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Ghostwriters 101: The Secret Authors Behind Your Favorite Books

Ever wondered how Carolyn Keene has authored Nancy Drew books for more than 90 years? Questioned the logistics of series that publish new books every month? Or are you amazed that some departed writers have been able to release new work post-mortem? Ghostwriters are the answer to these and other literary mysteries.

A ghostwriter writes under another person's name. Ghostwriters are called upon for several different reasons. For example, a ghostwriter may be needed when a would-be author — often a celebrity or politician — doesn't have the time or skill set needed to write a nonfiction book such as an autobiography. Ghostwriters are also used when a famous author has passed but there is still an appetite for their work. In addition, ghostwriters are often hired to write books based on outlines or ideas generated by others, particularly when books in a popular series need to be produced more quickly than a single writer can handle.

Here’s a deep dive into the practice and the surprising well-known books and authors that use — or were once themselves — ghostwriters.

History of Ghostwriting

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Ghostwriting dates back to before the 20th century. In 19th-century France, Alexandre Dumas may have turned to Auguste Jules Maquet for plots that Dumas expanded into full-length works. The pair allegedly coordinated on classics such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Dumas did pay Maquet but didn't want to share credit. By 1858, this wasn't enough for Maquet, who unsuccessfully turned to the courts to try to force Dumas to share the rights to their work.

Even today, like in the case of Maquet, ghostwriters are often not recognized beyond a brief mention in a book's acknowledgments section or a small credit on the cover. Some receive no public recognition at all. Kevin Anderson & Associates, a respected ghostwriting agency, has explained how a ghostwriter can write and be OK with an author taking the credit: "An author's ideas and concepts for a book are still original to them, even if they work with a ghostwriter. The ghostwriter's job is to take the author's ideas for content and present them in an accessible and engaging way."

Ghostwriters usually receive a set payment per book or project. At a time when it can be hard to make a living as a writer, the best in the ghostwriting business earn an annual income of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some ghostwriters may also receive a portion of a book's royalties. However, ghostwriters are usually required to sign a non-disclosure agreement and sometimes must give up book royalties in exchange for their paycheck.

Famous Book Series Primarily Written by Ghostwriters

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Some of the most famous American book series have never had a singular author, despite the same name appearing on the covers for decades. Back in 1927, publisher Edward Stratemeyer launched a series of novels about teenage detectives known as the Hardy Boys. “Franklin W. Dixon” was credited as the author.

Nancy Drew, another young detective also created by Stratemeyer, appeared in 1930, with “Carolyn Keene” as the author. In reality, Dixon and Keene were just pseudonyms for a slew of ghostwriters.

The Sweet Valley High series, which launched in 1983 and covered the adventures of twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, had Francine Pascal's name on every cover. She did indeed outline the books, but ghostwriters provided the text for this series, as well as spinoffs like Sweet Valley Twins. Ann M. Martin started as the sole author on The Baby-Sitters Club book series in 1986. However, as the books grew in popularity, Martin couldn't write fast enough to meet demand, so ghostwriters came in and followed her outlines.

K.A. Applegate's science-fiction series, Animorphs, faced the same demand issue; to get books out, the husband-and-wife writing team of Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant turned to ghostwriters for much of the series. In a Reddit AMA, Applegate said of the decision to hire ghostwriters, "It's not a perfect solution, but when a book comes out every month, it's often the only solution." Ghostwriting was a familiar area for Applegate — before her work on Animorphs, she had ghostwritten some of the Sweet Valley Twins series.

Ghostwriters Often Continue an Author’s Legacy

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Just because an author has passed away doesn’t mean their beloved stories need to end. In many cases, a ghostwriter is called in to take the lead — sometimes at the request of the original author.

Cleo Virginia Andrews, who wrote as V.C. Andrews, passed away in 1986. At the time of her death, she had already published seven popular fiction titles, including Flowers in the Attic. Her family hired Andrew Neiderman to finish the work Andrews had started, then to write more books under Andrews' name.

Robert Ludlum wrote about amnesiac spy Jason Bourne and penned other thrillers until his death in 2001. Ghostwriters helped finish in-progress work and also wrote new books under his name. According to Ludlum's agent, this is what the author desired. Ludlum reportedly once told him, "I don't want my name to disappear. I’ve spent 30 years writing books and building an audience."

These Well-Known Names Have Also Been Ghostwriter

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Despite the hidden nature of ghostwriting, it's public knowledge that some famous authors worked this way before making it big on their own. French author Colette had to ghostwrite for her first husband, Henri Gauthier-Villars; post-divorce, she began writing under her name. H.P. Lovecraft is remembered for creating monsters like Cthulhu in his fiction, but during his lifetime he also served as a ghostwriter for famed magician Harry Houdini.

Alex Haley is best known for his epic Roots, but first, he was Malcolm X's ghostwriter on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. However, Haley's involvement was not totally hidden; he was given an "as told to" credit on most editions of that work.

From 1925 to '27, Charles de Gaulle worked as a ghostwriter for military leader — and future German collaborator as the head of Vichy France — Philippe Pétain. Their work was never published, but de Gaulle went on to bigger things: He led the Free French during World War II and after the war became president of France.

Regardless of working in anonymity, many ghostwriters have created work that readers love. The publishing world would not be the same without them.

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