The Death of the Author

One of the nice things about being an author is the knowledge that even after you’re gone, your books will still be out there. But some authors continue to put out new books even after they’ve died. In most cases, this is because the family of the author (or whomever owns the copyright, I suppose) hires a ghostwriter to continue to write under that author’s name. ‘

A famous example of this is author VC Andrews. In 1979, Andrew’s debut novel, Flowers in the Attic became a best seller. She wrote a few other successful novels before her death in 1986, and more than 70 bestsellers since! The vast majority of her work has been written under her name by Andrew Neiderman. Initially Neiderman was hired by Andrews estate to finish Garden of Shadows, the prequel to Flowers in the Attic that she’d been working on at the time of her death. He later finished her unfinished Casteel series and continued from there.

A biography of VC Andrews by her ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman

Andrews wrote mostly 4-5 book series (with a single stand alone title) that were mostly non-supernatural gothic horror. But literary markets change. So Neiderman has written trilogies, standalone and duologies in her name. And sometimes a lot changes: for example the duology Daughter of Darkness and Daughter of Light introduces vampires to Andrews’ world. Obviously no one can know what Andrews would have thought of this: she may have been all for it, or she may have hated it! But the Andrews estate is pretty open about Neiderman’s work. In an open letter included in the book Dawn in 1990 they announced that a ghostwriter had been hired to “organize and complete Virginia’s stories and to expand upon them by creating additional novels inspired by her wonderful storytelling genius.” It was another several years before it was revealed that Neiderman was the ghostwriter. Since then, he has been interviewed a number of times about the gig, and written a biography of Andrews under his own name.

Tilly Bagshawe is credited alonside Sidney Sheldon as the author of the “Sidney Sheldon” series (image credit: goodreads)

Tilly Bagshawe is another writer whose work frequently appears under a different name. Sidney Sheldon had sold hundreds of millions of books when he died in 2007. Bagshawe, who has written books under her own name as well, has a Sidney Sheldon page on her website where she reveals that she’s taken “up the mantle of this late, great author, writing in his inimitable Sheldon style.” All of Bagshawe’s work in Sheldon’s name has titles like “Sidney Sheldon’s Mistress of the Game” and “Sidney Sheldon’s The Silent Widow” whereas Sheldon’s own work is just called by the novel’s title. Additionally, Bagshawe is listed as an author on all the “Sidney Sheldon” books she wrote.

An interesting case is romance writer Janet Dailey. Dailey died in 2013 having written a number of romance series. However, over on the Topaz Literary Blog, Lyndsay E Hobbs wrote that as a February 2021 Dailey’s website made no mention of her death, and even seemed to make an effort to make it sound like she was still alive and writing. You could subscribe to the “author’s” newsletter, follow “her” on Facebook, and read a bio written in the present tense with no mention of Dailey’s death. When Hobbs sent a contact email to the website about this she received this in reply: That’s a good question and one I get asked frequently. Before she died, Janet mentored a young author and taught the woman how to write in her style. Janet also left outlines of future books and outlines for the characters to work from. I guess Janet knew how beloved her characters were and how heartbroken readers would be if no one ever knew what happened to the Calders, or her other characters. We like to think the writer is doing a good job of keeping to the spirit of Janet’s writing, and she is acknowledged in every book.” However the website admin she’d been corresponding with didn’t even know the name of the ghostwriter. After she’d contacted the publisher and been told they don’t give out any info about ghostwriters, she said that it did seem as if the publisher was trying to be deceptive about Dailey’s death. She received no response.

In 2017, Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone mystery novels died. She’d started the Kinsey Millhone series in 1982 with A is for Alibi. At the time of her death, her most recent novel, Y is for Yesterday had just been published. In a Facebook post, her daughter wrote: “Many of you also know that she was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, and in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.” In an interview, her husband Steven Humphrey added that she’d been struggling to think of an ending for the series when she became ill, so there’s no manuscript to work from. “Nothing’s been written. There is no Z.”

Obviously there are a number of ways to handle someone else writing in the name of a dead author. Personally I’m OK with the idea, as long as the author would have been OK with this (I think in Grafton’s case her family did the right thing), and as long as they are open and forthcoming about the fact that the books are being written by a ghostwriter. Would I want someone writing in my name someday when I’m gone? I don’t know…

What do you think of this practice? Are you comfortable with ghostwriters taking over from popular authors?

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8 thoughts on “The Death of the Author

  1. Hmm, guess I haven’t given this one much thought. I will say the “Sidney Sheldon’s [Title] by Tilly Bagshawe” is confusing to me as a reader. In what sense is it “Sidney Sheldon’s”?

    I guess it depends upon the nature of the work. If the author has written a rather formulaic series with a recognizable setting and beloved characters, maybe another person could in a sense continue writing that author’s books. However, there are authors this would not work for. Tolkien springs to mind. P.G. Wodehouse, maybe yes.

    I do know of two beloved authors who had a child take over their writing. Felix Francis wrote several novels with his father, Dick Francis, while the former was still alive, and has continued to turn out racing mysteries after his father’s passing, and I think they are just as good. Tony Hillerman’s daughter did the same with his Navajo police procedural novels. I’m very happy about both these cases.

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    • I think Tilly Bagshawe’s “Sidney Sheldon” books are inspired by Sheldon in terms of style and subject matter. That’s my impression anyway!

      That’s interesting about a family member continuing the series. I think (if the family member writes) this would be the best option. It’s someone who knew the author well and maybe had some insight into what they wanted for the series/character.

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      • Yeah, it would make more sense to me if it said “[Title]: a novel of Sideny Sheldon’s [name of Sidney Sheldon’s trademark main character] by Tilly Bagshawe.” Like, I need just a little more there.

        If that makes sense.

        I feel like I have seen this before, where the famous author’s name and the ghostwriter’s name are both on the cover, but I think it’s in cases where the author is still living and has a stable of ghostwriters turning out trademark work. Then it’s “FAMOUS AUTHOR with Ghostwriter” or “Ghostwriter with FAMOUS AUTHOR.” LOL

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      • Yeah, I guess I feel like that’s a bit different because if the author is alive, they can give feedback or say “no” to something they don’t like. Even if they don’t have much to do with the actual writing of the book, they still have some control over the outcome.

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  2. I think so much of it depends on the author’s wishes! Like you said, Grafton’s family absolutely did the right thing, since Sue Grafton said that she didn’t want someone to ghostwrite under her name. In other cases… it might make sense? Like Christopher Tolkien polishing and publishing some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, or Todd McCaffrey first co-authoring books with his mother Anne McCaffrey, and then taking over the Pern series when she passed. But in both of those cases, the change in author was clearly shown. I am really uncomfortable with the cases where the publisher (or whomever) tries to make it seem like the author is still alive and writing after they have passed, or refuses to credit the living author who is doing the work. It’s one thing for an uncredited ghostwriter to polish/finish an existing novel that the dead author never got published, but to write completely new work as if the original author was literally publishing from beyond the grave? There’s just something really uncomfortable to me about that idea.

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    • Same. I’m OK with the Andrews and Sheldon cases because in both cases they’ve been pretty open with readers about a ghostwriter writing the new books. But the Dailey situation definitely makes me a little uncomfortable. It feels like they’re trying to cheat somehow. The reader thinks they’ve purchased a book by the author when that’s not the case.

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  3. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Monsters and Creators | Fran Laniado- Author

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