on Amazon. What’s the alternative, censorship?
It’s frustrating to me, as a writer no one has heard of, to see someone like Sarah Palin get a big payoff for a book she didn’t write. It’s almost impossible for an unconnected, talented person to get published, yet a nitwit like Sarah Palin will earn millions for a book I’m sure she had little to do with.
As for famous people – some of them do manage to write their own books, no matter how busy they are. Congressman Dennis Kucinich write a memoir while he was running for president and serving as a Congressman in 2007. I was working on his campaign – and spent many hours traveling with him, while he was writing that book.
I don’t fault celebrities for wanting to capitalize on their fame any way they can. I would just prefer that they do it honestly. 🙂
As for getting published yourself, there have never been more opportunities, unless you’re committed to being published by a traditional publisher. If that’s the case, the opportunities are fewer and shrinking fast.
Rustin H. Wright says
So you’re upset at “the” publishing industry, are you? You’re convinced that “the” publishing industry is focused just on celebrity authors, doesn’t fact check, puts out only cheaply made books on crass subjects.
Sure it is. If you do all your book shopping at Walgreens.
Too bad you won’t be out here at Wordstock next week in Portland or BEA in New York or any of ten or fifteen other shows that go on every single year. You would find hundreds, if not thousands of publishers that publish good work, well made, by authors who are respected, and are, when possible published as a solid physical product. There are thousands of us working our asses off here and not just in tiny little independents. Have you looked at the reissues and minis Penguin has been doing in recent years with embossed covers, gorgeous paper, elegant design? Have you seen what is coming out of dozens of university presses? Hell, there are even good textbooks coming out these days.
But you’re right. Authors who aren’t glizty celebrities who are good fronts for ghost writing are nothing these days. Of course you get to explain that to Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett or, for that matter, Andrew Sullivan, who much though he bitches, gets plenty of attention and special treatment.
Make no mistake, these are hard times to be a publisher. I’m so overworked that half my line isn’t on my own site. And as somebody who has been in the field since the late eighties and is at least a fourth generation book professional, I will readily admit that there is a lot of bad judgement out there.
But ya know what? The slimy work you see is no worse than what Hearst and his ilk did a hundred years ago. And Ben Franklin published under a dozen names and lied about everything that he felt might annoy him otherwise. It’s stormy these days. But look at small presses and comics publishers and self-publishers and those of us simply setting up to work cheap to we can do it right and you’ll find that it ain’t over yet.
I’ve noted elsewhere that I’m painting with an overly-broad brush. I know that. There are of course wonderful people publishing good (well-made) books, and there always will be.
But it’s not just the books in Walgreens that are falling apart. I’ve had books fall apart on me that I purchased at the major bookstores and at some of the better independent bookstores. Granted, these weren’t lovingly-prepared archival tomes, but still: how hard is it to make a book that won’t fall apart from regular and intended use?
As for Franklin and Hearst, I can’t argue against historical abuses. I do say they are no justification for continued abuses. And given the pressures on publishers these days from both the top (corporate publishing) and the bottom (the internet as revolution) I would think conversations about what’s good for the publishing industry might be broad and far reaching, yet what I usually read is either whining or a call to protectionism.
To you and anyone else who’s putting in the hours and fighting the good fight, I apologize for lumping you in with those who put profits ahead of all else. And I’ll try to do a better job of acknowledging the distinction in the future.
Peter Seebach says
What does “in the same room” have to do with anything? I wrote a book, and there was no point at which I was in the same room as my editors or my technical reviewer — indeed, I don’t think my technical reviewer and I were ever on the same *continent* during the entire several-month writing process.
In this day and age, location is nothing, involvement is everything. The process of working with editors almost never relies on physical proximity — you send something for comments, you get comments back. I do this mostly in email by preference, and do so even if it’s theoretically possible for me to be physically in the presence of an editor.
Now, if you want to argue that there’s not much to show that Palin was actually substantively involved in the actual wordsmithing or editing process, I’d concede that cheerfully. I just think that “in the same room with” is entirely the wrong metric.
I understand that much of the editing process is distributed these days, and I have no problem with that. (Last year I worked for companies in Moscow and Kiev, and only visited Kiev once.) It’s one of the great advantages of technology: you really can find the right people now, as long as you can get over the idea that you have to have everyone under your thumb.
In using the phrase “in the same room with”, I was simply trying to point out that the article in question was purposefully written to imply that work on the book was being done, when in fact no work on the actual text was being done — as you note. This kind of tacit, incestuous support of an open fraud was one of the things I was railing against.