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Ghostwriting might constrain writers, but it can free them, too. Writers put their best efforts into the narrative equivalent of a potted plant, but they also work under the comfort of anonymity, which allows them to make a living without being accountable to readers, or without worrying about their reputations. The best and luckiest writers use ghostwriting to carve out the freedom for the kind of bylined writing they care deeply about.
Less fortunate writers often try to do that, too, but they can end up shackled to the mercenary work they intended to outgrow. This was true for the first Hardy Boys ghostwriter, Leslie McFarlane, who was initially relieved that his name wouldn't appear in the series. But by the time he had written 21 books, many readers knew his name anyway. Before he died, he worried that he would be remembered primarily for his work on the Hardy Boys, instead of the films he directed and the series books that bear his name. Unfortunately, he was right.
Read more: The knotty nostalgia of the Hardy Boys series
Still, there are some unexpected benefits. Ghostwriting seems to teach writers to intuitively balance making books and making a living. Though Leonhardt wrote in an age of typewriters and snail mail, writing for an assembly line arguably equipped her with the basic insights of writing for the Internet age. “To be a successful writer in today's world, you have to be obsessed,” she says. “With the marketing, the promoting, the querying, coming up with ideas, being able to deal with all that rejection. And understanding that this is a business—not just a creative endeavor.”
Modern media seems to have learned a lot from packagers like the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Megabooks. When advertising became less lucrative and publications laid off staff writers, editors started to rely on freelancers to fill the gaps in quantity and quality. In a few cases it worked, but more often writers became vulnerable to tiny flat fees, intense competition, and the erosion of intellectual property rights. When a Nancy Drew writer turns in a manuscript, she has to expect that it will take on a life of its own, as phantom editors rewrite it and credit it to a writer who doesn't exist. Online writers often expect the same—that their work will be aggregated and reposted and misquoted.
The problem—for writers, and for writing itself—is that it's easier to be a ghost than to be a writer. There’s frequently more money in writing advertising copy than in writing essays. And by ceding ownership of what you do write, you're relieved of the need to fight for it. This is what book packagers taught writers, long before the Internet came along.
These days, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys factory is overseen by two Simon & Schuster editors, Amy Cloud and Alyson Heller. Both agree it's essential to maintain the integrity of pseudonyms like Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon. “Kids write letters to Franklin,” says Heller. “Kids definitely believe that they're still around.”
“If I had found out that Francine Pascal didn't write the Sweet Valley High books back in the day, I would have been devastated,” Heller says.
It’s almost certainly preferable for readers to believe that stories materialize effortlessly, without the labor of an assembly-line of authors and editors. “We try to keep the air of mystery around it,” says Cloud. Writers are ultimately in the business of making mysteries, not solving them—even when that means writing themselves out of their own story.