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Ghostwriters in the machine

Ten years ago, WORLD senior writer Edward E.

The University of Virginia last fall expelled 45 students and revoked three graduate degrees following a 20-month investigation by its student-run Honor Committee. Their offense: Each had submitted a term paper bearing his or her sole byline to a physics professor. Each was testifying, in effect, "This is my work"-when in reality much or all of the content had been written by someone else. The only penalty for such subterfuge at this school: dismissal-and disgrace.

Although the level of punishment for dishonesty and deceit may differ, the standards of authentic authorship and full attribution of source material are the same for students and teachers alike throughout academia, including at Christian schools.

I've told my students at Regent University in half-jest to have patience: Once they're on their own and achieve fame in ministry, the rules change. "Publishers and agents will beat a path to your door, asking you to write books, offering even greater prominence and influence. If you don't have the time or writing skill or expertise in the proposed subject matter to author the books, no need to worry. They will recommend or provide a writer who will do all of the heavy lifting. Or, as luck would have it, they might already have a manuscript in house ready to go. But you will get all or most of the credit (and a lot of the income). The readers need never know. Isn't that great?"

A little overstated for emphasis perhaps. But do the rules regarding honesty and integrity in publishing really change? Is it ever right to mislead or deceive readers?

Dishonesty is rampant in the secular publishing world, where even authors who died long ago are still cranking out books. But increasingly, those in professional vocations are coming under stricter discipline regarding matters of authorship. For example, courts don't want lawyers to be undisclosed ghosts supplying petitions and briefs to litigants supposedly representing themselves. The medical profession is reining in doctors and researchers who use the services of anonymous ghostwriters hired by pharmaceutical companies to write their medical research reports (that inevitably include a plug or two for one of the benefactor's products).

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association two years ago adopted a short set of standards for its members. It pledges publishers to "not knowingly engage in plagiarism or fabrication of people, events, and quotations." It also says "co-writers or collaboration should be clearly identified as such." The wording is a bit vague, and no enforcement provisions are attached, but it's a step toward ensuring disclosure and truthfulness for the book-buying public.

Multnomah Publishers editorial executive David Kopp, 53, who wrote Bruce Wilkinson's blockbuster, The Prayer of Jabez, wishes the ECPA had used the word "accurately" rather than "clearly." This would imply giving writers a level of credit that correctly reflects the amount of their involvement, he told WORLD. (Missing from the cover of the first 8 or 9 million copies of Jabez is Mr. Kopp's name; it now appears as a "with" byline in small print.)

Bethany House editorial director Carol Johnson agrees. She was on the ECPA committee that drafted the standards. At the time, she said in a telephone interview, "we wanted to keep the paper short and simple." But, she added: "With recent trends and problems in the industry, if we were writing them today, we'd probably expand the section on authorship and collaboration."

WORLD polled a group of editorial executives and collaborative writers. They said the failure to accurately identify collaboration can sometimes be attributed to an oversight or pressure from the marketing department. But in most cases, they all agreed, the push for a solo byline comes from the prominent-name, or celebrity, author. Critics allege such celebrities are driven in part by egotism, and in part psychologically by the public's proneness to hero worship.

Some publishers accept the solo-byline arrangement without a whimper. After all, successful celebrity authors these days are "brands"; adding the name of the person who did the actual writing might diminish "brand recognition" and confuse readers. Yet marketing surveys show a shared byline has no negative impact on sales, some executives told WORLD.

Then there are this reporter's informal surveys of prospective book buyers at assorted Christian bookstores. Yes, they would be put off, even shocked, to discover that a book by a favorite author was written in whole or large part by a secret someone else. And, no, seeing a joint byline on the book's cover would not deter them from buying.

Manuscript production of many titles these days is a matter of teamwork. A lot of people can be involved in the process of transforming an initial draft into publishable form: ghosts, collaborators, in-house or outside editors who themselves may rework the final words and concepts significantly.

Literary purists, especially academics, object to this group approach. They shudder at the thought of a C.S. Lewis leaning so heavily on the work of others instead of struggling paragraph by paragraph with concepts, insights, and words that rise from the soul or painful experience.

But let's face it: Some ministry leaders have gained a national following, and their audience wants to hear from them. Books are a way to reach out. But the leaders may be short on time or ability; they need assistance. And people like John Perry of Nashville are there to help. Mr. Perry, 52, a ghostwriter and author himself, says he enjoys "helping others to achieve their potential." He also says if he does "the research, the legwork, and the bulk of labor on a book, my name ought to be on the cover." He asserts: "This is right for the writer and right for the reader."

In sum, the consensus seems to be that it's OK for a ministry leader to receive help with a book, but it must be accurately disclosed. Creation House publisher David Welday, however, told Christian Retailing magazine that from a publisher's perspective, a solo byline is not as much a question of integrity as it is of practicality. "Attribution adds no value to a book," he said, and in fact takes up space on the cover that could be better used for marketing.

Editorial executive Lyn Cryderman at Zondervan disagreed. He said it's important to acknowledge all collaborative efforts so as not to mislead readers. "Credit is fair to a writer's career, and it's more truthful to the reader." He earlier told WORLD his company's policy is to require celebrity authors to have "significant involvement" in their manuscripts, and to give appropriate credit to collaborators-including a joint byline on the book jacket if the collaborator did much of the work.

Counterpoint: Writer Jim Black, who has ghosted for a number of prominent Christian leaders, sometimes anonymously, wrote a reply to WORLD's first article on ghostwriting. Such writing, he said, "is not a question of integrity but of time and expertise. I know of no public figure, Christian and otherwise, who can spend the time needed to write a 300-page book. To do so would be a disservice to their many other duties and obligations."

Several of the ECPA publishing houses have achieved major national-bestseller success with a few authors and titles. The CEOs like the numbers. Well, only partly. Agents are now part of the scene, and publishers are coughing up a lot more money to acquire and retain name authors. At the other end, the wholesalers and big outlets press for-and receive-larger discounts. Publishers also are under pressure from other sides. Sales of many titles for the Christian market are sluggish. (Books account for only 25 percent of sales at the typical Christian bookstore, in contrast to, say, the pattern at Borders and Barnes and Noble, where the "Left Behind" series and The Prayer of Jabez moved briskly.) Publishing large lines of titles by lesser-known authors serves a wide spectrum of readers but eats up resources.

As writer John Perry pointed out, publishing houses are businesses that need to turn a profit in order to remain in the business of ministering to readers.

In response, a disturbing trend may be developing. Nashville-based Thomas Nelson, a public company beholden to Wall Street, recently laid off employees and unabashedly announced it will publish fewer titles a year (about 50), but go with more books-and ancillary spin-offs-from its most sales-successful "brand" authors.

A greater number of books from celebrity authors? Most of these people are ministry leaders who have schedules already overloaded with other priorities. So, it likely means the Christian marketplace will see more completely ghost-written books, most without acknowledgment of the actual writers. If it works, it should mean more money for the ghosts, the prominent names, and the publishers.

But what will it mean for readers?