The ethics of ghostwriting and why there's no such thing as a "vanity project"
In a second post, ghostwriter and London historian Hannah Renier talks about the ethics of ghostwriting, the Society of Authors, and why there’s nothing wrong with so-called vanity projects.
What sort of ethical issues do you encounter as a ghostwriter?
People tell you all sorts of things they might regret and then say “I’d rather that were off the record." They have to be able to trust you— you're telling their story as if they wrote it. That should be in their contract with you.
What is the Society of Authors and why did you become a member?
I became a member of the Society of Authors about 28 years ago. It was at the stage when I was making my living by writing scripts and I joined as part of the Broadcasting Group.You had to have been published or to have had your work performed in order to become a member. These days you can join as an associate member if you've self-published, and become a full member when you've sold a certain number of books.
What kind of protection does the SOA offer?
Publishing contracts can be complicated. The SOA won't act as your agent but they will advise you on your interests. If you have an agent then he or she will probably pick over your contracts but a lot of people are not agented and rely on the Society for advice. They have local groups up and down the country. They produce booklets on contracts and copyright and so on, and they run short courses on things like promoting your work on YouTube or giving talks at festivals or in schools.
How important is SOA membership as a mark of quality for clients? It should be reassuring to clients but a lot of them don’t necessarily know what it means. Some don’t even expect to get a contract. They sit down with you, ask you to write their book, and would happily pay cash. This goes back to the ethics of the thing - I don't just want to get paid; I want to do a good job for them. They have to sign a mutually agreed contract with me before I record a word or write a line.
What sort of things do you find clients struggle with in terms of getting their heads around the publishing process?
Often clients don’t think about copyright. People will come to you saying: “I want to make a book out of the letters that have been written by my husband to his lover.” You have to say: “Look, I’m sorry but your husband actually owns the copyright of those letters." They’re often surprised. You have to know the basics about these things or you can get into trouble.
When you have initial conversations how candid are you about a project requiring self publishing?
I tell people when I think they're going to have to self-publish. And they can do it very cheaply or they can do it more expensively. I don’t know which the best self publisher is, but again – they must read their contract or have it read by somebody who understands these things. If they don't, they could be signing away all sorts of rights. Ultimately, anybody who’s worried about money isn’t likely to get a ghostwriter anyway.
What do you do when it’s clearly an interesting project but not going to make them money?
I tell them what a gamble writing a book can be. Unless they’ve got an audience lined up, or if somebody has already sold the information they’re about to give you in some form and it’s sold very well, it doesn't matter how good the book is – first time authors always struggle to find a publisher. I think you have to tell people that their book about self-help and positive thinking has actually been done before, so if they want a regular publisher they're going to have to find a new angle. If that doesn't work, there is self-publishing.
What do you say to potential authors who say they want to write a book but are fearful of it being a “vanity project”?
I don’t call it vain - writing a book is the only chance of getting any kind of immortality for a lot of us. People want to explain themselves to others. I don’t think that’s vanity. Sometimes they need to explain themselves to themselves, as well. Someone said to me that they had reread their book years later and said that it made them really rethink the position they had taken then. They had been in denial about something they had done and with hindsight they understood that.