Ghost or No Ghost-Is Ethics the Question?

By Jeffrey A. Mangus

You have a story to tell and a dream of inviting the world into your life, showing your skill, building your brand, and more by writing a book. But you lack the time or skill to do it independently and would like to hire a professional. But you’ve heard the horror stories of ghostwriting and the ethical and unethical nature involved and are apprehensive about the process. Of course, maintaining strong ethics is essential while working with a ghostwriter…but hold on…. there’s more to this story.

Many people feel strongly negative about ghostwriting. You may feel contempt or distaste towards it. Have you ever seen a ghostwriter’s name on a book and thought, this author pays someone else to write his books. Despite this, some people consider ghostwriting a collaborative process, like hiring a developmental editor or writing coach. But the question remains… is the practice of ghostwriting ethical or unethical? And the only “ethical” answer to this question is— it is complicated.

Frequently, ghostwriting is viewed as deceptive and that the author lies to the reader by taking credit for another’s work. Another aspect of the story is that the author hires a ghostwriter because they are lazy, bypassing the real work, the writing and intellectual sweat equity that goes into creating books. Finally, many people believe ghostwriting is plain old-fashioned cheating, exploiting someone else’s talent and skills for their own benefit and financial gain.

Like editors and coaches, ghostwriters are valuable tools to help authors translate their concepts into words. If ghostwriting is done ethically and transparently, the author and ghostwriter work collaboratively to dictate, define and polish the author’s story. As with any other service provider, ghostwriting is a business transaction in which the author outsources some writing tasks to the ghostwriter.

Let’s face it, any of these views could be true depending on the context of the ghostwriting collaboration. At its best, ghostwriting empowers and collaborates, but at its worst, it can be lazy and deceptive. The form of ghostwriting – as well as the intent behind it – will affect how that equation plays out.

Most individuals do not understand the process or what to expect when working with a ghostwriter. And often, a fear of doing something unethical prevents authors from moving forward with their books. Is this you? Are you hesitant about working with a ghostwriter because of this? Are you afraid of the stigma attached to using a ghostwriter to draft your book?

After twenty-five books, working as a professional ghostwriter, I have found an overwhelming, ever-present need for new authors to understand the positive benefits of ghostwriters. One of the most important topics is ethics and ghostwriting. Although intellectual property and copyright are paramount in modern business, ghostwriting may seem too risky. A ghostwriter is someone hired to write something for someone else. Most ghostwriters aren’t credited and don’t reveal that they wrote the piece, and it is the client who wrote the book, article, or other material that is seen by the public. If you pay a ghostwriter for a book and it is your book, but they still wrote it, what stops them from using your story or knowledge elsewhere? Using a ghostwriter to create a book has many complexities, including legalities, ethics, and quirks.

 The ghostwriter phenomenon has a rich, varied, and interesting history, ranging from canonical works and scholarly hypotheses to the transparent chattering of celebrities like Keith Richards, John F. Kennedy, Shakespeare, and even Michael Jordan and the like. As a ghostwriter, I’ve written over 25 books, with many authors publishing under their own names. Besides the fear of doing something unethical, what makes my clients hire me to ghostwrite their books? There are many reasons:

  • Writing isn’t their strong suit.
  • Their schedules are too busy.
  • Their goal is to collaborate.
  • Rather than writing in their own style, they want to write in another voice or style.
  • Writing is something they need done much more quickly than they can on their own.

      There is no limit to who can hire a ghostwriter if they have an idea, the funds, and the motivation to do so. Yet, despite its murky nature, ghostwriting has persisted throughout history. International crime writer Michael Robotham said, “Everybody you work with has their own voice, and if you do your job well enough, even their closest friends or their partner of 40 years isn’t going to recognize the fingerprints of a ghostwriter.”

 People have sought ghostwriters willing to remain anonymous for the pleasure of crafting work, and often for financial rewards for centuries. High-profile celebrities, political and sports figures, actors, CEOs, and business leaders often hire ghostwriters to get their books into the world. Unfortunately, it is common for high profile figures, such as these folks, not to possess the writing skills to produce a full autobiography or memoir, but to have a riveting narrative to share, and therefore need a gifted scribe to make the magic happen, add the polish to ensure the words jump off the page.

Walk into any bookstore, and within seconds, you can find books penned by ghostwriters for high-profile celebrities, athletes, musicians, and public figures. For example, the successful autobiography of David Beckham, My Side, was ghostwritten by former Eastenders actor Tom Watt, while Michael Jordan’s autobiography, Being Jordan, was also ghostwritten. In recent years, celebrity memoirs have established their own lucrative genre. For example, it has been oddly speculated throughout the centuries that Truman Capote ghostwrote a substantial portion of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. A generally discredited rumor, the story was borne out of Harper Lee’s inactivity, their childhood friendship, and her assistance to Capote in researching In Cold Blood.

Political leaders often need to express themselves in writing and use ghostwriters to accomplish their decision to write a book and tell their story from a lack of skill and time.

It is no secret that many of America’s presidents have employed speechwriters as ghostwriters. For example, Profiles in Courage, a collection of stories by John F. Kennedy detailing US senators who had acted against public opinion to maintain their principles, was supposedly penned mostly by his speechwriter, Theodore Sorenson. The book was highly acclaimed and won the Pulitzer Prize. Although Theodore Sorenson revealed in his autobiography Counselor that he contributed significantly to the book, the book was a huge success despite a libel suit disputing that fact. President Donald Trump has used different ghostwriters in the past, but Tony Schwartz was one of the most notable. Schwartz ghostwrote Trump’s 1987 breakthrough memoir and received half of its five-hundred-thousand-dollar advance and half of the royalties. During its forty-eight weeks on the Times best-seller list, the book reached No. 1 thirteen times, generating royalties of several million dollars.

Writing a book is a dream for most, and the journey of authoring and seeing a book come to life is fulfilling and hiring a ghostwriter to get your book out into the world is an intelligent decision. Still, after speaking with many different authors around the country, one of the main topics of concern is the ethical aspect of the entire process.

Generally, ghostwriting is stigmatized as unethical because of the idea or notion that the author didn’t physically write the book, and many naysayers say it can’t be morally justified. I say that is nonsense. Ghostwriting is ethical if the process is properly managed. The work, words, stories, events, experiences, and skills are the author’s, and the ghostwriter is only the middleman delivering the story and ideas to the page. So, ghostwriting is neither illegal nor unethical, and in today’s busy world is widely accepted as a common practice.

No matter what the ethics of ghostwriting are, people use ghostwriters for various reasons. First, they lack time to write a book. Having written 25 books myself, I can tell you that it is not easy. An author should hire a professional to brainstorm the idea, research it, write the first draft, revise it many times, have it edited and proofread, and revise it yet again before publication. Furthermore, ghostwriters are professionals who know how to write. Even though a CEO can run a company, an actor can win an Oscar, a rockstar can win a Grammy, and a politician can win an election, there is a good chance none of them have ever written anything of professional quality and note.

In its simplest form, the ghostwriter creates the book or story on behalf of the person or group whose ideas and concepts they use. Without ghostwriters, many stories would never be told at all. Few influential people would share their stories if ghostwriters weren’t around. I mean, think about it. The chances of a politician, rockstar, or celebrity writing a book on their own are slim to none. Ghostwriters serve as translators between people and the written word, and together with the client, a ghostwriter creates interesting stories from ideas. So, is hiring one a good idea? The answer to this question varies depending on your writing skills, beliefs, stature, budget, and time constraints.

Ghostwriters are best thought of as collaborators. Working in partnership with a professional writer effectively conveys the great thinking of a great leader in a way that is interesting to readers. Good ghostwriters are skilled and experienced at making their material memorable and compelling to share and as for ethics, ghostwriting, or the creation of material without the participation of the represented author or without disclosing that a ghostwriter was utilized, is, in my opinion, an ethical breach, especially when ghostwriting is used to boost the image or brand of a public figure or leader.

Often, people who believe they need a ghostwriter are looking for a skilled collaborator who can help them create a book that does their ideas and words justice. This is not a problem, but the rub is that it would be ethically flawed to hire an impostor to create material and then pretend that it was created by the person who hired the ghostwriter.

To keep things transparent on the ethical side of the equation, I instill a solid process when working with an author. First, I interview the client to get his thoughts, study their diction, style, mannerisms, and tone, write the draft and send that draft to the author for review and feedback.

After the client sends their review and feedback, I rewrite the draft and send it once again for review and final feedback. After receiving the author’s review, I draft the final chapter draft, and the author signs off on their satisfaction with the chapter.

As a result of these situations, the final product is influenced by the client’s ideas and words. In every case, the client has read the pieces, given feedback, and approved the final copy. This is ethical, honest, and transparent. But as a result, it isn’t easy to distill the ethics of ghostwriting into one black-and-white decision. It is a virtue to be transparent, open, and honest, and remember great communicators and authors always give credit where credit is due—the right way.  

Do you have a specific question on ethics and ghostwriting? To learn more about the ghostwriting process, visit my website at, and let’s schedule a no-obligation kick-start book meeting. Or if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email me at