In response to my blog post yesterday requesting donations to help me finance this blog, Answer Man 3000 suggested that I create new identity to publish ancient astronaut trash for profit while simultaneously debunking it under my own name. As it turns out, in an earlier phase of my career I came very close to doing exactly that. Today I’ll tell you the story of how I became a temporary alternative history author.
When I was first starting out as a writer, I did a lot of freelance jobs that I couldn’t afford to be too picky about. One of these was a job ghostwriting a book for a Canadian author. (Since ghostwriting involves confidentiality agreements, I will not be able to provide anything more than generalized details.) This author was interested in publishing a book of alternative history, and he claimed to have uncovered a “secret” about a historical event. He had a stack of research—most of it secondary sources from out-of-date books; an extremely rough manuscript; and interest from a major British publisher.
For a set fee, I agreed to ghostwrite his book. For several weeks, I labored to revise his manuscript and make it into something readable. This involved adding additional research, taming a thicket of amateur prose, and rewriting the entire book from beginning to end, giving it a literary gloss. The results exceeded my expectations. It came out so well that not only did the British publisher pick up the book, but it also became a featured volume on the website of a major media organization and garnered several highly positive reviews.
No, this author was not anyone from Ancient Aliens, and the specific claim had nothing to do with the material I cover on this blog.
But the entire process raised troubling questions for me. First, I was uncomfortable actively working to promote a hypothesis that, while not fanciful or fraudulent like the ancient astronaut theory, was nonetheless something I believed to be untrue. What would be my responsibility if readers genuinely came to believe an idea I couldn’t support myself? Was it enough to say that I was merely a conduit for another’s ideas? Fortunately in this case, most reviewers recognized that the main claim was likely untrue.
Second, I felt weird about writing both under my own name and as the invisible pen of another. How could I maintain integrity as a writer if I was also secretly writing things for other people I was not able to disclose? What would happen if there was a conflict between what I was writing as myself and what I wrote as someone else? The whole thing made me uncomfortable. It came perilously close to what Answer Man 3000 suggested—talking out of two sides of my mouth (writing with both hands?) while basking in the self-promotion of the resulting “dispute.” This might be fine for someone who identified first and foremost as a wordsmith, but not for someone who felt loyalty to facts and truth.
Finally, there was the issue of the author. Obviously, a ghostwritten book is not “mine” in any real sense, and I had to bow to the author’s desire to include material that I felt was inappropriate for the work in question. I could make my case, offer up reasons not to do it, but ultimately it wasn’t my call. Although I did journeyman’s labor on the book, the final product was not perfect, had a troubling lack of proof, and was, essentially, just another entry in the endless ranks of alternative speculation. But it was what the client wanted.
Sadly, I was paid more for that ghostwriting job than I made from all the profits The Cult of Alien Gods has generated, although that is probably due more to Prometheus Books’ miserly royalties (bottoming out at just $0.24 per copy thanks to the way they manipulate sales prices).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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