Reader Request Week #9: Can I Be Bought?

Slick asks:

I am rich and crazy. I want you to write a novel, putting forth your best effort. It will be objectively considered your best work to date. And then I want you to name a flat rate for you to sell it to me. I will have it published under my own name. No one will ever associate it with you. I may even win an award or two. How much?

Oh, that’s easy: Nothing. Which is to say I probably wouldn’t accept the gig.

Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with making the offer, or someone taking it. There’s a name for people who create books for which other people take credit: Ghost writers. I’ve known lots of people who have ghost written, and it can be a pretty sweet gig, since you can make a reasonable amount of money doing what you like without having to worry about damage to your own “brand” if people hate that particular book (and if they love it, you’ll get more ghostwriting gig offers). And while it’s not exactly ghost writing, I’ve certainly done writing in books without direct attribution, most profitably with the Uncle John Bathroom Reader series, for which I’ve written lots of little articles (for those I get a “thanks” in the book). And of course when I do corporate work, my name is nowhere on the final product.

On the other hand, corporate work and Uncle John articles are fairly short — I can do an Uncle John article in a couple of hours, and most corporate projects I’ve done are a week at most of my time. Writing a novel takes more time and effort and at the end of the day doing a work of that scope without attribution simply doesn’t interest me. I like money, but I don’t like it so much that I’d be willing to do work that I wouldn’t enjoy doing just to have it. Mind you, this is easy to say when no one really is flashing cash in front of me. If someone actually showed up at my door with a $5 million minimum in non-sequential bills, I might have to think about it. Until that point it’s pretty easy to say no.

The other part of it is that I actually like have my name associated with my fiction work, and to have the work reach a reasonable audience. I’ve had more than one offer by people who want me to write a short story just for them, with payment that outstrips what I can usually get on the market. I usually turn them down. If I wanted to write for just one person, I’d write stories and then never show them to people. I don’t typically do that; I have a performance gene.

(This is not to say I haven’t written stories for just one person; I have. But I did because it was someone I loved, not because I was offered money for it. The things we do as gifts come from a different place than the things we do for money or for the approval of others.)

But basically: I’d say no because it wouldn’t interest me, and I don’t think any completely idiotic amount of money would get me to chance my mind. Life’s too short to do things that aren’t interesting, if you are in the fortunate position of being able to choose to do things that interest you. I am, for now, at the very least. So I’ll do what pleases me, thanks.

26 Comments on “Reader Request Week #9: Can I Be Bought?”

  1. So write the book, take the money, wait a bit, and then point out that the first letter from every chapter spells “John Scalzi wrote this for a lot of cash”

  2. Interesting. I probably would, but I am not in your shoes.

    How do you feel about writing under a pen-name? I have a pretty boring name, David Hill, and I was wondering if I made up a cooler name to go with my work, if it would do better?

  3. What? you’d turn down Journey if they wanted you to ghost write their autobiography?

  4. A Ghost Writer usually writes someone else’s story, whereas this offer sounds like the story doesn’t even matter to the person.

    The first time I ever answered the question, “What do you do?” with the response I was a writer, the woman asked me, right off the bat, “Oh, could you write my story for me?”

    She then proceeded to tell me her whole life story. She wanted to share it with the world, but recognized she had neither the time nor the talent to write it herself. I told her about ghostwriters, and she was thrilled. However, her motive was not to take credit for a generic award-winning novel, but to transmute the pain in her past into art.

    It’s funny but I think I also would have a harder time ghostwriting a story completely from scratch than ghostwriting a memoir like that.

  5. Is something going on? Both “Medium Large” and “Cat and Girl” have new webcomics about artists getting money up today.

    To stay on topic: It seems to me that there is a massive difference between a ghost written memoir and a ghost written novel. In the case of a memoir, there’s no reason to think that someone who led an interesting life (like, for instance, Malcom X) will have any writing talent what-so-ever. It makes perfect sense to hire a real writer to do the job of stringing the words together in a pretty order.

    Ghost written novels, on the other hand, always struck me as someone wanting to take credit for another’s ability. There really isn’t anything in a novel but the work of the writer. I can see why a writer might want to do that ($$$) and that is certainly a worthy reason in this economy, but I think it reflects incredibly poorly on the person who wants to put their name on it.

  6. I’d say the main advantage of a big lump of money is that you wouldn’t have to work anymore. But if what you’d do if you didn’t have to work is continue writing, and if you’re currently able to make a living doing that, then I don’t really see the point of the big lump of money. If anything, continuing to need money might lead to writing more, or more consistently, which would lead to overall greater satisfaction with your life.

  7. Steve Burnap:

    I think it depends. There are plenty of examples of books with one writers name on them written by other people, especially when the “name” writer has become something of a brand. Does it mean the book is bad? Not if what made the “brand” appealing in the first place is still there.

  8. So you won’t rework my Harry Creek fanfic into your own style and let me publish it as a “licensed derivative work” under my own name?

  9. Steven Burnap:
    An example that comes to mind was the Pamela Anderson novel. She spoke highly of her ghost writer, but the idea/theme of the novel was something that she had a lot of input into.

  10. John Scalzi:

    In those cases, though, aren’t they generally listed as collaborators? I’m not talking about things like David Brin writing Foundation Novels but rather things like novels allegedly written by Shatner. Maybe they are good…doesn’t stop me from thinking pretty negatively of Shatner for it.

    I can say that as a reader, I would be massively pissed off twenty years ago I picked up an “Old Man’s War” novel, found it to be mediocre, and then later discovered that it had been ghost written. That strikes me as fraud, honestly. If a collaborator’s name is in the cover, then that’s different.

  11. I’ve considered this question from the viewpoint of an often underemployed adjunct teacher who could make lots of easy money writing papers for those internet services that charge for them–in particular, the one that promises your paper written to order with no one else ever getting that particular one. What kind of writer would I be if I gave into the temptation to write those papers for money? And the answer, of course, is the same as Mark Twain’s to the lady he asked “would you sleep with me for a million dollars?” and when she hesitated asked “would you sleep with me for five dollars?” When the lady asked “what kind of woman do you think I am?” he said “we’ve established that; now we’re just negotiating the price.”

  12. hm, it’d be interesting if it was a lot of money and there were no measure for quality. i.e. i had to get paid no matter what. But otherwise, I write waaaaay too slow to ever want to do it just for money. All the stories I’ve written were things I thought were interesting in some way or another.

    Wait, if it’s a story that I actually think is interesting, then yeah, that might work.

    I’ll do it, for…

    (holds pinkey to mouth)

    One meeeeeeellion dollars.

  13. I hope this isn’t inappropriate for the discussion, but I have to admit I would think much more highly of a member of any profession, even the Oldest Profession, who commanded a price of $5 million than of one who did the same thing for $5. Maybe it is just haggling about the price, but $5 million worth of haggling is pretty impressive in any business.

  14. My Goodness, John!

    You sure turn up in the weirdest places. I never would have guessed you had anything to do with my favorite book of ah, restroom philosophy. Unfortunately, you don’t even seem to get a “Thanks John” in my copy of ‘Uncle John’s Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader: The Miniature Edition’ (listed as being excerpted from ‘Uncle John’s Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader’).

    I hope you get royalties, though.



  15. The real question is: would you do it for a functioning light-saber with a lifetime warranty?

    Now, that IS temptation.

  16. Jeanne @ # 11:

    “What kind of writer would I be if I gave into the temptation to write those papers for money?”

    One who would be “Dying Inside”, of course (I’m afraid I’m dating myself there…)

  17. You wrote for Uncle John’s? I now have to tell my dad and half brother about this – they will think you are a GAWD!

  18. BC Woods @ #11:

    A lightsaber? You gotta do the research; this is John Scalzi we’re talking about.

    A Stargate and a tanker truck full of liquid naqahdah should swing it.

  19. “I’d say no because it wouldn’t interest me, and I don’t think any completely idiotic amount of money would get me to chance my mind. Life’s too short to do things that aren’t interesting, if you are in the fortunate position of being able to choose to do things that interest you.”

    …but wouldn’t a completely idiotic amount of money create a level of financial independence and freedom that would enable you to do other things that are more interesting later? (As opposed to being forced to continuously do things for money that are, at least in theory, less interesting?)

    Not quibbling with your conclusion…you can write or not write whatever the hell you want whenever the hell you want…but refusing to do something temporarily for a large wad of money simply because you find it uninteresting seems to me like a short term gain, long term loss. Right?

  20. LB:

    “…but wouldn’t a completely idiotic amount of money create a level of financial independence and freedom that would enable you to do other things that are more interesting later?”

    Not necessarily. Lots of people do lots of interesting things for money.

  21. JS — “Not necessarily. Lots of people do lots of interesting things for money.”

    I guess what I’m saying is this: I’m an attorney. I find my job pretty interesting (at least some of the time). I’d imagine being a freelance writer/blogmaster would be somewhat more interesting in general, and certainly more consistently interesting (although not for me — I’m a decent writer but probably not good enough to make a good living doing it…plus I have a lot invested in this whole “law career” thing). But I would imagine that space travel, for example, would be WAY more interesting than either lawyering or writing…and I could only do that if I had a crazy amount of money. Or spending 3 months in Egypt, or Brazil, or London, or Paris. Or creating a self-funded non-profit organization to promote a cause I feel passionate about. And I’d certainly be willing to — for example — take on a case I find less interesting than others for a year or two if it meant that at the end of the line, I make an insane amount of money that enables me to do virtually whatever I want for some significant amount of time thereafter.

    Not that this is an issue worth debating…but I guess I’m just suggesting that there’s more to having an aversion to ghost writing a book than “it isn’t interesting.” For me, at least, I think that if I were to create something like a book, it would be difficult for me to allow someone else to pretend as though they did it. I think that, in itself, would be worth a LOT of money. So, I think if I were asked to write a book for the reasonable market compensation for such things, I’d probably give serious thought to doing it…but if I were asked to ghost write something for someone else, the price for that would be VERY steep — not because it doesn’t interest me, but because selling someone the right to claim my thoughts and creative abilities as their own bugs me in an intangible way that I can’t quite articulate, but that I would demand a hell of a lot of money for…

  22. Assuming the proposal isn’t a prank or a Hypothetical Question, I feel sorry for the rich person making the proposal.

    Even the rich may have something on their minds, something they want to say that comes from the heart (to use a metaphor).

    What, then, prevents them from writing it themselves?

    Lack of ability? Hire a tutor.

    Fear? If you’re afraid to write you won’t stay rich for long.

    You don’t have anything to say? Well, does *pretending* you have something to say make you feel better — or just make you feel sad and hollow inside?

    But let’s assume this was a prank. Surely no rich person is so sad and hollow…

  23. Looking at this from a completely different slant:

    Putting aside the money (although one can never put aside the money)–suppose there was an idea gnawing at your gut that would actually be dangerous to publish under your own name. In today’s America this would probably involve religion or politics. You could believe “that story needs to be written” but are aware that certain people would picket your book signings–or worse–if you did forever after. It would be like sticking your face in a bagful of feral cats…

    A shocking, pointed ‘if this goes on’ novel like ‘1984’ or ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ could conceivably fulfill the requirement of being ‘the best thing you’ve ever written’. It would be safer to publish it under the name of a rich man who can hire bodyguards. But boy, would he be mad when he read it!

  24. Re: The Gift aspect of making work.

    Have you read The Gift by Lewis Hyde? Just curious.

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