I might prefer it if they sent wine or photographs of half-naked men, but let’s not dwell.
The content of my email inbox has changed considerably in the 18 months since my first romantic comedy hit shelves. Luckily, I haven’t seen a decline in the number of messages requesting I purchase penile implants, low-cost Viagra, and Russian brides, but I have seen a distinct rise in requests that aren’t as much fun.
- Will you donate signed books?
- Will you judge our contest?
- Will you write a guest post on my blog?
- Will you critique my manuscript or query letter?
- Will you speak at this event?
- Will you tell me how to write a book and get it published?
- Will you introduce me to your agent?
- Will you do that swirly thing with the handcuffs and the strawberry jam?
While the last one is an automatic yes, the rest, sadly, are not. I wish they could be, just like I wish I could gather everyone up in a big group hug with complimentary butt pats.
But with my time stretched to the absolute breaking point (I’m currently on deadline to write an entire book in six weeks) and my finances keeping me squarely on the discount wine aisle, I find myself saying no a lot more than I ever have in my life.
It makes me sad, but it also makes me realize there are things people might not realize when making requests to authors or other business professionals. If you’re planning to hit someone up for a favor in the near future, here are six things to keep in mind:
Free is a good price (but not for everyone)
My agent does a splendid job negotiating my publishing contracts to provide me with a decent stack of my own books for promotional giveaways and gifts to friends and family. Even so, my stash generally runs out quickly, which means I'm digging into my own wallet to purchase any additional books I need. It’s a weird feeling placing an order for a book you wrote, and even weirder knowing that even with an author discount, the cost + shipping ends up being pretty close to the retail price. While organizing receipts for taxes last week, I caught sight of what I paid for copies of my own books in 2012. The amount made me cringe, as did the receipts for postage and mailing supplies. I contribute to charity auctions and book giveaways as often as I can, but there’s a limit to my resources. Want an author to contribute a signed book to your auction or giveaway? Offer to chip in for postage, or spring for the cost of the book itself. The same rule applies if you're hitting up another retailer for goods or services.You’re a lot more likely to hear a yes (perhaps even a hellyesthankyousomuch) if you offer to cover the person's out-of-pocket costs.
Spell the person's name right
Not long ago, someone contacted my agent asking if Twana would be willing to judge a contest. I see the misspelling a lot, so I’m generally pretty understanding. Hell, I’ve been known to type my own name that way after a few glasses of wine. I replied directly to the requestor, politely explaining I was too swamped to judge, but wishing the best with the contest. I signed the email with the correct spelling of my name, along with my auto-generated signature line containing four (count ‘em, FOUR) instances of my name spelled correctly. My email address itself also gives the correct spelling, so I was surprised to receive a response moments later that began, “Thanks, Twana.” I resisted the urge to beat my head on the keyboard as I read the follow-up request for free signed books in lieu of my time judging.
I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but it’s not. I understand I don’t have the most common name on the planet, and like most people with unusual names, I expect the occasional misspelling or typo. But if you’re asking a favor from someone, the least you can do is take a few minutes to google and make sure you're correctly spelling the person's name or business.
Know something about the person you’re contacting
Looking back over requests I’ve accepted in the last year, there’s something every single one has in common: the person making the request knew something about my books or about me personally. I don’t have children or any particular connection to a private school in Vermont, so that request for signed books to auction in a fund-raiser for the school's lacrosse team? Sorry, not my top priority. But the reader who knows I’m a sucker for animals and kicks off the donation request for a no-kill shelter by asking about my pets by name? Yep, that one gets a second look. I’m pretty easy to stalk, whether you’re scrounging for personal details here on the blog, my website, on Facebook, on Twitter, or by digging through my trash. Most authors are similarly stalkable, so take a moment to learn something about the person you’re approaching for a favor.
Flattery will get you everywhere
Number of requests I’ve accepted that begin, “dear author” and include a generic solicitation for free books, contest judging, publication advice, guest blogging, or a pair of panties from my laundry hamper: Zero.
Number of requests I’ve accepted that refer to me by name and describe damaged keyboards and/or nasal passages resulting from the requestor shooting a beverage out his/her nose while laughing at a scene in one of my books: A lot more than zero.
That’s not to say I’ll always say yes to someone who claims to have read one of my books, nor am I suggesting your ticket to a favor is tattooing a part of your body with a quotation from the Cheez Doodle scene in Making Waves. But if you’ve read and enjoyed something in one of my books, that’s a nice thing to mention when you hit me up for a favor. Same goes for literary agents, retailers, or other business professionals. It never hurts to compliment an agent's client before asking her to read your sample chapters, or to praise a specific dish on a restaurant menu before you hit up the manager to donate a gift certificate.
Have we met?
We don’t need to have a pillow fight in our underwear to have a personal connection (though I’ll wait right here if you want to grab your pillow). But if we’ve interacted in some capacity, that’s a good thing to highlight. Maybe we’ve commiserated on Twitter about our shared habit of spilling food down the front of our shirts. Maybe we’ve “liked” each other’s food photos on Facebook. Maybe we’ve met at a conference or at the gym or while peering through the keyhole of Daniel Craig’s hotel room. If we have a personal connection of any kind, remind me of it when you get in touch.
What’s in it for me?
Agent Janet Reid had a brilliant blog post last year with this same title, and I encourage everyone to go read it if you’re thinking of hitting up any creative professional for a favor. To quote one of the most beautifully, snarkily direct parts of the post:
You want an agent at your conference? You want me to judge a contest? You want me to guest blog? You want me to critique pages? So do a lot of other people. You have to show me the value of saying yes.
I've had people tell me with a straight face (mostly ‘cause I think they actually believed it) that
--being on their blog would give me more visibility;
--attending their conference would help me get in touch with writers;
-- judging a contest would bring me potential clients.
None of those are actual benefits that accrue from those events (and my keyboard didn't survive the visibility one) nor are they things I want to accomplish.
I want to promote my clients.
I want to promote my agency and colleagues.
I want to contribute to causes I support.
Figure out how your request will help me do that, and when you email to ask the favor, spell out how it does any one of those three things and your chances of yes get better.
Now, clearly an author’s goals are different from an agent’s, just like creative professionals or the owners of retail shops have another set of ambitions. A good friend of mine owns a handbag boutique, and rarely does a day go by without someone dropping in to ask her to contribute merchandise or cash to a worthy cause. The ones that pique her interest are the folks who can use solid numbers and market research to show how being involved will result in an increase in traffic to her shop. Telling her she needs to contribute because it’s “the right thing to do for the community” will earn you a stern look and a list of the hundreds of other ways she gives back to the community every day.
So there you have it—six ways to sweeten the pot if you’re asking an author or other business professional for a favor. Got other tips to add? Please share in the comments!
And let me know when you need me to show you that handcuff trick with the strawberry jam. You might want to buy some extra washcloths.