November 05, 2013

Seeing ghosts

A recent newsletter on writing and publishing contains an anonymous publishing insider’s story that reinforces suspicions I have long held on the output of several prominent and prolific authors.

Everyone already knows that celebrities, politicians, sports stars, etc. often have ghost-writers for their biographies, but when it comes to popular fiction it seems there is also a lot of ghosting going on.

Say you are a fan of a super-star crime fiction writer – let’s call her Gruoch Macbeth (the alleged real name of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth) - and you eagerly await every book in her series of Highland Horrors.

You enjoy the first three or four books in Macbeth’s series before you start to notice a similarity or a formula in all her subsequent plots. For most readers that’s no problem as they like familiarity and predictability and so she continues to sell in the millions, but the more circumspect reader can lose interest as the freshness and originality of Macbeth’s early books seem to wane.

But what you may not know is that Macbeth didn’t write more than the first three books anyhow.

Once she was established with those three books, her publisher demanded that she keep producing outlines for future books. Her failure to have done so would have resulted not only in a flagging career for her, but also losses for the publisher on its investment.

So to help Macbeth maintain her star status and guarantee continuing top sales, the publisher turns to its special in-house team of ghost-writers, editors and linguists to “write” her next book. These teams consist of many talented individuals. The writers are given the basic outline and demographic and together they hammer out draft after draft until satisfied with the basic story. This is then passed on to the linguists who know how to mimic Macbeth’s style until they are satisfied it will pass muster as the next instalment of Highland Horrors. Finally, a title is chosen, Gruoch Macbeth’s name is slapped on the cover and off it goes to print and marketing. And all Macbeth has to do is turn up to the promotions and talk about her latest work as if she really did write it, with her reading public none the wiser.

The publisher’s ghost team is not confined to just one genre, it is flexible and can move between the various imprints with ease. I’ve always been aware that the really big authors get extra assistance in producing their work, from the initial research right through to the end marketing, but I didn’t realise that many best-sellers are actually “manufactured”, and there are probably far more of them than we might guess.

Meanwhile, Macbeth is a busy woman. Not only does she produce an annual Highland Horror, she often has titles in other genres under the pseudonyms of, say, Cordelia Lear in historical fiction, or Rosy Ganymede in chick-lit, but these identities are usually well-known to most of her fans and garner her even more kudos. She appears on chat shows, attends international conferences, gives workshops and college lectures, writes articles for magazines, newspapers, and also blogs and tweets – so it can be baffling as to how she actually finds time to write!

I once heard a famous author of this type speak at a conference where she explained how she maintained her phenomenal output of several books a year in differing genres. She simply put it down to the three D’s of drive, discipline and dedication. I agree to some extent that those attributes are pretty important for any writer, but now the cynic in me wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the three D’s of many others who have iron-clad contracts to remain anonymous have also helped to fuel her amazing success.

One can muse on the ethics involved here, but publishing is a tough and highly competitive business and if the end justifies the means does it matter?

Disillusioning? A harsh fact of publishing life? I’m not sure exactly how I feel, although I know that there have been a number of popular authors whose work I once enjoyed but which I no longer read for various reasons. Either a book has not come up to standard or disappointed me in some way and I’ve not bothered to read any more books by that individual. Perhaps evidence of ghostly hands at work.

And I certainly do know how cheated I felt years ago when I discovered that my favourite girl sleuth Nancy Drew wasn’t really written by a woman called Carolyn Keene but by old men with moustaches! There are a number of other instances too. See here.

Have a browse of any best-seller list and see if you can guess at those authors whose work is perhaps not all that it seems.

This site is the best and covers many past years of the New York Times best-sellers






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