Why I Said “No” to Ghostwriting

This all began and ended last summer. It starts with being contacted because someone recommended me as a good writer.  You can imagine the instant flattery. I will not pretend it is not wonderful to be complimented as a writer.

The very first conversation I had with the agent (of sorts) was about editing a book written by a Christian athlete. I was elated. I tried to play it a little cool just so I would not freak out the guy I was talking with. But this sounded like work I would enjoy and the money sounded good.

But after a few weeks of emails and paperwork, things changed. What started out as being described as an editing job was starting to look more and more like me doing a lot of writing and while someone else would be credited as the author.

I was familiar with the practice of ghostwriting. And I had heard about the scandal of it in the Christian publishing industry. I wasn’t appalled. I’m too cynical for that. But I was surprised at how widespread it had become – to the point of me being asked to do it.

The very idea of being involved put my stomach in knots.

Who was I being asked to Ghostwrite for? Let’s just say a celebrity in some circles. I had never heard of him so it’s possible you would not know him, but many might. And he’s a nice guy. We talked on the phone and exchanged some emails. He means well.

He just did not want anyone else’s name on the cover. He actually said this.

He said this even though he had not yet even thought about the book besides an overarching theme. No paradigm. No outline. No chapter ideas. Nothing. I would have been expected to be the principal writer, from beginning to end, for a book not yet thought through.

The money would have been good. While we are not poor, we were doing good if we lived paycheck to paycheck. We still tread water to keep our financial head above the waterline. We never float. Saying “no” to this kind of job was not easy if only because we need – not just want – the money. Plus, I love getting paid to write. It’s spendable flattery. And the lights stay on.

But I was not going to ghostwrite. So, as hard as it was, I said “no”.  And here is why:

1) We live in a celebrity-driven culture. Inside and outside the church this is the case. Most would rather listen to a celebrity preacher and worship leader than their own pastor and music guy…you know, the ones who pray for them weekly. And we long to leverage that celebrity like some kind of unholy alliance with a pagan fulcrum. We push and pull and hope people will listen because of the voice. It’s a baptized version of the cult of personality. If this were not the case, Ghostwriting would not exist. Unless you are trying to capitalize upon the celebrity status of a person who does have the wherewithal to pen a volume, the need would not be there.

2) There is a reason they call them “ghostwriters.” They are present in the work. Just not seen. Not outright acknowledged. If they were acknowledged on the cover by a “With…” then the writer appears. They are present and seen as collaborators. They now have flesh and blood, skin and bone. They get royalties. Why would anyone not want the principal writer seen? It can only be pride or money. Pride wants all the credit. More money can be made if the work is seen as solely that of the celebrity.

3) Writing is hard and not everyone can do it well. This is nothing to brag about. Bragging about being able to write well is…well, like bragging because you can do plumbing. Pipes and fixtures are hieroglyphic mysteries to me. I can write but I can’t fix a darn thing. So boasting is excluded. But it is not easy to write and to write a book is even more difficult. I know because I have done so. Piecing together all those words and sentences into form and function is craft. Ghostwriting at once acknowledges this and then denies it. It acknowledges it in up-front payment and then denies it in production. “We think you have the talent to do this. But you will not be acknowledged as the author. The craft of writing a book is beyond our celebrity figure but he will get the credit for the book.”

4) It is flat dishonest. If you did not write the book, you are not the author. Or you are not the principal author. This is not hard. We teach our children not to take credit for work that is not theirs. Is this not the same? Except money is involved.

5) I simply would not be able to live with myself. This would mean I could be bought at a price. Whatever they would pay me would be my thirty pieces of silver I would not enjoy having in the least bit. My insides would be a mess till hung up, I’d have to spill my guts eventually in sorrow. I’d rather this writing be a hobby and do honest hard work than take this gift and use it  in a way in which respect for my work and my character are at odds.

6) How many books by gifted writers are squeezed out by such schemes? Stop and wonder with me for a moment. How many really great sentences have we have missed out on? How many wordsmiths languish in the shadows while celebrity non-writers have book signings? It staggers the imagination. More than that, it wars with conscience. Just because you are a good athlete or an eloquent preacher does not mean you should “write” a book. Of course if you can write and be a good athlete and be an eloquent preacher, by all means.

7) Of course, celebrities have a habit of being. But what if – think about this with me – what if we cultivated a christian publishing culture in which the writer became a celebrity for a time, because she could write? Instead of the culture we have now, where you write because you are a celebrity? Or someone writes for you, as the case before us demands. Imagine the unique experience of every time you picked up a Christian book, you knew the author was listed on the front of the book.

8) Can you imagine the hand of the body saying to the eye of the body, “I have need of your particular skills but let’s not be up front about the whole thing”? Just as Paul’s concern for the church was total, ours should be too. For this is an issue of how the church sees itself. Do the stars shine brighter? Do we orbit around the spheres of influence just hoping and praying they will dance with us? Is this the world in which we live and move and breath? Or do we inhabit a Kingdom with a King around which we gladly fall? You’d think we just find substitutes till the last day. And if the Christian celebrity and the Christian publishing house cannot muster the moral inertia to cast into print the actual author of a book, then is the ground level at the cross? Maybe it’s tiered.

9) It is possible my name could have ended up in the acknowledgements. A very good chance, I might add. So good I could guarantee it. But what would it have said? “This book could not have been written without you.” Well, yeah. But that could be said about the wife. Or a friend or an agent. Or God even. “Matt Redmond wrote the bulk of this book”? Not on your life

10) We need to push books that are well-written, not names or faces. Good, well-written books are so rare in Christian publishing. You can find them if you look hard enough. But the pragmatic desire to sermonize and monetize everything pushes out the craft. “If the message is good, the crafting of it does not matter” is the route du jour – ghostwritten or not. Or if the money is good, then we assume it is a good book – ghostwritten or not. But these things should not be so. We, Christians, of all people should care about good books and not just celebrities. The very God Whom we worship chose to use a book…a well-written one, by the way.

10 thoughts on “Why I Said “No” to Ghostwriting

  1. John July 4, 2012 / 12:13 am

    I get it…but you can write, and dang well too. Maybe it’s a gift you don’t appreciate but I do. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Ed Eubanks July 6, 2012 / 10:43 pm

    I appreciate your thoughts here, and the integrity you desire about your writing (and the integrity of those for/with whom you write). I agree that you are a strong enough writer to do more than only ghostwriting.

    At the same time, there’s nothing to disdain about a “work for hire” arrangement— many writers make a good living doing this, and they may never get their name in print for it. “Work for hire” usually means that you write with an understanding that the writing you do, and the work involved with it (usually including research), belongs to the person paying you. You get paid up-front, and yes, you forfeit the benefits of residual royalties and the “glory” of credit; you also forfeit the risk that you won’t make anything, or very much, from the writing done.

    It’s one thing to say, “I don’t think someone should pretend they wrote a book when they didn’t” — which I agree with. It’s another to say, though, “no one should write something they won’t get their name attached to” which may be going too far in terms of universal statements.

    These concerns are not the main thing you address, it’s true; but for some, at least, they may lie beneath the surface.

  3. Notta Ghostwriter September 24, 2013 / 9:14 pm

    I applaud you for what I know was a tough decision. I believe you did the right thing. I know personally the ghostwriter for Matt Chandler and he’s a nice guy but…what kind of respect am I now supposed to have for Matt Chandler? He didn’t write his books yet he is listed as author…that is a LIE whether you say “with _____” or not. Maybe Matt approved of the book. Maybe he skimmed it. Who knows? I know that Tony Evans got in big trouble this way because his ghostwriter put a universalist position in the back notes of “Evans'” book and Evans (nor Moody publishers) noticed it until it was already published. Big mistake. Drew accusations that Evans was a universalist (who could blame them?), yet you can’t protest strongly without revealing that the reason you don’t approve of what “you” wrote is that “you” didn’t really write it! Ha, see what a mess we get into when we deceive? Good thing you stayed away. P.S. I’m not trying to slam anyone mentioned here–I respect all of them. They are great Bible teachers. I just don’t see how they can engage in this activity with a clear conscience.

    • Ian Elsasser December 10, 2013 / 9:41 pm

      Notta, agreed. Not only respect, but it raises the question of how substantial the person is and their giftedness since the work produced is from someone else. The person may be an amazing orator but how much do they know and how much are they a ‘gifted teacher’ and ‘go to’ for counsel since we do not know what is from them and what is not.

  4. Ian Elsasser December 10, 2013 / 8:31 pm

    Matt, your convictions on the matter and acting upon those convictions is commendable. Celebrities who need to be propped up perhaps ought not to be propped up if they do not have substance. The issue of certain high profile pastors paying third party groups to do the research for messages and books raising for me how substantial the pastor is. If they are projecting themselves as a teacher, does others doing the research bring into question how truly gifted the person is or whether the message given comes from them. It raises the question of how much they possess to benefit believers since they are not doing their own work.

  5. Adam Shields December 10, 2013 / 9:31 pm

    I do think there is something different between research assistance and acknowledged “with” writing and pure unacknowledged ghostwriting. There is some place for research and assistance, if properly acknowledged. There are important stories to be told by people that can’t write well enough on their own. But I think you are absolutely right. That unacknowledgwd ghostwriting is something that needs to be eliminated from the evangelical world.

  6. Will Adair December 10, 2013 / 9:33 pm

    Well said Matt. Besides we’d miss you if you became a ghost.

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  8. a July 6, 2014 / 4:23 am

    Touche. Outstanding arguments. Keep up the great work.

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