My Name Is My Brand

Alerted by the Smart Bitches blog, I hopped over to the Palm Beach Daily News site to read this article where James Patterson is promoting his new "romance" novel. For reasons un-expressed, he insists it isn't a "real" romance.

But is it a real James Patterson?

Sundays at Tiffany's was written with North Carolina-based children's author Gabrielle Charbonnet in the collaborative style that Patterson developed about 10 years ago. It has been a key element in his increasingly prolific output.

"We're hung up in this country about individualism," said Patterson, who compares his collaborative process for writing novels to the traditionally accepted manner in which film and television writers develop their products. "Why can't a book be created this way?"

Patterson writes an outline, then selects a co-writer to write a first draft (which in my experience is the most time-consuming portion). Afterwards, he polishes, rewrites, or what have you the manuscript to his standards. He insists this is a great gig for the emerging writers he's discovered. They get to earn some bucks, gain experience by working with a bestseller, and see their output end up on the New York Times list. And this sort of thing is very common in screen-writing, where multiple scripts are often produced by different people and a more collaborative approach is the norm.

In the world of novel-writing, I've heard this kind of arrangement called a "master-slave" relationship, and I've heard plenty of rationalizations for it, but I've never been comfortable with the idea. Patterson may be open about both the fact and the identities of his co-writers, and at least in this case, he's giving Ms. Charbonnet credit on the cover. (I give him major points there.) He might pay his co-writers fairly as well (though Patterson makes the lion's share, as it's his name that makes the books bestsellers). I'm not privvy to the details.

However, in other cases I have seen, young writers are exploited for very low work-for-hire fees, with no royalties forthcoming and absolutely no acknowledgment on the cover or elsewhere. As a reader, this offends me, for an author's name on the cover of a novel isn't just a brand. It's the author's bond as well, a warranty that s/he has actually written the darned thing. The idea that one man or one woman wrote the book from start to finish is essential to the readers' unspoken pact with the author. This fact makes the novelist's name not only her brand but her word.

Or maybe the truth is, I am hung up about individualism. If I'd wanted a more collaborative art form, I would have chosen to write movie scripts or plays or annual corporate statements. I wouldn't have picked novels, where the readers -- by both tradition and experience -- have earned the right to expect both a singular vision and a singular voice.

So what about you? Do you think it's kosher for a writer to put his/her name on a book, especially without acknowledgment, that someone has partially or completely written?


Suzan Harden said…
As a writer, I think a work-for-hire would depend on the situation. If Marvel Comics gave me the opportunity to write The Uncanny X-Men for a year, heck, yes, I would do it!

As a reader, again my feelings would depend. Am I being misled? I figured out V.C. Andrews was dead, long before it became public knowledge that her estate had employed ghost writers, because the tone and word choice of her books changed abruptly. I felt betrayed that the publisher and her estate had tricked me into reading the books.

On the other hand, Anne McCaffrey and Del Rey were very upfront about transferring the Dragons of Pern series to her son, Todd. While Todd's style is subtly different than his mother's, I was allowed to make the choice whether or not to continue reading the books. For me, that sense of disclosure makes all the difference in how I judged the work.

In Patterson's case, he didn't own up to his ghostwriters until the rumors started having an effect on sales. People liked and respected his work and he broke that trust with his readers.

On the other hand, no one in their right minds believed William Shatner wrote the Tek series.
Therefore no sense of betrayal, right? ;-D
Frank Herbert's son did the same as McCaffrey's, and I think it's fine since readers weren't tricked. I know of one case where representatives of a deceased author's literary estate went out of their way to make it look as if this person was still alive and plugging away. It's deception pure and simple, and breaking trust with the readership.
Joe Cottonwood said…
This isn't new. Didn't James Michenor get busted for using assistants without acknowledgment? And it probably goes back much farther than that. I have no problem with it as long as the author is up front about sharing the credit. On the other hand, I'm far less interested in reading a book-by-committee, and I bet most people feel the same. I'm looking for one author's vision.

Many readers, though, are looking for a good plot or just a fun ride. They won't care how many writers were involved.
Joni Rodgers said…
I have no trouble with the gestalt of ghostwriting. Being famous has absolutely no appeal for me. I just want to do good art and make good money. But I do wish there was a healthier model for crediting the collaborative effort.

Basically, you've got these choices:
KISS MY FAMOUS ASS by Fanny McFamous
KISS MY FAMOUS ASS by Fanny McFamous with Rinky Writer
KISS MY FAMOUS ASS by Fanny McFamous as told to Rinky Writer

"With" works, I guess, but I wish there was something that shifted more credit to the writer.

KISS MY FAMOUS ASS by Fanny McFamous as told by Rinky Writer
LOL on those examples! I'm all for "as told to" or "with" in the name of transparency. But I have less trouble with the celeb ghostwriting thing, as most readers who give it any thought know (or ought to) that a professional writer has to be part of the equation. A novel, however, is a different animal, and readers become profoundly disappointed when they detect a shift in voice (over the course of a career or series) and realize they've been had.

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