Thursday, December 2, 2010

Randy Alcorn Said It

I believe Christian ghostwriting is a scandal waiting to explode. If we in the Christian community don’t clean up our act soon, we’re going to face widespread loss of credibility. What a tragedy if 60 Minutes were to expose this practice we should never have tolerated. Can’t you see Steve Kroft or Ed Bradley holding up a book and asking well-known Christian authors, “Did you really write this book?” Envision the neatly edited scenes of embarrassment, head-hanging, evasions, rationalizations, and reports that “so-and-so author and publisher wouldn’t return our calls.”

This could be a major setback for Christian publishers and authors at the very time Christian books have made unprecedented inroads into the mainstream culture. We need to confess, repent of, and change our policies—and stop being driven by money-love and ego building.
Many of my readers know that I have done "book doctoring" for some Christian leaders. I have been troubled by abuses I've seen within the system for a little while now. (Ghostwriters are kind of a behind-the-scenes fraternity of sorts.) Let me go on record with two things here:

1. I've never written a book that somebody else put their name on, and I never will. I let authors know that right up front. What I typically do is turn a pastor's already-written sermon transcripts or extensive notes into a book-quality manuscript. This usually involves some level of additional writing, but it has never been substantive to the point where I have violated my own conscience in not being credited as an author. (Some have credited my help in the Acknowledgments, some haven't, and either way, I'm fine with that. I do this work to help good pastors get their messages into literary form. And of course the money doesn't hurt. :-)

2. Every book with my name on it has been completely written by me, except where I've attributed someone's story within the book to them. (This excludes quotes, of course.)

Not every ghostwriter or fake author can say both of those things.

If you're a ghostwriter or aspiring ghostwriter, determine up front how much writing you will be fine handing over for no credit. Know that to write a book someone else puts their name on may result in good money, but it's dishonest gain, for both of you.

If you're a pastor/leader who hasn't written the book your name is on, I urge you to consider and heed Alcorn's words.


Matt Redmond said...

The link between Ghostwriting, Academic Dishonesty in schools and plagiarism in the pulpit is inextricable.

And many men think these are no big deal because they agree with the message and mission.

God help us.

JamesBrett said...

i suppose i should own up to the fact that i wrote most of c.s. lewis's books for him. don't get me wrong -- great guy with some great ideas. but the dude can't spell a lick, much less put together more than a few coherent thoughts.

Gabe said...

Of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that the vast majority of pastors spend so much of their time plagiarizing other pastors in their sermons every Sunday. I know of a pastor who jokes about how much he steals. I have, on two occasions, sat in a service where a pastor word for word quoted an article he'd received in email as his entire sermon. One of those simply did an impassioned version of the Lockridge "That's My King" video. The video was better.

BJ Stockman said...

Thanks for your thoughts on that Jared.


CGrim said...

The "vast majority" Gabe? Really?

Colin Toffelmire said...

To be perfectly frank with you Jared, I do not see how what you describe in #1 is not plagiarism. I'm a doctoral student and aspiring theological educator, and if I caught a student doing what you describe, I would report both the "author" and "editor" on charges of plagiarism and cheating.

It's not that I have a problem with you helping others get their thoughts out there. That's a laudable goal, and good on you for doing it. The problem is that once you organize or re-present somebody's work, you have, by definition, added to it. I can live with it if your name ends up in the acknowledgements along with the editor's, since you are doing a kind of editorial task. I can live with co-author or "with" credit as well (and those seem more accurate to me). But if your name appears nowhere...well man, you're going to have to explain to me how that's not dishonest, because I can't see it.

And before you respond, think for a moment about the relationship between points 1 and 2 in your post. In point two you note, with a degree of pride I think, that every book with your name on it is your own original work. If it's important to you to be able to say that about your own work, why is it not important that the people you ghost-write for can say it about theirs?

Jared said...

I do not see how what you describe in #1 is not plagiarism

Well, generally speaking, in a textbook case of plagiarism the source is not knowledgeable of the unauthorized use of the work. Even in "paper mills" or those services that supply papers for a fee to students wishing to cheat, the source doesn't know how the work is being used. It is a purely transactional business, purely dishonest from top to bottom.

When I mention my conscience, I don't do so lightly. In the publishing world, no book is released without more than the author's hands in it. What I mean is, no author hands in a manuscript and it gets published without any filter or level of revision or editing from others. Yet we don't insist editors be credited, or proofreaders, or the marketing teams that come up with titles, etc.

In my line of work, I take what an author has already written and polish/edit/doctor. I don't consider this original material from me; I'm not writing "from scratch" as it were. Again, this may make some ghostwriters uncomfortable to do without credit, in the same way I could not just write a book and let someone else put their name on it. But I submit that what I provide -- with my approval of use, with my agreement that credit is not necessary, with my level of involvement not constituting "from scratch" manuscript, with the understanding in the publishing business that there's always an editorial filter between author and reader -- is not plagiarism.

But if your name appears nowhere...well man, you're going to have to explain to me how that's not dishonest

I cannot persuade you not to see this as dishonest to you. From my perspective, since I am content not to worry about credit, I don't consider it dishonest, b/c I am not writing enough to find no credit dishonest. That may sound circular. I guess what I'm saying is, if I'm the person helping and I don't care about credit -- and I make the author understand this -- I don't think then that they're being dishonest. I would suggest you don't either, given this level of help, unless you think authors should always credit every person who had a hand in the ms., from editors to proofreaders to their family members and friends who read and gave feedback, etc.

In point two you note, with a degree of pride I think, that every book with your name on it is your own original work. If it's important to you to be able to say that about your own work, why is it not important that the people you ghost-write for can say it about theirs?

Setting aside the appropriateness of your alleged ability to see what sin is in my heart, I would only say I point out what I do in #2 as a commitment to my readers so they don't have to wonder. I am going on record to say I promise not to use anybody else and to credit them if I do (even if they don't ask for it). I can't make that promise for anyone else but myself. And I can't bind anyone else's conscience to my own. Let them be convinced in their own minds.

To come back to your charge of pride, without trying to appear defensive, I would only say that if pride factored into this for me, don't you think I'd insist I be given credit for every work I offered assistance with?

Thanks for your comment, brother.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Well, first things first, I wasn't accusing you of the sin of pride, I just meant to say that you were stating that you don't use unacknowledged work in your own writing and that you think that's a good thing. I think it's a good thing too, and (in the positive sense of the word) you should be proud of it.

Second, my point is not that *you* don't care about being credited, the point is that *I* (as a reader) care that you are credited. As a reader I care that the purported author of a book is not passing off work that is not her/his own. That matters to me a great deal. I don't give a lick that attribution doesn't matter to you, it matters to those of use who read the finished product.

Regarding your analogy to editorial work, I know, as a reader, that there were various kinds of editors involved in the process. That's common knowledge. Ghost-writers are not common-knowledge, they may or may not touch a text. The difference is not one of degree, it is one of kind. Again, I'm speaking in terms of the way that the reading public thinks about these things. Just because publishing insiders know that every second book on the shelf is ghost-written, doesn't mean that's how most folks think about things.

Finally, as to your description of plagiarism, that may be your understanding but it is most certainly not a "textbook" definition. The definition provided by my current school (McMaster Divinity College) is: "plagiarism, i.e., submitting work that is not one's own...." (for the full statement on academic honesty see the link below). That's it. If you didn't write it, you can't claim authorship without acknowledgment. Your descriptions of "doctoring" would fall squarely under this definition of plagiarism. Incidentally, this definition is consistent with those that I've seen at every other institution where I've studied, and with every other institution that I've heard of.

So, given that last bit, let me re-phrase my original challenge. If a school would fail you and possibly expel you for doing what you're describing, how is it not plagiarism?

Jared said...

If the book was written as an academic assignment under the stricture that nobody uncredited should help, I suppose it *would* be plagiarism.

Jon Coutts said...

Why should popular theology operate under a different ethic than academic theology?

Jared said...

Jon, I don't think it's "popular theology," but publishing. And of course authors should always cite the sources of their quotes, etc.

But what I'm talking about here is providing editing for someone's ideas. This isn't the same thing as someone passing off someone else's ideas as their own. A book is a collaborative effort, hopefully at a minimal level, but every published work has had the hands of editors, proofreaders, and various reader/reviewers between author and reader. I don't believe an author availing himself of this assistance is the same as a student passing off someone else's writing as their original work.

And again, I hope commenters will read what I'm actually saying in my post. I am against authors and ghostwriters participating in plagiarism.

Jon Coutts said...

Hey Jared,

For sure. Good for you for caring about this, and for raising the issue from within the industry. That would probably be the hardest place from which to do so.

Certainly, books are collaborative projects. But we already know what editors and proofreaders do, and we know where to look to see who they are. And generally speaking they offer constructive feedback, they don't actually write.

I won't pretend to judge what you do, but I do a fair amount of writing and I don't think there are many throw-away sentences. Stringing thoughts together for someone is contributing to their argument; content and rhetoric are inseparable.

As far as I can see, the only reason not to give full credit here would be if the name needs to carry a certain weight. In some circles and for some reasons that makes sense. I just don't know what the theological reasons would be.

Of course, pseudonymous writing has a long-standing tradition as well. But this isn't pseudonymous in the same way. Instead of deflecting credit it is garnering more than is warranted.

But in my opinion 'Christian' publication has been scandalous for some time now, even before I knew about this ghost-writing stuff. I say that because it seems like a lot of what church people read is predicated first on whether the author had some kind of visible, measurable 'success' of some kind, and not necessarily on whether they have something worthwhile to say (theologically speaking). The fact that ghost-writers are sought after to enable this transition (from effectiveness to coherence) is only more worrying.

If a writer can't string his sermons into a cohesive book he or she should not be pretending to be the theological giant that the book-sellers will want to present him or her to be. Which isn't to say that only writers should be published. I mean the opposite. It is fine if a wise person finds a writer (as well as an editor and all the rest) to help convey the message. But the collaboration should be reflected in the presentation.

And I'm not even saying this because I care about the ethical implications (although I do), but the churchly ones. My main concerns are (1) that we might see more quality 'Christian' publications if those who wrote the stuff were submitted to rigours at least similar to those of credible academic scholarship rather than the standards of what will sell or cause supposed 'growth'. And (2)in my opinion this is a time where our churches will benefit more from the habits of collaboration than from the perpetuation of the myth of the heroic leader. So whenever these authors get your help and then don't give you credit I think they are not helping in this area precisely when they could.

So, while I probably want to push you in the direction that Colin has already indicated, I obviously also agree with your main point and even applaud you for blowing the whistle and can only prod you to do so even more from within the industry, and with the wisdom appropriate to the situations you find yourself in. Godspeed in that regard.

Brad said...

I think ghostwriting is plagiarism. Here are my reasons:

1) A ghostwriter does significantly more work on a manuscript than any editor/proofreader. From what I have seen, the work that a ghostwriter does actually enhances and changes the thoughts of the author. An editor/proofreader corrects incidental mistakes and asks questions about what was written.

2) Most people assume that the author is actually "expressing" his thoughts. So, I think the public is the one being deceived. Even if the ghostwriter and author agree that the ghostwriter shouldn't or doesn't want to receive credit,the public assumes that the author possesses the skills portrayed in the book.

3) The academic world would, without question, consider the kind of ghostwriting described in this debate as plagiarism. That argument seems too strong to get around.

4) If I was a pastor or Christian leader I cannot think of one reason why I wouldn't put the ghostwriter's name on the cover. It simply seems the most honest thing to do. Why give people any kind of reason to question your integrity?

5) It seems to me that one of the things that drives, in a possibly blinding and unhealthy way, ghostwriting is money. The prominent authors have it and the ghostwriters need it.

6) Most ghostwriters I have talked with defend their action by 1) appealing to the money they make, 2) the good they are doing and 3) the industry standards. These seem like weak reasons.

7) I admire those, like Francis Chan, who clearly recognize that the book was written with a ghostwriter.

8) Those who defend the idea of ghostwriting, sound like they are trying too hard to justify something that is difficult to justify.

9) By definition, a person needs a ghostwriter because they can't write well enough to get published or sell a lot of copies. That seems like a lot of help.

Well, those are my reasons.

Jared, as I was writing this I thought of one more question: "Would you feel compelled to acknowledge the ghostwriter if you were using one? Do you think it would be a greater sign of integrity if you did rather than didn't acknowledge the ghostwriter?"


Jared said...

I wouldn't use a ghostwriter. But theoretically speaking, if I did, I would credit them, yes.
I would see it as a greater sign of integrity, yes. I don't believe my conscience would allow me otherwise.

Let me throw two thoughts into this discussion:

a) How might this line of reasoning apply to areas within the church where a representative receives thanks for a collaborative effort? A pastor for a kind congregation, a leader of a team receiving an award based on a team's work? In all cases, are all persons needful of public acknowledgment? What about members of a worship band? Etc etc.

b) Is there no Christian validity to the idea of someone not wanting credit? Is there a line between participation in dishonesty on the one hand and modesty and quiet servanthood on the other?

Good thoughts so far, everyone, and I appreciate the challenges. I am clear in my conscience that the level of work I provide is not sufficient grounds for plagiarism, but I hope I've shown I'm willing to listen to those who disagree and would like me to require credit or not work in this way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughts Jared and linking to Randy Alcorn's aritlce. The article was really good.

Colin Toffelmire said...

To reply to your two particular points Jared,

a) authorship and team leadership are viewed differently in our culture. Team leadership, whether that be the role of lead pastor or worship leader or whatever is seen as an intrinsically collaborative enterprise. When we honor somebody for work in those areas I think that everybody (or most everybody) knows perfectly well that she/he relied heavily on others to help do the job. In fact, we often honor a project instead of a leader for precisely this reason (e.g. the "Best Picture" award instead of "Best Producer"). Authorship, on the other hand, is not seen this way. That may well be bad, but it's still the truth. When I see a book with a person's name on the cover, I assume that's who wrote the book. Yes, she had editorial support, but the vast majority of the actual content, as well as the presentation of that content (and Jon's right here, the two are inseparable) are her's. If that's not the case, somebody needs to say so up front.

b) I'm all for humility, but in this case honesty trumps humility. Also, I'm okay with a brief acknowledgement in the book's forward instead of a co-author credit. That seems both honest and modest to me.

Jared said...

Colin, I understand. I hope you can see that "seems" and "to me" qualify a fair number of your statements (as they do mine).
I think we will likely not agree on every level of this issue, but please believe I do share your concerns about dishonesty in this matter (or else I would not have posted this in the first place).

BJ Stockman said...

Collaborative editing and ghostwriting are two different things.

Props should be given where props are due, especially in the body of Christ. Writers regularly acknowledge their editors, and for a writer not to acknowledge a ghostwriter (at whatever level) in an explicit way reeks of dishonesty. I don't see any other way around it.

This has definitely got me thinking...

Gutsy move on your part, Jared.

Thank God, the apostles had a Ghostwriter ;)

Colin Toffelmire said...

Jared, I do see that "seems" and "to me" qualify a lot of my statements. Though I'd also say this disqualifies neither my statements, nor yours.

I also realize that you do share my concerns. One of the reasons I'm pushing you so hard here is that you clearly care about this issue. Also, you appear to be in a position to have some influence. I do hope that you've taken what I've written here as loving and not angry or unkind. That's how I meant them (I hope...these things are always tentative and difficult). And like several of the other commentators here I applaud you for caring about this, and for thinking that as Christians we have a different set of responsibilities in this matter than other people do. Blessings on you as you continue to think this stuff through.

A. Amos Love said...


Very intensive topic. I had no idea this went on with “Christian?”writers
and - so called - “christian leaders.”

Integrity, honor, character - Seems believers, “christian leaders?,” are willing to
rationalise and justify why we do what we do, and believe what we believe,
to be known, to be recognised, to be marketed, and to live as the world lives.

I vote ALL ghost writing, book doctoring, for “christian leaders” is **dishonest**
if **they want to be known,** and **they want to be recognised as a writer.**
If their name is on the book as the author and they didn’t write it - ALL,
Are they really “The Author?” Are they “Authentic?” “Genuine?”

If their “Name” and “Title” is on the book?
Aren’t they just seeking their own glory? :-(

He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory...
John 7:18

Hmmm? Who determines who a “christian leader” is? ;-)

Didn’t Jesus tell “His Disciples” in Mat 23:10, NOT to be called “Master/Leader”
For you have “ONE” Master/Leader” the Christ.

If Jesus instructed **His Disciples** NOT to call themselves “leaders”
and someone calls them self a “leader” or thinks they are a “leader;”

Are they a "Disciple of Christ?"
Or, are they NO LONGER a "Disciple of Christ?" Oy Vey!!! ;-)
Or, are they just a **disobedient** "Disciple of Christ?" ;-)

Why isn’t what Jesus said important? ;-)

Jesus... The author and finisher of my faith...

Alisha said...

I always wondered how the megachurch pastors found time to write so prolifically. Thank you for exposing this issue.

Perhaps I'm being really naive here, but I don't see why a preacher who isn't a good writer/can't produce a literary manuscript has to be ghostwritten to appear as a capable author without extra assistance (as a reader, I do understand about the usual editing and publishing participation on the manuscript).

Is it that the idea trumps capability and Christian publishing can't let it be known that Popular Pastor X needed extra or complete help? If he had an idea for a painting based on a spiritual concept, yet had no marketable painting skill, should someone else paint it then pass it off as Popular Pastor X's painting?

Amber said...

What an interesting post! I'm a writer and editor and have thought a lot about this as well. I have no problem with ghostwriting when the ghostwriter (or contributing author) is credited. The first thing I usually do when I pick up a book by a famous leader is to flip through the first and last pages to see if he/she acknolwedgees anyone's help.

The larger issue that bothers me, though it is understandable, is the trend of publishers only wanting to publish famous people (especially pastors), whom they know will make them money and keep their lights on. So many publishers are having a hard time staying afloat that it makes more business sense to publish someone who isn't really an author but is famous. This is sad news for the career writers who have everything they need to be successful in writing, except a megachurch.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Any thoughts on how work-for-hire plays into this. After all, if the ghost-writing was done on a work-for-hire basis that wouldn't be illegal. The ethical problem for the pastor obviously doesn't go away. One of the more conspicuously weird episodes in the history of Christian ghost-writing was when the ghost-writer for a famous Christian pastor came out of the closet.

Mark Heath said...

Didn't Moses use a ghost-writer to finish off the Pentatuech?