'Write it ? I didn't even read it...'

So Mary Francis wrote those thrillers after all. Perhaps it's time the ghostwriter came out of the closet. Terence Blacker reveals his secret history
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This week members of a great and unsung army of writers, whose efforts help keep our publishing and bookselling industry afloat, are celebrating a new hero. Switching off their tape-machines, pushing aside the transcripts of endless interviews, the ghostwriters of Britain will wearily raise a mug of coffee in respect and admiration for Mrs Mary Francis.

This week members of a great and unsung army of writers, whose efforts help keep our publishing and bookselling industry afloat, are celebrating a new hero. Switching off their tape-machines, pushing aside the transcripts of endless interviews, the ghostwriters of Britain will wearily raise a mug of coffee in respect and admiration for Mrs Mary Francis.

If it is true, as Graham Lord suggests in his forthcoming biography, that the Dick Francis racing-thrillers that have dominated the best-seller lists for the last three decades were, in the old-fashioned, pen-to-paper sense, the work of his wife, then this superbly effective team should be hailed as a proud symbol of modern publishing. For, though many ghostwritten works have been successful in the past, this long-running collaboration between husband and wife, frontperson and scribe, reveals to perfection the co-operative nature of much popular writing today.

Modern ghostwriting is not, whatever you may have read to the contrary, a version of the great literary partnerships of the past, nor is it a subtle extension of the editorial process. Forget Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford working together on Romance; the Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins wresting a rough draft of Look Homeward, Angel from Thomas Wolfe and knocking it into shape for publication. The collaborations of today have little or nothing to do with writing or literature, but reflect a business driven mercilessly by the need for authors with personality and a publicity hook. Any self-respecting editor knows that, to be sold in any significant numbers, an author needs an image; words on the page are of secondary importance.

Over the last 20 years, a further simple truth has been discovered. Writing talent and a sparkling, consumer-friendly persona are rarely to be found together. Those with literary talent tend to be scurfy, difficult and nondescript, whereas celebrities are too busy promoting themselves and generally showing off to be bothered with the time-consuming, lonely business of writing books. The solution to the problem is utterly logical: a division of labour, with one person attending to the words and another appearing on chat shows to promote the finished product.

It is the book trade's dirty little secret. There are few, if any, literary agents who do not regularly sell what they know is a joint enterprise under a single name, and hardly a publisher who does not play along. If there is an element of deception to the process, then it is essentially a victimless crime from which all the participants benefit in different ways. The celebrity becomes a writer without having to undergo the tedious business of sitting in front of a word-processor. The publisher and bookseller have a recognisable product to sell. Countless struggling writers earn some much-needed cash in return for their anonymity. Even book-buyers play their part in the collusion; when the model Naomi Campbell's fiction début Swan was revealed to have in fact been written by the author Caroline Upcher - it transpired that Naomi had not even read her novel, let alone written it - the book's progress into the best-seller lists was affected not one jot.

So it is only with the slightest twinge of shame that I have to admit that in the past, both as publisher and author, I have played the ghostwriting game. When I first became a paperback editor in the late Seventies, I was sent a slick and sexy Hollywood novel said to have been written by a young actress, whose publicity photograph the agent thoughtfully included with the manuscript. I read the work. I considered the photograph. I did the deal. Only when I met the alleged novelist in Los Angeles some time later, finding her curiously vague about what she had written and entirely uninterested in discussions as to future work, did it occur to me that behind her slim, presentable person, an unlovely hack had been at work.

By the early Eighties, with the dawn of the celebrity book, it had become widely accepted that those whose name appeared on the front cover of certain books did not always have too close a hand in the writing of them. The future Tory MP Gyles Brandreth ran a firm called Victorama which "packaged" comedy books for busy publishers. Gyles would send us a list of a hundred or so one-line ideas - hilarious bloopers and mishaps from the world of vicars/ dentists/ driving-school instructors, and so on. An appropriate celebrity - Derek Nimmo, say - would be mentioned, and eventually "Derek Nimmo's Book of Vicars' Bloopers " would appear. Whether Nimmo researched, then sat down and wrote his joke book was not for us to ask.

This grounding in the practicalities of modern publishing stood me in good stead when I left publishing to become a freelance writer and editor. Struggling to earn enough to buy the time for my own fiction, and with a young family to support, I would grab virtually any opportunity to make money from my pen. Discretion is an essential attribute of the ghost - we are paid to be invisible, after all - but one particular job was so obviously an act of collaboration that, after all these years, disclosure seems harmless.

Cynthia Payne, the famous madam from Streatham, had told the story of her life once to her biographer Paul Bailey and then again to David Leland for the film Personal Services. A publisher came up with the bright idea that Cynthia, with a little help from a friend, could write a comic parody, a guide to etiquette and entertainment for the Christmas market. I was that friend. With a healthy advance - £10,000, since you ask - I set off for Streatham with my tape-recorder.

Delightful company as my writing partner was, the job was not without difficulties. Not only had Cynthia already told any worthwhile anecdotes from her past to Bailey and Leland, she never quite grasped the admittedly rather feeble joke behind the book. Half-way through its production I was told that, since it was now on a list of Christmas favourites at WH Smith, there should be only minimal and tactful references to sex, punters and tarts, which happened to be my collaborator's principal subjects of conversation. The book was eventually a complete flop - the British public, like Cynthia, failing to get the joke - but I still regard its completion as a triumph of professionalism. "It's amazing what some people can do," Cynthia said when I handed her a finished copy, a comment that I took as the highest compliment.

Eventually I kicked the habit and was able to write for myself, but I would recommend a spell as a ghost for any aspiring novelist. The tricks of impersonating someone else, of shaping inconsequential chat into readable prose, of learning to be invisible, are all useful skills - so long as you quit before your own personality and voice have been definitively erased. Compared to other, more perilous ways for the young novelist to earn a living - specifically journalism or, even more harmful, teaching creative writing - ghostwriting seems an honourable and worthwhile apprenticeship.

Doubtless many writers today, working under deep cover, are taking advantage of this golden age of the non-writing celebrity author. Good luck to them and, still assuming Graham Lord is correct, to the queen of ghosts, Mrs Mary Francis.