Thursday, October 28, 2021

Dear O'Abby: How does ghostwriting work?

 Dear O'Abby,

I'm curious about ghostwriting.  I know books like the Nancy Drew series and other long-running series are often ghostwritten once they've become popular, and that ghostwriters often finish books for popular authors who die, or even keep writing new books under their name.  But who makes the decision to ghostwrite these books?  The publisher?  The author?  

Hoping you can let me know...  I recently discovered that Ann M. Martin only wrote the first 30 or so Babysitters Club books and the rest were written by a guy!  It's like my whole childhood is something I didn't think it was.

All the best,


Dear Babmboozled,

This is a good question. I remember being just as perplexed when Virginia Andrews kept pumping out new books for years and years after her death.  Surely no writer leaves behind that many unfinished manuscripts!

There are actually several scenarios in which ghostwriters may be used.  In The Babysitters Club example you gave above, the initiator of the series, Ann M. Martin, wrote 35 books in the series.  I don't know why she decided not to write any more of them - perhaps she got bored of the characters or had other ideas she wanted to pursue.  But whatever the reason, the series was so popular the publisher didn't want it to end, so they hired ghostwriters to continue writing the series, most notably the guy you mentioned, Peter Lerangis.

What you may not know, is Ann M. Martin was a writer for hire herself when the series began.  The original idea came from an editor at a publishing company who had seen the runaway success of another novel about babysitting and decided there was a market for this kind of book.  This is the same model that was used for the Nancy Drew books - Caroline Keene whose name is on the cover of all these books is not a real person.  These books were ghostwritten from the start with a number of writers behind the Keene name.

Ghostwriters may be hired by an author or by a publisher depending on the circumstance.  An author may discover writing a book isn't as easy as they thought it would be or realise early on that they can't actually write and ask a ghostwriter to take over.  Sometimes the ghostwriter will get a credit on the cover as 'author writing with ghostwriter', but often the ghostwriter remains invisible.  A publisher may hire a ghostwriter to complete a series from a popular author who dies midway through the next book.  Should that book sell well, the ghostwriter may be kept on to churn out more of these books.  In this scenario, the ghostwriter's name will rarely be on the cover or anywhere near the book.

Book packagers hire ghostwriters to do the hard work of writing a book.  They come up with a commercial premise, an outline of the book to be written, and audition authors to write the book.  If it's a one-off title and not part of a series, it's more likely that an author might get their name on the cover of one of these books, but the story will not be their own.  I've actually auditioned for book packagers a couple of times, and it's a very odd experience to try and write someone else's story without losing your own writing voice.

The upside of ghostwriting is that generally you get paid pretty well for doing the work.  The downside is that you rarely get to keep the copyright and therefore it's a one-off payment without any share in the book's royalties.  Which is a bummer if you write a bestseller.  Of course there are always exceptions to this, but generally ghostwriting is a contracted piece of work you forfeit any rights to once you hand it over to the person who commissioned it.

I hope that answers your question.  It actually raises one for me around who decides if an author's name can continue to be used after that author dies.  Perhaps that's something to consider when writing a will - even if you aren't on the best-seller list yet.

X O'Abby


  1. Goodness, this was such an interesting post! I was such a Nancy Drew fan when I was younger, and I remember being so surprised to learn later that there was no such writer as Caroline Keene. It as such a great author name, wasn't it!

  2. That should have been "it WAS such a great author name . . .."


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