02 April 2021

Giving It Away for Free

I don’t think I fit the profile of a sap or a patsy, but there’s an argument that I’m a bit of a sucker. Thus far this year I’ve read and commented on two full nonfiction books, a nonfiction book proposal, and a sample chapter intended to accompany that proposal. All works in progress, all written by people other than myself, and all of my time given free for the asking.

I didn’t see what I’d committed to until I was in the thick of it, feeling like a freelance editor (or college professor) without the income, and wondering why I hadn’t gotten more of my own writing done. Just as that realization hit me, a fresh email popped into my inbox. It was from an acquaintance here in town. She asked if I’d consider reading her middle-grade novel and advise her on how to sell it. She offered payment, which was nice. But since I had now switched to overcompensation mode, I turned her down flat. (And feel bad about it, to boot!)

I’m determined to say no more often in 2021. I’ll check back with you to let you know how well I’m doing on that score.

But yes, I give it away for free often. And when the experience goes well, I feel like I’ve made a difference. I’m naturally drawn to people who are committed to their writing, and aren’t afraid to work to take it to the next level. Some years ago, my wife and I “donated” (i.e., accepted no payment) for a weekend class we ran for a local writing program on how to write nonfiction book proposals. Three out of our 15 students went on to get book deals with traditional publishers. A fourth decided to self publish what is shaping up to be a really fine book that she will use to promote her business. We felt awesome hearing those success stories.

But other times the help I offer quickly becomes a time-suck. The dividing line is always the person’s level of commitment. How hard they are willing to work. How easy they expect the journey to be. And, I dare say, how quickly they are willing to give up.

Once, there was a well-heeled business dude whose only daughter had written an inspirational book. She wanted Daddy to front the costs of the “publisher” she had found on the Internet. “Is $10,000 a reasonable amount to pay to get a book published?” Daddy-O asked on a phone call that quickly gobbled an hour of my time that I’ll never get back.

Another person—an accomplished entrepreneur—insisted on paying me to coach him in the writing of a book proposal. Now, next to inhaling rotisserie chickens and slices of pizza in record time, nonfiction book proposals are arguably my largest area of professional expertise. They’re tricky to write. Ultimately, they’re a sales document, designed to sell a publisher on the (always nonfiction) book you want to write—and to land the best price while doing so. But boy, they cannot read like that. They have to wow editors with compelling writing, too. Most people who’ve worked in business have no idea how to write such a chimera, let alone the book they feel they have inside them. Hours and meetings into his project, my entrepreneur friend threw up his hands in frustration and said, “Do you think my time would be better spent hiring a ghostwriter like you?”

Things I'd be enjoying if I weren
t reading your book...

I spent long (unpaid) afternoons with another businessman—what is it with you business dudes?—who wanted to write a memoir. First we mapped out the plot of his book on a whiteboard, and later spent hours organizing scenes on index cards and rearranging their order on the giant conference table in his office.

He was ecstatic. After years of simply talking about the book he wanted to write, he could finally see a way to getting it done. Look—it was outlined to the max! All he had to do was go home, trip down the path mapped by the index cards, and write!

Before Covid did a number on our social lives, I ran into him at a bar, were he made the most hilarious proposition I’ve ever heard. “I just can’t seem to find the time to write the damn thing,” he confessed. “Hey! What if you came over and sat in my office for an hour every day? You could work on your projects, and I could work on mine! It would be like—”

He paused, struggling to find the right word.

“Babysitting?” was the one that popped into my mind.

Believe me, I know writing is not something that comes naturally to a lot of people. You could very well be an accomplished individual in your chosen profession, and never have had to write anything longer than that one 10-page term paper you wrote in college. The thought of completing a short story, or an entire book, is daunting.

But what ticked me off recently was a text sent to my wife’s mobile phone at 8:30 pm on a Sunday night. “A friend of mine has a book she wants to get published,” a neighbor wrote. “Are there any tips or sites you would recommend?”

I hit the roof. Unknowingly, this person had blundered into one of my pet peeves. Yes, I know the world of publishing can sometimes seem opaque to people who aren’t immersed in it, but—call me crazy—are we not living in a golden age of information? If you’re passionate about something, you ought to be able to find the information you need to chase your writing dreams.

I wonder if I’m wrong about this. In fact, I write these next words with some trepidation because I fear I am on the verge of becoming a Grumpy Old Writer Man. So please bear with me.

My publishing path is similar to that of many other writers. I started writing short stories in the 1970s, when I was barely into my teens. I knew no one else who wanted to do what I did. And yet, here are the things one would-be writer kid knew, I repeat, in the Seventies:

* I knew how to format a short story manuscript.
* I knew the addresses of the markets I wanted to crack—and sometimes the names of the editors.
* I knew I ought to mail a SASE when I mailed my story in.
* I knew I’d have to get my parents to drive me to the post office. It was too far to walk, and unsafe to ride my bike to get there.
* I knew I’d get rejections, but I also knew I would just have to keep sending stories out.
* I knew there would be still more rejections, and that I would just have to keep sending out stories.
* I was prepared to repeat the last two steps ad nauseam.

How did I know such things in the 1970s, before the Internet as we know it was available, and before you could ask a friend to text working writers on your behalf? 

Simple. I found it all out at my public library. The top shelf of the reference section had a copy of the LMP (Literary Market Place) and an outdated copy of Writer’s Market. That was pretty much all I needed. That, and copies of the magazines I loved that gave me the audacious notion of seeing my own stories in print.

More things I’d enjoy if I weren't reading your novel-in-progress.

Later, as I got older, there were other libraries with more generous resources. One held back issues of magazines such as Writer’s Digest or The Writer. And when I began to think I could write a novel, I scoured paperback racks in stationery stores and bookstores. The book pages of local newspapers were still rich with book reviews back then. If you thought critically and maybe even opportunistically, you could mine all those resources for clues to imprints, agents, and editors.

The Sunday night text crystalized my intention, folks. I have to stop taking the road to Suckerdom. The next time someone asks how to get a book published, I intend to encourage them to do their own research first. To think about how hard they’re willing to work, and how badly they want it.

Because I suspect that if you’re bugging a writer on a Sunday night, you are probably not really looking for information, but for a quick ’n’ dirty “secret.” A way to hack a profession or an accomplishment that has historically never been easy.

There is only one secret, and that is this: Everything you need to succeed or fail is inside you already. If you’re lucky, it’s as stubborn as a teenage kid, and just as resilient. Find that kid, and keep them close. They’re the only writer buddy you need.

Writing is hard. Thats the point. It may be the only point.

* * * 

One of my (professionally paid) ghostwriting projects pubs next month. The author was a dream to work with. Hope to share news about that next time.

See you three weeks!



  1. Right on. Perhaps because almost everyone writes something, people who would never assume they could say, build a house or a stone wall, assume they could build a book if they only had time.

    1. Yes. Exactly. As if time were the only critical variable. And the problem you have highlighted increases, like a virus inside human cells, the closer one approaches Los Angeles.

  2. The only secret to getting published is to write, write, write, send, send, send, rinse, repeat. It's amazing the number of people who can't grasp that, and want someone else to do it for them.

    1. I can understand the instinct to want an easier path. How many writers haven't wished for that? But when it's so easy to research the various routes online, I don't think anyone really has an excuse to say they don't know where to turn.

  3. I started in 1982--in an information desert in WV--with an outdated library copy of Writer’s Market and a purchased copy of The Mystery Writer's Handbook that I stumbled on in a bookstore way out in Ohio. I know EXACTLY what you are talking about, and have had to deal with a number of people on terms like your. [Thankfully, not nearly as many nor as bad as yours, though!] Sometimes I wonder if we did nnot have it easier, back then.

    1. Yes, that's a good point. Back then you really were confined to largely print resources. You could have cast a wider net, but they'd all be saying the same thing. So that's what you did. Today, I suspect, searching online for "how to publish a book" brings up far too many shady operations. People distrust what they see, so they start hitting up "real" writers fo the "real" scoop. (This is me trying to practice compassion.)

  4. I hit the wall long before you, Joseph. Your memories of how you learned to be a writer in the 1970s took me back to (awkward pause here) to the 1960s, where I did the same things. In college I learned a lot about publishing (and readers) as the editor the student humor magazine. In any class I can usually spot the student who will go on to publish by his or her questions, which never include asking me for shortcuts. There are no shortcuts--only lots of work. Great post.

    1. Thank you for your note. I'm proud of the students we've had, and that's what compels me to help people still. But I still haven't come up with the sixth sense (that you've developed, I think) that helps me know at a glance if someone's serious or not.

  5. When I did a writing workshop at a local library a few years ago, the librarian gave me a phone number to call a potential client. That should have been a red flag right there, but like an idiot, I called him back. He had a TYPED 700-page ms and wanted me to edit it so he could submit it somewhere. He had no computer and no internet access, and showed up at our first meeting with an NDA his attorney had drawn up and wanted me to sign before I could look at the MS.

    I told him he needed to do his own homework and that he had already insulted my professionalism. I suggested he buy a computer and learn to use it and look up agents and editors. I told him he needed to learn more about the business and the etiquette, too. I refused to sign the NDA and left, and he called me off and on for several months before I finally returned the call and told him my attorney and I were telling the police about his harrassment.

    He was the worst, but I have had others. I now screen my clients much more carefully. If they don't seem to know the basics up front, I no longer work with them.

    The only thing I will do for free is respond to the first email, which they have to send through my website. That shows they have done enough research to find me. But it depresses (and no longer amazes) me how little work some wannabe writers will do on their own behalf. The basics are readily available in dozens of places, but they don't even seem to look.

  6. Okay, yours takes the cake! I will be telling this story all weekend long. I've read your comment twice and my blood is boiling.

  7. Oh, you hit my pet peeve in technicolour, Joseph! I've learned not to critique for free. Every single time I do, the 'writer' does not take my advice, and in fact, it harms the friendship. Apparently I'm supposed to say the work is wonderful and I can't wait to show it to my agent. My rule is: I don't critique for free. I have truly found that people feel a product is worth what they pay for it. Breaks my heart in some ways.

    1. Thanks for your note, Melodie. I understand why it DOES break your heart. But I have also begun to notice when a writer states on their website that people should not send them their work -- for reasons legal and practical.

  8. I don't think you really want me to comment. See, I have this non-fiction project...

    1. That's hilarious! Thank you for leaving that.

  9. My heart breaks for those of you who let one of your best qualities, generosity, lead you astray. I have to comment in my shrink hat, not my writer hat: there's a FREE 12-step program, Codependents Anonymous, to help people learn not to neglect their own needs catastrophically in the name of helping others. The fellow writers I give a hand to now and then are those who are clearly doing the work themselves already and writing at a more or less publishable level. If not, the help is going to be wasted no matter what.

    1. I am going to save your comment because you have named the issue so specifically I'd like to be able to remember it. Thank you, Liz.


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