Ghostwriting and the vanity press

This is a fairly hysterical link on the Passive Voice about a company that is offering self-publishing services for...drumroll please...$100,000! Wow! That totally beats the previous record!

But they do include ghostwriting. Yes. Whereas I'll take a little extra time and fiddle with Word so as not to spend $800 on a layout program, you can go a different direction and spend six figures so that you don't have to write at all. Now, that's convenience!

Of course, you might be wondering, If I don't want to write a book, why would I bother with any of this? And this brings me to the wonderful world of ghostwriting.

I ghosted. A lot. I think that's what they have you do in publishing when you really are a writer, but you're working as an editor to get health insurance.

There's a lot of reasons to have people ghost. For one thing, it can be a slippery slope from a line edit to full-on ghosting--line edits can just be tweaking, but they can easily become a complete rewriting. Deadlines are also a factor: If you turn in something to me that supposed to be coming out in three months, and it's totally unacceptable, giving it back to you for a rewrite probably isn't going to work, and finding somebody else is going to take too much time. I'm fast, I'm accurate, and I know what the publishing house wants, so I ghost it.

Another reason is that Person A may be a big name (like Notable Academic was), while Person B may be a nobody (like meeeee!) with the time and expertise to complete the project. Person A is getting paid basically to license their name.

This is really common in publishing, and not just with non-writing celebrities (who usually at least credit their ghostwriter). People get up in arms because James Patterson doesn't really write his own stuff. Well, guess what? There are plenty of writers who appear to crank out book after book after book in the exact same genre who don't really write their own stuff. Carolyn Keene, the writer of the Nancy Drew books, was not even a person. An authorial name is a brand name: Stephen King = horror. It's up to Stephen King if he wants the trouble of writing his own books. To the best of my knowledge, he does, but if he changed his mind, his publisher would be more than ready to accommodate him.

(This blows the minds of journalists, by the way. Putting your name on someone else's work can get you fired in that field. It's a different culture--to them, it's lying, and lying is a huge taboo.)

So, that's the normal ghostwriting that happens within the industry. Now, you also have another, less-respectable kind of ghostwriting, which you might call Narcissistic Personality Disorder ghostwriting. This is where you ghost a book for some NPD-addled idiot with too much money who wants to be able to tell his friends he wrote a book. I never did it, because I was never that desperate, but my thinking is that it's got to be somewhat similar to a guy who pays $1,000 for a call girl--he doesn't think, "Gee, I have to pay for sex, how pathetic," he thinks, "I have so much money that I can get whatever I want. I'm awesome!" (But ego comes into play even with regular ghosting: At one place I worked, the writer had the right to take their name off the project if they didn't like the "editing." They never did. Never.)

NPD is of course why self-publishing was called the vanity press. Even in the old days, self-publishing did have legitimate purposes--your high-school yearbook is an example of perfectly worthwhile self-publishing. In addition to that kind of custom book printing, there were some self-published writers who were good enough and dedicated enough to sell lots of books and break into traditional publishing.

Buuuut...there were also a lot of scams, which were geared toward the NPD crowd. You had a book you thought was genius! The problem is, no one agreed with you--you'd take it to a critique group, and not a soul there would understand your genius! Well, they were idiots--you'd send it out to agents and publishers, and not a soul would understand your genius!

Clearly, your genius was way too rarified for these cretins to understand! At least, that's what you were told by No, We're Not Sleazy Self-Publishing Services, and you agreed! "You are used to working with the very best"! And you deserve it!

So, you fork over a gazillion dollars and wind up with a garage full of books. And you're perfectly happy with that! Given your NPD, you weren't actually expecting to sell your books to all those cretins out there who don't understand your genius.

It's a great racket, you know. People with NPD don't care about results. They can't acknowledge mistakes, which means they're never going to be critical of either a flattering pitch or the outcome.

Someone without NPD might lower their sights. They might notice that they themselves are not a big name. They might wonder how in God's name they, without any track record or celebrity, could possibly make enough money to turn a profit on $100,000 of expenses. They might wonder why a writer who is an "extraordinary talent" and can apparently crank out a best-seller at will wouldn't just self-publish under their own name and start raking in $100,000 a month.

But no, don't think about that. It's not a racket! It's the best! And you deserve it!