Ghostwriter, Co-writer, Co-author, or Collaborator?


I’ve previously written that between 50% and 90% of nonfiction books were ghostwritten. I’ve also found sources that say traditional publishing houses admit that 70% of all books were ghostwritten and 99% of celebrity-authored titles were.

I’ve also previously written that if you see a “with” or “and” after the author’s name, followed by another name, that second name is probably the ghostwriter.

I’ve since discovered that’s not always true. Sometimes, they’re a co-author, a co-writer, or a collaborator. This post will summarize the differences.

Ghostwriter — In the most classic sense, a ghostwriter is someone who writes and receives no credit on the book jacket. Sometimes, they’re not even thanked or mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements section.

Ghostwriters get paid handsomely, but it’s work for hire. They get paid to write somebody else’s story. They bring the writing skills; the author brings the story. They have no rights to the story and usually don’t receive any royalties. When they deliver a final manuscript, their job is done.

Today, however, ghostwriters sometimes receive credit. Maybe they’re thanked in the acknowledgments as a “researcher,” “researcher assistant,” or “editor.” I’ve been thanked “for getting the book written and out the door on time and (helping) with a lot of the storytelling and book organization.”

Or maybe they’re public like J.R. Moehringer, who’s known to have ghostwritten books by Andre Agassi and Prince Harry. He had a New York Times feature written about him.

Co-writer — Most commonly, a co-writer is the second name on a book jacket, following the main name and “and” or “with.” In fiction, James Patterson is a prolific author, having written more than 200 novels since 1976, according to his website. There’s no way one man can write that much, and Patterson freely admits to using co-authors. His name is in large type on the book jacket, but there’s always a second name somewhere on the cover in smaller type.

In non-fiction, athlete and celebrity books are often written by the second name (sometimes you see “as told to/by” instead of “and” or “with”). That person could have written the entire book, like a ghostwriter would, or maybe the two shared in the writing. Only they know — unless somebody goes public. A famous example is “Trump: The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump with Tony Schwartz. Schwartz has said he ghostwrote the book.

But this raises an important point: a co-writer often does the work of a ghostwriter, but there can be subtle differences. A ghostwriter is more invested in the client than the book; a co-writer is more invested in the book. 

Not so with me. When I’m a co-writer, I still focus on the client. It’s still the client’s story, and the client is still hiring me for my writing skills. I might suggest certain words be used in the text or as chapter titles, but the client always has the final say. The only difference between me as ghostwriter and me as co-writer is whether I receive credit on the cover.

Co-author — In some cases, two author names separated by “and” are co-authors, meaning they shared in the idea gathering, researching, and writing. Maybe they each had ideas for the book. Maybe they each wrote chapters. Regardless, they are more likely equal partners in the book project, so they’ll probably equally split the monies.

Collaborator — Although far rarer a title, a collaborator is some sort of one expert and brings expertise to the book. That could be some sort of technical expertise, such as a retired police officer verifying the descriptions of detective work are accurate. Or it could be writing expertise, like a ghostwriter, except collaborators usually receive credit, whether on the book jacket or in the acknowledgments.

Authors who need help writing or completing the books have to determine which of these types of people they want to use. Whatever their choice, they likely will benefit from the assistance.

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