Friday, December 6, 2013

An Author By Any Other Name…?

by Michael W. Sherer, thriller author
When is a writer truly the author of the book his or her name adorns?

I’m not sure where and when it started. Maybe with the Stratemeyer Syndicate back in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Those of you who grew up on The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries, Tom Swift, Jr., science fiction adventures or The Bobbsey Twins know about it. They were books written by multiple authors under a single pen name. (I actually preferred the Judy Bolton books to Nancy Drew, and all of those except #39 were written by Margaret Sutton, but I digress.

The point is, these series were written in the same voice under a single name to preserve and market a brand, and it was a highly successful way of packaging books for kids and young adults.

Though ghostwriters have been around as long as books, I can’t think of an example of that kind of syndication in adult books until authors started building their own brands. Sure, many an author—quite famous ones at that—adopted a pen name to dash off a dime novel or three back in the late 18th Century, and pulp magazines and novels in the 20th. You probably know that Asimov, Bradbury, Elmore Leonard and John D. Macdonald all wrote pulp fiction, but did you know the list includes names like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Tennessee Williams, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich?

But that still doesn’t get at what I’m thinking of. What I’m talking about are authors who write for other authors to grow their brand. The earliest example I can come up with is Robert Ludlum. Ludlum, the
author of the very popular Bourne series, died, of course, leaving fans in the lurch. Since his death, several authors, including Gayle Lynds and Jamie Freveletti, have penned terrific Ludlum novels, keeping the franchise alive.

A prime example of a modern living author farming out projects to other writers is James Patterson. Patterson wrote a book with Peter Kim in 1991 and another in 1994, then his first with Peter deJonge in 1996. In 2002, he hooked up with Andrew Gross for the second Women’s Murder Club. Since then, Patterson has published a slew of books in different series in conjunction with several other writers. Tom Clancy also developed several series co-written with other authors before his death.

After essentially retiring in 1999, Clive Cussler has kept not only his Dirk Pitt series, first published in 1973, alive and well, but has launched several other series with the help of other authors, including his son Dirk. Also keeping it in the family, Felix Francis collaborated with his father Dick on the last four books before Dick died, then took over the franchise after Dick’s death.

The latest trend, though, is collaborative efforts, where two authors of nearly equal recognition combine talents to broaden their often different audiences. Examples include James Rollins and Rebecca
Cantrell, Catherine Coulter and JT Ellison, Allison Brennan and Laura Griffin, Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, Brett Battles and Robert Gregory Browne, J.A. Konrath and Ann Voss Peterson—hell, Joe Konrath and Everybody-And-His-Brother (except me, of course).

In almost all cases, the use of other authors besides the one whose name gets top billing is brilliant marketing, a way to expand an audience, introduce a new series, and grow a franchise (or continue one after an author’s death). But is it really kosher? Is a reader who pays $5.99 or $32.99 or even $0.99 for an author’s new book somehow gypped when the book is written by someone else? Do partnerships between authors add up to less than the sum of their parts because they’re neither one author’s work nor the other’s? And when the marketing juggernauts of co-authored books compete for the reader’s entertainment dollar, are solo, “midlist” authors squeezed out of the picture? Should the rest of us be looking for writing partnerships?

What do you want, readers? Do you like collaborations? What do you think of ghostwritten books (a la Patterson’s series)? Will the trend grow? If so, what value do you find in reading solo authors?


Michael W. Sherer is the author of Night Tide, the second novel in the Blake Sanders thriller series. The first in the Seattle-based series, Night Blind, was nominated for an ITW Thriller Award in 2013. His other books include the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series. He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. Please visit him at or you can follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist. Some day he plans to write a book with Joe Konrath, or maybe Lee Goldberg, or perhaps Robert Gregory Browne. Better yet, Allison Brennan. That is, if any of them ever ask him to.


  1. I can honestly say I don't care. Give me a good story with compelling characters and it doesn't matter who wrote it. Well... almost. There are people out there I won't support with my disposable income, like serial killers or Dick Cheney (ha ha, just joking, almost). But I can handle a double-author book, or even Patterson's team of writers.

    What I am is completely impressed that two authors can write one book. I can barely deal with myself while writing a story - all the fussiness and self-doubt and feeling of being completely lost in the middle of the thing. How do I work with someone else? I'm agog that other writers can do it.

  2. Some collaborations have turned out a good story, others not so much.

    Ghost-written stories bug me because they are a dishonest presentation to readers. Patterson usually gives credit, Celebrity XX does not. That's the definition of ghostwriting to me.

    I would have to think long and hard about co-authoring a book. Of course, if Dean Koontz's people contacted my people, the thought process would be shortened significantly.

    1. Your last comment had me chuckling, Peg. ;-) I wish I had some "my people" that some famous author's people could contact! LOL

  3. I see it being like a TV show where there can be quite a few writers on the same project.

  4. I have mixed feelings. Collaborations, where two authors work together and both names are on the jacket, seem like a good way for each author to expand their readership. And readers know where they're getting. But franchises are a different thing. If readers buy a book because they're enamored of the bestselling author whose name is on the cover, and the book is actually written by someone else, that feels deceptive. Carrying on a series/character after an author is dead is yet another issue. As long as readers know what they're buying...

  5. I think it's great that someone's carrying on the Ludlum tradition. He wrote some awesome stories!

    And I'm sure authors like Andrew Gross are happy about the recognition they received under James Patterson's name, but Gross is an excellent storyteller in his own right, and I wonder if he really received the credit he was due for his no doubt substantial part in the Patterson stories he worked on? Or if Patterson just thinks of them as kind of "lackeys" to help him churn out more books, then sits back and basks in the glory of these authors' hard work, dedication, and creative abilities? Or maybe I'm being too hard on Patterson.... At least he does display their name (smaller) on the cover.

    1. It's a fascinating world, Jodie. Publishers love formulaic franchises, and they like them to continue perpetually. But this is hardly a new development. There is also another famous writer in history whose authorship has always been open for discussion. Even suggesting that his work was a collective for many other authors who for a variety of reasons could not publish under their own names. That writer was William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon.

  6. There are some authors whose voice seems impossible to reproduce. The examples that come to mind are the books produced after the death of Robert B. Parker by various writers. I've read each of them, and find that the new authors miss the mark, some by a little, some by a lot.
    I think it's as much dependent on the talent and voice of the deceased author as the writing ability of the person stepping into his/her shoes.
    Thanks for posting this.

  7. When my late husband, Don Pendleton franchised his Executioner: Mack Bolan series to Harlequin in 1980, for their still ongoing publishing program, he insisted that the name of the author be on the copyright page: “A special thanks and acknowledgment to .... for his contribution to this work.”

    The book covers of the Executioner and spin-offs, all have Don Pendleton’s The Executioner; Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan; Don Pendleton’s Stony Man; and the earlier two spin-offs, Phoenix Force and Able Team each had Don Pendleton and a house name listed on the cover. When Harlequin began the publishing program there was a team of about 10 writers. Today I believe only one of those writers remain, with others coming and going over the years. Many do stay with the program for a few years.

    So nearly 1,000 books later and forty-four years after the first Executioner was published, most readers realize that Don has not written them for many years. Would Don even recognize the books today if he were here? I doubt it. :-) It is really difficult for someone to write in the same style, same voice, and bring the original essence of the character to the written page.

    1. Linda,
      Don's was one of the series I read and loved as a young adult. Sure, Bond was suave, and Helm cool, but Mack Bolan got the job done. I'm glad the series still has a life of its own now that Don's gone.
      All best.

  8. I think we have to separate four different types of collaboration/ghost-writing:
    1) Serials, where the character is more important than the author. The Hardy Boys, etc., as mentioned. The pulp writers, in the heyday, would use several pseudonyms because they were so prolific the magazines couldn't publish all their stories under one name. Plus, many of them wrote in different genres - western, horror, SF, etc. This was true in comic books as well. Gardner Fox, one of the first comic writers I remember seeing credited (Green Lantern, I think), wrote lots of stuff for the pulps under different names.

    2) True collaboration: In mystery, Ellery Queen. In SF, Pohl & Kornbluth, or Niven & Pournelle (probably like Evanovitch and Goldberg, in its day).

    3) Ghost-writing: Nowadays, most celebrities do credit the "ghost-writer" using "with Writer" as a way of giving credit. But ghost-writing can also be great editing - the line can get thin. I haven't done any research, but I'd suspect most ghost-writing is for non-fiction. The "author" of such works - the one who has the name recognition, has developed the product or brand, etc. - approves the manuscript. The ghost-writer can be seen as a specialized editor - taking the person's ideas and making them readable.

    4) Name franchises: This is the one that's annoying and probably dishonest. A "Patterson" book not written by Patterson. Patterson is not Star Wars (see #1). Now there are ways to be honest about this: Title, by Author, from an idea by Famous Writer.

    The issue comes down to character vs writer. Characters can have multiple writers over the years (as Linda Pendleton so kindly and cogently explained). Public figures who are sharing information and who aren't writers can make whatever arrangements they want, though now some acknowledgment is expected. Writers who are franchises should be honest and give credit (imho).

    Then there's the possible sui generis case of Castle, which is so meta it makes my head spin. Delightfully.

    (btw, I will be going backwards and trying to catch up on the last couple weeks. Now that my revisions for Assault in Forgotten Alley are essentially done, and the semester is almost over, I have time to breathe. So I ran over here!)

    1. The Patterson model may be new, but I liken it to the old syndicates. The same hold true for series from Tom Clancy (R.I.P.) and Clive Cussler.

  9. I think collaborations are an excellent idea for writers both new and seasoned. For the newer writer, it can mean valuable exposure and increased visibility, which are rarely bad things. For the more seasoned author, perhaps its a chance to develop a new idea that has been forced onto the back burner due to the demands of an ongoing series, but has been nagging them for sometime.


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