Paid to Remain Nameless

There’s an inside joke (a “meme” in blogging lingo) about being “a nobody” going around the blogosphere. Person A referred to Person B as “a nobody in the PR world,” and suddenly we had the International Association of Nobodies, with a logo and everything, as fellow PR nobodies rallied around Person B.

Since I’m not in PR at all, I definitely qualify as “nobody,” so I got invited to join the “I’m Nobody—Who are you?” blog and contribute my own disquisition on the value of being nobody.

In addition to leading me into a semantic thicket where “everybody” and “nobody” are synonymous, this turned out to be an interesting marketing exercise.

Ghostwriting is the art of remaining invisible. It’s the book’s author who gets to be “somebody” by having a byline on a book cover. In working to put a client’s expertise into words and get it out to the public, I’m not just getting paid to write—I’m getting paid to remain nameless. Being nobody is therefore part of my job.

But I’m only “nobody” as far as the reading (and buying) public is concerned. Ghostwriters are certainly “somebody” to their clients and the others they encounter in the course of their work. I’m only invisible when I write. I do my best to be memorable at networking events and when I speak in public, and I’m quite substantial when I collect a client’s check.

But You Need to Make a Name for Yourself

Some people seem to think that by writing for other people, I am suppressing, ignoring, or abandoning my “own” writing, and/or that I’m missing out on a chance to market myself. It’s true that ghost blogging won’t likely land me any offers from publishers—but if it results in a book deal for my client, it amounts to the same thing, except that I get paid even if the book is a total failure and I don’t have to go out on tour promoting it.

It’s not as if there’s a law saying that ghostwriters can’t write anything in their own names. Many ghostwriters have published books in their own names. Some clients insist that anyone they hire to ghostwrite have publication credits in the field of their intended book. Certainly any ghostwriter needs some kind of portfolio—how else will prospects know you can write?

Even a ghost with a backlog of client work can usually manage to crank out a few articles for web publication or write a monthly e-zine. The Internet is a great tool for showcasing writing skills, and a great source of demand for them. (By no means all of my clients want books. Many are looking to get their web copy rewritten.) Maintaining a high profile while keeping myself and my clients anonymous at the correct time really isn’t an issue.

The Cobbler’s Children Have No Shoes

Then there’s the “What about your own book?” response to learning that I’m a ghostwriter. This question assumes that I have a book languishing inside me, dying of malnourishment because I’m devoting my talents to writing other people’s books. It also assumes that writing for other people is a mechanical exercise, that their books don’t speak for me as well as for my clients. And also, I suspect, that I have only a limited supply of wonderful phrases and I will run out if I use them up on client projects instead of on my own work.

Sure, the cobbler’s children have no shoes and the cleaning lady’s house is a mess. I do put work for clients ahead of other writing (including these articles). Most independent professionals want to maximize their billable hours. The problem is hardly unique to ghostwriting.

Asking “When will you write your own book?” ignores an important fact. The work I do for clients is also my own writing. I’ve been blessed with really great clients who want to write books about things I’m interested in and care about. And my calling isn’t just to write. I want to be of service to my fellow humans, and I love collaborating—it was one of my favorite things about producing Greek and Roman plays back in my academic days. Ghostwriting is much less solitary than other writing.

I’ve written books of my own before, though not published them. Someday I may go back to them, but right now they’re not calling me. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I decide to write a book about ghostwriting, a few years down the road. But right now, I’m still gathering my materials. When that book is ready, nothing will stop it coming out.

In the meantime, I’m proud to have the skill it takes to be “nobody.”

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