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“You really should charge for this,” said the tech bro

Photo: Diana Jeater

So, I’m lined up to do a consultation with this guy from Silicon Valley. He’s very well connected there, so he tells me.

This is a pretty typical session for me — a 30-minute discussion of needs and publishing alternatives with an aspiring author. I typically do three of these a week. And they’re free — if you need help and you’re my kind of potential author (nonfiction, seeking to create influence with a book), I’m happy to talk to you.

Anyway, after requesting 60 minutes (sorry, friend, 30 is all you get), the guy’s assistant lines up a Zoom call. I connect and see the assistant in her home office. A minute later the guy himself appears, portrait mode, from inside his car, which, thankfully, appears not to be moving.

I start the way I always start. “What’s your book idea?” It’s apparently based on his experience in Silicon Valley, at the intersection of two very common and generic topics. He’s evaluating publishing alternatives, choosing between several hybrid and self-publishing vendors. He’s already poked around my blog and read about several of them, and even tried talking to one, but with disappointing results.

As I start to explain the differences among the various hybrid publishers, he interrupts. “You should charge for this!”

“Thanks,” I say, taking it as a compliment. And I keep going about what I know about from my own and my clients’ painful experience, but he won’t let up.

“No, you should charge for this!” he says. “This is gold. People would pay for this. You have to charge for this. It’s so valuable. I’ve seen how you can turn this kind of knowledge into a great consulting business.”

Now it’s gone from being a compliment to being annoying. We’re not here to talk about me, we should be spending the time talking about his book. I know he’s just trying to help, but this conversation is a waste of both of our time.

I explain that I’m 62 years old and I have a pretty good handle on what I do, after 13 years of work on books and six years as a freelancer. I ask the assistant if he’s always like this and a sly smile crosses her face, as if she’s heard this kind of thing from him before.

And finally, I leave him with the names of a couple of my connections who run hybrid publishers and would fit well with him. I tell him to use my name. I don’t tell him I’ll make an introduction, because I have no idea if his book concept is really any good.

So, why don’t I charge for this?

Why it’s free . . . and it’s going to stay free

There are so many reasons that I don’t charge for a conversation like this. I’ll share them because they might make you think about your own business.

The primary justification is strategic. Imagine for a moment that I did charge for consultations about publishing models and alternatives, as my tech bro friend suggested. I’d talk to a lot fewer people, since that conversation typically occurs at the beginning of an author’s questions about books, when they don’t know me and don’t know if I’m worth paying. But let’s just imagine that not only do I charge for this, but I get enough of a reputation at it to build a successful consulting business.

Now I’m a consultant talking about publishing alternatives. That bores me. And that’s a conversation that only happens once or twice per book, so I need a lot of authors coming in that pipeline to make it work. That means I need to get serious about marketing myself on that same tedious topic. I’m bored just thinking about it.

As a freelancer, you need to decide what you want to make money at. Typically, it’s just a few services, easily repeatable and lucrative, that you enjoy doing and want to get a reputation for. I have made that decision. I help authors with ideas and book proposals, I edit their books, and I run writing workshops for companies. I love all of those things because they’re about content, ideas, and words, which are my passions. I’m good at that work, and I can charge a fair price for my expertise. That’s who I am now. Building a business as a consultant on publishing alternatives seems a lot less attractive than that.

So why do I even talk about alternatives to prospective authors? Here are three reasons, plus one additional reason you might not think about.

First, I like helping people. New authors are easy marks for all sorts of people that want to sell them stuff. The landscape is confusing. Every time I talk to an author and help them navigate the alternatives, I feel like I’m doing a service. And since I’m not getting paid for it, I can do it any damn way I please, including baldfaced honesty about some of the parasites who want to take their money. I get paid in enjoyment and satisfaction, which is just as important as money.

Second, it pays off in the long run. Let’s say I talk to you about your book. One of three things is going to happen.

  1. You might walk away thinking “I like this guy.” And the next time someone asks you who knows about authors and can help them, you’ll think of me.
  2. You might go line up some sort of publishing deal, and then tell them you want to work with me as an editor. (I’m doing an editing job like this right now — the author talked to me, chose a hybrid publisher based on my recommendation, and told the publisher that he wanted me to edit the book.)
  3. Or you might decide to work with me right away, on the ideas in your book or even the manuscript, if it’s already written.

I look at those three alternatives and say “win/win/win.” And suppose that you do end up working with a publisher that I recommended. That publisher knows where that lead came from. They think of me as a valuable contact, and that keeps them thinking of me, and likely referring business to me.

The third reason I do this for free is that every business-to-business operation has to give something away for free. For example:

  • Free estimate.
  • Free white paper in exchange for your email address.
  • Free webinar.
  • Free blog posts, videos, or podcasts. (Ever heard of content marketing?)
  • First month’s service free.
  • Free basic tier, pay to upgrade to premium tier.
  • First three articles free.

It’s not a coincidence that everyone gives away something for free. All of these freebies are similar: try us out, you’ll see how valuable we are, and then we hope you’ll decide to hire us.

For me, “free initial consultation” is a pleasant way to kick things off, and nearly always leaves my prospect feeling good about me. They may or may not turn into a client, but it’s not like I had to donate a kidney to get them interested.

There’s one final reason I do this, one that most people wouldn’t think of.

Every conversation teaches me something. These consultations make me smarter. Whatever your question is, lots of other people probably have it. Talking with you helps me see what’s on authors’ minds. It tells me what to learn about next.

Not only that, those consultations turn into war stories, which turn into blog posts (like this one). When you write every weekday, that’s worth something, too.

So I get a lot out of these free consultations. Charging for them would mess all of that up. Even if a tech bro thinks it will make me rich.

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  1. Steve Martin had a banjo routine many years ago, the punch line was that the best thing about comedy is… I.. get paid.. for doing.. this!

    The best jobs are the ones you’d do even if you weren’t being paid.

  2. Yes…this is my experience, as well, with tech bros AND the benefit of market research. “Every conversation teaches me something. These consultations make me smarter.”

  3. I love this so much, Josh. I, too, have these conversations all the time, and they are both generous and strategic. Good things come from them—sometimes a friend, a client, a connection, or the warm sense of having helped someone. And sometimes it’s knowing that you and a potential client are NOT, in fact, a good match.

  4. Hi Josh,

    The 30-minute call for free is a great idea! At the same time, some people prefer email. So what do you do if someone wants to do a few rounds of questions via writing?

    Also, what happens, after the free call, if they have follow-up questions or request another call? In other words: At what point do you charge for your advice?


    1. At some point, I say, “I would like to spend more time on your questions, but my schedule is filled with clients right now. Would you like to become a client?”

      There is no hard and fast rule for when that point is. It depends on how annoyed they are making me.

      1. Thanks. That’s a good line!

        (I straddle a similar situation with my Wikipedia work: I provide a free analysis via email, then offer to do a paid consult if they’re not yet wiki-ready.)