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Ghostwriters in the machine

Culture | Ten years ago, WORLD senior writer Edward E. Plowman shook up Christian publishers with a cover article on ethics and ghostwriting in that industry. His conclusion: For ministry celebrities who cede most or all of their prose to ghosts who receive little or no acknowledgment, "book writing" is an exercise in deception. Here is a second short look by the same writer. He found a few changes for good, but some trends a cause for concern

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

The University of Virginia last fall expelled 45 students and revoked three graduate degrees following a 20-month investigation by its student-run Honor Committee. Their offense: Each had submitted a term paper bearing his or her sole byline to a physics professor. Each was testifying, in effect, "This is my work"-when in reality much or all of the content had been written by someone else. The only penalty for such subterfuge at this school: dismissal-and disgrace.

Although the level of punishment for dishonesty and deceit may differ, the standards of authentic authorship and full attribution of source material are the same for students and teachers alike throughout academia, including at Christian schools.

I've told my students at Regent University in half-jest to have patience: Once they're on their own and achieve fame in ministry, the rules change. "Publishers and agents will beat a path to your door, asking you to write books, offering even greater prominence and influence. If you don't have the time or writing skill or expertise in the proposed subject matter to author the books, no need to worry. They will recommend or provide a writer who will do all of the heavy lifting. Or, as luck would have it, they might already have a manuscript in house ready to go. But you will get all or most of the credit (and a lot of the income). The readers need never know. Isn't that great?"

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A little overstated for emphasis perhaps. But do the rules regarding honesty and integrity in publishing really change? Is it ever right to mislead or deceive readers?

Dishonesty is rampant in the secular publishing world, where even authors who died long ago are still cranking out books. But increasingly, those in professional vocations are coming under stricter discipline regarding matters of authorship. For example, courts don't want lawyers to be undisclosed ghosts supplying petitions and briefs to litigants supposedly representing themselves. The medical profession is reining in doctors and researchers who use the services of anonymous ghostwriters hired by pharmaceutical companies to write their medical research reports (that inevitably include a plug or two for one of the benefactor's products).

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association two years ago adopted a short set of standards for its members. It pledges publishers to "not knowingly engage in plagiarism or fabrication of people, events, and quotations." It also says "co-writers or collaboration should be clearly identified as such." The wording is a bit vague, and no enforcement provisions are attached, but it's a step toward ensuring disclosure and truthfulness for the book-buying public.

Multnomah Publishers editorial executive David Kopp, 53, who wrote Bruce Wilkinson's blockbuster, The Prayer of Jabez, wishes the ECPA had used the word "accurately" rather than "clearly." This would imply giving writers a level of credit that correctly reflects the amount of their involvement, he told WORLD. (Missing from the cover of the first 8 or 9 million copies of Jabez is Mr. Kopp's name; it now appears as a "with" byline in small print.)

Bethany House editorial director Carol Johnson agrees. She was on the ECPA committee that drafted the standards. At the time, she said in a telephone interview, "we wanted to keep the paper short and simple." But, she added: "With recent trends and problems in the industry, if we were writing them today, we'd probably expand the section on authorship and collaboration."

WORLD polled a group of editorial executives and collaborative writers. They said the failure to accurately identify collaboration can sometimes be attributed to an oversight or pressure from the marketing department. But in most cases, they all agreed, the push for a solo byline comes from the prominent-name, or celebrity, author. Critics allege such celebrities are driven in part by egotism, and in part psychologically by the public's proneness to hero worship.

Some publishers accept the solo-byline arrangement without a whimper. After all, successful celebrity authors these days are "brands"; adding the name of the person who did the actual writing might diminish "brand recognition" and confuse readers. Yet marketing surveys show a shared byline has no negative impact on sales, some executives told WORLD.

Then there are this reporter's informal surveys of prospective book buyers at assorted Christian bookstores. Yes, they would be put off, even shocked, to discover that a book by a favorite author was written in whole or large part by a secret someone else. And, no, seeing a joint byline on the book's cover would not deter them from buying.

Manuscript production of many titles these days is a matter of teamwork. A lot of people can be involved in the process of transforming an initial draft into publishable form: ghosts, collaborators, in-house or outside editors who themselves may rework the final words and concepts significantly.

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