What’s the Origin of the Term “Ghostwriter” and how is the Practice of Ghostwriting Regarded Today?

28 Dec 2021


While ghostwriting is not the occupation that the phrase “the world’s oldest profession” refers to, it’s definitely old, and by at least some accounts it’s not all that dissimilar.

Simply put, ghostwriters write—while all of the credit (and, when applicable, the lion’s share of the profit) goes elsewhere.

Ghostwriting has probably existed for roughly as long as writing itself.

The nameless, ancient scribes who documented—and potentially edited or even embellished—the oral traditions of their forbears can be considered history’s first ghostwriters.

Anonymously published works from antiquity like the Old English epic poem “Beowulf”or portions of the Holy Bible are classified by some as the output of commissioned ghostwriters.

Historians conclude that the actual individuals credited with authorship of certain biblical passages were most likely illiterate in life, considering when and where they lived and to which class of society they belonged. 

The actual writers who finally put their words to paper did the work in some cases hundreds of years after the events described within their texts and were never acknowledged.

Homer, the epic poet of ancient Greece and the author credited on the literary staples “The Iliad”and “The Odyssey,” may have never existed at all. 

There is no solid consensus regarding his biography.

The famously blind, wandering bard may just be an amalgamation of similar characters condensed into one and given a first name.

The same can be said for his works.

Homeric scholars have not come to any agreement on when his epics were written. The best estimates differ by hundreds of years.

Who wrote them is another matter up for debate.

Whether or not they are the work of a single author or a construct of many different authors is a question that may forever remain unanswered.

Even one of the most famous writers of all time is plagued by his own hearty helping of ghostwriter controversy.

While some argue that William Shakespeare never existed either, when compared to the evidence for Homer, the legendary English playwright left behind a wealth of proof that testifies, at the very least, to his having once walked the earth.

There are birth, marriage, and death records associated with Shakespeare. He engaged in documented financial and real estate transactions. Six known examples of his signature have been discovered to date and you can even visit his grave, complete with its own curse, the next time you find yourself in Stratford upon Avon.

Though the evidence for Shakespeare’s existence is pretty solid, whether or not he truly authored the 39 plays, 157 sonnets, and 350 poems attributed to him is still hotly debated.

While it is an astonishing body of work for a life that supposedly lasted only 52 years—inconceivable geniuses exist—but so do pseudonyms, publishing syndicates, and ghostwriters.

Between 1927 and 2005, Franklin W. Dixon wrote 190 Hardy Boys mystery stories. 

Between 1930 and 2003, Carolyn Keene penned 175 Nancy Drew mystery stories.  

The two authors even collaborated with each other on a number of mashup novels that brought their teen detective characters together—except they really didn’t—because they never actually existed. 

Dixon and Keene are merely the pseudonyms used by the publishers of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The books were actually written by dozens of different ghostwriters whose true identities remained confidential for decades.

Many other notable instances of ghostwriting exist throughout history and into the present day. Some were closely guarded secrets, others more transparent:

  • Auguste Maquet was never given co-author credit for Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “The Three Musketeers,” or “La Reine Margot,” but those titles were eventually etched into his tombstone.
  • H.P. Lovecraft, an icon of horror in his own right, was the ghostwriter for Harry Houdini on “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.”
  • R.L. Stine, creator of the Goosebumps series of children’s horror books, has never given credit to any ghostwriters, but it has long been assumed that he employs them, given his hundreds of titles that are sometimes published at a rate of two a month.
  • Ann M. Martin, who established The Baby-Sitters Club book series, wrote the first 35 novels herself before handing over the franchise to a ghostwriter, namely Peter Lerangis.
  • Robert Ludlum, the author who brought the character Jason Bourne into the world, passed away in 2001, but several books bearing only his name were written and published posthumously. His legacy lives on to this day under the Robert Ludlum brand, but full credit is now given to the authors of the new Jason Bourne novels: Eric Van Lustbader and Brian Freeman.

The term “ghostwriter” was first coined in 1921 by Christy Walsh—the law school graduate turned reporter and cartoonist who is also often cited as the first sports agent.

In addition to managing the careers, finances, and PR of major league baseball players, Walsh also assembled a very successful team of ghostwriters, or his “ghosts” as he referred to them, who penned articles and books for them.

Hushed-up discretion wasn’t a tenet of the firm that he established, however.

Walsh always intended for his “ghosts” to get credit for the work they put in. 

Referring to the players his team wrote for, Walsh once famously stated, “Don’t insult the intelligence of the public by claiming these men write their own stuff.”

Just as it was back when the profession finally got a name that stuck, ghostwriters today are still acknowledged by the personalities that employ them.

However, this recognition is often slid into the details.

On the credits page of a book you suspect was ghostwritten, you may find a reference to a research assistant. “As told to” might preface this individual’s name. Sometimes they are even blatantly labeled as a co-writer.

However, most often, they are not given credit at all.

According to Jodi Lipper, a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, a majority of the non-fiction books that make it onto The New York Times bestseller list are ghostwritten.

In an interview with Refinery29, Lipper said, “My brand is not having a brand. My brand is being able to capture other authors’ voices.” And, as she explains, that is a big part of a ghostwriter’s skillset.

Most ghostwriters are not in it for fame or notoriety. Instead, their ultimate goal is helping the author tell their story.

There are, however, some ghostwriters who do fight for cover credit.

This murkier kind of arrangement—between a noteworthy name and a credited co-author—can create fertile ground for all breeds of unpleasantness.

Notable examples of such relationships coming undone publicly include the friction between Hillary Clinton and Barbara Feinman Todd and the fallout between Donald Trump and Tony Schwartz.

Such headline-grabbing instances of squabbles between ghostwriters and their clients only serve to highlight the importance of clearly defined contracts.

Most modern ghostwriters do adhere to a strict code of confidentiality and the establishment of legally binding non-disclosure agreements at the outset has proven to be the best course of action for both parties in the long run.

The overwhelming majority of modern ghostwriting partnerships are mutually beneficial and friction-free, thanks to such contracts, but unfortunately this wasn’t always the case.

Throughout history and around the globe, the relationship between ghostwriters and the names they wrote for was at times a test of one’s patience. So much so that the French equivalent for “ghostwriter” is akin to “slave” in English, but the actual term still used by some in France is a cousin to the slur for individuals of African descent and the subject of much controversy.

A French literature professor quoted in the linked article from NPR notes that, “The French are schizophrenic about that term. They call ghostwriters negres, but in any other context, they would consider the word negre racist.”

The (Somewhat) Dark Side of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting comes in many forms—some of which are seen in a negative light, and rightly so in some instances.

Medical ghostwriting is a practice implemented by pharmaceutical companies and other medical research corporations wherein the scripting of their product reports is hired out to unnamed ghostwriters while adequately credentialed professionals—otherwise uninvolved with the documented work—are generously compensated for the use of their names and titles on the final drafts.

Ghostwriting is considered a “pervasive presence” in the arena of medical publishing that has led to “catastrophic health effects,” as noted by PLoS Medicine.

There is a form of ghostwriting primarily based in China known as “contract cheating” that has also permeated the greater Chinese-speaking community around the world.

Contract cheating is a relatively affordable service through which hired ghostwriters complete term papers and assignments for students studying both in China and abroad. 

Some purveyors of contract cheating go so far as to offer full-on attendance of online classes and test-taking in exchange for larger fees.

While such businesses are illegal in China, they are framed and licensed as “tutoring services” and the contractors employed by them are listed as “tutors” or “legal staff.”

Contract cheaters primarily advertise on WeChat and similar apps where they promise passing scores and undetectable stealth at a reasonable rate. Unfortunately, much more often than not, they deliver.

It goes without saying that the ramifications of Chinese students around the world awarded with degrees that they didn’t fully earn are substantial and complex when it comes to fairness in higher education. Universities world-wide have been going to great lengths to combat and neutralize the threat of contract cheating on their campuses.

Ghostwriting has long maintained a home in the music industry as well, for centuries in fact.

Mozart’s final composition—a requiem that required posthumous completion because the maestro died while writing it—was actually a commissioned piece financed by Count Franz von Walsegg.

Count Franz von Walsegg, who was a wealthy patron of the talented composer, initially passed it off as a work of his own creation until Mozart’s widow later broke the confidentiality clause in their contract by holding a public performance of the requiem under her late husband’s name.

In the modern era, it’s a well-known albeit often overlooked fact that a large majority of hit pop songs have multiple writers. The average number of writers per song on the Top 100 is going up every year as well. In 2018, Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” required thirty of them to get the job done.

In the greater realm of Rap and Hip-Hop, however, the use of ghostwriters is looked down upon with scorn, and any accusations of the practice are met with swift denials, as it would invalidate the authenticity of the artist whose name is on the album cover. 

Regardless of this unwritten rule, the genre is apparently rife with ghosts.

Ghostwriting’s Bright Future

Ghostwriting isn’t all thankless servitude, shadowy controversy, or shame and embarrassment. 

There are sunnier sides to the profession as well. 

For many Indian ghostwriters, it’s a welcome service request that provides a healthy income.

A sizeable portion of India’s population is fluent in English, and for projects that don’t necessarily require a true native speaker, Indian ghostwriters can complete the work for a fraction of the cost.

The sporting press outside of the United States benefits from Indian ghostwriters as well, being that sports popular in the British Commonwealth like soccer and cricket are mutually appreciated and understood in India.

India also has its fair share of film and music megastars who need ghostwriters for their memoirs.

Fortunately, Indian ghostwriting has been so successful that it has evolved into an entire industry that is readily able to provide it.

Even the high priced, top tier world of American celebrity level ghostwriting is not devoid of satisfying careers and sunny dispositions.

Penelope Dening, the ghostwriter behind numerous celebrity autobiographies, describes the way she sees her role in the process of telling someone else’s story:

“The books that I help write belong to the person named on the cover. I never think of them as ‘my’ books, and it doesn’t bother me in the least that my name—if it is there at all—is merely a nod somewhere among the acknowledgments. Rather, I see my role as that of midwife, bringing into the world something that ‘exists’ already, but is simply waiting to be delivered.”

Ghostwriting has been around for as long as there have been writers and people in need of writing, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, it’s becoming even more ubiquitous.

Politicians, corporate leaders, entertainers—even other writers–all benefit from the skills and time-saving measures that ghostwriters offer. 

For the most part, the “ghosts” they hire are happy to oblige them in their time of need and remain as such, fading into the background like their namesake suggests when the work is done.

If you think your particular situation calls for the services of a ghostwriter reach out for a quote today!

Peter Albrecht 

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