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Is it legal or ethical to hire a ghostwriter?

Given that a ghostwriter’s role is to write a book for someone but not disclose their presence or contribution, many naturally question whether it is ethical (or even legal) to hire a ghostwriter.

If you write a book, these people seem to be saying, then you have to shoulder the entire responsibility yourself. After all, it’s your  name on the cover!

Nonsense. No one starts a company alone, builds a house without at least some help, or undertakes a major project without someone to either assist or to review their efforts, so it makes sense that the act of hiring help to write a book is a perfectly legal and ethical thing to do.

With all this in mind, I hope to address the question of the ethics and legality of using a ghostwriter fully here.

Is it ethical to hire a ghostwriter?

It is completely ethical to hire a ghostwriter, especially if the ghostwriter functions mostly as a scribe, downloading the stories, thoughts, and ideas of the author and then polishing them into a finished book (or article or eBook, etc.).

Were the ghostwriter to provide all of the ideas, thoughts, and even stories for their client, and then that client slapped their name on a book that they had little to nothing to do with, then I can see some room for some ethical concerns. However, as far as I know and as far as my experience goes, this is not how the vast majority of ghostwriters work.

Instead, most ghostwriters work with their clients to help them convey their thoughts, their stories, and their wisdom. So, one might just as well ask if it is ethical to hire someone to design their house, build their house, fix their car, or repair their plumbing. As practiced by the majority of ghostwriters today, ghostwriting is a legal, ethical, and honorable profession.

So, is using a ghostwriter dishonest?

Recently, someone told me that ghostwriting is dishonest.

Now, this person doesn’t know me or my process, so they have no idea of the time I spend pulling information out of my clients to help them uncover what they want to say, be it stories, wisdom, or just pure information.

Thanks to a doctoral dissertation I recently read from fellow ghostwriter Dr. Marcia Layton Turner (who wrote her dissertation as part of her doctorate in business), I learned that we ghostwriters have done what we’ve done for thousands of years.

One might even say that the Bible was ghostwritten, given that more than one scribe recorded and wrote down words spoken by prophets who most likely did little to no writing.

In other words, for millennia, ghostwriters have helped those, including those in power, to teach, to influence, and to lead. So, far from making stuff up for others, ghostwriters, especially the nonfiction kind like me, record what others say and help them say it better.

Because there is no way I alone could have written the books that I have helped my clients to write. Rather, those books and stories are theirs, not mine.

As I think about it, perhaps professional scribe might be a better term than ghostwriter?

So, the answer to the above question is a definite no. Using a ghostwriter is not dishonest.

Can a ghostwriter steal a book?

While this question and the (mostly irrational) fear behind it, is totally understandable, it seems to apply more to fiction than nonfiction (after all, who wants to or even can steal another person’s personal story?), and the answer is an easy “no.”

Ghostwriters are in business to help their clients tell their story, and the last thing any ghostwriter wants is to break the trust between themselves and their client while creating a reputation for being a thief. Far from stealing a story, ghostwriters are duty-bound to keep their client’s project a secret if must be. Many ghostwriters aren’t able to reveal who their past clients were because those clients don’t want others to know that they hired help.

Again, as if hiring help to get a job done was a bad thing, but such are the common, negative attitudes towards ghostwriters and ghostwriting.

Do you have to acknowledge a ghostwriter?

The easy answer is no. If you hired a ghostwriter to help you write your book, you need not tell anyone on this earth that you got help to write your book (or article, or eBook, etc.).

Having said that, if an author wishes to thank or even credit their ghostwriter for the help they provided, they are free to do so. Free, but not required.

Sometimes, ghostwriters work out an arrangement with their clients to get cover credit in exchange for reducing their fee or providing some other allowance. In the vast majority of cases, however, ghostwriters remain in the background, usually invisible, and often unacknowledged, even in the book’s acknowledgements section. Again, the very term ghostwriter means that the person providing the help is less than visible (like  a ghost), so it’s no surprise that most ghostwriters remain just that, invisible.

How do ghostwriters get credit?

While it is not common practice, an author/client can give credit to their ghostwriter in one of a few ways.

First, they can put the ghostwriter’s name on their book cover. As mentioned earlier, this sometimes happens in exchange for the ghostwriter reducing their rate; it can also happen out of the good will of the author.

Second, the author can thank or credit the ghostwriter in their book’s acknowledgement section, where they may merely mention their name or call the ghostwriter their editor or advisor.

Lastly, the author can provide their ghostwriter with written, spoken, or recorded testimonials, which the ghostwriter can use in their own marketing material or website.

If you plan on using a ghostwriter and want to thank or credit them, these are three easy ways to do that—I’m sure there are probably more.

Who is the most famous ghostwriter?

Perhaps the most famous ghostwriters, at least for what they did rather than for their name, were the two scribes who wrote and compiled most of the Old Testament. Did you honestly think that each book in the Bible was written by that particular prophet? Far from it. Textual analysis has indicated that two main voices wrote the Old Testament, and these scribes either compiled and edited what those prophets had written earlier or recorded stories that they themselves had heard. 

Given that they are in the background, ghostwriters tend not to become famous. However, a few other famous ghostwriters include the following authors, who paid the bills by writing books for others. One of these was the horror author H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote a series of tales for the magician Harry Houdini.

What famous people have used ghostwriters?

Famous people from Prince Harry to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Nelson Mandela have used ghostwriters. If you see a celebrity autobiography on sale at the bookstore, you can pretty much guarantee that the celebrity author got help from a ghostwriter to pen their book.

What percent of nonfiction books use ghostwriters?

Estimates range anywhere from 50% to 80% of bestselling nonfiction was written with the help of a ghostwriter. A good rule of thumb: if the author of a book is someone famous (and busy) who is not known for being a writer, chances are they used a ghostwriter to help them write their book.

Is it legal or ethical for a professor or academic to use a ghostwriter to write and publish books and academic articles?
While it is not illegal to use a ghostwriter ever, many academic presses and universities stipulate that anyone who helped the named author write a book, paper, or other academic document must receive credit.

Thus, if you are a college professor and you want to use a ghostwriter to help you write, you may want to check first with your academic institution’s bylaws and guidelines to ensure that you follow them and stay out of ethical hot waters. Most, if not all, academic institutions require their faculty to credit those who helped them write a paper, book, or publication, but they may not require faculty to credit those who merely typed, proofread, or copyedited the same documents.

As long as the academic is writing content generated from his or her own thoughts and reasoning, any help they enlist in the editing and final delivery of their published writing may not have to be credited. Again, consult the publishing guidelines of your particular institution and make sure to follow them.

Is it ethical or legal for a student to hire a ghostwriter to write their school paper?

In this case, the guidelines are generally clearer than in other areas. Most academic institutions, from junior and senior high schools up through colleges and universities, have strict rules of academic conduct for their students, and those rules require that a student’s work be his or her own. Thus, hiring a ghostwriter to help you write your school paper, thesis, or dissertation is generally not allowed. For graduate documents like theses and dissertations, some institutions may allow the candidate to enlist help for typing, editing, and proofreading of their manuscript, but the thoughts, words, ideas, and research are generally assumed to be those of the candidate and not an outside ghostwriter for hire.

If you are a graduate student and you need help writing your thesis or dissertation, consult your academic institution’s guidelines before hiring any outside help.

Can you still publish a book after using a ghostwriter?

The answer to this question is a definite yes.

Books get published, both traditionally and through self-publishing channels, all the time. As mentioned earlier, it’s estimated that some 80% or more of nonfiction books were written with the help of a ghostwriter.

So, if you use a ghostwriter to help you write your book and you secure a traditional publishing deal, you join very good company that includes politicians, celebrities, and notable business leaders.

What are some challenges to consider when hiring a ghostwriter?

While there are many positives to using a ghostwriter, there are—as with all endeavors—a few possible challenges or issues you may want to be aware of.

First, ghostwriters—especially premium ghostwriters—cost money and most ghostwriters are paid upfront and are not able or willing to wait for your book to make piles of money before they get paid their portion. Given that the average top tier ghostwriter can charge anywhere from $1 per word on up to $2 per word or more to help write your book, hiring a ghostwriter is a serious financial investment. In other words, you can expect to spend anywhere from $30,000 on up to hire a top ghostwriter.

Second, and this applies to nonfiction ghostwriting, even though ghostwriters can help you get your thoughts, ideas, stories, and wisdom into print, they can’t do this if you lack ideas, stories, or wisdom. In a sense, a ghostwriter is a highly-skilled scribe who is ready to help you put your, not the ghostwriter’s ideas down on paper. If you don’t have enough ideas, material, or information to write a book, hiring a ghostwriter won’t magically make that information appear.

Third, even though you hire a ghostwriter, you must still do some work. Your ghostwriter will need to interview you, and you will need to provide them with your words. You will also be responsible to review drafts of your book or article. Nonfiction ghostwriting is a very collaborative process, so you need to do more than just write a check in order to write a book.

Fourth, you need to make sure that you hire the right ghostwriter for you book and for you. No two ghostwriters are alike, and no two ghostwriters have the same personality. Each ghostwriter has their subject areas where they are best able to contribute and their own personality and style. Before you hire a ghostwriter, make sure that the ghostwriter meshes and works well with you and that you both share the same vision for your book.

Can a ghostwriter fix my book?

The answer to this all depends on the state of your book. In some cases, a ghostwriter will give you the outside perspective you need to know what material to cut from your book and what material to add to it. An outside view, which a ghostwriter can provide, can also help you see what topics to focus on the most and can help you reorganize your content, if such is needed.

Ghostwriters, however, are not magicians. If your manuscript, which you doubtless have spent countless hours, days, and months putting together, is a total mess and is full of poorly-worded sentences, bad logic and reasoning, and incomplete thoughts and inaccurate information, no ghostwriter in the world can help you.

Often, the best ghostwriter for you is the one who tells you the truth about what you have written so far. Because if you want to fix a mess, you first  need to acknowledge that it  is a mess.

If your ghostwriter feels that he or she can help you pull what you’ve written together and polish it, then be prepared to pay them what they are worth because they will be saving you (potentially) thousands of  hours of wasted, frustrating effort.

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