An Ask Too Far
[The blog is hors de combat this week, as we prep for the launch of Shawn’s wonderful new book, THE STORY GRID, coming in a couple of weeks. Here’s one of my fave posts from a couple of years ago:]
In the past year or so I’ve become aware of the verb “ask” used as a noun. I simultaneously like it and am appalled by it.
An “ask” is a request for an action or a favor. I was reporting the contents of a long e-mail to a friend; she interrupted: “What’s the ask?” Meaning, “What does the e-mail writer want?”
“Ask” originated, I suspect, in the publicity biz. The difference between advertising and publicity is you pay for advertising but you try to get publicity for free. Hence “ask.” Schmooze schmooze schmooze ask.
Many moons ago I worked at Ted Bates Advertising in New York. One of Bates’ rules of copywriting was, “Always end with a call to action.” That’s the ask. “Buy now.” “Call this number.” “Log in to win.”
There are legitimate asks and not-so-legitimate asks. Have you read Josh Olson’s immortal “I Will Not Read Your F*%king Script!” That’s about an illegitimate ask.
I get a lot of asks. Write a blurb for my book. Write a foreword. Hype my stuff on your blog. Here’s where I come out on asks:
1. If it comes from a real friend or a legitimate colleague, I do it.
2. If it comes from someone who seems like a decent person (or virtually anyone in the serving military), I do it. The good news here is that quite a few real friends have entered my life this way. You can tell a good ask from a bad ask.
3. Everyone else, I pass.
There’s an ethic to the blogging world. It goes something like this. “For every ‘ask,’ you must first produce twenty ‘gives.'” (Some would say a hundred.) A give is the opposite of an ask. I suspect that the heavy give-to-ask ratio is because what I might call a give (say, this post), you might consider a waste of time, a pain in the ass, spam.
I take my own asks very seriously, in the sense that I cringe when I do them and I try to balance them by as many gives as possible. Recently when The Profession was published, I did a bunch of asks. Buy this book. Tell your friends. I hate doing that. The way I justify it to myself is by saying that a person who reads an ask from me on this blog at least had to voluntarily come to the blog in the first place. Still, asks suck.
There are outbound asks and inbound asks. The trick with inbound asks is learning to say no. For most of us, this is not easy. I’ve been trying for years and still don’t say no half as often as I should.
My problem is I like to think of myself as a nice guy. This is not good. I’m working on getting over that. There are people out there who are what I would call social sociopaths. They’re not actual murderers or criminals; they won’t hurt you. But, for whatever reasons of character or upbringing, they are utterly without empathy. They have no sense of the value of another person’s time or hard-won skill or hard-earned reputation. If you’ve got it and they can use it, they want it. They want it now. They want it free. And they want it again and again.
I mentioned, a couple of posts ago, the guy who sent me an e-mail asking for thirty free copies of The War of Art. There’s another person who (because of a colleague-in-common) I’ve said a courteous no to more than once. He doesn’t stop. Each ask is followed by another ask. The most recent was an ask to read his book. “It won’t be a problem,” he assured me. “It’ll only take two hours.”
When you respond to an ask from one of these social sociopaths, expect no gratitude. Instead the initial ask will be succeeded by a follow-up ask, and if you’re dumb enough to respond to that, a third ask will appear hot on its heels. One guy wrote me out of the blue; I did a long interview for him, wrote a foreword for his book, and even gave him an intro to my agent. Finally he started asking for favors for his friends. This was an ask too far. When I said no, he wrote back: “I always knew you were a Hollywood a*#hole.”
Dude! I don’t live anywhere near Hollywood.