Free advice: how to give it, and how to take it

I give lots of free advice. So do other people. If you’re going to ask me (or anyone) for help, I thought you might want to know how that works.

How I give free advice

Here’s a little peek into my business. People hear about my work with authors from my blog, from other authors, from social media, or from my extended network. Or they see me at a conference. They admit that they’re thinking of or working on a book and might need some help. So we set up a call.

A traditional consulting business might call this person a “lead.” I just think of them as an author.

I listen to them talk about their book and try to assess a few things.

  • Is there a good idea in there? Is there any idea in there?
  • Does this person have access to any sources that would be worth writing about (for example, client experiences, survey data, case studies, or academic experience).
  • Is this idea differentiated, or is it just the same as what’s out there?
  • Are they a decent writer? Do they like writing?
  • How far along are they on the book process?
  • Do they need help understanding different publishing models? (They nearly always do — it’s confusing.)
  • Do they want a book that’s out quickly, makes an impact, or pays them an advance? (No, you can’t have all three.) Is pitching publishers even realistic for this book, or is more likely to succeed with some sort of self publishing?

Authors always have questions. I try to answer them as best I can. I really have only one goal in mind: helping them to identify the best path to publishing their book and succeeding with it — or not wasting any more time, if their book and their temperament aren’t really right for publishing.

You may notice something missing in this description. My self interest. My own services (idea development, proposals, editing, ghostwriting) aren’t at the forefront of my mind as I help people. I’m not selling, I’m helping.

One other thing: I’m blunt. If your idea is the same thing I’ve heard elsewhere, I’ll say so. If your writing is flabby, I will tell you. If you really shouldn’t waste your time on a book, I’ll say that, too. (I’ll also tell you if your idea is exciting, your writing is awesome, and your title is sexy — if I love it, I won’t hold back.)

What does this sound like? Here are three examples of free advice I gave recently:

[Feedback on a book pitch] Here’s my perspective on your pitch. Your IDEA is fascinating. Do I want to know how [confidential info deleted] are relevant for today’s marketers? Yes! I really do. . . . .Your pitch is not so great. The “overview” is filled with buzzwords. More than that, it’s missing anything actionable. It promises insight but doesn’t deliver any. You are talking about engaging marketing, but your pitch isn’t engaging at all. At best it sounds academic. . . . The pitch is fixable. That’s good because a lame idea with a great pitch can’t be fixed, but a good idea with a weak pitch can always be better.

[Feedback on some book content] Thanks for sharing this. As book material goes, this would be a little basic. Eight chapters of this, even if the final six . . .  were more technical, would be a little thin. . . .  I remain convinced that you’ll get very little action if you price the resulting book above $50. This isn’t written for an executive audience, it’s too low level. . . . I’m just not sure who would bite on a book like this. I’m not the right editor for this project. At such point as you decide to go forward with it, let me know and I’ll refer you to someone else.

[Feedback on a friend’s Web site] Why is there a long story on the home page? I just got there and already you’re talking my ear off? This is what should be on the home page, along with a big picture [suggestion deleted for confidentiality]. The rest should be on a page called “My story” or something like that.

Why behave like this?

How I behave in these free calls and emails is identical to what I do if you have hired me. That’s not a coincidence. First of all, if you do eventually hire me, you will have a pretty good idea what you’re getting. And second, it’s easier for me. Rather than having a fluffy kiss-ass approach before I “hook” you and then turning into an incisive critic after you pay me, it’s easier if I’m just myself the whole time. I’m a better editor than actor.

This approach has several advantages for me:

  1. It’s fun. I love finding out about people’s book ideas without being a salesman all the time.
  2. It’s real. If you like me, you’ll like working with me. If you don’t like me, at least you figured that out before you wasted any time and money.
  3. It’s unbiased. Most people in this business are selling something — they believe their solution is the right solution for you, even if it isn’t. As a result, you can’t trust them. There is so much exploitation of author dreams in this business, and I don’t want to be a part of that. I want a reputation for being a straight shooter, not suckering people into paying for what they don’t need.
  4. I don’t have a “secret.” If I can help solve your problems, you’ll get useful help right in that first call. Withholding my “secret” good advice until you work with me implies that I have only one way to help, and you have to pay for it. I have a lot of ways to help, you’ll get as many as I can give you on one short call.
  5. If your book idea doesn’t interest me, I can’t imagine working on it. (I have a broad set of interests, but some topics bore me.) So I’m not your editor. I’ll point you to somebody else.
  6. If you haven’t thought through your relationship with coauthors, your boss, or your company, I’ll help you think about that. You’re going to have to solve those problems before you can move forward.
  7. I never point out a problem without suggesting a solution.
  8. Many of the flaws I identify, I can fix. For example, I can help you get a better title. I can edit your text. I can coach you. I can even ghostwrite for you if your idea is great but you don’t have time to write it. So if there is a good match to what I can help with, it’s sure to come up.
  9. Sometimes people aren’t ready for me. That’s fine, they’ll come back. (I’ve had projects start a year or more after the original call.)
  10. Sometimes people can’t afford me. That’s fine, I’ll refer them to somebody cheaper who’s a good match for them. (This makes me two friends — the person who asked for my help and the one who eventually got the business.)
  11. Sometimes people need other connections (say, a custom publisher, someone who does page layout, a cover designer, an illustrator, a copy editor, an agent, or a publicist). I make those connections. That makes everybody happy.

Those calls usually end in one of three ways.

Often enough to matter, I end up working with people and helping them create books. This generates enough business for me to enable me to make a good living.

The most frequent outcome is that I’ve helped an author but they’re not ready to hire me. But they leave feeling smarter and better, and maybe working with a friend of mine. While this doesn’t generate immediate cash in my pocket, it expands my network. They’ll tell somebody else, “You should work with Josh.” And 15 months later, I get a call out of the blue and maybe some business from somebody else. Being known as the right guy to help authors is more important than anything else to me — including getting paid.

Sometimes, and it’s rare, people get upset with me for being honest about their lame book ideas, their terrible writing, or their unrealistic plans for their books. This bothers me, but eventually those people are going fail anyway. I tried to help. If they tell other people that I’m a brutal critic — well that spreads my reputation, too.

I don’t know if all consultants should behave as I do. But consider it. If you make your living based on giving honest advice, this might be a good way for you to do that.

How to take free advice

First off, if you don’t want honest feedback, why talk to an expert? Go to a support group instead. You’ll get love and hugs and warm fuzzies. You won’t get any better, but hey, maybe that’s not what you need right now.

If you do want honest feedback, listen. Learn to accept criticism. What you should hear is not “I am a failure” but “This person thinks this is what is wrong.” You can learn from that, even if you disagree with it.

Don’t be defensive. That doesn’t accomplish anything. Why even argue with the person who’s giving the advice — is convincing that person going to do you any good?

Do explore the problem. Why do you think that? Here’s some other information — does that change how you think of it? Could I fix it this way? Who helps with this? Is there another way to spin it?

If you really don’t want to spend much time or money on solving your problem — either with me or with someone else — then why bother? Producing crap is not going to enhance your reputation. Something worth producing is going to cost something. It doesn’t have to bankrupt you, but it won’t be free.

I’m only going to spend 30-40 minutes with you. (Hours of free advice is not in either of our best interest). If you need more, it’s going to cost. If I say “I really can’t stay on the phone much longer,” that’s what I’m telling you.

And one more thing.

Don’t whine about how critical I am, how I didn’t help you more for free, or how I just don’t “get it.” It just makes you look petulant. It won’t help you get smarter. Grow up.

You really want to prove I’m wrong? Go create. Go publish. If you can make something great without me, I’ll be cheering all the way.

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