Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
February 22, 2016

How Much Will You Give Away?

Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine Into Gold

photo credit: 182/365 Sparkle (+2) via photopin (license)

The euphoria and self-respect of finally being paid for years of hard work will still be fresh on a debut author’s face when requests for her generosity will start to pour in. Never mind that the math may work out to less than a penny per hour invested. Once you are a published author, people will assume you are rich.

You too might now believe your life is rich—with meaning—even while struggling beneath the weight of marketing costs you hadn’t planned for, such as graphic design or video services, travel for a book tour, or an independent publicist.

I like to believe that being a published author is not simply a hobby for the independently wealthy, but I’ve seen financial ruin (sometimes stated as “quitting the day job too soon”) cited as the #1 reason authors leave the industry. They simply can’t afford to keep on.

If you fail to set clear boundaries about what you are willing to give away from the start, you could become one of them.

This issue is confusing because we want any chance to get our book out into the world— even if we are still struggling to survive while launching our careers. We want to be charitable; we are humanitarians who are sensitive to those in need. We want to use the platform that publication confers to make a difference. Yet in doing so we can forget that “tax deductible” does not equal “free.”

When such requests catch us off-guard, we are liable to whine, "Why do people keep asking me for more free stuff?"

Analyze your career goals and set reasonable boundaries

The only way we can negotiate this potentially emotional minefield is to draw firm boundaries ahead of time, so that saying no is a quiet defense rather than a reactionary blowout. We can start by deciding in advance:

  • Will this request help me fulfill my career goals?
  • How much can I afford to give away?

Have you ever thought in terms of budgeting your generosity? If you have limited resources, doing so can help you stay positive about your career. Here are a few suggestions about how to handle requests.

1. Will you donate books?

Consider purchasing a stash of books that represents what you can afford to give away each year. This physical representation of your budget will help you weigh decisions about its use.

If this is a charitable cause, is it relevant to your subject matter? If a giveaway, will it substantially increase exposure for your book? If your publication and marketing goals are supported, go ahead and send the books—out of the stack you have set aside for this purpose.

Once those books are gone for the year, your answer is a clear and easy “not this time.” If this sounds miserly, remember that early career growth is crucial to allowing more charity in the future.

2. Will you speak to our group for free?

I adore public speaking, so I’m a sucker for this one. My novels allow me a platform to talk about subjects that are important to me and have the potential to impact lives. But I have learned to say no.

Most lecture series and writers’ groups have a budget for such presentations, and I expect fair compensation. I do want to support libraries with free programming when I can, but it can’t cost me. I always ask for a modest honorarium to cover time and travel. No one has ever yet said no. For underfunded groups you can always weigh the exposure and the likelihood of selling a decent number of books against the cost of speaking for free.

3. Will you send our book club signed bookmarks?

Would I rather you had allowed me to offer them out of the goodness of my heart? Yes, but I’m not going to refuse the request. Of course I’ll send them. That’s one reason I had them made.

4. Will you write a series on our blog for free?

(Coincidentally, that one rang in while I was writing this post.) It takes me at least a half-day to write a cogent, polished blog post. Or, I could draft 2K words on my work-in-progress. You must convince me the exposure is worth it.

There is no one “right” answer to any of these requests. But it is the authors who have a clear vision for the distribution of their book income who will make the most difference with it, and who will not be thrown into a defensive stance when time after time they are asked for another donation.

Aspiring writers: Have you thought about this aspect of your author career yet, and can you see the benefits of giving it advance thought?

Authors: Where are your boundaries? What requests do you think are unreasonable?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Kathryn

10685420_966056250089360_8232949837407332697_nArt of FallingKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Twitter: @kcraftwriter
FB: KathrynCraftAuthor


Top photo credit: 182/365 Sparkle (+2) via photopin (license)

43 comments on “How Much Will You Give Away?”

  1. Kathryn, I can't tell you how surprised I was to find this *giving* side of publishing. For me, it lurked right on the heels of my, "Guess what, I'm going to be published!" announcement. Mixed in the many congratulations I received, were requests from well meaning family and friends for me to send copies of my signed book. I wish I'd been prepared with some kind of polite response.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm saving your post for future use!

    1. Kris I hear you—I'm one of 7 in my family of origin! Then there was the time my dentist expressed great interest in my debut title. The next time I was in I said, "I remembered to bring the book for you!" She clutched it to her breast and said, "Oh my gosh no author has ever given me a book before! Will you sign it?" Wish I'd had a ready answer for that one, because of course I'd had no intention of simply giving to her...I thought, as I handed the signed copy over...

    1. I appreciate that perspective, Erin! It's a good problem I guess, like having five boyfriends—but you still have to figure out how to handle it when they all show up at your door at the same time.

  2. Kathryn, this is timely for me. As a debut author with a small publisher, I've been solely responsible for marketing. I'm doing taxes and, while I'm too embarrassed to give the actual promotion numbers, I'd say the ROI is about 0.004%. This year, I'm going to have to, as you so wisely suggested, create and promotion budget and stick with it. Thanks for the nudge!

    1. Densie I recall responding but don't see it here, sorry. It is so hard because we want our books to have a chance, right? I know I made emotional decisions for the marketing of my books and because I am not wealthy (oops--cat's out of the bag!) I can't continue that way. We have to make decisions that will support our careers for the long haul, and the trick is knowing what they are!

  3. Good advice. A many-times published author who always asks for an honorarium/expenses told me, "I could be out speaking every day if I did it for free." I stiffened my spine and began asking. I'm seldom turned down. Even a small honorarium makes up for events when book sales are minimal.

    1. Thanks for affirming my experience Carol. When we are just starting out we may have valid reasons for speaking for free. You have to start building your platform somewhere, after all. But once you've published and demand is higher, if you spoke "every day" you'd no doubt continue to build an amazing platform—but while paying quite a toll in gas, auto wear & tear, time, and energy. Best to consider all that in advance.

  4. Another point to consider, if you're in an anthology, how much can you afford when someone in the anthology has a **brilliant** marketing ploy.


    1. Good point, Denise. I haven't been in an anthology, but I have been guilty of panicked and emotional spending to boost sales, and I was only accountable to myself. The social factor would add a complication, for sure.

  5. Thank you for the advice! I remember when I sold makeup, I bought more samples than I could really afford and too many to even give out to potential buying customers. It ended up hurting my business. Now if I ever do get my book published, I will tell myself, "Remember the samples!"

    1. Oh I love that, jorichurch. I can just picture an I Love Lucy moment when you say "I may have one of those somewhere" and open the closet to have the samples all fall out on you. All past their expiration dates. 😉

  6. The entire time I read this post, I thought: "Writers do this all the time! And so do most of the women I know." Really, this post is about learning to set limits and budgets...and then OBSERVE THEM. 🙂

    I work from home and try to volunteer at my daughter's school because I feel like it's good for her to see me do that. I cannot tell you how many "oh can you's" I said yes to before I learned to say no. It boggles. My paid work and my writing (which doesn't yet pay) have to come first.

    1. Jenny, yes! I remember when I went to my first PTA meeting. My husband, who already knew me so well, said, "Don't come home president." We have to be so clear about the undeniable fact that our novels will not write themselves.

  7. Great post, Kathryn.

    I've done a lot of solo talks at libraries for free when I was the one who approached them. It was always with the understanding that I could sell my books afterwards, and they would promote the event as if they were paying me - sometimes that last part didn't work out so well.

    When an organisation does the approaching, I ask for whatever they normally pay speakers, or if they don't usually pay, a modest fee of $50-$100, depending on how far I'll have to travel.

    The only exceptions are when it's my local library (the folks there have been very supportive of me), and invitations to speak at charity lunches, which are always fun, great signings, and have cheesecake 🙂

  8. When I worked at Sears, Roebuck and Co., I learned that their support for or contribution to any charitable organization was determined by Sears' target demographic (I believe it was a certain age (?) group of females with a family). If the organization was not committed to or did not benefit that demographic, Sears would decline to participate. Does this sound like a reasonable approach for authors - determine your target audience and either contribute or decline the invitation to participate based on the organization's mission? I haven't faced this issue yet, but I'm hoping it will become something I have to consider.

    Such an interesting subject and conversation. Love it.


    1. Nancy that approach makes complete sense to me. You have to use some standard for whittling down requests, so why not using the demographic most likely to be grateful they received your book?

  9. Excellent article, Kathryn. These are all issues we writers must consider. I want to bring up something that happened today that is somewhat related. One of my former publishers sent me a contract for a book for teachers to use in the classroom. I previously wrote a fiction book about bullying for kids for this company. The contract they sent me for the current book was so terrible (no sub rights and a poor e-book rate) that I told them I couldn't accept it if they didn't compromise. The editor consulted the publisher, and the publisher said they couldn't do that. I've decided to market the book to some other companies. Sometimes it's better to walk away from a bad contract. I know that some of the people who write for this company (psychologists and other academics) are so desperate to see their names in print they'll settle for anything. I believe that authors have to stand up for themselves in the areas you mentioned and also in negotiating contracts with or without an agent. Thanks again for this helpful blog!

    1. Catherine it is so true-- once you start thinking about boundaries you realize all the ways they are relevant to your life. This is another great example. Thank you for sharing! Proud of you for looking after your best interests.

      1. Thanks for saying that, Kathryn. I think that sometimes writers sell themselves short in all the ways you mentioned and in their willingness to accept substandard contracts. Thanks again, for your great insights.

  10. Great post Kathryn - all about setting limits! I am finally getting into the swing of this just this year. And I'll throw a different kind of "free" time out there in this mix - school visits as an author. I've done my first few for free to gain experience, confidence, engage with my readership, and also to sell books. This has all been wonderful! But I can spend a full day doing one visit with travel (and that takes away from writing!) so now seeking compensation.

    I even took a workshop on how to manage all this and found this comment by the leader interesting. He said, "Do you first visits for free but do not continue to do so, as this lowers the standards for the rest of us who are working hard to make a living not only writing but through school visits." I had not thought of that - and so I think this philosophy can be a good thought across the board for "giving our time away". When we do, we cheapen our value and talent as well as voicing the same for others in our industry. Bravo to you!

    1. Good point Donna! This is the same idea as a new business trying to get in the game by undercutting competitors to gain a toehold. You may get a toehold, but it's temporary. As soon as you tealize that you now want to receive the same compensation as your competitors, no one wants to pay you for what you've previously given away for free..

  11. I had never thought of this. Guess I'm so focussed on getting published in the first place that I never think about what might happen when (I'm being positive) I am published. I also never thought of people asking me for things - I assumed it would be me asking them.

  12. I learned some of this the hard way last summer. I was asked to do a series of guest blog posts and as a new, yet to be published at the time, author, I knew i needed to start getting some exposure out there somewhere. So i did it.

    The upside: it got my name out there in my chosen writing genre community.
    The downside: it took a lot of work and time, away from my actual writing time, and also I because I was an unknown at the time, I didn't get paid.

    I'm glad I did it becaue you have to start somewhere. But now that i've been published a bit and have am also interning at a literary agency, I am choosing where to spend my time more wisely!

    1. Your approach sounds reasonable to me because you are right, Lisa: you have to start somewhere. The request that rang in while I was writing this post was asking me to write serialized fiction for a blog for free. I can't imagine how long that would take! And since the request came in via DM on Twitter, oh so easy to ignore.

  13. This post resonates with me. This week I had only two days at home working for myself. This is what I have done today. (1) Set up a blog post for my author interview series, which may get me a few extra hits on my site, but primarily helps the author in question (2) Gave an hour's free telephone advice to a trad published author who wants to move to self publishing and followed up with emails and contacted service providers whose services I had recommended (3) exchanged emails about a beta read I am doing for someone else. In other words, I would say that I gave away over 4 hours of my time today alone, but the thing is today is actually fairly typical! I can file these away under relationship building, networking and potentially a new consultancy client. By far the biggest time drain I have now is people wanting to pick my brain for 10 minutes, which turns into an hour or more. I'm happy to share my experience. but the fact is that it has cost me thousands of pounds in conference fees to acquire it, and then I give it away!

    1. Yes, yes, yes. Jane this is exactly it. Here's what a friend of mine has done: put together a list of resources (craft books, local and online organizations, helpful blogs) and either cut-and-paste them into an email (if you want the personal touch) or put them on your website and refer inquiries there. If you never start talking you won't be so tempted. We are so passionate about writing it's quite not fair to ask us to open our mouths sometimes—we don't even realize how the time is flying!

  14. Sadly, readers have come to expect FREE books. People tell me, "Oh, I download all my books for free." Critical reviewers leave comments such as, "I'm glad I only paid .99 for this book." These prevailing attitudes do not bode well for writers. The entire industry has changed, especially for self-published authors. It's becoming harder and harder to charge anything for our books or to expect we might earn a living from our craft.

    I'm still searching for the magic combination that will allow me to find an audience and be paid for my work, too.

    1. Very true, Linda. Price drops are fairly inexpensive means of building an audience for an author, but only if those same clients will then purchase a later title. And with so many titles ready to backfill in place of the author who jumped out of the "free" game, I'm not sure where the hope lies. Your last sentence really resonates with me.

  15. Kathryn, Wise advice from some one who--it seems--has learned the hard way. I get requests to drive fifty miles round trip to speak to a dozen people, with the addendum, "But you can sell your books." Yes, or--as you pointed out--I can stay home and write on another one. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Richard boy do you have me pegged. PhD from the School of Hard Knocks! Those speaking gigs can be great fun, but its best to weigh everything, as you demonstrated.

  16. Hey K, nice to see you guest blogging. Well done. I would suggest to the readers here that doing freelance can and does pay and it's a good way to support one's fiction addiction. Ok, it doesn't pay well unless you are a big name, or work your ass off, but at least it is writing for money. Freelance jobs can keep you in the game while creating a platform. Just something to consider in the writing life. Johnathan Maberry and many others found financial success that way.

  17. Hi Rachel, thanks for stopping by! I'm here at Writers in the Storm the fourth Monday of every month. And while it was outside the scope of this post, you are certainly right that there are many ways writers can pick up extra cash. But once you have a book, you'll still have to figure out how to deal with all of the requests for the generosity of your time and property.

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