July 24, 2002

Strange Branding Phenomena: Ghostwriting

James DiBenedetto flags this from the Washington Post's style section:

The Eleven Day Empire Interesting article in the Post's Style section today about something that's been going on for a while: ghostwriters hired by popular authors to crank out formulaic novels. The king of this kind of thing is, of course, Tom Clancy, who has, I don't know, 50 or so book lines that are labelled as "Created by Tom Clancy!", none of which he actually writes. Until recently, the actual author's name didn't appear anywhere on the cover or anywhere else in the book; thankfully, that practice, at least, is changing.The whole idea is to turn authors into "brands"; they come up with a general idea or storyline, stick their name on the cover, and turn the actual writing over to others...


The Plot Thickeners (washingtonpost.com) Check the covers of certain bestsellers and you'll notice that though Clancy's name may be emblazoned across the tops of the books, someone else did the writing. "Mission of Honor," part of "Tom Clancy's Op-Center" series, was written by Jeff Rovin. "Bio-Strike," a volume in "Tom Clancy's Power Plays" series, is by Jerome Preisler. "Runaways," one of "Tom Clancy's Net Force" young-adult series books, was written by Diane Duane. Like Pepsi or the Gap, "Tom Clancy" has become a brand...

washingtonpost.com

The Plot Thickeners
Brand-Name Authors Hire Writers to Flesh Out Their Bare-Bones Stories

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 24, 2002; Page C01

Remember when only celebrities and CEOs hired novelists to write their books? Now the novelists are hiring novelists.

In this everyone-works-for-me era of personal trainers and personal shoppers, personal writers make perfect sense. Especially since many writers nowadays aren't really poets -- they are plotters. They aren't artists, they're engineers.

Tom Clancy, for instance, oversees a vast farm of fiction writers who crank out stories that he imagines. Check the covers of certain bestsellers and you'll notice that though Clancy's name may be emblazoned across the tops of the books, someone else did the writing. "Mission of Honor," part of "Tom Clancy's Op-Center" series, was written by Jeff Rovin. "Bio-Strike," a volume in "Tom Clancy's Power Plays" series, is by Jerome Preisler. "Runaways," one of "Tom Clancy's Net Force" young-adult series books, was written by Diane Duane.

Like Pepsi or the Gap, "Tom Clancy" has become a brand. He still writes his Jack Ryan books. His next, "Red Rabbit," will be out next month. He treats other books, however, like fast-food franchises.

Other popular and prolix writers have followed Clancy's suit and taken on co-writers to become even more prolix. In his "Dreamland" series, Dale Brown collaborates with Jim DeFelice. Clive Cussler has developed the "NUMA Files" series, which he writes with Paul Kemprecos. James Patterson has hired a couple of co-writers to work with him: Andrew Gross helped Patterson with "2nd Chance," and Peter De Jonge worked on "Beach House."

In the marketing world such profit-seeking forays are known as brand extensions -- like Pepsi Twist or GapKids.

In order to get away with such sleight of hand, writers need three things: a fruitful imagination, a total lack of personal style or voice, and a reputation as a rainmaker.

Clancy, according to his publisher, Penguin Putnam, "has established himself as an undisputed master at blending exceptional realism and authenticity, intricate plotting, and razor-sharp suspense."

So if Clancy can provide these elements -- and his hall-of-fame name -- and somebody else can do the heavy lifting of linking subjects to verbs to objects, who cares?

S. Griffin, a reader from California, doesn't. "This is the first time I have read a Tom Clancy book," Griffin writes on Amazon.com about "Breaking Point," a volume in the "Net Force" series. "I was interested because of the computer angle. I really enjoyed this! Lots of characters and sub-stories, although most of the characters are not delved into very deeply. That was O.K. with me because I was looking for action, not emotions. This book has lots of action!"

Griffin is raving about a Tom Clancy book that Clancy didn't even write. Steve Perry wrote it.

Receiving help on a fiction project seems to be a particularly modern phenomenon. It's hard to imagine Leo Tolstoy writing "War" and someone else writing "Peace." Most great writers don't even get along with themselves.

Why then are there so many collaborations today? Publishers believe that reader appetite for certain list-topping writers is insatiable. "A sideline series is an opportunity to give readers more stories in the style of their favorite authors -- which are written and produced under their guidance," says Adam Rothberg of Simon & Schuster, Cussler's former publisher.

One best-selling writer who wishes to remain anonymous isn't so generous. "It's like buying celebrity clothing at Kmart," the writer says. "Still, if people want to buy co-authored stories, they presumably know what they're getting into."

Not always. Though Lawrence Sanders died in 1998, his publishing company, Putnam, continues to issue books under his name. For a while, Putnam neglected to make it clear to readers that someone else was writing the thrillers. These days Vincent Lardo gets a small byline at the bottom of the cover. Lardo's "McNally's Alibi" came out this month. The name Lawrence Sanders is still plastered in big type across the cover.

V.C. Andrews died in 1986. Pocket Books keeps publishing books -- written by Andrew Neiderman -- under her name. As further proof that publishers know exactly what they're doing, Neiderman has also written books under his own name. Never heard of him, have you?

Now it's Robert Ludlum's turn to enjoy a literary life beyond all mortality. The popular mystery writer died in March 2001. In his last years he collaborated on several books. One of his co-writers, Gayle Lynds, explains the process. "What Bob did," she says, "is come up with the general idea, a fascinating main character and a story arc. My job was to fill in the gaps."

In other words, to write the damn thing.

Lynds says she wanted to work together using e-mail, but "Bob didn't type. He was a real mastodon."

She adds: "We had to do everything by hard copy. It worked really fine."

When Ludlum died, his publisher, St. Martin's Press, announced that he had left behind several outlines that could be fashioned into novels. Those will eventually be published as Robert Ludlum novels -- written, of course, by others.

Lynds says she plans to write one of them. "This is an icon for me," she says of Ludlum, "someone who had a huge impact on my work. It is a great honor."

Posted by DeLong at July 24, 2002 10:22 AM | TrackBack

Comments

Thanks for the link!

But it's "DiBenedetto", not "di Benedetto"

Although originally it probably was the latter spelling, when my grandfather got to Ellis Island.

Posted by: James DiBenedetto on July 24, 2002 11:00 AM

Clancy has taken it to the next level. I've seen some novels "CREATED BY TOM CLANCY... written by Steve Piecewicz" (going on memory for the names). Recently I saw a novel "CREATED BY TOM CLANCY and Steve Piecewicz... written by Steve Perry."

At least there's a career path for ghostwriters now. You can move up to ghostcreator.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins on July 24, 2002 12:39 PM

Sounds like Alexandre Dumas to me.

http://www.unverse.com/Dumas.html

>

In greater personal honesty, since I haven't read very much Dumas, I guess I should reference instead Franklin W. Dixon and Kenneth Robeson;

who between them published scores of books

I did, in my youth, devour. But perhaps the bulk of Professor DeLong's audience doesn't share my low taste.

I find it amusing to consider the suggestion that such a practice is, er, novel.

Posted by: melcher on July 24, 2002 12:50 PM

Let me try that again.

Sounds like Alexandre Dumas to me.

http://www.unverse.com/Dumas.html

" Dumas worked as the chief of a writing factory rather than as a lone author. He employed up to 73 'assistantes' who produced ideas and first drafts. The resulting collaborations were published in Dumas' name. One of these assistants, Auguste Maquet, wrote first drafts for both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, both of which were published 1844-5. Dumas' skill was to write dialogue, develop the characters and keep the story moving with cliff-hanging chapter endings... "

Posted by: melcher on July 24, 2002 12:51 PM

BradFord Delong ? James D. Benedetto ?

Posted by: Hans Suter on July 24, 2002 01:01 PM

>>Thanks for the link! But it's "DiBenedetto", not "di Benedetto"<<

Apologies. Fixed...

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 24, 2002 01:31 PM

>> One of these assistants, Auguste Maquet, wrote first drafts for both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, both of which were published 1844-5. Dumas' skill was to write dialogue, develop the characters and keep the story moving with cliff-hanging chapter endings<<

Fascinating. So Dumas was the craftsman and the detail guy, and Maquet was the overall architect? An interesting reversal of today's pattern.

Brad DeLong, who thought for most of his chldhood that it was the "Count of Monte Crisco"...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 24, 2002 01:33 PM

Sorry, this may have gone in twice. Anyway, the Count of Monte Crisco is Atty. Genl. John Ashcroft.

Posted by: Paul Krugman on July 24, 2002 04:19 PM

The interesting question seems to me (to pose it in terms of simplistic extremes) "are books successful on merit, or has brand-based marketing made quality irrelevant?"

My guess would be that these ghost-written books are, in general, of lower quality than books really written by Tom Clancy or whichever name-brand author is plastered on the cover. (evidence of Count of Monty Crispo to the contrary).

If that is the case, then books are becoming one more product where the producers have succeeding in changing market structure from a competitive market to an increasing returns structure based on reputation. To the extent that is so, then the overall quality of books will probably fall.

Posted by: Tom Slee on July 24, 2002 07:02 PM

As a Clancy fan, I will state that it pains my heart to admit that it would be hard for any book to be worse than "The Bear and The Dragon." Especially the creepy sex scenes.

Posted by: Paul on July 24, 2002 10:37 PM

If nothing else, here is a legal way to write fan fiction... Just make sure it is published under the original author's name...

Posted by: Nikolai Chuvakhin on July 24, 2002 11:11 PM

The odd thing is, Paul's post almost makes me want to read "The Bear and the Dragon". Can it really be that bad?

Posted by: Tom Slee on July 25, 2002 06:33 AM

The classic Dumas line: after a fan told him how great "his" latest novel was, Dumas replied, "Really? I'll have to read it sometime."

John McLaughlin, of shouting-heads fame, has used the line in reference to "his" columns. Would it be uncharitable to suggest that historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin could use it?

Posted by: Bob Hawkins on July 25, 2002 07:41 AM

Actually... I've never given a damn about Tom Clancy or his books. But

I *really like* Diane Duane.

I now own, let me see, five Diane Duane books published under the "Tom

Clancy's Net Force" brand. They all have the author's name on them,

even if it's in smaller print than "Tom Clancy". They're written in

Duane's style, not some weird ghost-imitation of Clancy. They're good

books.

More books by authors I like. I'm not going to complain.

Posted by: Andrew Plotkin on July 25, 2002 09:04 AM

I mainly remember Diane Duane from her Star Trek books. Are these as good?

Posted by: Paul on July 25, 2002 09:46 AM

'As a Clancy fan, I will state that it pains my heart to admit that it would be hard for any book to be worse than "The Bear and The Dragon." Especially the creepy sex scenes.'

You must be forgetting the beginning of the Cardinal of the Kremlin. The backstory is that the Secretary of State (I'm pretty sure that's who it is, but it might be another cabinet member) has been having an affair with a jewish intern. Yes, Clancy wrote this before the Monica Lewinsky affair occured.

Anyway, let's see if I can remember the phrase; I tried to commit it to memory as a end-all opinion on Clancy.

"Damn that cow! She was going to bring him down with her jewish wiles, her cow-like teats, and her cow-like udders."

I probably got part of it wrong, but I'm quite sure about the "cow-like udders" bit. He promptly dies of a stroke after thinking the above. Yes, it's written in third person.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on July 25, 2002 06:42 PM

No, no, no! It wasn't an intern, it was a doctoral student that the Secy of State (or "SecState" in Clancy) had been "banging" (as the book so delicately puts it) when he was a professor. And, yes, she is Jewish and she does have "udders" (or some sort of cow-like organs). Also -- it's in The Sum of All Fears, not Cardinal of the Kremlin (remember, in Cardinal, all the power plays are in Russia; in Sum, all the power plays are in the executive branch).

Now, I remembered all of this without looking in my copy of TSOAF. I hereby proclaim myself Tom Clancy uber-geek.

And I still stand by my statement that the sex scenes between the Chinese Politburo member's secretary and the Japanese-American CIA agent in The dragon and the bear are the creepiest in Clancy, bar none.

Posted by: Paul on July 25, 2002 10:38 PM

In Clancy's defense, I think that passage is supposed to make SecState an unattractive character...

And aren't you supposed to be writing your thesis?

:-)

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 26, 2002 07:14 AM

Boy, did I ever get schooled. I think I'll drop by the bookstore and do a comparision.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on July 26, 2002 11:37 AM

"Wow. My first published article! Too bad it has someone else's name on it." -- Lisa

"Welcome to the humiliating world of professional writing."

-- Homer

Posted by: Jim Glass on July 26, 2002 01:11 PM

It's still a good example of how bad Clancy's writing is. So there.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on July 26, 2002 02:21 PM

I am writing my thesis, but after being my own graduate student for several hours (doing routine and boring data entry), I wanted to discuss something interesting ...

Posted by: Paul on July 27, 2002 08:12 PM
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