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Ghost Writers?

Of the top 50 selling books at Amazon when I checked the other day, 47 were sole-authored. In contrast, I would guess that more than 80 percent of articles published in academic journals are co-authored. This strikes me as a real puzzle.

Why should this be?

Usually, we tend to think that as projects become larger and more complex, the number of people assigned to the task go up. Compare, for instance, the Big Dig to cutting the grass on your lawn. The gains to specialization become greater. Books are much more time consuming, involved projects than research articles.

There is also more at stake with a best-selling book than a journal article. So one would think authors would care more about the quality of a book, put more emphasis on getting it to market quickly, etc. Both of these would seem to point towards the benefits of co-authorship.

Finally, there are the psychic benefits of co-authoring. A co-author is the only one in the world who will tolerate hourly discussions about a book’s current Amazon ranking and what a jackass some particularly nasty reviewer was. I think in academics most people write in teams just because it is more fun. And I felt that the increment to fun writing Freakonomics with Dubner versus trying to write a book by myself was even more obvious than on a research paper. Doing a book alone must be an isolating, sanity-testing experience.

So what’s going on? One answer may be that people just haven’t figured it out yet. As technology makes it easier and easier, we’ll see more and more co-authored books possibly.

Or, maybe, the answer is more sinister: that many best-selling books already are co-authored, they just don’t admit to it. Big name authors are willing to pay ghost-writers enough to not put their name on books. I remember once Charles Barkley got in trouble because of some of the things he wrote in his autobiography. His response was that he hadn’t read that far into the book and didn’t have any idea that he had “written” the controversial things.

I had no idea that the Pope had written so many books. I stopped counting when I reached his 30th book. Only a few are co-authored. Would it be a sin for the pope to have a ghost writer?