Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Legalities Of Ghostwriting

In a recent post in the Bookseller Blog, Freya North discussed the likelihood that good books by unknown writers are being rejected in favour of books by celebrities, which are more often than not ghostwritten. It's an important point which warrants further discussion but a second point was made in the comment stream to that blog post, which is the one that I want to address here: that of the legalities of ghostwriting.

Discussing the news that Cheryl Cole has now been signed to write a series of chick-lit titles, a commenter by the name of Charles Hale (who states that he's a QC, no less), wrote,

I am a lawyer, and with regard to the Cheryl Cole book situation, there is no question that if properly legally challenged, publishers would find themselves in trouble for their implication that Cheryl Cole wrote the books. It is, to be blunt, against the law to pass off a product sold as being anything other than that which it is.
Do you think that publishers which bring out ghostwritten memoirs and celebrity books are misrepresenting their products? Does anyone actually believe that the celebrities concerned really wrote their books? How complicit are we, as readers, in this apparent deceit? And does anyone think that publishers will ever be challenged on this front?

23 comments:

Sally Zigmond said...

I am sure that many people will believe that Cheryl has written them.

Just look how many people send birthday cards to characters in the soaps. Or hurl abuse at any actor who plays a nasty character in a TV drama.

The producers says it's because people take these shows to their heart. I say it's because some people are not ever so bright.

I don't like it. But whether it matters in the long run to any one else but writers is debatable.

acpaul said...

I think it is a form of fraud unless it specifically states something like, 'based on Celebrity X, written by real author'.

Most of the public assumes that the name on the front cover is the author, and when a celebrity is involved, that is what drives the purchase.

At least, with thing like cereal, we don't think that celebrity personally made the corn flakes, we know that the company paid the celebrity to endorse their product.

Rod H said...

I think the QC may be correct in point of law, that the goods for sale are falsely described on the packaging.

There will be people who know this and don't care, people who know it and do care, and people who swallow it whole.

Publishers might claim that they subsidise other work through profits from 'celebrity' titles, but we have no way of knowing whether or not this is the case.

Brian Clegg said...

The vast majority of readers have no idea that these celebrity tomes are ghostwritten. It is passing off, and should be challenged.

green_knight said...

If someone's name is on the cover of a novel, I expect them to have at least significant input. I know how much input an editor can have to shape the text, but I'd expect the writer to have written. With biographies, I'd expect more input from other sides.

But the point is that some of those celebrities *do* write their own books, and it is not fair on *them* - as well as not fair on Joe Author - not to identify it.

The problem is that sales practices often force authors to use pseudonyms (there are other good reasons why someone doesn't want to use their given name) - and if I read a book by Joe Author, do I really care that it was written by Janet Scribbler, if I don't know either of them? Of course I don't. Only when the author name is a selling point (to bookstores as well as the public) and there's no way of working out whether that person actually worked on it does it become a problem IMHO.

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmmm.

I looked up Charles Hale in the legal hub directory, and he's not listed as a QC (Queen's Counsel).

http://tinyurl.com/caogmu

Which makes me wonder why the official listing would be so modest compared to that post.

liz fenwick said...

I have always accepted that memoirs or such were helped along - the writing was the point of the book but the story of the life lived was.

As for celebrities lending their name and not much else I have little time for them. It would certainly be more honest to say by C. Cole and Ghost Writer (even it that was in small font and the celb was in big bright bold). Thereby using the name to sell but giving some credit to where it it more likely do.

Mark R Beatty said...

I have very limited knowlege of the buisness end of publishing, so perhaps some of my thoughts might not reflect the actual reality of the contracts, etc. If so, somebody please straighten me out.

That said, it seems to me that if a writer is hired to ghost write a book for a celebrity, then it should be legal.

Do celebrities really formulate their own perfume, or design thier own clothing lines. Maybe some do, but I think it more likely they hire somebody to do that and market it via their name. Do we see the names of the speechwriters anywhere when the President addresses the nation?

I can see a legal issue if the material in the book wasn't accurate, but not over the name on the cover, as long as the contractual obligations are met. Though, personally, I think it would show more integrity to credit such books as authored by the celebrity with the actual author.

Personally, having struggled with writing my whole life, I don't think a celebrity is diminished at all by needing a pro to help them tell their story.

Anonymous said...

If you pick up a celebrity book, be it an autobiography or a novel, you'll find that the ghost writer is always clearly named inside the book, if not on the front cover.

I agree that if you have no knowledge of how things work, you may believe the celebrity put pen to paper themselves, but publishers make no secret of the fact that these personalities get a bit of help.

With regards to celebrity autobiographies, I would personally prefer to read a well written book with the voice of the subject, rather than a badly written book by the subject.

After all, ghostwriters are professional writers and do a brilliant job when they help getting the stories into bookform.

DanielB said...

I agree with Sally. Sadly, the majority of the "readers" of these "books" - or at least the people who buy them - are so flaming thick they won't realise or care that Cole didn't even write them. (Seriously, I find it hard to imagine the ditzy Cole reading without her lips moving, let alone actually knowing which end of a keyboard was which.)

Nik's Blog said...

I think a good number of people who aren't involved with the industry will believe the celebs write the books themselves; what reason would they have not to? Trouble is (to a point) I think people regard big publishers as being traditionally honest, in an honest, old fashioned British way - even a lot of writers do, until they realise they're companies whose purpose is to make money.

But if it would be that simple (and important) to prove they're breaking the law, why hasn't more been made of it? Is a more relevant question: does it matter?

NIk

Jane Smith said...

Good grief, you lot are getting quick: I turn my back on this blog for a couple of hours and there are already ten new comments. I shall respond to some of you and the rest of you can sit back smugly and know that I agree with all that you say.

acpaul: I like the idea of a celebrity making his own breakfast cereal, especially if he’d come round here and do the washing up afterwards. There’s a whole new marketing opportunity for the D-list right there.

Rod H: “Publishers might claim that they subsidise other work through profits from 'celebrity' titles, but we have no way of knowing whether or not this is the case.”

I wonder if the opposite is actually true: if the other work is subsidising the celebrity books. With some of the advances so terribly high there’s little chance of those books earning out, which means that they must be operating as a loss leader. I’d rather do without them, but then perhaps I’m not typical of the market.

green knight: “But the point is that some of those celebrities *do* write their own books, and it is not fair on *them* - as well as not fair on Joe Author - not to identify it.”

I’m with you on that one (as on the rest of your comment, but that was the bit that stood out for me).

Mark R Beatty: “it seems to me that if a writer is hired to ghost write a book for a celebrity, then it should be legal.”

It’s legal to hire someone else to write the books: what’s being questioned here is the legality of then passing that work off as the work of the celebrity, and not of the ghost.

“Do celebrities really formulate their own perfume, or design thier own clothing lines. Maybe some do, but I think it more likely they hire somebody to do that and market it via their name. Do we see the names of the speechwriters anywhere when the President addresses the nation?”

I wonder if perfumiers (sp?) are in uproar about celebrity fragrances, and if designers feel the same way about celebrity clothing lines? I have a friend who is a diplomat, who used to write speeches for Members of Parliament; she was always very pleased when her speeches received a notable reception and never, as far as I can remember, felt short-changed when she didn’t receive an acknowledgement of her work; it’s a very similar situation—but the one thing that isn’t the same is that people aren’t paying money to hear such a speech (they sometimes give their votes because of it, which is perhaps more serious, but I’m digressing here).

Anonymous (I wish you’d left your name…): “If you pick up a celebrity book, be it an autobiography or a novel, you'll find that the ghost writer is always clearly named inside the book, if not on the front cover.”

No, not always. I’ve ghost-written a few books and in most cases not only have I received no credit whatsoever, I’m contractually obliged to not claim them as my own work in any way.

“With regards to celebrity autobiographies, I would personally prefer to read a well written book with the voice of the subject, rather than a badly written book by the subject.”

Absolutely—but I would prefer it if it was made quite clear that the celebrity had help.

DanielB: you naughty, un-PC boy. Calling the lovely Mrs Cole ditzy. She has far too much trouble taking care of all her lovely hair to be able to spend time on dull things like reading or learning to type, for goodness’ sake. You’ll be expecting her to sing in tune next.

BuffySquirrel said...

Anyway, moving on from the question of whether that really is Charles Hale...I don't think the publishers will be challenged until it becomes in someone's interest to do so. If enough of these phoney memoirs turn up, maybe there'll be a general clean-up of publishing (or, more likely, a hideous over-reaction).

DanielB said...

When Wayne Rooney's "book" was published - obviously not by him because it said more than "my name iz wayne an i liv in livapool" - I was heard to comment that I was sure it would be at least at good as my attempts at playing football. Stick to what you're best at, I say...

Sally Zigmond said...

Hi Nik's Blog.

Whilst I agree with you that it's best to come clean rather than pretend that a celeb has written a book, I was a bit puzzled by this bit:

"a lot of writers do, until they realise they're companies whose purpose is to make money."

The main purposes of any company--be it a big conglomerate or Charlie's fish and chip shop--IS to make money (not dishonestly of course).

We'd all like to do things out just because we love the work and are dedicated to it but we all have to eat and put shoes on our children's feet.

Nik's Blog said...

Sally, I'm on your side! (I'm a writer, who needs to eat also, and a lot of that money comes from publishers). Doesn't look like I made my point as clearly as I'd have liked.

What I mean is that I think a lot of (would be or just starting out) writers do think that pub. houses are there for the love of literature, with making money coming in second. Of course that isn't the case (publishing is an industry and should make money, absolutely), but if that is what people think then I can see how those people might also assume that celebs write the books that have their names on the front.

And let's not forget how easy some people think it is to write books (esp. children's which a few of these celebs have 'endorsed' of late).

Definitely NOT criticising the publishing industry,

Nik :)

Jane Smith said...

"we all have to eat and put shoes on our children's feet."

That Zigmond woman spoils her kids.

David Dittell said...

Jane,

Not a lawyer, but...

In the world of film, you sign over the intellectual rights to your work as a writer, then have a "credit" written into the language of the contract.

It's pretty common for script doctors, people who don't want to be associated with the film, and those who didn't make enough changes to "write" something and for it not be advertised as such. You'd be surprised how many name writers have written films you'd never associate with them.

Buying a book that says it was written by somebody it wasn't also seems more like buying a misattributed print of a painting to me. It may be fraud to say that the original was a Picasso, but at the reproduction price, you're really paying for the pretty picture/nice words, not the authorship.

Kiskadee said...

I am very proud of the admission that I have no idea whatsoever who Cheryl Cole is. From reading the comments I can only assume she is some soap star.

Sally Zigmond said...

Kiskadee.

You must be a hermit and live somewhere where there are no newspapers, TV, radio or newsagents. It's not easy NOT to see her (albeit) sweetly pretty face--or hear her Geordie accent) and I thought I lived in the backwoods.

I suppose you could live outside the UK. (Now there's a novelty.)

She's the ultimate WAG-- preferable, IMHO, to Posh (now I suppose, you'll ask me who she is!)

BuffySquirrel said...

The name isn't all that familiar to me either, although it's impossible to avoid knowing who Posh is. Unfortunately. I do try hard.

amberbromer said...

Hi, I was trying to read your newest post, "what gets rejected" but there is some sort of problem with it. It says it does not exist when i click on it. could you re-post it?

Jane Smith said...

I know who Cheryl Cole is--she's the too-skinny X-factor judge who replaced Sharon Osborne; and is part of Girls Aloud. There. I'm so CURRENT.

Amber, about that "rejected" post of mine: it's going to appear this morning. I'm having a few scheduling blips here, so things appear as soon as I authorise them, rather than when they're scheduled to appear. And when I correct that, their ghosts still appear to a few people. Don't worry, though: you will get to read it soon.