Monday, April 1, 2013

Need a favor? Here are 6 ways to boost your odds of hearing YES

Let me state, for the record, that I am ridiculously grateful I’ve sold a few books, and that readers have enjoyed them enough to seek me out and send me messages.

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.


Neurotic Workaholic said...

This is all very good advice! It's hard to say no, even when we want to say no. But then if we say yes (when what we really want to say no), we'll just end up unhappy about doing what other people want us to do.
I especially agree with the part about knowing something about the person you're contacting. I've received several requests from advertisers and vendors wanting to put ads, links, or guest posts on my blog. They claim that they read my blog and think that their products/services are relevant to what I'm writing about. But most of the time when I look at what it is they want me to advertise, it has nothing to do with my blog; it makes me realize that they haven't actually read anything I've written. So I've said no to all of them.

Noelle Pierce said...

"Maybe we’ve met at a conference or at the gym or while peering through the keyhole of Daniel Craig’s hotel room."

Where the hell was I for THAT?? Ahem. Or, sharing images of garage porn and tagging you relentlessly? Would that work? :) I don't need anything right now, but, as Edna Mode (Incredibles) said, "Luck favors the prepared, dahling."

Seriously, though, I think these are great pieces of advice. There are so many writers' conferences around the country who are always on the lookout for speakers, giveaways, and the like, and the people in charge really should have these things in mind when soliciting anything. I mean, you'd think it's common courtesy. Sadly, I hear too many stories where it's not. I'll make sure to forward this post to my chapter's administration as we prep for our conference. x♥x

miaohdeux said...

My burlesque teacher (who is a well-known dancer, has performed on TV and around the world) gets asked for stuff a LOT. And sometimes she shares the most ridiculous requests.

Like someone who wanted her to shill this skincare get rid of cellulite. Her (polite, but withering) response was, "I teach burlesque so women will feel good about themselves. I'm not going to get them in here and tell them how to get rid of cellulite."

Your post is a good reminder to learn to say no. I am not an awesome published author like you, but I'm a theater critic (for a well-known Chicago theater website), and I write about books and films as well. I've gotten some bizarre/rude/presumptuous requests since I started blogging in 2009. I have limited time (I also work a day job) and like you said, so many of them are things I'd never do anyway!

(Also, one of my biggest pet peeves is when people spell my name wrong, and it happens way more often than you'd think.)

Pamela Mason said...

Great advice here! And thanks Noelle Pierce for pointing me in this direction!
To date, I've had very good results asking for donations for our writers' conference's goodie room and bags. I try to be respectful to the extreme, use "Please" and "Thank you" profusely, and give the value of saying 'Yes'.
So far, so good.

Angela Perry said...

You know what I find cool? The fact that you have the need to write this post! Congrats :)

Expat mum said...

I don't think people realize that most authors get a limited supply of their own books for free, and then every "Please can you send me a signed copy" (even if it's from relatives) costs you personally.
I would also say, in terms of having to say no, we (especially women) need to remember that it's a business decision and doesn't mean that we dislike the person making the request. They, in turn, aren't necessarily going to despise the writer for saying no.

Janet Reid said...

Yes indeed "Twana" and Noelle, where was *I* for the Daniel Craig thing??

Seriously, this is a very concise (and nice!) post about a growing problem. The more blogs and conferences are out there, the more requests.

Thanks for your kind words about my post on the subject as well.

Jasmine said...

Great advice - that I WILL be following! Thank you! I am not yet at the point of needing to use it, but I have certainly bookmarked your page to come back to when I do! LOVE your writing style too, by the way! Keep up the great work. Jx

Aurelia Blue said...

Well crap. I used to do gymnastics with a girl named Twana (pronounced "Tah-wanna." She was very bendy. I was really hoping I'd found my long lost friend again in you.

Oh well, can I at least get in on that group hug with the complimentary butt pats?

BTW, my cat pee copy of BELIEVE IT OR NOT is one our household's most treasured possessions. And even though I told you when I won it that you didn't have to send me a fresh copy as well, I'm so very grateful you did. It's turned out to be one of my favorite books. I love that you took the time to personalize it too. You now have a devoted family of six cheering you on and buying at least one (sometimes two if it's both digital and print)of everything you publish. WE LOVE TAWNA FENSKE IN THE HOUSE. WE WILL ALWAYS SAY YES TO YOU! :)

David Tiefenthaler said...

I'd do the speak at an event, so long as it's close to home and they buy me lunch.

Pauline B Jones said...

If I had money for every time someone calls me "Paula" in an email (My name is Pauline, it's in the sig line and on my website and everywhere I interact, but hey....). Not a good way to start with me.

And then there are the ones who tell me they haven't read any of my books, but want me to read something of theirs...

It's a very strange world we live in. LOL

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

Great article! No one can spell my name, either. (Laurie).