How Common Is Ghostwriting?

31 Jul 2020


Soon after John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage was published in 1957, speculation began over who actually crafted the words behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.

For years, many believed the book was largely written by Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s close aide and speechwriter. But ever loyal to his president, Sorensen consistently denied any substantial involvement in writing the book.

It wasn’t until he released his own autobiography in 2008 that Sorensen even hinted at his involvement. And just before his death in 2010, he finally admitted he was Kennedy’s ghostwriter, and essentially the main writer of the book.

What is Ghostwriting?

The term ghostwriting refers to the practice of writing on someone else’s behalf, who then takes most or all of the credit for the work.

Ghostwriters can be hired to write a variety of different kinds of content, including books, speeches, or even social media posts. The ghostwriter doesn’t make any claims of authorship but instead remains behind the scenes.

The ghostwriting process can involve extensive research and collaboration, depending on the type of content.

For an autobiography, for example, it is extremely important for the ghostwriter to match the voice of the author. This can require hours of interviews with the author and his or her family and associates.

A family history would involve gathering personal papers, photos, and interviews with other family members.  

Other projects can be carried out more like research or writing assignments. In the case of Profiles in Courage, Sorensen took Kennedy’s ideas and carried out the necessary research to bring Kennedy’s vision into form.

What Materials Are Written by Ghostwriters?


While many types of content can be written by a ghostwriter, most people associate the term with writing books. These can include a range of genres, such as:

  • Autobiographies
  • Memoirs
  • Business Books
  • Fiction

Examples of Famous Books Written by Ghostwriters:

The practice of using a ghostwriter is believed to date back hundreds of years. Ghostwriter Jennie Erdal wrote in her 2009 memoir, “it might almost qualify as the oldest profession if prostitution had not laid prior claim.”

Examples of famous books not widely known to have been written with the help of a ghostwriter are widespread. Here are a few that stand out:

The Count of Monte Cristo

Written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, who is also the author of The Three Musketeers, both books were created in collaboration with Auguste Maquet. While the degree of credit due to him is somewhat disputed, it is known that Maquet was responsible for the detailed research needed and provided Dumas with an outline for the stories.

Jason Bourne Series

Robert Ludlum was the author of several popular thrillers, including the massively successful Jason Bourne series, which initially included three books, published from 1980 to 1990. Eleven more novels in the series were released from 2004 to 2017—after Mr. Ludlum’s death in 2001.

Ghostwriting for novelists after their death is actually a common practice. Other examples include books written for Michael Crichton (who wrote Jurassic Park) and Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame).

President Ulysses S. Grant

On the verge of bankruptcy after finishing his second term as president, Grant was persuaded by his friend, Mark Twain, to publish his memoirs as a means of regaining financial solvency. The plan worked brilliantly, and Grant’s book became a runaway bestseller. Speculation about who actually wrote the book remains to this day. Many believe Twain acted as Grant’s ghostwriter due to the strong prose of the book.

Speeches and articles

For some types of content, using a ghostwriter is almost expected.

It is commonly understood that many politicians and heads of companies or organizations have someone on their staff help write their speeches.

U.S. presidents often have a staff of speechwriters, and they can play an important role during times of national emergencies. John McConnell helped write President George W. Bush’s speech after the 9/11 attacks, and Liz Carpenter wrote the 58-word text that President Lyndon B. Johnson read after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  

Expecting input from a ghostwriter is common for other kinds of informational content, as well.

Thought pieces or blog posts attributed to those in leadership positions are often written on their behalf by a ghostwriter.

Social Media

Actors, musicians, entertainers, politicians, business leaders—many public figures are obligated to stay current on social media. With follower lists reaching into the hundreds of millions, being active on social media is important to their careers.

For the average person, keeping up with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram alone can be overwhelming. For celebrities and leaders with demanding jobs, help from a ghostwriter almost always is necessary if they are to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

It can be a critically important job.

Dan Scavino serves as President Donald Trump’s Social Media manager and is known to compose many of Trump’s posts on Twitter with the president’s input.

Actress Kerry Washington relies on her longtime friend (since seventh grade), Allison Peters to maintain her accounts. She reads all Facebook and Instagram comments and helps compose posts for her friend. 

Academic Writing

This category of ghostwriting is probably the most controversial.

If a student pays someone to write their paper for them, that is outright cheating. The student is being evaluated for the work they are personally able to produce. To bring in another person to write the content for them is deceptive and unethical.

Getting help with editing and proofreading, on the other hand, is not unethical as long as the content remains the work of the author.

In the case of an academic professional, such as a professor or administrator, hiring someone to help with research and writing is a common and accepted practice.

But if a ghostwriter contributes a substantial written portion of a scholarly piece, their role should be acknowledged to avoid any hint of deception.

The Rise of Ghostwriting

The term “ghostwriter” itself implies there is a certain level of secrecy involved in the practice. This makes it challenging to determine the actual number of books and other material written with the help of a ghostwriter.

There has been an explosion during the past decade in personal memoirs, a category of books that makes heavy use of ghostwriters.

According to an article published in the academic journal, Social Forces, the sale of books in the personal memoir category increased by more than 600% in the U.S. (from 1.2 million to more than 8 million) from 2004 to 2016.

The article further stated that nearly half of the memoirs found on The New York Times list of non-fiction best sellers from 2014 to 2019 were written with the help of a ghostwriter. (In these cases, the ghostwriter was acknowledged for their contribution).

Fiction ghostwriting is growing as well. One of the most well-known examples could be the books of James Patterson, the enormously prolific author of over 150 novels. He makes no effort to hide the fact that he uses a stable of ghostwriters to maintain this breakneck pace of publishing. In fact, his helpers are more accurately described as co-authors and given credit for their role in his books.

The Role of Self-Publishing

With the rise of self-publishing, more books than ever are now able to be published overall. Among those taking advantage of this opportunity are many business owners who publish books in order to boost their authority in their field.

Martin Zwilling, the founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, believes one of the best ways for entrepreneurs to increase visibility, credibility, and trust is to write a book. “I can tell you from my own experience…that my first book, Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur, did more for my credibility and leads as an adviser than all the marketing and networking I had done previously,” he wrote in an article for

The Stigma of Hiring a Ghostwriter

Theodore Sorensen’s reluctance to claim any credit for his role in writing Profiles in Courage reflected the attitude toward ghostwriting at the time. Most saw it as something of a dirty little secret.

Madeleine Morel, a literary agent for ghostwriters, described how serious the stigma used to be for NPR in 2014. “So if you were a ghostwriter you’d maybe tell your best friend on pain of death never to tell anyone else ‘cause there was a slightly ignominious feature to it.’”

These attitudes have significantly changed over the years. In fact, these days, it is a common practice to give credit to the ghostwriter in the acknowledgments page of an author’s book.

One reason for this change may have grown out of the need to be transparent to an author’s audience, especially if they are a celebrity or other public figure.

Internet celebrity Zoe Sugg (popularly known as Zoella) published a novel, Girl Online, in 2014. The book was largely written by a ghostwriter—but Sugg passed it off as her own. When fans found out, she suffered a huge backlash. They called her greedy and were angry that they had been misled.

Why Hire a Ghostwriter?

To avoid any risk of criticism, the obvious solution is to simply write the book yourself. So why hire a ghostwriter in the first place?

Number one, writing a book is not easy. They can take years to write, and not everyone’s skill set includes a talent for words. Mark Sullivan, the owner-director of the ghostwriting firm, Manhattan Literary, explains. “It takes a lot of experience. Some very capable people want books written but don’t have the time or the expertise to do it.”

In addition, the online world has created an insatiable appetite for new content. It’s not just books and social media posts that need to be written. There are also blog posts and articles, website content, and video scripts—all combined, it is far more than one person could possibly handle without help.

Interested in Hiring a Ghostwriter?

With the acceptance of using a ghostwriter on the rise, it is easier than ever to find one to help you if you are interested in writing a book. You can find more information about ghostwriting here. If you are ready to start looking for a ghostwriter, you can find some tips here about how to hire a writer who best meets your needs.

Carol Kim 

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