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Who Writes for the Writers?

4 November 2002

A recent article in Forbes magazine raised once more the question of ghost-writers helping big blockbusting writers keep up their sometimes formidable output. (see News Review 5 August 2002 - Bestselling Authors 'Delegate' the Writing). Books 'written' by Robert Ludlum and V C Andrews (who died 16 years ago) continue to take their place on the bestseller lists, giving a new spin to the word 'ghost-writing'. But the most successful practitioner of the 'factory' approach to writing bestsellers is James Patterson, author of 23 books, 14 of which have been bestsellers, including the Alex Cross novels and the Women's Murder Club series. His publisher at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch says: 'The crux is, when I receive a manuscript, it's delivered to me by James Patterson. And whatever the byline is, the quality is the same.'

Tom Clancy is another writer who has had help to sustain his output, especially for Tom Clancy's Net Force and his Op-Center series. His agent Robert Gottlieb points out: 'If Tom Clancy didn't write any Op-Centers, he would be $60 million less rich.' What publishers are buying is certain access to the bestseller lists from a branded name. And branding is what it is really all about. 'If you're stuck thinking of authors as 'writers', you're never going to (understand branding),' Gottlieb says.

If the incentive is big enough, publishers will commission other writers to produce sequels to major bestsellers, as was shown by the international success of Scarlett, the follow-up to Gone with the Wind. Random House US recently asked agents to come up with candidates for a commission to continue with Mario Puzo's Godfather series. The stakes are quite high and there's big money involved, but is this really such an attractive proposition? Alexandra Ripley, author of Scarlett says: 'A person has to be more than slightly insane to try to write a sequel that everyone will surely be waiting to attack.'