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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

"Can I help you?"

The answer to this question is, "Maybe not."

Okay, this is a post in which I'll let off a bit of steam. You're warned.

I receive a lot of emails from people asking me to do things. Some of these offer me work on a professional basis - as a writer, a speaker, or an editor. In many cases, I am not offered money but at least there's the possibility of good PR if (for example) the outcome is a reputable publication of some kind. All those offers are welcome, even though I can't accept them all.

Many other emails basically ask me to do the writer a private favour. It might be reading a manuscript and offering editorial advice, putting in a good word with a publisher for someone trying to start a writing career, or even helping a kid with his or her school assignment. There are many categories, I don't have any hard and fast rules about how I respond.

I don't resent these emails. I try to answer them all, and sometimes put in hours of work doing what I feel I can.

However, I do ask the people who send such inquiries to understand a few things. First, you are not the only one. If I only ever got one email asking me for a favour every blue moon I might be able to put in more time and effort in these cases, but I actually get quite a lot - enough to keep me occupied full-time if I wanted them to. So if I don't do as much for you as you hoped, maybe you could bear that in mind.

You might also bear in mind that I am not a literary agent, do not have any particular clout with publishers, and don't have time to do manuscript assessments (a proper manuscript assessment is pretty much a full week's work, and the people who do this work are entitled to some reasonable payment for their efforts).

If you have a book coming out from a reputable publisher, I may well give it a review if you send me a review copy. I love getting review copies, though alas it's rare that I get review copies of the books that most interest me. (But, yay, I currently have an advance reading copy of Philip Kitcher's new book, and I'm enjoying it and thinking about it.)

If your reputable publisher is looking for blurb writers, again I might be able to help if the book falls within my obvious interests and your publisher contacts me. But I can't set aside the time to do work on your unpublished manuscript, or to read your unpublished manuscript on the off-chance that I'll love it so much that I'll try to get whatever publishers I know to take an interest in it.

Still, I do answer all email inquiries if I possibly can (I may miss some by oversight, and some are sufficiently crackpot that I am at a loss as to what to say). I put some thought and time into each one.

What I do resent is when I put in some time to be as helpful as I can ... and I don't even get a thank you in response. I suspect that a lot of people are disappointed by my replies - someone who thought I could give free editorial advice or put in a good word with a publisher, or whatever, may be disappointed to receive just some general advice about publishing, or maybe a pointer to the submission guidelines of a possibly relevant publisher, or whatever.

Well, if that's the case ... I'm sorry to disappoint you. But perhaps I don't have the time or the energy or the clout, or whatever, that you think I have that could assist in your particular case. I will, however, have taken some time out from my own projects, and my own life in general (yes, I do have a family, etc.), to give you whatever assistance or advice I could.

This is just a word to the wise out there. Perhaps some people who come to me asking for help with their projects are not thinking about how it is from my point of view - having all-consuming projects of my own and a steady stream of such requests coming in from the public.

The same applies to other writers, editors, etc., whom you might approach. Generally, we're stretched thin, forced to concentrate on whatever activities actually put some food on the table or at least generate worthwhile PR, and are being as polite and helpful as we can. I'm sure some people think that writers are rich in money and free time, but exactly the opposite is usually the case.

As I said, just a word to the wise. I'll continue to treat all inquirers as well as I can, but it's a two-way street.

3 comments:

Charles Sullivan said...

If I lived nearby I'd say this: Do me a favour, and let me buy you a beer. You deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Can you help me?

Yes, you can.

Please go on blogging!

Zackoz

Darrick Lim said...

Wow, that was a very calm, polite, measured letting off of steam there, Russell. Was expecting a PZ Myers-esque tirade, what with the warning you gave and all. :P

You seem like an incredibly generous person, willing to offer others what help and support you can within reason. Shame that some of those asking for your help don't consider your side of things. And those who didn't even bother with a "thank you" for the help you did give them (even if it wasn't the help they expected)? Not. Cool.

Good on you for making your feelings known about this matter. Now empathy-challenged readers can get the message loud and clear.