Skip to main content

How to Handle Book Writing Requests That Are Impossible Dreams

Don't get stuck writing a book to fulfill someone else's impossible dream

Don't get stuck writing a book to fulfill someone else's impossible dream

Almost everyone seems to want to write a book, though not everyone can or should do it. As a writer, author, or editor, you could get trapped into fulfilling someone else's book writing dream. Have you experienced anything like the following examples?

While you read these, you might want queue up the song, The Impossible Dream (The Quest). Everyone from Sinatra to Elvis seems to have a rendition of it. So pick your favorite. Here we go.

  • A fellow author in an online forum had received an inquiry from a family whose child had miraculously recovered from a serious illness with a particular drug therapy. Their hope was to write a book about the experience, touting the miracle drug. They, of course, told the author they have no money for this project. The author thought the book could make sales, but was wondering how to structure the contract so that she could get paid.
  • A meditation/spirituality/holistic living coach/consultant/activist desperately wanted to have a phone conversation with me about her book project which was just as fuzzy as her business description. I was also fuzzy on what she exactly wanted me to do. But when I received more information from her, I realized that she was going to be pretty clear on one thing she wanted: my free or deeply discounted services because she thought I should believe in her fuzzy, buzzword-filled agenda.
  • After surviving a life-threatening illness, an author wanted to self publish a memoir about her experience and how the songs of a popular performer inspired her recovery journey. She wanted to include the copyrighted lyrics (*gasp at this big no-no*). She also hoped to personally connect with said performer to get his support for the book.
  • Having overcome a lot of personal struggles, a woman wanted to share her journey with the world. Because she didn’t have the writing skills, she wanted me to meet with her in person weekly where she would basically dictate her book to me. I would put that into book form and help her get it self published. As payment for my services, I would receive a share of her self publishing royalties.

Impossible dreams indeed!

These folks have big dreams, overestimate the value of their book contribution to the world, and underestimate the amount of investment these books take. They also underestimate and undervalue the work that an editor or writer would contribute to fulfilling their impossible dream. And if you are an editor or writer like I am, you’ve no doubt received this type of inquiry at some point.

Before you ever get trapped into these efforts, here’s what you need to know.

Hard stop right here before any work begins!

Impossible dream books are often memoirs or autobiographies. The legal issues surrounding them are legion. Libel, slander, defamation, disclaimers, copyrights, confidentiality, and more... just a host of troublesome issues that could land the dreamer, and anyone associated with the project (like you), in court.

Personally, I refuse to work on any memoir or biographical projects. But if you want to get involved in this type of book project by offering help, a consultation with a qualified and experienced media liability and intellectual property attorney is essential before any work begins. Disclaimers and other preventive measures may be needed. Depending on the unique nature of the project, an attorney may also recommend purchasing media liability insurance. Neither legal services nor insurance are cheap.

And the biggest legal issue for you is making sure you get paid somehow.

Sometimes just mentioning the legal issues and contract negotiations for your payment may be enough to get the dreamers to leave you alone.

Who's the Author?

Some dreamers think that if they name the ghostwriter or editor who’s doing most of the work as the book's co-author, that’ll be enough compensation. Not in my book! (Pun intended.)

I’ve found that dreamers may not know that they really need a ghostwriter. They erroneously think that their story is self-evident. It’ll just need a little tweaking from you, and, boom, it'll be done. So they just define what they’re asking for as “help.” Sorry, dreamers, your book is a massive project. I had to explain this to one of the dreamers that ghostwriting was actually what she needed, and that ghostwriters can charge well into the tens of thousands of dollars for their services.

Also at issue here is copyright ownership of the book in a co-authoring or ghostwriting arrangement. An attorney should be consulted to draw up a contract clearly defining copyrights, revenues, royalties, and responsibilities, and how all of that will be administered going forward. This agreement must be in writing to protect all parties in the event of future claims.

Are You Just a Cold-Hearted, Money-Driven Writer?

Okay, I might be. As a writer, I’m a small business owner, not a charity. So why is it my duty to donate my time, talent, and treasure to anyone who asks? Let’s explore why dreamers would even consider imposing on you, along with some perspective to help you reply to their requests.

Dreamers who are strangers feel that because of their mission or suffering, everyone or anyone should be on board. As a random writer, I am not part of their story. There’s nothing in this for me unless I believe in their cause and, most importantly, want to donate my time and energy to it. Otherwise it’s a no for me.

The most problematic of these requests often come from family members or friends. They figure that this writing “help” is the same as other “help” or favors you offer them as part of your ongoing relationship. Or they may guilt you into this servitude, “If you love me...”

You need to set your boundaries. I like to think of myself as a car dealer in these scenarios. If I was a car dealer, would any of these presumptuous dreamers dare to wander into my dealership and ask, “Can I have a free car? I really need [or want] one.” Of course not!

Scroll to Continue

You also need to become a dreamer’s source of publishing education. “Hey, dreamer, if you knew there’s about a 73 percent chance you wouldn’t make more than $100 to $1,000 on your book, and maybe sell a maximum of a couple hundred copies total over the entire life of the book, would you still do it? Then you’d have to split any money left after expenses with me. Considering that, I’ll pass on your project.” By the way, I didn’t pull those dollar figures out of the air. That’s income data from my two surveys of real self published authors in 2016 and 2018.

What Do Book Dreamers Really Want?

Here’s what the book dreamers really want: attention and recognition. They want to have their egos and experiences validated by the world, often under the guise of “helping other people” with their story.

Some of them are just delusional, thinking that famous people, TV talk shows, and the media will automatically and immediately be interested in featuring or promoting their interests and causes. Do they not understand that celebrities and the media are bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of requests for their time, attention, and support? Some of that is just dreamers’ ignorance of how media and publishing works.

The case of the book where the author wanted to get a performer’s support and permission to use song lyrics is a perfect example. She felt that if she could just get a personal audience with the performer, he would grant that permission. No, that’s not how it works. That’s a “have your attorney call my attorney” situation. Written and specific permission for those lyrics would have to be obtained which could be very difficult and costly to secure. It could also involve paying royalties or fees to the song writer, publisher, and/or performer. I tried to explain that, but I don’t know if I got through since she still seemed determined.

But I think this is the real issue: dreamers don’t want to do, or don't understand how to do, the marketing. Or maybe they correctly realize their book doesn’t have a prayer in the marketplace and think a boost from a celebrity will magically make sales happen. Selling books requires an author platform (a.k.a. fan base) that I’m willing to bet most dreamers don’t have.

Thinking Outside the Book

Lots of book dreamers say they want to share their story to benefit the world. Honestly, I think they want money more than that. But let’s take them at their word for the moment.

A book is one of the worst ways to get your message to the world at large. Books, even self published books, take a long time to develop and distribute. As noted earlier, self published books could sell only a couple hundred copies total in their entire lifespan. Both traditionally and self published books have extreme market competition, making it challenging and expensive to sell. Plus, people have to actually buy it to even get the message.

What could the dreamers do instead? Blogs, videos, podcasts, and social media. These could even be done for free in many cases and could be more effective. If those choices don’t seem palatable to a dreamer, money or recognition might have been the real goal.

It's my contention that those who are really interested in sharing their message and mission with the world won't be waiting around or wasting time futzing around with a long haul project like a book. They're going to be actively using whatever channels they can to get the word out now!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 17, 2020:

Chitrangada, many of us have a lot of books in our minds! :) The marketing and sales are so tough these days that you have to really think carefully before heading down the publishing path.

Thanks for reading and your kind comments! Have a great weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 17, 2020:

Hi Linda! Thanks for reading and your kind comments. Have a wonderful weekend!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 17, 2020:

Great information and useful advice for the authors.

Like many others, I must have written several books in my mind. Writing and publishing a book is so satisfying, but marketing and selling it, is another story.

Thank you for sharing another excellent and insightful article.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2020:

This is an interesting article, Heidi. Once again, you've shared some important information for writers to know and consider.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 16, 2020:

Pamela, you seem to have a realistic understanding of your capabilities. Maybe a little too hard on yourself. But at least you're willing to look at things constructively.

True, there are rare talents that just outdo everyone. We don't know if we are stellar until we try. But I think we need to recognize that the writer talent pool is vast and our competition is huge.

I've been asked, but so far have held my ground on refusing book writing projects, especially of the sort discussed here. I don't mind helping authors by editing and polishing up their work. But I won't start from zero.

Thanks for your kind comments! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 16, 2020:

Peggy, you cannot imagine! The toughest ones are those I get through local in-person networking. They think you're a friend so, naturally, you're on board to help... as a friend, of course.

Thanks for reading and commenting, as always! Have a terrific weekend ahead!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 16, 2020:

Heidi, I think we have to set boundaies for anything that is important in your life. Over my lifetime I have written two book, although one I never finished. I didn't do anything with them as they were not very good.

I am an avid reader and there are numerous mediocre books on the market for very little money. Not every one is a John Grisham or any other good writer. In your position I would think writing a book for someone would be more hassle then it is worth.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 16, 2020:

I am sure that the authors like you and Bill get many requests. You are smart to set your boundaries.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 16, 2020:

Bill, based on how much you care about bettering humanity, I'm sure you get a bunch of these inquiries regularly. That's often difficult to separate your advocacy efforts from being a freebie-giver.

And there's always an indescribable, but palpable, feeling I get when one of these requests comes my way. I just want to get away. That's when I know I'm getting suckered into someone else's agenda.

So glad you didn't fall into that book writing black hole!

Thanks for sharing your personal experience with impossible dreamers. Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 16, 2020:

Flourish, I couldn't have even imagined the nightmare those in-person sessions would have been! Yikes!

And, yes, those who really are bursting to tell the world whatever is on their mind are not hesitant to share everywhere.

Thanks so much for reading and chiming in! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 16, 2020:

Sally, we all do! I can definitely relate to not wanting to look back over the past. For some people, I think it is a cathartic exercise. But I'd rather move forward!

Luckily you have the awareness to realize that there may not be a market for this story, but that this doesn't diminish your life experience in any way.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! Hope you're have a good summer. Take care!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 16, 2020:

About six months ago, as a matter of fact. After hearing what I would charge for my writing her book, she suddenly was not quite as enthused about it. This is a bottomless hole I refuse to go, and I would strongly suggest no one reading this go there as well.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 16, 2020:

Oh, yes, somebody had to say this! My favorite scenario is the last one, and I’d bet those dictation sessions would last half the day! Fabulous advice here, and your summary paragraph is spot on. If it were truly about the message they couldn’t hold it in. They’d be disseminating their truth in multiple venues so everyone can hear it.

Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on July 15, 2020:

We all think we have a book inside us, just waiting to come out. I know I have thought about it for a very long time. My life reads just like a soap opera, but I just can't face looking back over it in order to write it, and of course the question is, would anyone be interested enough to read it? Great article Heidi. Definitely food for thought.

Related Articles