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Whodunit? Your favorite author may be just a brand name

This article on ghostwriting appeared in April 2007 in the Arizona Republic and quotes IAMTW member Raymond Benson.

Kerry Lengel
The Arizona Republic
Trick question: Who wrote Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell?

In this age of brand-name marketing, few would be so unsophisticated as to answer the obvious. Although Clancy’s name gets the biggest type on the cover, all three of the Splinter Cell novels clearly state that they were written by David Michaels.

Ah, but not so fast. The real trick is that David Michaels doesn’t exist. It’s a pseudonym created by professional ghostwriter Raymond Benson, who penned the first two books in the series, then passed the baton to . . . well, no one knows, although the most recent installment, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Checkmate, still has the name “David Michaels” on the cover.

The franchising of Tom Clancy books goes back more than a decade, and ghostwriting is probably as old as Homer. But when even the names of the “collaborators” are accruing value, we appear to have entered a new era in the branding of best-selling authors.

The poster boy for this 21st-century phenomenon is James Patterson, who had eight of the 100 most popular books of 2006, according to USA Today, and is scheduled to release six novels this year – that’s one every two months. The majority of his books are written by “co-authors” who take a detailed outline and flesh it out, then turn it back to Patterson for edits.

Many other examples abound, including Paradise Valley denizen Clive Cussler, who has farmed out his NUMA Files series to Paul Kemprecos and is in the process of handing off his Dirk Pitt character to his son, Dirk Cussler.

“It’s an interesting trend going on right now in publishing, especially in the thriller world,” critic David J. Montgomery, who writes online at crimefictionblog.com, said in an e-mail.

“Then we’ve got the related phenomenon of the dead authors who keep churning out books. V.C. Andrews, of course, has done it for years. But now Robert Ludlum – excuse me: Robert Ludlum{trade} – is writing books, despite the fact that he died six years ago. (The publisher doesn’t make it any too obvious either that he’s not still writing them.)”

There are many variations on the theme, from secret ghostwriters and credited co-authors to posthumous publication and next-generation torchbearers, such as Brian Herbert and Christopher Tolkien, who are keeping alive the respective Dune and Middle-earth universes created by their fathers.

The common denominator is the centrality of an author’s name as brand – as opposed to a character name, such as James Bond or Nancy Drew, from previous generations.

“Corporate publishing and corporate bookselling have created the demand for branding,” said Barbara Peters, owner of the independent Poisoned Pen bookshop in Scottsdale.

“Chain bookstores are not selling books, they’re shoving books,” she said. “When somebody goes into a store like that, they’re on their own, so name recognition, branding, becomes more important.”

Subtract the anti-corporate rhetoric and publishing executive Michael Pietsch, who serves as James Patterson’s editor at Little, Brown and Co., agrees.

“Getting people to remember the name is the hardest thing a publisher does,” he said. “The business has grown so much. There is a lot more money to be made, and a lot more money at stake if you get it wrong. So marketing plays a bigger and bigger role.”

There’s more involved than simply blowing up the name “James Patterson” on the cover, Pietsch said:

“His books became successful not because we set out to make James Patterson a superstar. He came up with many ways to make his books stand out and be memorable.”

Aside from the Patterson style, characterized by bite-size chapters and a healthy dose of emotionalism, his most visible technique is the “theme” titles within a series – 1st to Die, 2nd Chance, 3rd Degree, etc., or the nursery-rhyme Jack & Jill and London Bridges for the Alex Cross mysteries.

It’s a technique that also has worked for Janet Evanovich (One for the Money, Two for the Dough), another author who has made her name a bona-fide brand, although in this case without hiring lesser-known writers for the assembly line.

“You do whatever you can,” Pietsch said, “to make sure readers are associating what they see that’s new in a bookstore with the pleasure that they’ve had in the past, and the most important thing of all is the quality. When that falls down, all the slick packaging and branding in the world won’t keep someone from putting it down and moving on to something else.”

Indeed, Patterson, who has unabashedly compared his creative process with Henry Ford’s, is well-known for his quality control in making sure every collaboration reads just like a James Patterson novel. Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time.

“As a big fan of James Patterson, I quit reading him after others started writing for him. I feel cheated, and there are plenty of other new authors to explore,” said librarian David Hunenberg, who runs the Coffee and Crime book club at the Poisoned Pen.

“In the past I always looked forward to the new McNally title by Lawrence Sanders. After he died, I read the first McNally by the new author chosen to continue the series and quit after that. It just wasn’t the same. It is like walking around with a fake Gucci.”

Judging from the best-seller lists, however, most readers don’t mind – if they even pay attention. Bibliophiles who devour three novels a week probably have a sense of how the publishing industry works, but casual consumers who pick up the occasional best-seller for 40 percent off at Sam’s Club may not understand that a “collaboration” isn’t 50-50.

“I don’t think any of this matters much to readers. They just want a new James Patterson book,” said Montgomery of crimefictionblog.com. “Whether or not this is completely honest on the part of the publishers is another thing.”

For serious fiction fans, transparency may be the key to acceptance.

“When Lawrence Sanders died, they (publishers) came out with a book (by a ghostwriter) and people complained, saying that he didn’t write it. People wanted their money back,” said Paulette Blackman, an avid reader who volunteers at the Sunrise Mountain Library in Peoria.

Now, she said, “They’re being more honest with the public.”

Indeed, later editions of that 1999 book, McNally’s Dilemma, included the name of writer Vincent Lardo on the cover, as do its many sequels.

Blackman says she doesn’t have a problem with the proliferation of co-authored novels. For instance, she gives a thumbs up to Patterson’s latest collaborator, Michael Ledwidge, who worked on the current best-seller Step on a Crack.

“It was very good. It was the James Patterson style,” she said. “So I’m not against it, although it does seem strange for an author to come out with a new book every two or three months. . . . Danielle Steel is coming out with four or five books a year, which seems a lot for one person to write.”

And that, of course, is the hitch. With all this wink-wink ghostwriting going on, one can’t help but wonder how much continues to happen entirely on the up-and-up.

Sarah Weinman, who edits the publishing industry news blog GalleyCat for mediabistro.com, isn’t sure whether the franchising of best-selling author names is a growing trend or if the industry is simply coming clean about a practice that’s been going on forever.

“Five years ago you didn’t have the publishing blogs or literary blogs, or just reporting on deals,” she said. “The amount of information available is staggering as opposed to a few years ago, which creates an impression that this is more prevalent. And people are getting more open about it as a result.”

Pietsch recalls that when he was putting together a history of Little, Brown, he read up on E. Phillips Oppenheim, a popular English writer who published more than a hundred novels over nearly five decades before his death in 1946.

“People always speculated he had other writers helping him,” Pietsch said. “He was kind of the James Patterson of his time.”

The fundamental question is, does it matter to you if your favorite author may not be who you think it is? For millions of readers, the answer is clearly no, which is just one reason Pietsch thinks Patterson’s critics are too hung up on the issue of genuine authorship.

“It’s the tortured genius mythology, which goes back in American popular culture to the van Gogh story,” he said. “It’s a popular myth of the creative process, and in fact there are a lot of other creative processes. All of the particularly American contributions to culture are collaborative processes – television and film. Nobody makes a movie alone. It’s never one person’s vision.”

The only difference is that, when it comes to selling books, it’s definitely about one person’s name.


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