Newsletter 20 September 2023: Visible ghosts; authors embrace AI; Texas book banners trounced

Millie Bobby Brown and Kathleen McGurl

Week 10: writers, authors, and credit; top AI tool tips; poorly written book ban undone, plus 3 people to follow, 3 books to read, and plugcasting.

Let’s stop pretending that writing books is a solitary activity

The actress Millie Bobby Brown has written a book, Nineteen Stepsbased on her family’s experience during World War II.

She had help. Apparently ghostwriter Kathleen McGurl did the writing. Now there’s a huge backlash because McGurl’s name is not on the cover, even though Brown certainly didn’t try to hide McGurl’s contributions.

This is such bullshit. It’s based on a false and romantic idea: that writers slave away in solitude and emerge with a manuscript that they, alone, gave birth to.

Ask any real writer, and they’ll tell you that every book is a team effort. When you watch a Steven Spielberg movie, do you imagine that Spielberg built the sets, sewed the costumes, held the camera, wrote the script, edited the scenes, and told the actors what faces to make as they interacted with each other? Of course not.

Books may not be as expensive and challenging to create as movies, but we writers still don’t work alone. And you may or not may not see the names of contributors on the cover.

Here are some examples from my own experience; any author will share similar stories.

I wrote my first book with Charlene Li. The ideas were mostly hers. The writing was mostly mine. We collaborated on the concepts and she reviewed every word.. The examples and ideas came, at least in part, from our colleagues as well. Her name came first on the cover, mine was second. It boosted both our reputations.

I’ve ghostwritten three books. On one, which features my name on the cover as “with Josh Bernoff,” I did nearly all the research and wrote a book based on the author team’s ideas. On another, the author team generated the ideas, defined the table of contents, supplied the case studies, hired an (uncredited) researcher to provide me with source material, conducted the case study interviews, told me what to write, and then reviewed every word I wrote carefully — but my name still appeared on the cover. On the third book, not shown here, I created every word of the content based on extensive, but poorly organized, source material from the author team, but you won’t find my name on the book at all. Look at the covers below. Can you tell anything about my contribution and that of the author or authors from what you see here? (And I promise you, you wouldn’t be able to tell by reading them, either.)

On Build a Better Business BookI conceived and wrote every word, but Tamsen Webster helped me to attain the key insight that jolted me out of a three-year funk. Should her name have been on the cover? (I did credit her in the acknowledgments.)

Let’s talk about editing. On one of the books below, I made many small essential suggestions that helped the author make the book better. On the other, I completely rearranged and restructured the manuscript, assembled lots of connecting material, and basically turned a fascinating but sprawling mess into a coherent book. Both authors are responsible for all the content of their respective books. I got paid, and I got recognized in the acknowledgments (which, in one case, I wrote). Neither book has my name on it. If you’re reading the book, does it matter to you what I did to make it better?

Now authors are getting help from AI tools. Should they get credited as well?

Readers should know that books, like movies, are created by lots of people. Every word has likely been reviewed, re-reviewed, rearranged, and revised. Idea helpers, colleagues, researchers, editors, copy editors, illustrators, designers, and publishers are involved. Sometimes spouses are, too.

The person whose name is on the cover is responsible for the content of the book, regardless of who typed the words.

The person who did most of the writing, if it’s not the named author, might get credit on the cover. This is a matter of negotiation. Nobody writes for somebody else for free; trust me, they’re getting compensated one way or another.

If the book is good, enjoy it. As with laws and sausages, the process that created the book isn’t nearly as appetizing as the content you are enjoying. Thank the author for bringing it into the world, regardless of what happened on the way to publication.

News for authors and others who think

From PR Daily, here are some great ideas for how to use AI to help with writing, from successful business authors. Top tips: use it to summarize text, clean up transcripts, and poke holes in arguments.

As described in Publisher’s Lunch (subscription required), a US District Judge in Texas struck down the state’s “READER” law imposing vague but terrifying standards on books available in schools. The ruling states: “READER’s requirements for vendors are so numerous and onerous as to call into question whether the legislature believed any third party could possibly comply. . . . Generally, the government was confused and unaware of how the law would actually function in practice . . .”

Johnson & Johnson is changing its logo since only old people can read cursive any more.

Elon Musk wants to charge for X (formerly Twitter). That should trash it for good.

Three people to follow

Steve Woodruff, the King of Clarity.

Esther Schindler, awesome writing and editing talent on technical topics who is now available — you could hire her!

Peter Winick, thought leadership whisperer.

Three books to read

Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matthew Stoller (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Why everything that’s wrong is because of monopolies; Stoller stakes out a position not on any political spectrum. (The link I’ve provided, of course, does not lead to Amazon.)

WISER: The Definitive Guide to Starting a Business after the Age of 50 by Wendy Mayhew (Business Launch Solutions, 2019). Old entrepreneurs know what mistakes not to make.

Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It by Kaitlyn Tiffany (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2022). The Atlantic writer makes sense of screaming fans and mindless enthusiasms.


Two great interviews: with the erudite Minter Dial and leadership expert Dan Pontefract.

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  1. I understand your frustration about the authorship uproar, but I think it comes from a forgivable misunderstanding by the general public.

    You ask if we imagine a movie is the work of a single person. Of course not! But not because the work is obviously too complex, but because movies roll credits. Even when there’s a vanity credit (“A film by …”), the other credits undercut the notion that the film is authored by a single person.

    Look at that book cover. There’s a title and … one single name, about the size of the title, embossed in gold.

    If the public is ignorant of the writing process, it’s the writing industry itself that’s to blame.

  2. I sure wish I could edit my post for grammar and style after hitting the “Post Comment” button. I hope you’ll forgive my lack of writing skill on this blog about writing. I do not pretend to be a professional.

  3. I agree with Steve Taylor: 99 out of 100 people do NOT know that someone whose name is missing from the cover may have played a substantial role in creating–not just editing, steering, or shaping–the book.
    How many of Trump’s followers are aware that someone whose name is not Trump wrote The Art of the Deal?
    I would err on the side of overcrediting. I’ve written two musical plays: stories, tunes, and lyrics. For the first musical, I hired an orchestrator. For the second, I hired an arranger and an orchestrator. For the first musical, my orchestrator created some musical passages: the overtures, three or four introductions, two or three bridges, and four or five dance numbers. My my second musical, my arranger rewrote three or four of my verses or choruses when we realized that mine was too close to someone else’s..
    Here’s the thing: I paid for both projects out of my pocket, at great expense. Technically, my collaborators were “guns for hire” who were not entitled to copyright credit or songwriter royalties. But that’s not how I roll. They co-own my music copyrights. Their names appear alongside mine. And if either play should get produced, my “hired gun” will be given half the 3 percent commission to which the music owner is entitled.
    It’s just the right thing to do.

  4. I also agree with Steve Taylor that it’s a pity we can’t correct mistakes in our posts. 🙂 I would have added a space after each paragraph.