A Drugstore Full of Ghosts

The Spawn and I were driving around this afternoon, and we stopped at a local drugstore so that she could subject some of their hair products to scrutiny — it’s sort of a hobby for her these days. While she was doing that, I ambled over to the book and magazine racks. What I saw was something less than inspiring.

Not the books themselves — they were the usual assortment of mysteries, romances, and the odd fantasy here and there. I was fine with that. I was less fine, however, when I looked at the authors on the covers.

James Patterson Syndrome is spreading. If you look at most of Patterson’s recent publications — and boy howdy, there are plenty of them — you’ll notice that most of them list a “co-author’s” name beneath the Patterson brand. It’s common knowledge that Patterson does little if any writing on these books. He has, instead, gone into the outline business, writing skeletal versions of novels that he then hands off to the hired co-author who does the actual heavy lifting/writing. When that’s done, Patterson gives the work a once-over-lightly, and the machine is fed once more.

There’s nothing inherently dishonorable about this particular racket — ghost writers are nothing new (How many writers have been Nick Carter, for instance? Answer: More than I’ll bother to count. But you can.), and Patterson does have the decency to list the writers along with his… well, brand, and the writers get paid. Everyone involved is a consenting adult.

Still, I found it a bit of a drag when I saw that in addition to a few Patterson books, several more of the books on this nondescript drugstore rack in Mondoville were similar packages, with covers listing the brand-name author, and then in smaller type, the other author. And every inch of shelf space allotted to these author-conglomerates is an inch that doesn’t go to someone else — it’s a zero-sum game.

I asked Lawrence Block about collaborations once — he said that in his experience they tended to be twice as much work for half as much money. I can’t help thinking that it’s even worse to do nearly all the work (And it’s the writing that’s the work; ideas are cheap, as any writer cornered by a bore at a party can tell you) without even getting half the pay.

But of course, I don’t have to do this stuff to keep the lights on, thanks to my day gig, so I may simply be able to afford a level of discomfort that the co-authors can’t. All the same, it saddens me a bit.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to A Drugstore Full of Ghosts

  1. There’ll be more and more and more of this, I’m afraid. Brand recognition seems to be all-important, and the name on the cover is more important than the 100K words that follow.

    • profmondo says:

      One of the saddest moments I’ve had at a bookshelf was when I was in some store and saw a book listed as being by V.C. Andrews — but then I noticed that the cover had the little “registered trademark” symbol next to her name (not surprising, since she had been dead for quite some time when the book came out. Although I wasn’t a fan, I thought it horrifying that someone who had been a real writer (even if not to my taste) had been turned into a brand asset.


  2. Kasey Schroer says:

    I was actually asked to do that. I turned the offer down politely, but I was quite angry. I had trouble imagining not getting full credit, or even most of it, for so much work. I can’t help but wince a little bit seeing as it’s not like I’ve gotten any kind of recognition otherwise, but still. I couldn’t quite bring myself to agree. I suppose I still have time to find out whether or not I regret that decision.

  3. Bill says:

    Read one of those Patterson collaborations. To say it was horrible is the best review I could give. If that is the stuff he will put his name to, I vowed I will never, ever buy anything with his name on it again, whether collaboration or not.

  4. Kate P says:

    Yep, Patterson recently branched into middle-grade fiction, and there’s the co-author on the cover. I wonder how sweet a cut he’s getting writing that shlock. Shlock my students are asking for, BTW.

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