Book publishing, like with any other creative product, is primarily about business, not art. Most normal publishers only want to publish books they think will sell, and will publish manuscripts that have possibilities of reaping good sales. Sensible publishers will try to publish good manuscripts under the logic that quality is appreciated. Vanity publishers really don't care either way and will publish anything, as they make their money off the authors rather than the audience. Some publishers go a step further. They churn out books as if they were a machine, and authors were merely cogs.
The result is Extruded Book Product. A type of book that is thoughtlessly put out once a month (or more often sometimes) by a publisher that usually hires multiple writers to anonymously author the books, often under a Pen Name. By now, everyone knows that The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are actually written by multiple authors who use the same House Pseudonym. But there were times when this business model was more common — when there were a number of "book mills", so to speak, that pumped out books by a schedule no matter how many individuals actually manned the positions.
Different companies have different ways of doing this. Some companies, such as Badger Books, would commission a cover artist and a blurb, and then hire a writer to hastily put together something that fit both. Other companies would have individual writers come up with stories that fit the characters, while some companies would create story outlines ahead of time and hire writers to write based on the outline. Whatever it took to churn out book after book.
This phenomenon continues because enough readers accept and even want it. Readers who read for escapism and Wish-Fulfillment, especially in certain genres catering to those wants, expect and want one story told in multiple superficially different ways and do not want to be challenged. The writers and publishers, meanwhile, just want Money, Dear Boy.
See also Airport Novel, the next step up from this in terms of light, disposable reading.
- William Shakespeare worked in a climate where this was the norm. Theatre was one of the favourite pastimes of the Elizabethan era, and the audience was always hungry for a premiere, so producing a serviceable play in a matter of weeks was a necessary skill for a successful playwright. Compounding this was that Shakespeare's audience was one of the most demanding and knowledgeable in theater history, meaning that plays would become old news in a matter of weeks - or less. This created such high expectations that some degree of this trope was inevitable. Many plays of the period were in effect written by committee — the playwright Thomas Heywood famously claimed that he had "an entire hand or at least a maine finger in two hundred and twenty plays" (although few of them are known to have survived). Shakespeare himself was something of an unusual case, in that his status as an actor and shareholder in his company granted him the financial security to produce roughly two solo-authored plays a year, so he didn't do as much collaborative work as some other writers of the period. That said, some of his earliest and latest plays were probably group efforts, and there are some plays not considered part of the traditional Shakespeare canon that he had a hand in (literally, in the case of Sir Thomas More, which is a rare surviving dramatic manuscript that contains several pages believed to be in Shakespeare's handwriting).
- His Spanish contemporary Lope de Vega took it even further. Lope claimed that he could write an entire play in two days, and, according to his own estimates, wrote a staggering 1500 plays, about a third of which have survived to this day. He had a sizable number of disciples and apprentices, and it is generally assumed that he maintained some sort of "play factory", churning out new comedies every week to satisfy the Spanish theatre craze.
- Alexandre Dumas is the Trope Maker. He was one of the first writers to turn literature into a commercially successful venture, employing legions of ghostwriters to keep up with the ever-growing demand for new books. Author of more than 1200 works, he (in)famously stated that he'd "had more co-authors than Napoleon had generals"; in a scandalous 1847 trial, it was proven that Dumas churned out novels at a faster rate than the fastest copyist in France on a 24-hour work schedule.
- As mentioned above, Badger Books used this model. They did have at least one author who tried to work within the constraints of this type of design to make his stories enjoyable, even if in a stupid way, so they were at least tolerable. Sometimes the company would recycle the same cover artwork for more than one book.
- Pulp magazines from the early 20th century had enough words in each weekly issue to fill an airport novel, and therefore successful publishers employed stables of professional authors who could write stories at an almost industrial pace. Upton Sinclair was able to write 50,000 words per week and had two full time secretaries to type his stories as he dictated them.
- Harlequin romance novels are done this way, although without the "anonymous author" part. Authors publish under their own names or individual pseudonyms, and sometimes gain distinct followings which even cross series lines — in fact, quite a few mainstream romance novelists started in category romance, including the "Queen of Romance" Nora Roberts.
- It should be noted that Harlequin receives far more manuscripts than they can possibly use, of widely varying degrees of quality. As a result Harlequin has imposed some rather draconian editorial standards to sort the wheat from the chaff.
- Tom Swift was written this way. The first Tom Swift book, Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, was written by "Victor Appleton," also the "author" of the Don Sturdy series. Decades later, "Victor Appleton II" wrote the Tom Swift, Jr. series. Edward Stratemeyer, the editor/publisher, didn't just throw out ideas, he oversaw the whole process and came up with the concept for all the books. Other series, such as Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and The Bobbsey Twins, all worked this way too, since they were all properties of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
- Although, originally, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys weren't quite so bad as other Stratemeyer works. While Stratemeyer came up with the idea for each series and an outline for each book, each series was given to a specific ghostwriter (for the most part) to bring the series to life, Mildred Wirt Benson for the Nancy Drew books and Leslie McFarlane for The Hardy Boys, both of whom wanted to elevate their series above the Extruded Book Product level. Each wrote the majority of the first books (Benson wrote 23 of the first 25 Nancy Drew books, and McFarlane wrote 19 of the first Hardy Boys stories).
- However, once Simon and Schuster took over, things started getting really bad for the junior sleuths. By 1981 Hardy Boys was being published bi-monthly, with Nancy Drew increased to tri-annually before following suit in 1988. As if that weren't enough, both series also had a spin-off series ("Nancy Drew Files" and "Hardy Boys Casefiles") being published monthly for a grand total of thirty-six new books per year. The spin-off series were cancelled in 1998, but the main series-and eventually their respective relaunches-would continue bi-monthly publication until 2010. As of 2017, both "Adventures" and "Diaries" have been reduced to just two books per year apiece.
- Especially during the 1970s and early 1980s, Terrance Dicks wrote many of the original Doctor Who Target Books novelizations. These came out monthly. From the early 1980s, others writers took over to an extent (and often novelized their own stories), but even then, Dicks wrote many of the books.
- R. L. Stine:
- The Goosebumps series has been accused of this. Stine has denied these claims, though. At the height of the series popularity a new book came out every month, and he was writing the Fear Street series besides; even if he was doing it all himself, it's no surprise if quality slipped.
- The Ghosts of Fear Street series, on the other hand, were all admittedly written by people besides Stine, despite being marketed using his name, with the real author or authors are listed inside each book. One Ghosts of Fear Street book was written by a pair of sisters who go by AG Cascone; they later went on to write their own competing series of books, Deadtime Stories.
- James Patterson and his army of co-writers. This first became obvious with his YA books — he seems to write Maximum Ride on his own, but both Daniel X and Witch & Wizard had ghost writers — but in The New '10s every single book under his name has a co-writer, allowing them to be churned out on a monthly basis. The summer of 2016 introduced his latest wrinkle on this trope, the "Bookshots" line: novels short enough to be read in a few hours, much like category romances, advertised as "binge reading" and released two at a time.
- The Animorphs series was something of a Downplayed Example, as all but two of the books between #24 The Suspicion and #53 The Answer were ghostwritten (Applegate wrote two books during this period, in addition to the Megamorphs). The ghostwritten books varied wildly in quality, and there were a lot of events and morphs and such that only came up once before being forgotten. Still, the ghostwritten entries were advancing towards the end of the overarching storyline that Applegate outlined, and Applegate at least cared enough to personally intervene with a partial rewrite in the case of a particularly disastrous manuscript involving a vegan ghostwriter and a plot set in a slaughterhouse.
- Many of the hundreds of Baby Sitters Club books fall victim to this trope; the series having been published on a monthly basis for most of it's run, with ghostwriters having completely taken over by the mid-90s. That's not even mentioning Super Specials, the Mystery sub-series, and spin-offs such as Little Sister (which was also being put out monthly) California Diaries and The Kids in Ms. Coleman's Class.
- James Frey (yes, he of the fraudulent memoir A Million Little Pieces) works with a modern-day YA writing syndicate with some damn brutal rules for aspiring writers. It's already produced I Am Number Four.
- In a presentation for a science fiction writers' workshop, later published in The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin said that this was starting to happen with fantasy: she called it The Old Baloney Factory. This was in 1972.
- UK company Working Partners is responsible for several popular series, including Beast Quest, Sea Quest and Team Hero by "Adam Blade" (for boys), and Rainbow Magic, Magic Animal Friends and Unicorn Magic by "Daisy Meadows" (for girls). British library lending figures show that Daisy Meadows was the most popular children's author for 2011-2012. There is an in-depth blog about the business behind Working Partner series on the Rainbow Magic Wiki.
- Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Choose Your Own Adventure books seemed to be churned out almost as if a computer somewhere were chucking them out based on a formula. The series was eventually revived by a new company in 2007. In all, there were 185 in the original series.
- Don Pendleton started an action-adventure series of books called The Executioner in 1969. He sold the rights to the series to Gold Eagle in 1980, and they've used a series of ghostwriters to keep it going ever since. The books are labeled "Don Pendleton's The Executioner". Each book's actual author is credited on its Special Thanks page.
- Enid Blyton was prolific enough to be often accused of relying on an army of ghostwriters. Though she denied this, many of her works have that quality, particularly given her recycled plots.
- "Erin Hunter" is a pseudonym for four writers, two editors-turned-writers, and an executive editor. It began with Warrior Cats, which usually has put out about 3-4 books per year, plus novellas. Although they are fond of their series, the authors have admitted that the publisher chose the topic and they deliberately wrote the books based on what was likely to sell from the beginning. Some of them don't even like cats! They later also came out with the series Seeker Bears, and when the author's name and the concept of animal-based books continued to be popular, HarperCollins produced Survivor Dogs with two new authors under the Erin name, and later Bravelands.
- All the Fighting Fantasy books proudly declare "Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone present" on the cover, but due to the books being an instant smash hit (leading every other children's publisher in the UK to start their own copycat series, further increasing the need for new entries faster than the series' creators could possibly write them), the majority (after the first seven titles which were written by Jackson and Livingstone) were written for hire, with the actual author credited in small text on the title page. While Jackson and Livingstone did oversee all the books, they took a relatively hands-off approach, and as such the writers were free to apply their own distinct approaches and styles; fans generally have preferences for some writers over others.
- Tom Clancy licensed his name to be used on the Net Force, Op-Center, and Splinter Cell series of novels. The early entries into these series were ghostwritten, with the fact that they were published as Tom Clancy's [Series Title] being a hint that Clancy didn't write them himself. Later entries credited the actual authors.
- While The Clique was written by a single author, the series was originally conceived by a company that specializes in marketing online content towards teens, and then searched for a writer to realize the series.
- Towards the end of her life, after a series of strokes, Marion Zimmer Bradley would publish books in her Darkover series that were in fact written by others. One infamous example is that of Jean Lamb. Lamb had authored two Darkover stories published in fanzines and then one printed in an anthology edited by MZB. She was contacted about collaborating with Bradley to expand the story into a full-length novel. Upon learning that she would, in fact, write the novel alone, Lamb attempted to negotiate a better deal. Legal threats ensued. Due to the Bradley estate keeping the extent of MZB's disabilities a secret, the partial details leaked were used as a cautionary tale about authors not reading or authorizing fan fiction of their works.
- The Alex Cross series.
- The Sweet Valley High stories were handed off to ghost writers and generally hit bookstores once a month per sub-series. By the series peak in the mid-1990s, you could expect to see five new books every month; one each for High, Twins, Kids, University, and Unicorn Club. This practice lasted for the entirety of the series' run, amounting to a grand total of 600+ books across just under 20 years.
- The Tiara Club.
- The Felicity Wishes series.
- Since his death in 2001, Robert Ludlum has continued to have novels published under his name — as of 2019, ten authors had written 26 Ludlum novels to add to the 27 he actually wrote (his name is usually in the title, ie. Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Initiative).
- The Saddle Club series was this throughout its entire 13-year run, with new books being put out either monthly (94-98) or bi-monthly (88-93 and 99-01). The series also produced two spin-offs (Pony Tails from 95-98 and Pine Hollow from 98-01), both of which were also published bi-monthly. It's worth noting that series creator Bonnie Bryant had almost no prior literary experience besides movie novelizations and choose-your-own-adventure books and retired from writing after the series ended in 2001.
- The Boxcar Children also became this after publisher Albert Whitman and Company revived the series in 1991; originally being published at a rate of eight books per year (six regular books and two specials) this was changed in 2004 to just four books (all regular, the specials having been dropped) and then cut to two in 2021 (plus mini-series specials such as Creatures of Legend and Endangered Animals); as well as the spin-offs The Adventures of Benny and Watch (bi-annually, 1997-2004) and The Jessie Files (2022-present). Not to mention the new books also transplanted the series to the present day and reset the main characters to their original ages. The fact that original series author Gertrude Chandler Warner left behind only one surviving nephew upon her 1979 death was almost certainly a major factor in Whitman's taking control of the franchise.
- The Sleepover Club produced 54 books in its original seven-year run., most of which were ghostwritten with series creator Rose Impey only penning books 1-5.
Anime and Manga
- In Jubei-chan, Sai Nanohana, father of the heroine Jiyu, is a ghostwriter of Jidaigeki novels about samurai. He proves to be Genre Savvy whenever the plot allows him to find out about the battles his daughter is involved in. In the sequel series, a major subplot involves Jiyu asking him to write an original novel, in a different genre, under his own name. He has to struggle with Writer's Block, and also has to try to keep his daughter from learning that one of his clients got him to do One Last Job as a ghostwriter.
- In a Ghostbusters comic book, Egon "wrote" a book by using a computer program to "[c]alculate an almost random pattern of words that positively stimulate the human brain" as an experiment. It was apparently quite well received.
- In Young Adult, Mavis Gary ghostwrites for an extruded YA series called Waverly Prep, using it to relive her own high school Glory Days.
- Robert A. Heinlein:
- The main character of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls produces these for a living, generally of the romance variety, and the narrative digresses for a bit on the subject of these. Notably, at one point he notes that he tried writing war stories instead, but his experience as a soldier got in the way because he tried to make them too realistic to be decent stories. He also admits to cribbing the plot for one of his books from Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.
- The "Unmarried Mother" from Heinlein's —All You Zombies— has that nickname because he churns out stories for confession magazines, presumably by pseudonymous unmarried women.
- Heinlein knew whereof this character spoke. Outside of his science fiction efforts, Heinlein himself was a writer of extruded book products for several houses, most notably a series of stories about an overweight teen girl with self esteem problems known by the nickname "Puddin'" — whom Heinlein later reworked into the eponymous protagonist of his young adult SF novel Podkayne of Mars.
- The Steve Hely novel How I Became a Famous Novelist, which revolves around writing such a book simply so its author can stick it to his ex-girlfriend at her own wedding for dumping him, is shown at the book convention where they sell it.
- In the third book of Gulliver's Travels, one of the absurd projects undertaken by the members of the Grand Academy of Lagado was a device to mechanically combine words, enabling books to be written with no input but raw mechanical effort.
- The main character of This Tragic Universe is a ghostwriter for a series like this in order to pay the bills while she attempts to write a "proper" novel.
- In Paris in the Twentieth Century, theatre has descended to this level, with plays mass-produced by teams of specialists who each contribute some small aspect, such as slapstick or romantic lines. Writers who are proficient with action or sex scenes are especially valued.
- In Artemis Fowl, this is one of Artemis' many enterprises. Having used his genius to perfect a formula for creating the most saleable romance novel, he types these up in his free time between running a multi-national criminal enterprise, managing his family's legitimate businesses, designing a new opera house for Dublin and writing academic texts on the pathology of the criminal mind.
- 1984 takes a fantastical take on this trope, where instead of using ghostwriters, an actual machine is used to write books for Bread and Circuses purposes. Julia, who maintains said machines, mentions that the produced books use the same six scripts over and over.
- In Unseen Academicals, Glenda reflects that the romance novels she's guiltily addicted to are all basically the same, and moreover supposedly written by someone with a name that looks a lot like an anagram.
- In the Freeman Wills Crofts story "The Hog's Back Mystery", Marjorie Lawes writes "simple tales of the loves of earls and typists, turned out in bulk."
- Parodying this trope is the whole purpose of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
- The "pulpzines" featured in the Bernice Summerfield novel Down by Laurence Miles are "autolit", literature written by non-sapient computers ("lit-engines") to a pre-set formula. (Calling books written by an Artificial Intelligence, "autolit" is offensive.)
- The short story "The Great Automatic Grammatizator" by Roald Dahl revolves around a machine that can, by exploiting the mathematical principles which its inventor thought grammar was based off of, churn out a prize-winning novel in fifteen minutes. The story ends with the sinister possibility that human writers will have to license their names to the machine's owners and actual creativity will die out.
Live Action TV
- The season 6 episode of The Avengers (1960s), "Love All", centered around romance novels of this sort. When visiting the publishing house, Steed learns (though unrelated to the actual plot) that the novels are actually generated by a piano-shaped computer. During the climactic fight, it's accidentally activated and spits out a new manuscript.
- An episode of Clarissa Explains It All has Clarissa use a computer program to churn out a poem for her English class. Much to her horror, her teacher loves the poem, and insists on having her read it in public.
- Doctor Who: The Master of the Land of Fiction from "The Mind Robber" was a 1920s writer of boys' serial fiction. Whatever consciousness governed the Land of Fiction specifically chose him because of how prolific he was. Peter Ling, who wrote the script for that story, based on the character on real life writer Frank Richards.
- Barely anyone in the Shadowrun setting reads anything more complicated than a take-out menu anymore, but the Shadowbeat supplement reveals this trope applies to TV scripts and pop music, both of which are cranked out via computer programs that regurgitate formulaic material to spec. Producers can select how upbeat, stimulating, controversial, family-friendly, and so forth the finished product should be.
- The musical Trixie True, Teen Detective is a spoof of such writing syndicates.
- In Questionable Content, Sven writes the musical equivalent in the form of overproduced pop-country songs, starting with a title then going from there.
- The Simpsons episode "The Book Job" (guest starring Neil Gaiman) features Lisa finding out that all the young adult books (including her favorite "Angelica Button" series) are really just based on market research by the publishing companies and then written by teams of writers desperate for work. The "authors" who have their names on the book are just made up, backstory and all, and are represented by actors. After finding this out, Homer and Bart assemble a team to create their own hit young adult novel, using Lisa as the author to be credited.
- In the OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes episode "Plaza Film Festival", the Box More robots' film was literally written with algorithms to hit every emotional high point, and thus pastiches every genre imaginable.
- Joyce Grenfell had a routine where she played a children's author, churning out almost identical books about kids having adventures. "I never rewrite, and I never read what I've written". By a curious coincidence, this skit had some similarities to an actual interview with Enid Blyton, in which she said writing a novel took about a week. Grenfell never confirmed the connection (and indeed only used the character rarely, and for just a few years due to the uncomfortable obviousness of the parody), but the children's author character emerged shortly after Grenfell attended a literary lunch at which Blyton was a fellow guest.