The Hidden Puppet Masters: How Common is Ghostwriting in Indie Romance?
I may ruffle a feather or two among authors with this post, but it's a topic I feel strongly about, soooo as the kids say, sorry, not sorry.
Ghostwriting is when an author either buys a completed book and then slaps their name on it for publishing, or they work with another author to write a book based on their guidelines, but ultimately publish someone else's work with their name on it.
If you're like me, both versions of this already sound dishonest to you. The basic premise is rooted in dishonesty, as far as I'm concerned.
This also probably sounds like it wouldn't work. After all, wouldn't readers notice that an author they like to read has vastly different style and voice from book to book (because each book is written by a different writer, none of which are the author whose name appears on the cover)?
The answer seems to be no, readers don't typically notice, or the number that do notice is too small to stop some of the most prolific authors who use ghostwriters from continuing to do well and break into the top 100.
Now, I'm not going to try to even guess at what percentage of indie romance is ghostwritten, because that I don't know enough for certain to even come close to accuracy. What I do know is that the indie author world is broken up into small online communities. Some of these exist on software called slack, some are on Ryver, etc. Almost every indie author who does reasonably well is part of the shared Ryver group, which probably has over 200 members including authors and their personal assistants (who have accounts for coordinating newsletter swaps). Outside of Ryver, most authors are part of a smaller group.
I like to think of these little groups as cabals, just because it makes it seem more dramatic and cool than a group of 8 or 10 authors who make dick jokes and share cat pictures. **Ahem** my little cabal is totally more professional than that. Sort of.
But about six months ago, there was an open invitation to join a sort of super cabal (I'm not naming any names at all in here, sorry! As much as I disagree with ghostwriting, I'm not making it my place to try to damage anybody's livelihood with my posts, and I don't want to drag any names through the mud, especially when I'm not 100% certain of some of my information). I call it a super cabal not because it's super awesome, though who knows, maybe it is, but because it's very big by cabal standards. Previously, I'd only ever heard of groups around 10-12 authors banding together to help cross promote and share ideas. Any bigger than that and people tend to horde their ideas and not want to share for risk of creating new competition.
In this case, the cabal was founded in a strange way as well. The person who started it charged $1000 to join, with the promise that they would share their winning strategy for hitting high ranks. Over time, the price raised to $3000 per member until the group had thirty or more members. It was kind of a new and unusual development in the behind-the-scenes world of indie romance, where it's often hard to find someone willing to share valuable information about promotion or advertising because you may end up being the next person knocking them out of the way as you climb the charts.
So anyway, where am I going with all this about the super cabal? Well... Someone in the group who was trying to get me to join was promising I could "triple" my income as many of them have because they had discovered the profitability of ghostwriting. As I asked around a little more and gathered some information, I became aware that (as of six months ago or so) many members of this group are exclusively using ghostwriters. In fact, many of them never even wrote a book of their own from the time they started their pen name.
At first, I couldn't quite believe that. I would look at their books and scan the reviews, expecting to see low ratings or complaints about inconsistency, but instead I just found swarms of 5 star reviews. Better review averages, in fact, than many of my own books (bummer). After having watched the authors I know with 99% certainty to be using ghostwriters, I've picked up on a few interesting patterns.
One is that these authors initially can hit high ranks. It seems to take months and months for reader trust in their pen name to deteriorate to the point that they start hitting progressively weaker ranks with each new release. However, these "authors" have found a workaround. When their old pen name starts to get a tarnished reputation, or when they just want to kickstart a new pen name (because why limit yourself to one pen name if you're publishing other people's books?) they start off with a few cowritten books. They will slap their original pen name on the book and their new pen name below it. The new pen name, as far as I can tell, exists because they are buying more manuscripts than they can believably push out on their original pen name. As an added bonus, it's a fresh name and people won't realize the style isn't consistent from book to book right away.
Now, all of this being said... At the end of the day, what's the real harm? As a reader, you get a book that is likely as advertised from the cover and blurb (though I'm going to come back to the blurb). Maybe you even enjoy the book, so who cares if it's written by a different author from book to book. After all, you read different authors anyway, right?
Most of this is true, but there are a few problems. One is that the reviews are highly doctored on these books. The technique many of these "authors" use is to collect both the name and email of people on the ARC list and aggressively insist that each reviewer sends a link to their review. If they are sent a review with less than 4 stars (or even 5 if they are trying to get a 5 star average every time) they will cut that member from their team. They also might share these ARC lists among themselves in the super group (totally speculating on this part, forgive me for that). The end result is that relatively new authors are launching books that get 200+ reviews in the first couple days with 5 star averages, because they've created a list of people who either take the free book and leave a bogus 5 star review, or people who for whatever reason tend to leave 5 star reviews no matter the content.
So problem number one is that you're getting misled by these books and their reviews. By the way, the issue with doctored ARC lists is just as big a problem whether the book is ghostwritten or not, and from what I've seen, it seems to predominately come from our friends in the super cabal.
Problem number two is that these books are undermining the quality and trust in the indie romance genre as a whole. Maybe that opinion sounds dramatic, but hear me out. If you love indie romance books and don't want to dive into all the politics and behind-the-scenes stuff, you're going to have *no chance* at spotting these borderline scam books. They look and feel just like legitimate books, and some of them may be great because the ghostwriter happened to be a great writer.
But over time, you start to notice all the top ranked romance books (which to the casual reader basically means the ones you're going to have shoved in your face the most and tend to buy) are very inconsistent in quality. They aren't reaching super high visibility because they are great books and people want to share them and word of mouth helps them spread. They are reaching high ranks because the "authors" are actually managing two or more pen names, basically like a traditional publishing company without a need to make sure the books they publish are actually good - because for better or worse, it doesn't matter if the book was good once someone buys it. All that matters is they bought it, especially if you don't care about long-term goals for your pen name. I mentioned in my previous post how only about 1 in 700 real readers leave a review, so imagine trying to get your voice heard when 250-350 fake 5 star reviews are already on the book after 3 days. You're going to sound like the crazy one for not liking such an amazing book, and thousands of people will still buy it.
Maybe I sound bitter with all this, and that's okay, because I honestly am. I've only been in this business for a little over a year, and in that short time period I've seen a lot of changes come and go to how authors publish and market. And to me, the creation of a super cabal who seems to have a business first customers last mentality with loose morals is one of the worst things that has happened to our genre. I didn't even get in to some of the other shady things I've seen some members of that group pulling in this post! I should throw a disclaimer in here that I'm sure there are perfectly legitimate authors in the supergroup, despite the handful that give them a bad name. However, I also think at some point, it's a mark against your integrity if you continue to stay part of a group that doesn't seem to mind using any and every tactic that takes advantage of the system and misleads customers.
The mentality of the super group is one that I've already seen in smaller doses on an individual level. It's the same mentality that led to the near-destruction of the value of author newsletters. It's a mentality that says all I care about is how well my next book does. I'd rather make 20% more on my next book, no matter the cost, even if it means I'm burning the ground behind me and scaring readers away from the genre. And the super group seems to be a place where most of the individuals with that mentality were able to come together and share ideas. The rest of the reading community and author community have been suffering from it ever since.