Culture

Ghostwriters in the machine

"Ghostwriters in the machine" Continued...

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

Literary purists, especially academics, object to this group approach. They shudder at the thought of a C.S. Lewis leaning so heavily on the work of others instead of struggling paragraph by paragraph with concepts, insights, and words that rise from the soul or painful experience.

But let's face it: Some ministry leaders have gained a national following, and their audience wants to hear from them. Books are a way to reach out. But the leaders may be short on time or ability; they need assistance. And people like John Perry of Nashville are there to help. Mr. Perry, 52, a ghostwriter and author himself, says he enjoys "helping others to achieve their potential." He also says if he does "the research, the legwork, and the bulk of labor on a book, my name ought to be on the cover." He asserts: "This is right for the writer and right for the reader."

In sum, the consensus seems to be that it's OK for a ministry leader to receive help with a book, but it must be accurately disclosed. Creation House publisher David Welday, however, told Christian Retailing magazine that from a publisher's perspective, a solo byline is not as much a question of integrity as it is of practicality. "Attribution adds no value to a book," he said, and in fact takes up space on the cover that could be better used for marketing.

Editorial executive Lyn Cryderman at Zondervan disagreed. He said it's important to acknowledge all collaborative efforts so as not to mislead readers. "Credit is fair to a writer's career, and it's more truthful to the reader." He earlier told WORLD his company's policy is to require celebrity authors to have "significant involvement" in their manuscripts, and to give appropriate credit to collaborators-including a joint byline on the book jacket if the collaborator did much of the work.

Counterpoint: Writer Jim Black, who has ghosted for a number of prominent Christian leaders, sometimes anonymously, wrote a reply to WORLD's first article on ghostwriting. Such writing, he said, "is not a question of integrity but of time and expertise. I know of no public figure, Christian and otherwise, who can spend the time needed to write a 300-page book. To do so would be a disservice to their many other duties and obligations."

Several of the ECPA publishing houses have achieved major national-bestseller success with a few authors and titles. The CEOs like the numbers. Well, only partly. Agents are now part of the scene, and publishers are coughing up a lot more money to acquire and retain name authors. At the other end, the wholesalers and big outlets press for-and receive-larger discounts. Publishers also are under pressure from other sides. Sales of many titles for the Christian market are sluggish. (Books account for only 25 percent of sales at the typical Christian bookstore, in contrast to, say, the pattern at Borders and Barnes and Noble, where the "Left Behind" series and The Prayer of Jabez moved briskly.) Publishing large lines of titles by lesser-known authors serves a wide spectrum of readers but eats up resources.

As writer John Perry pointed out, publishing houses are businesses that need to turn a profit in order to remain in the business of ministering to readers.

In response, a disturbing trend may be developing. Nashville-based Thomas Nelson, a public company beholden to Wall Street, recently laid off employees and unabashedly announced it will publish fewer titles a year (about 50), but go with more books-and ancillary spin-offs-from its most sales-successful "brand" authors.

A greater number of books from celebrity authors? Most of these people are ministry leaders who have schedules already overloaded with other priorities. So, it likely means the Christian marketplace will see more completely ghost-written books, most without acknowledgment of the actual writers. If it works, it should mean more money for the ghosts, the prominent names, and the publishers.

But what will it mean for readers?

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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