by Maria Francesca Ficarra

Some specters wander around the publishing industry, hidden in the shadows. To us, they’re almost invisible, but we often read their works, and they represent one of the most efficient and profitable sectors of the book market: we are talking about ghostwriters.

Who are those mysterious and controversial figures? A ghostwriter is defined as: “someone who writes a book or article, etc. for another person to publish under his or her own name” and recently, the discussion around ghostwriting has been getting increasingly heated.


On September 12, the famous actress Millie Bobby Brown released her debut book “Nineteen Steps”, a novel inspired by her grandmother’s experience of the 1943 Bethnal Green tube disaster. The book has been declared a best seller by the New York Times. However, most of the discussions around it stem from the fact that it was written by the ghostwriter Kathleen McGurl.

This collaboration was never meant to be a secret: McGurl’s name is listed on the book’s first page, and Millie publicly thanked her and featured her in several Instagram posts. However, the public remained skeptical, and the actress faced a severe backlash for the entire project.

McGurl herself intervened to clarify the writing process in a blog post, explaining that she received “a lot of research that had already been pulled together by Millie and her family and plenty of ideas” and that she and Brown had a ‘couple’ of zoom calls before the first draft was written. The actress then continued to send ideas via WhatsApp, and the two continued to refine the story.

Shannon Kyle, a ghostwriter who started the Ghostwriters Agency, praised Brown’s transparency, defining it as “refreshing”, and explained that “it doesn’t diminish her involvement, because ultimately it is her family story, and it wouldn’t be happening without her”. Yardley, the author of ‘Ember’, added that “the public might feel cheated”, but that Brown was “being open about it”.


Brown’s case isn’t unique, as Dr Hannah Yelin, author of ‘Celebrity Memoir: From Ghostwriting to Gender Politics’ reminds us: “We’ve seen it in relation to many young, female stars […] Zoella’s [media personality Zoë Sugg] first memoir comes to mind as an example which saw her lambasted in the media for breaking some kind of implicit social contract.”

In 2014 Zoella faced a huge backlash and was called a ‘fraud’ as people discovered that her successful debut novel, ‘Girl Online’, was written with the help of a ghostwriter, Siobhan Curham. People felt betrayed, especially since many thought that the collaboration wasn’t adequately disclosed and found out about it after the book was published.


Many argue that ghostwriting is exploitative as the writer who spends months researching, writing, and refining drafts is scarcely credited, if not credited at all. 

In an interview with the Washington Post in 2014, the ghostwriter Kevin Anderson clarified the ghostwriter’s role and defended the position of the clients: “A ghostwriter is an interpreter and a translator, not an author, which is why our clients deserve full credit for authoring their books.”

Being a ghostwriter is a job with a contract that guarantees payment to the writer and often commissions based on the sales which may be very high based on the commissioner’s fame, but, as Yardley reminds us, there are “some parts of the industry where ghostwriters can be subject to being a bit exploited” and, due to the job’s secretive nature, compensations are often undisclosed to the general public.

Luckily, the “public perception” of ghostwriters is shifting and it can help better the situation.

Kyle believes that celebrities speaking about their ghostwriters will happen “more and more” because the more celebrities talk about it, “the more acceptable it becomes”.

We must also note that ghostwriting isn’t always as controversial as in the cases described, especially when it comes to biographies or autobiographies. In those instances, we often assume that the books were ghostwritten and that the celebrities just shared their life experiences with their collaborator.

It’s what happened with Prince Harry’s memoir, ‘Spare’, which was written by JR Moehringer (and more recently with Britney Spear’s biography). Harry “talked very openly about his ghostwriter and their relationship, and it didn’t diminish book sales there,” said Kyle. 


Another relevant argument emerging from the debate is that books, as well as other products bearing a celebrity’s name, are often intended to be just gadgets for the fans: as Kyle said to the Guardian, it was “part of the celeb culture” to front products such as perfumes, clothing, beauty lines, and food products that celebrities might not have been involved in the technical side of creating.

The New York Times noted in 2011 how celebrities such as the Kardashians, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, and Hilary Duff had all published novels because “Like a branded fragrance or clothing line, the novel — once quaintly considered an artistic endeavor sprung from a single creative voice — has become another piece of merchandise stamped with the name of celebrities, who often pass off the book as their work alone despite the nearly universal involvement of ghostwriters. And the publishing industry has been happy to oblige.”

In the end, it is possible to say that it’s the celeb’s name that sells copies and that without it, the book wouldn’t be as famous, or it wouldn’t be published at all: the book is just another gadget you buy to show support to your favorite star.

Or is it?

Situations like this prove how differently we view books compared to other products we consume. 

Kyle said: “The general public wants to be entertained by a book, they want to read a good story, and ultimately, whoever puts it together, I don’t think they really mind.”

However, this statement is often proved wrong: readers care.

Books have a sacred aura. They are written by authors who we imagine pouring their soul into the artistic creation: we believe in the ‘Artist’, a tragic and often idolized figure.

This is a vision built over time and carefully crafted, fed by myths, legends, and the writings of philosophers and artists themselves.

When approaching ghostwritten works (especially if the genre is fiction), we are forced to ask ourselves: who is the author? Is it the person who came up with an idea for the plot? Or the one who wrote it?

In this regard, an editor who chose to stay anonymous said: “To me, famous authors’ books represent the symbolic body of the author, and those who buy them want to bring home a piece of said body. Revealing the name of the ghost would weaken the book’s value”.

Ghostwriting challenges our conception of authorship.

Then other questions arise: why does it matter? If the author wasn’t the one mentioned, would we still appreciate the book?

In our eyes, the book (the creature) and the author (the creator) have almost a symbiotic relationship as they fuel each other’s notoriety. When reading a book, many feel the urge to know more about who has written it: the writer’s biography seems a necessary key to comprehend what we’ve read, or to decide if a new book is worth our time.

A novel isn’t an entity in its own right, but it’s inseparable from the author.

When discussing Zoella’s case, the former BBC arts editor Will Gompertz explained the criticism she faced, offering us a meaningful insight: “Maybe it’s because people think that either she or her publishers have been manipulative and cynical. But if that’s the case, they join a very long line of artists who claim to do work that others have actually done on their behalf, from the baroque master Rubens to the rap band Milli Vanilli. I wonder if the problem is with us and not the artist and his or her collaborator. Maybe we are the fakes. We’re happy to love the work if we think it’s by the person we admire, but if it proves not to be, then we suddenly dismiss it. […] Ever since the Renaissance, we’ve lived in an age of the individual, a philosophical change that’s become an obsession nowadays”.


Zoella Admits She Did Not Write Girl Online On Her Own | Time

Why do people feel duped by YouTube blogger Zoella’s book? – BBC News

Debut novel by Millie Bobby Brown reignites debate over ghostwritten celebrity books | Books | The Guardian

Celebrity Books and Ghostwriters: Noticed – The New York Times (

GHOSTWRITER | English meaning – Cambridge Dictionary

Photograph: Masatoshi Okauchi/Shutterstock

Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

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