Who’s afraid of ghost…writers?

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How would you feel if I told you all the tweets and Facebook posts your television idol made were done by someone else? You’ll find that fictionalized in my novel Design My Life, but sadly it is often all too true–especially when it comes to what celebrity hosts claim to write.

Would you believe me if I said the columns, magazine articles and books, that a celebrity you admire wrote weren’t in fact written by them? Or what if I told you that the comments on your posts, or replies to your DMs and tweets, or even birthday greetings, were fake too?

Would you believe that they were written and scheduled by a communications team who make the posts based on what the celebrity has to promote, such as an upcoming event, product launch or network premiere?

I think the average person assumes the tweets coming from the celebrity they admire are legitimate. Sadly, too often they are not. And that feels like a violation of trust to me. It’s just part of some big dishonest publicity machine that viewers or fans buy into–and the end goal is to sell more products, or get fans to download a new CD, or get more viewers watching a television show.

Taking Credit, Breaking Trust

Have you ever paused to consider those books written by celebrities you see piled up at Costco or your local bookstore? Some of those famous people can’t even put two thoughts, let alone sentences, together in a rational way, but they’ve written a book? Not likely–so you know the book is ghostwritten, though you’ll never see a credit or acknowledgement given to the ghostwriter.

I know celebrities who boast about writing best selling books. Write them? They haven’t even read them!

I’d speculate that all celebrity books–from memoirs to renovation guides and dog training manuals–are ghostwritten to some extent. Depending on the situation, some celebrities might participate to a degree. Maybe they’ll provide notes, or agree to be interviewed by the ghostwriter on a number of occasions. But the busier (or less interested) the celeb is, the less access the ghostwriter will have.

Other times the writer may be allowed to shadow the celebrity for a time, observing how their day goes and getting a feel for the ‘voice’ of the person they’ve been hired to impersonate on paper or online. Maybe the celebrity, or their team of minders, will even put together a draft of the article or book, sharing the thoughts and opinions they want to express. And those same managers and minders will approve the column or book once it’s complete to ensure it’s on brand and nothing is shared that might damage the celebrity’s image or reputation.

But all too often the celebrity provides no input at all for the book–beyond the use of their face on the jacket and name on the cover. It’s just another opportunity to cash in on their brand and their fame. I suppose, given the fleeting nature of celebrity and television fame, they want to make hay–and money–while the sun shines.

I lose respect for someone who uses a ghostwriter and doesn’t give them credit. It shows a lack of integrity, a lack of character, and breaks my trust. They are making a claim that they did the work themselves, and that’s a lie.

By putting books out under their own names, without crediting co-authors, researchers, editors or ghostwriters, celebrities are building their brands on the illusion that they have competencies, talents, and skills they don’t. But I suppose their egos get in the way. Maybe they actually think they wrote the books. Maybe they don’t even know they are lying.

Is ghostwriting ethical?

Ghostwriting is when you write for someone else, using their voice, and under their name. It’s something a lot of writers do, for the money. There’s no other reason anyone would want to do it, that’s for sure. Sometimes ghostwriters are given credit for their work; most often they are not.

There are lots of reasons a writer might ghost for another person. Some professionals don’t have enough time to do their own writing and need to hire help. Or perhaps they don’t feel confident as a writer, though they may be skilled at their occupation. So they outsource and hire professional experts–ghostwriters–to provide support. Entrepreneurs do it, bankers, mechanics and insurance brokers do it, in their newsletters and annual reports. And, artists, musicians, celebrities and television stars do it too–though I suspect their fans may not realize it.

Am I a hypocrite?

Full disclosure here: I’ve worked as a ghostwriter for a long time, on several jobs, and for several business people and personalities. At the time I didn’t have a problem with it. I wrote newspaper columns, magazine articles, books, letters, online posts–whatever was called for. If I thought about it–which I didn’t at the time, I saw it as part of the job. I got paid. It was no different from writing a company sales letter or an annual report. File it under “Communications Writing” or “Business Writing”. No harm, no foul.

But now I feel differently. I feel like it’s cheating. I feel like people do get hurt, that they are tricked somehow. When you are ghostwriting for a celebrity, whether in print or in social media, you are setting them up as an expert in an area they may actually know little about. You are giving them credibility they haven’t earned and don’t deserve. You may even be presenting them as a nicer person than they are in real life–just like the character of Sandy Lewis in Design My Life. It’s unethical and dishonest.

There is a lot of pressure on businesses and brands to connect in an ongoing way with their markets, and their clients. But in the case of celebrities, the way their fans relate to them is sincere and personal. Maybe they are naive, but fans feel there is a genuine relationship between them and the person they admire. There is trust. And that means there needs to be more honesty and integrity in how celebrities and their teams respond to, and interact with, fans.