A Conundrum: Marketing Confidential Services

In a recent Wall Street Journal discussion, a ghostwriter asked a good question:

Say you’re in a business, as I am, where you do a good bit of writing for clients who do not want others to know they’ve used a “ghostwriter”. You can’t use recent writing samples, or name names, at least those of current or very recent clients. In this instance, owing to the desire for complete confidentiality, word of mouth is not a real option. How, then, do you market yourself to potential clients?

The assumption, of course, is that when you agree to be a ghostwriter, you agree to never reveal your role. But this has never been the case for me. This is how I responded:

As a ghostwriter with over five completed projects, I can say that this is not really a problem. I have yet to encounter a principal who wasn’t sensitive to my needs to market my services. Besides, very few principals these days really have the kinds of issues with other people knowing that they used a ghostwriter. It’s not like it was when ghostwriting was really in the closet. If the principals believe that I am being discrete, I can always get their permission to share details of their projects.

The original writer then reminded me that the situation is different when it comes to ghostwriters who write fiction. I write exclusively non-fiction (well, expect for my tax returns.) Few of the people who hire ghostwriters for non-fiction books want it to be a deep, dark secret. Almost all are willing to credit the role of the ghost, either in the acknowledgements or even on the cover or title page. All my clients were willing to be references. But there is a corner of the ghostwriting realm that is still in the closet. It is a fact that many fiction writers, even highly successful ones, use ghostwriters. These writers are more reluctant to share the credit and insist the ghostwriters they retain sign rigid NDAs. This is what he wrote back.

I wish this was the case in my business, where I tend to create characters and otherwise imbue the pieces with personality. Some clients, as you say, are supportive so long as their names are expunged, others not. In any case, I’ve devised other ways to get around the problem that get around the use of names/samples entirely. I was simply interested in how anyone else has done so. Thanks.

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