The Complex Ethics Surrounding Ghostwriters and Celebrity Books

By: Alyssa Cortes

The top-selling book of 2023, Prince Harry’s memoir “Spare,” is not actually written by the author whose name is credited on the cover; instead, it is penned by ghostwriter J. R. Moehringer.

Ghostwriting is a collaborative profession where authors knowingly write for someone else; a practice that can open doors for them to eventually write their own original works.

My perspective on ghostwriting varies depending on the book. For certain celebrities like Prince Harry, whose book is a personal story, their involvement is crucial. While some authors like James Patterson often employ co-authors to write the majority of their books while overseeing multiple projects simultaneously. This is evidenced by Patterson’s remarkable book sales; as of 2022, he has sold over 425 million books. On the other hand, some stars like Millie Bobby Brown may generate story ideas but rely on ghostwriters to complete the bulk of their books.

When celebrities like Britney Spears sign a book contract for their life stories or when Kylie and Kendall Jenner release the book “Rebels: City of Indra: The Story of Lex and Livia,” it’s generally understood that they won’t be writing the books themselves, especially given their social media presence. However, it can be a different story when someone like Zoella Sugg, known for her self-made brand, releases a book, “Girl Online,” and is later revealed to have not written it, which can lead to feelings of betrayal among her audience.

For books like “Spare” by Prince Harry, “Paris: The Memoir” by Paris Hilton, or “Nineteen Steps” by Millie Bobby Brown; one could argue that these books wouldn’t exist without the celebrities attached, as they are personal stories. The real issue arises with books where stars have no involvement at all in the creative process.

Additionally, how a celebrity acknowledges their ghostwriter and presents the book publicly matters. Some celebrities, like Sugg, have started putting their names and their co-authors’ names on the book cover. Others, such as Paris Hilton, only credit their ghostwriter in the acknowledgment notes. Hilton thanked her ghostwriter, Joni Rodgers, as someone who “helped me find my voice.” While some celebrities like Prince Harry never credit their ghost author in their books.

While other stars, like Brown, openly acknowledge their writers as collaborators but don’t explicitly state that they didn’t write the book on the cover or in the press tour, which can be misleading to the audience.

Brown posted on Instagram ahead of her book’s release, “A HUGE thank you to my collaborator @kathleenmcgurl – I couldn’t have done this without you!”

It’s worth noting that young female stars like Brown and Sugg tend to receive more criticism for having ghostwriters, whereas others like Prince Harry or Patterson do not face the same level of backlash.

There should also be an expectation, based on previous celebrity books, that most are ghostwritten unless explicitly stated, as in the cases of Jeanette McCurdy’s “I’m Glad My Mom Died” or Matthew McConaughey’s “Greenlights,” both of which they wrote themselves.

In my view, it’s the responsibility of the audience to be aware of what they are purchasing. While it may seem unfair, celebrities’ books are often ghostwritten, and that information is frequently provided upfront. For instance, “Nineteen Steps” was transparent about its ghostwriter, so the backlash against Brown may be unjustified.

Critics often argue that celebrity books authored by ghostwriters diminish the publishing industry. However, the reality is that high-profile figures like Prince Harry or Brown contribute significantly to the industry because their names bring in substantial revenue. This increased income enables publishers to take more risks on lesser-known authors, ultimately reinvesting in the industry.

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