A tale of publishing cluelessness

Since it’s Friday, let’s pause for something fun. I’d like to share a tale of publishing cluelessness. All the names have been removed.

In 1992, I got a call from an editor at Macmillan. (Okay, not all the names have been removed. but it was 20 years ago, so WTH? I don’t remember the editor’s name and I wouldn’t identify him if I did.) He had seen something I’d written for Windows magazine on hard disks and wanted to have me write a piece-for-hire for one of their books.

Just to fill you in, there will be many times when you have someone do a contributing piece for you in a book. You need someone to do a specific chapter that requires an understanding you lack or you may just get busy and need help to hit the deadline. This hole in your technical knowledge doesn’t have to be deep and profound; it can be something you don’t care to write about or even something you just don’t do nearly as well as someone else. (One of my co-authors still flips me attitude periodically over the fact that I can’t program the time on my DVR. Damn young whippersnappers, anyway!)

In cases like this, what you do is find someone who can write the chapter for you and you give them, like, $500 and an acknowledgment for their contribution to the book and a couple copies and the right to say “That chapter was mine!” on their resume (which can be very helpful both when applying for writing jobs and when breaking into publishing). In return, you get all rights to the chapter and you make your deadline. It’s done all the time, mostly with people who are new to the book-writing biz or they’re friends and they can be tapped for a favor. I’ve done it myself on a number of my books. It’s no big deal.

The editor explained they need to have someone write technical material on hard disks in the next few weeks for a book. They saw my article in Windows magazine and figured I might be interested. This was going to be hard technical writing where I had to dig out specs on a lot of different hard disks with many phone calls to engineers at various companies. I’d then build tables of the information and submit it to them on a tight deadline. It was a very substantial piece of hard technical writing he was after. Even though he was calling it a “chapter,” it was not your typical chapter-for-hire. This was real work.

Based on his build-up, which emphasized the fame that would accrue to me, I figured he was going to lowball me. Whenever fame comes up as a major selling point, it means “We’re not going to pay you much, so here’s everything else I can ring in to get you to say yes.” You may be willing to accept the fame–assuming there really is any–but it means that I should hold on tight to my wallet when they name the price. And Macmillan, at least the technical side, had a well-deserved reputation in them days for treating their technical authors very poorly. The words “cheap” and “abusive” kinda summed it up. (I have no idea what it’s like there now, so it could be lots better. I hope so.) I was running numbers in my head on how long this would take to write to see what it’d be worth to me while the editor was talking about the gig.

The editor had laid the groundwork for his pitch and said “We’re after 50 pages of technical material on hard disks by Friday after next and we’re willing to pay you”–there was a very slight pause for effect–“TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS!”

Okay, I had expected that they were going to lowball me but this was preposterous. I exploded laughing.

And I couldn’t stop.

I mean, I really couldn’t stop.

After about 20 seconds, I thought “Okay, I was prepared to be a little schnarky if he got cheap, but this is really silly!” And I managed to damp the laughing down to the point that I stopped.

And then the absurdity of his offer hit me again and I was whooping and snorfling into the phone again.

I damped the laughing again and then started laughing again. After a couple more tries, I finally stopped laughing. All this lasted about a minute.

The editor said calmly “I take it that’s not enough?” This set me off laughing again, but I managed to stop and I said “Well, let’s see: typical technical writing takes 4 hours a page but I’m a hot shot so I can do it at 2 hours a page, this is hard technical material and you want 50 pages, which is 100 hours, so if you’re going to pay me $250 for this, on a real rush schedule, that works out to two dollars and fifty cents a page, so naaaaaaaaaaaah”–right through the nose on that–“naaaaaaaaaaaah, I think I’ll pass.”

The editor–who was treating me far more civilly than I probably deserved–said “How much would you do it for?”

I said “Well, you could add a zero to that number and we’ll talk.”

“No, I can’t go that high.”

“How high can you go?”

“A thousand dollars.”

“That’s a better number, but that’s still only $10/hour, so I think I’ll pass. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you and I’m really sorry I laughed so hard, but it was funny.”

And we didn’t do business.

Is there a moral? Two things. First, don’t do business with people who aren’t going to pay you decently. $10/hour at the high end might’ve been barely enough if I was hurting or had nothing on my plate and was interested in the work for some reason, but starting the offer at such an incredibly low number was just insulting. The other moral is that I can be a real jerk on occasion. The editor was very polite to me and I don’t think I deserved it after laughing at his offer like that.

But it was funny.

One Response to “A tale of publishing cluelessness”

  1. My favorite doctor in the world charges the highest, most absurd fees for his services. Of course he operates without a license, has treated many rare diseases and operates on the most hopeless of patients around the world… and is, coincidentally, fictional. But to him, no operation or patient is too valuable- unless they can pay him for the rest of their lives, or hand over their entire family fortune. If his interest isn’t peaked, he won’t operate..In fact, he’ll turn down all the clients he can before hearing them out – because he has too many requests!

    I think if the talent or skill is truly valuable, truly unique, one-of-a-kind, very few people will be able to afford it. The writer in this case, SHOULD be a jerk to the person requesting their services(if they are in demand).

    In this case-with the technical writing request- that guy bit off more than he could chew with his deadline. Too bad.

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