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