As regular readers have deduced, my current WIP, The Wolf Tree, has been languishing, left untended due to a variety of life events. I should probably call it a “work-in-stasis” rather than a work-in-progress. Now it’s official: The Wolf Tree is on the back burner.
The reason: I received an email asking if I’d like to write a book.
As a self-identified author, I’ve received pitches like this before: a guy has a “great idea” for a book, and all I have to do is outline it, write it, edit it, market it, sell it, and then (of course) give him a cut of the profits as payment for the use of his great idea. Win-Win, right?
To be fair, the people who propose such things honestly think their scheme has merit. Unfortunately, they just don’t understand how the writing business works. They underestimate the work it takes to write a book and overestimate the amount of money authors receive for that work. They don’t realize that ideas are a dime a dozen, cannot be copyrighted, and that all writers have at least a half-dozen ideas in various stages of development, not counting the hundreds we’ve dreamed up and tossed aside.
To be blunt, a “great idea” isn’t worth a piece of the action—for that, you have to do some actual work—yet almost everyone I know who admits in public that they’ve written a book has been hit up with such a proposal.
At the outset, that’s what I thought I was dealing with—some reader with a “great idea”—and I was sorely tempted to toss it aside or respond with a snarky email. But I didn’t, and for one main reason: I don’t like being rude.
This comes with risks; writers have been sued for “stealing” such ideas. However, I’ve found that a polite, respectful reply which clearly states that I would be glad to discuss details of a freelance contract is often all that is required to dampen such neophytic ardor. If the person gets mad, they get mad, but perhaps I will have educated them a little on the value of artistic talent and the business of writing and saved the next writer in line some agita. So I replied, asking what exactly was being sought. Editing services? Writing advice? A ghost-writer? If it was within my capacity, we could discuss terms and rates.
To my surprise, instead of dead air or an indignant “Who the hell do you think you are?” response, I received an email with more questions about options, plus some details about the project being proposed (more on this in the future, but there’s a clue in this post).
At this point I sort of freaked out. This was not the reaction I expected. Could this be a legitimate offer for a freelance writing gig? I sat on it for a while, trying to decide if I really wanted to take on a large freelance project in any capacity. In the past few months, my life has achieved a certain serenity but there are turbulent waters ahead as my wife starts up her business. Did I want to toss a big project into the mix, complete with delivery deadlines, contractual milestones, and oversight by a non-writer?
To be honest, the prospect frightened me, but the artist’s mantra is, “If it scares you, it’s the right thing to do,” and so, after a couple days’ cogitation, I’d made my decision: I was not willing to enter into a speculative project where any compensation would be absent unless/until the finished product sold, nor was I willing to do anything “for the exposure.” I was, however, willing to assist on a fee-for-service basis.
There followed a conversation wherein I described all the different models for both speculative and fee-for-service collaborations. I gave the prospective client info on generic split-ratios for royalties and basic rates for services. This helped her understand all the options available, and the ones with which I could help.
We had a few missteps—natural in any written communication where one party is in unfamiliar territory—but with patience and reiteration we achieved mutual understanding and, a few days later, the client (who happened to be in Seattle) dropped by for a brief tête-à-tête.
Result: I’m now evaluating the material and working on possible outlines and a detailed quote.
My initial response could have been snarky and clever or sharp and dismissive, but if it had, I would never have even known that this was a legitimate query. Instead, I was respectful, patient, unambiguous, and kind. The results could not have been more different.
Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be”–she always called me Elwood–“In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me. — Elwood P. Dowd, “Harvey”
Thanks, Elwood. I shall.