Ah, the literary mystery. I’m not talking about works of literature here; I’m talking about real life mysteries involving books and authors. Classic enigmas, like where did Agatha Christie disappear to for those eleven days? Or, What was the story behind Edgar Allan Poe’s death?
This particular literary mystery may not be quite on par with the ones mentioned above, but allow me to humbly present a strange circumstance that I have accidentally stumbled upon.
If you are a reader of romance novels, you may be familiar with the name Janet Dailey. She was an incredibly prolific author who penned multiple romance series, and her characters are much beloved by her fans. (Fun fact about Janet Dailey: she wrote her first book on a dare, when her husband dared her to put her money where her mouth was after she claimed that she could write a better romance novel than the one she had just finished reading. I’d say she won.)
In February of 2021, the new book in Janet Dailey’s Calder family series was released in Canada by Penguin Random House. It is entitled Calder Brand. Now, romance is not typically a genre that I reach for (not to say that I don’t enjoy a good romance subplot), but this book came to my attention because I work in a library, and it has been in high demand.
In chatting about books, someone mentioned this one to me, and said, “I thought Janet Daily had died. Maybe this is one of those ‘found manuscripts’ that get published posthumously.” I decided to look it up (I do enjoy being informed). What I found was that indeed, Janet Dailey passed away in 2013. However, Calder Brand showed no signs of being a found manuscript. Rather it looked as though it was the beginning of a reboot of her Calder series. Penguin’s website says: “Return to the roots of romance legend Janet Dailey’s most beloved family—the Calders—in this first book in a brand new series set on the beautiful, unforgiving American West, where the only thing more vital than hard work is the love of an unforgettable woman” (emphasis mine).
It is not unusual for an author’s franchise to be carried on after their death. Very famous and popular authors such as Stieg Larsson, Robert Ludlum, Dorothy L. Sayers, Robert Jordan, and Agatha Christie have had their characters and legacies passed onto new authors to continue telling stories after their deaths.
What IS unusual is the cloak-and-dagger nature of the Janet Dailey situation. In the above examples, each of these continuations is credited to both the original author and the new author (respectively, David Lagercrantz, Eric Van Lustbader, Jill Paton Walsh, Brandon Sanderson, and Sophie Hannah).
When I confirmed that Dailey had died in 2013, I decided to visit her website to see what it said. Here I found a very peculiar thing: Janet Dailey’s website makes no mention of her death. If fact it goes to great lengths to give the impression that Janet Dailey is still alive:
Yes, you can subscribe to “Janet’s” newsletter, and you can follow her on Facebook where she has 7.5k followers—some of whom are interacting with her in a way that makes it clear that they think she is alive, and others commenting with genuine confusion about what is going on. Likewise, her official bio is in the present tense, with no mention of her death.
My curiosity was piqued enough to use the contact email on her website and inquire about who had written Calder Brand. This is the response I got:
“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.”
Okaaaay…fair enough, I suppose, although I did think it odd that if this were the case, there would have been a gap of eight years between Janet Dailey’s mentorship of this nameless author (“the woman”) and the continuation of the series. But I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, and I checked the acknowledgements in Calder Brand to find the shout-out to the ghostwriter that I had been assured would be there.
There are no acknowledgements in Calder Brand. Not a single page.
I decided to write back to the person I had been corresponding with at Janet Dailey’s website. I told her that I hadn’t been able to find the acknowledgement that she had mentioned, and asked her if she would tell me who the author is. This is what she wrote:
Believe it or not, I honestly don’t know her name! She’s mentioned in the acknowledgments, but not specifically as the writer.“
“BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I HONESTLY DON’T KNOW HER NAME!”
Janet Dailey’s website seemed like a dead end. (It’s worth noting that the first response I received was also found verbatim in reply to a similar question on her Facebook page. Word. For. Word.) Undaunted, I contacted Penguin Random House. Their curt, one-line response was as follows:
“Unfortunately information regarding ghost writers is not something that is made public.“
Okay, sure. I get that. In this case, though, I decided to get to the heart of the matter and I wrote the following response:
“Thank you for your reply. I understand that ghost writer information is not something that you can provide. I am curious however—is it not an unusual decision to promote a deceased author as though she were still alive, while not acknowledging that her franchise is being carried on by other writers? Both your website and Janet Dailey’s website refer to her in present tense and neither make any mention of her death in 2013. I’m interested in hearing Penguin Random House’s thoughts on this choice.”
In response? CRICKETS.
I’ve heard nothing further from Penguin Random House. I thought the whole situation was very weird, but maybe, I reasoned to myself, this happens all the time, and I’ve just never been aware of it before. So, because I am a very thorough person, I reached out to Gotham Ghostwriters, a very well-established ghostwriting agency, and asked for their take on it.
They were very helpful. This is what they wrote:
“It’s fairly common for an author’s estate to hire a writer to continue a franchise after the author’s death. Sometimes the writer is anonymous, sometimes they use a pseudonym, and sometimes they work under their own name. Occasionally, if they’re working from a partially completed manuscript or story notes, it will be published and promoted as ‘[Original Author] with [Hired Author]’ I can’t speak to this particular situation, but in my experience, it’s unusual for a series to continue publishing as if the original author were still alive–usually publishers are upfront about a posthumous continuation.”
So there you have it. The Curious Case of Janet Dailey and the Missing Author. I still have no idea who wrote Calder Brand, but I certainly hope that “the woman” is getting paid substantially more to remain anonymous. My personal take is that it is pretty underhanded to be attempting to deceive Janet Dailey’s fans into not noticing that she has died—because that seems to me to be what is happening. Surprisingly, it seems to be working amazingly well!
Don’t ask me why, when my current career goals involve getting into the publishing industry, I am choosing to write a blog post in which I throw shade at Penguin Random House, a publishing giant. I’m aware it’s an odd choice. I just can’t seem to help myself.
I’d be really interested in hearing from anyone who has thoughts on this or experience with ghostwriting! Do other people think this is an ethical conundrum? Chime in, please!
P.S. Thank you to Schitt’s Creek for being a treasure trove of gifs.