If You’re Successful, Lots of People Ask for Your Help. Who Deserves It?

publishing help

Early in my writing and publishing career, I was invited to speak to an undergraduate class about research and interview techniques. One of the student questions was, “How do you get important people to respond to an interview request?”

I failed to offer any advice beyond the obvious: Write a good request letter. The professor jumped in, as this was a problem that annoyed her as well. It seemed the students—by the very fact of being students—had difficulty getting their requests taken seriously. How could they overcome that hurdle?

The question stymied me—why wouldn’t someone respond to a polite request? Back then, I responded to every email and request I received when working at a publishing house, as it was flattering to receive any attention at all. Perhaps it helped this was during a different era of email, around 2000 or 2001, prior to social media, when I was still crafting emails the way I did handwritten letters—long, drawn out affairs. I was still eager to check my inbox.

Today, even before I open my email, my blood pressure spikes thinking of all the requests, problems, and complaints I’m likely to find. And I receive at least one or two requests per week from students who are researching a dissertation or class assignment.

“What is the future of publishing?” they ask. Or, “How has the publishing industry has changed over the last 10 years?”

Often, I don’t respond. Recently, though, I did, to a brief and well-written request, and when the follow-up came, it was about 15 very generic industry questions—probably sent to half a dozen other people as well. Answering them thoughtfully was going to consume an entire afternoon. I was immediately sorry I had let down my guard. What was my responsibility to this person?


Last week, I read a post by Steven Pressfield: Clueless Asks. Pressfield is the author of The War of Art, as well as the more recent Turning Pro—some of the best insights into writer psychology. Pressfield defines clueless asks as requests coming from strangers who send him unsolicited work, want to schedule a “pick your brain” lunch meeting, or ask questions they could find the answers to themselves (among other things). He writes:

These are not malicious asks. The writers who send them are nice people, motivated by good intentions. They’re just clueless. They have committed one of two misdemeanors (or both). First, they have demonstrated that they have no respect for my time—and no concept of the value of what they’re asking me for. … The real ask in these cases is “Can I have your reputation?” In other words, “Will you give me, for free, the single most valuable commodity you own, that you’ve worked your entire life to acquire?”

As someone on the receiving end of many clueless asks, what Pressfield says resonates with me deeply. His post is the sort of thing I might have written, and certainly not a week passes when I don’t privately share a clueless ask with my partner and express frustration. But Pressfield may be letting us both off the hook a little too easily.

First, and most obviously, this is a complaint of the successful and privileged few. Airing such a complaint can be a terrible idea, as few are likely to be sympathetic (except other successful people). If you read the comments under Pressfield’s post, you’ll see what I mean.

I’m sure he’s accepted that “clueless asks” are a feature of the successful person’s life. You don’t get the good parts without the more annoying. Yet at some point (it’s irresistible), it seems every successful person (at least those who blog) eventually write a post that can be summed up as: “Please, for the love of God, be smarter about the questions or asks you’re making.”

The thing is, it’s pretty rare that one’s pleas will reach the people who need to hear it or would listen. It reminds me of a similar phenomenon with agents who never stop admonishing: “Read the submission guidelines! Only submit what I actually represent!” It’s a valid admonishment, but probably 99 percent of writers who go to conferences or read publishing guidebooks know that already. The majority of queries that agents receive are from people who will never attend a conference or educate themselves on proper etiquette. But because it’s the thing that annoys agents day in, day out, they can’t help but admonish the people whose ear they do have.


This doesn’t answer the question, though, of what responsibility the successful might have toward others—or what is owed. Here, I likely diverge from Pressfield. What authority, status, and success I have is partly (maybe wholly) the result of those who have granted it to me. If I am a publishing expert, it’s because you say or believe I am. I’m reminded of an Alan Watts lecture, where he says:

You can’t talk about a person walking, unless you start describing the floor. Because when I walk I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. So in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking I have to describe the room, I have to describe the territory.

So in describing my talking at the moment I can’t describe this just as a thing in itself because I’m talking to you. So what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. … We define each other, we’re all backs and fronts to each other. We and our environment, and all of us and each other are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people.

What I have was not created solely through my own hard work. My reputation is not something I own; it is something that has been formed and granted over time within a community. And I have a responsibility to that community—to help others and share what I have. It also helps to remember what it was like when no one answered my emails (yes, I’ve made some clueless asks myself). The clueless asks never go away, but perhaps there’s a better way to handle them than to judge or dismiss them entirely.

There’s a saying, attributed to Malcolm S. Forbes: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Assuming for a moment this is true, then in the Internet age, how could one live up to this maxim without considerable sacrifice, given how easy it is for public figures to be exposed—and expected to respond—to the communications of the many? There is no easy answer that I can see, but at least we can reflect on and recognize what choices we make—where we draw the line.

Without question, my contact page pushes against the clueless ask. It states that if it takes me a few minutes to respond to a message, I will; if it really requires a business transaction (a consultation), then I will not.

That said, anyone—including myself—who receives clueless asks already knows the most frequently asked questions. They know the pattern of request. And that makes it straightforward to create standard responses that can be sent in less than a minute, even by an assistant, that offer next steps, resources, and information on how the asker can help themselves. Maybe it’s a small thing, but at least it’s acknowledgment. Yes, I see you. You exist. 

This is not to say that I am doing better than Steven Pressfield, or that he is abdicating responsibility in some way. Most authors choose specific and meaningful ways to give back to the community, and answering unsolicited emails can be a thankless, invisible, and time-sucking task. Still, for the community of people I reach, email is the tool of those of very little means, and I feel I’m doing some good through those I do answer.

As far as the student who sent me the 15 generic questions, I did respond. I didn’t respond to every question, and sometimes I simply linked to relevant and publicly available articles I’ve written. I did what I could to meet her halfway. It seemed a good compromise.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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25 Comments on "If You’re Successful, Lots of People Ask for Your Help. Who Deserves It?"

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Eileen Goudge

I have received many requests through the years. Most are for book blurbs. I’m likely to respond favorably if the person requesting writes me a personal note or email, as opposed to generic, saying something nice about my own work and why they value my opinion. So few do! It amazes me how clueless some would-be authors are, and also editors.

Wimberley Watts
Reading this post made me laugh at myself! I remember the first question I ever asked you and I also remember shaking my head a few months later when I came across a lengthy blog you wrote on the subject I had asked about. You were more than kind and responded to my “clueless ask” promptly. Had I done a little more digging I would never have asked the question! Now when I want a quick answer I type into my Google bar, Jane Friedman on whatever I’m wondering about, and magically a well written, easy to follow answer is… Read more »
Greg Ioannou
Jane, your reputation is the result of writing like this. You make connections the rest of us miss, and share your insights freely. You’re smart and perceptive and generous. I’d wondered about my own behaviour. I sometimes answer questions immediately, but other times put them off, basically forever. I still have some questions from a reporter on my mental to-do list, where they’ve sat for over a year. I’m sure she’s moved on by now. The questions were so boring and clueless that I couldn’t bring myself to somehow concoct engaging answers to them. At the other extreme, I’ve been… Read more »
Ani Tuzman

Greg, I just want to ditto your line, “Jane, your reputation is the result of writing like this.” I would add to this, also, Jane’s consulting and all that she—that you, Jane—offer to writers, meeting us where we are.

Jay Swanson

I *just* had this conversation this morning – I’m worried about the day I transition from being able to respond to everything into that space where you’re overwhelmed just by trying. The fear for me, more than anything, is disappointing fans and unintentionally turning people away. I really admire you for all of the work you put into the people around you. Glad you’re here =D

Ani Tuzman
Jane, I am so appreciative of this post, in which I find such refreshingly grounded, practical and inspiring humility. I have been one who asks, usually after doing my homework first, but still clueless in the sense of being new to the publishing process. My consulting sessions with you have been characterized by the same energy of respectful, generous “giving back,” as it were, that you highlight in this post. Each time—and for a reasonable fee that makes it feasible for me to receive your knowledge—you’ve met me where I am and helped me see a little further down the… Read more »
Skye Blaine

Thoughtful response. Thank you, Jane. I follow your blog with great interest and direct my students to it as well.

Shirley Showalter

You are both successful and generous, Jane. I love this post.

Louise Harnby
Brilliant post, Jane. I’ve begun to turn my ‘asks’ on their head. When someone emails me with a request for help, I create a publishable Q&A from it. That way, the enquirer gets an in-depth, personalized response, but the deal is that they have to share it with others who might be wondering the same thing. In that sense, the askers are doing something for others. They’re doing something for me too – helping me to ensure that my own blog is as engaged as possible with the audiences I write for. For the blogger, or vlogger, or podcaster, being… Read more »
Mick Rooney
Jane, Great post. I tend to find that correspondence falls into three broad areas. 1. The Clueless (subject of your post) 2. The Clued in (and someone who could become a client) 3. The Cluedo Little more to be said on the first you have not already said. I’ve also reached the stage of non-response when I realise someone is looking for something for nothing and data-mining by email or just too lazy to use Google. I have a website resource page. It they can’t find that before contacting me, then likely they can’t put one foot in front of… Read more »
Lynne Spreen

You are one of the most ethical thought leaders I know, Jane. Totally with you on this. A leader can’t walk without a floor, but still, you’re not limitless. You have to conserve your energies, too. On a much smaller scale, I sometimes face the same dilemma. Sometimes my generosity overwhelms my good sense; then I laugh, thinking I can’t be faulted for that kind of mistake. Best wishes.

anon

Probably not the best post to write on and I think I have asked you about this, what is your opinions on Wattpad? Can it ruin your chances of being published?

Lori

Relevant to my week. Thanks, Jane.

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