The “Three Cups of Tea” tempest, Part II: The question of authorship

Who really writes the books we read? And do we deserve to know?

Let’s start by returning to the Three Cups of Tea kerfuffle. In addition to the problems already mentioned, it is now clear that the cover of the book itself is a lie. It lists as co-authors Greg Mortenson (the one who established all those schools for girls) and David Oliver Relin (an experienced journalist whose work focuses on children’s issues). But in 2008, Relin was interviewed by Etude, a journal focused on “new voices in literary nonfiction” and hosted by the University of Oregon. Relin said that he did all the work of researching and writing the book, so naturally he was expecting to be credited as the sole author. But Viking insisted on including Mortenson’s name as co-author, even over Relin’s objections. Relin said that decision was “the only negative thing” about the whole project.

Who wouldn’t be upset about sharing credit for months and months of work with someone who only contributed some extensive interviews? But this sort of thing happens all the time. And even worse than this case is the Ghost Writer Syndrome, in which publishers give all credit to someone who did not write one word of a book. Sadly, the ghost writer has long been a fixture on the literary scene. Publishers for years have hitched the profit potentional of a celebrity or other notable person (like a president) to the literary skills of a professional writer. The frequent result? Truckloads of cash for the publisher, with some trickling down the food chain to the person who did all the work. And everyone winks at the subterfuge. (Sarah Palin write her own book? Now that would be a hoot!)

Some publishers make an effort at honesty by labeling collaborations appropriately: “as told to” or “Celebrity Name with Ghost Writer.” But others don’t, which I think is a mistake. Authors and publishers of non-fiction ask their readers to believe them. Doesn’t this request ring hollow if the authorship of the book is not spelled out? I’m not suggesting that anyone who contributed to the book should be listed as an author. But they should, at the very least, be mentioned somewhere inside. Then the bond of trust between author and reader can rise on a more firm foundation.