There are times when I look at my career and think it’s gone in reverse. A decade ago, I had a full-time magazine editing job, a reading series, a sex column in one of the country’s most well-known alt weeklies, The Village Voice, and was just getting into editing erotica anthologies. I had a steady income, health insurance from my job and paid vacation days. These days, I’m far more in control of my time, but not my income: as a full-time freelancer, I write two sex columns, a weekly one for Philadelphia City Paper and a biweekly one for DAME, contribute freelance articles to sites like Thought Catalog, consult and teach about erotic and nonfiction sex writing and have edited over 50 anthologies, with several being published each year. I share a home with my boyfriend, get health insurance through his job (which I pay for) and only get paid if I do actual work. In 2015, versus 2005, I have complete control over my schedule and how I schedule each day, which is a positive; the downside is when I’m not working, I’m not earning any money, which can cast a pall over sick days or vacations, like the one I just took to Curaçao.
Also, my current income fluctuates so greatly that last year I had to move because I couldn’t afford my rent, while the number of people writing about sex and putting out erotica books, online and off, has exploded. I think that’s a wonderful thing because it means more options for readers, but it does mean that I have to be more vocal to make my voice heard in the marketplace of ideas. So I decided to read Amanda Palmer’s memoir The Art of Asking or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ask People for Help, to see if I could pick up any pointers about how to make my precarious freelance career more stable, without having to feel guilty when I’m not working. I’ve never listened to Palmer’s music, nor have I done a crowdsourcing campaign (though I have contributed to several), but I wanted to see if she could teach me a few things about how to conduct my business.
I found myself captivated by her story, and surprised that I related so much to some of the most personal parts, specifically her fear of asking her husband, bestselling author Neil Gaiman, for money. While my boyfriend is not wealthy, as Gaiman is, he does have a full-time job and at times has had to cover my share of the rent. Whenever this happens, it makes me feel completely insecure about both my status in our relationship and whether I’ve chosen the right career, not to mention my desire to have a child. I feel like I’ve failed at being a writer and businesswoman when I can’t be equal financially, especially because I lived on my own in New York for over a decade and, save for a few bouts of unemployment, that wasn’t an issue. I want to be seen, and truly be, an equal in our relationship, and I’m not sure I can do that to my level of satisfaction if I’m not paying my share of the bills. I don’t want to be what Ann Bauer, at Salon, calls “sponsored” by my partner. I want to contribute so that I feel productive, fulfilled and successful.
I read about the various ways Palmer has asked for money and help, whether in her time posing as a statue of a bride and collecting money from willing passersby, asking for places to stay from her Twitter followers, or money in her ultimately $1 million Kickstarter campaign. I read about her doubts along the way, and about failed Kickstarters where the people took the money and ran. The more I read, the more sense her approach made, and the more I realized that the worst someone can do when you ask for something is say no, but you’ll never know until you try.
So I turned to crowdsourcing, launching a Thunderclap campaign for my latest anthology, Best Bondage Erotica 2015. With Thunderclap, instead of asking for money, you’re asking for people to post on their social media platforms about your cause, in my case, a book release. If you don’t meet your goal, the posts don’t get sent, unless you fork up extra cash to guarantee they will be even if you miss your goal. I’d seen other authors trying it and liked the idea of amplifying my book’s message, since all the posts go live at the same time on a given day of my choosing. But my fear of sounding like I was begging made me come up with a way of giving back: I’d offer free copies of the book to the first 100 backers. So far, so good. Maybe it’s not exactly the pure asking that Palmer talks about, but for me, it’s a quid pro quo; you use your social media clout to spread the word about my book, I fork over the cost of a book and postage. Plus, I have what I can only call a non-sexual fetish for going to the post office; something about sending items off into the world makes me happy, so I get to fulfill that while hopefully gaining some new readers. I consider that a win/win.
Then, I wrote a sex column about antidepressants and orgasms that I was truly proud of, that I suspected would resonate with a wider audience than that of a lone city’s alt weekly. I wanted to pass on the link, but didn’t want it to get overlooked. I thought about the number of times each week I get pitched to review books from strangers who’ve found me via a list of Amazon reviewers. Here’s an actual email I’ve received: “Every now and then we are introduced to people who know how to write. You are one of Amazon’s top reviewers, and I would like the pleasure for you to review my title ____.” It’s not that I mind being pitched, but more that the number of emails become simply overwhelming, to the point that I rarely even click on them because I’m pretty sure I already know what they’ll say.
So rather than doing the exact same thing to someone else, I realized I needed to be strategic. I couldn’t just send a link and hope the person reading took time out of their busy day to read my email. So I sent a polite note saying I thought my column might be of interest, then included the link along with the entire text and image of the story.
Then I forgot about it, until I saw that Mark Shrayber at Jezebel had picked up my column, offering the topic a far larger readership than I ever could, along with quoting and linking to me. From there, several other sites picked up the story, some adding original reporting, including Bustle, Refinery29, The Daily Dot, Mommyish and Cosmopolitan.com. In a few cases, I politely sent an email asking the site to link to my column when they hadn’t done so, and all of them were very kind and quick to comply.
While I was away on vacation last week, I saw that same tenacity in asking applied en masse on Twitter, where followers of the woman I wrote about, Crista Anne (@pinkness), tweeted to Dr. Drew’s show on HLN to urge him to have her come on the show where he’d be discussing her OrgasmQuest. Lo and behold, a TV show drawing from Internet culture listened, and had her on as a guest.
All of this has helped boost the profile of my column, which helps ensure that it will stick around for a long time. As a freelancer, I have zero job security, but this helped me feel more grounded, because I know I have the ability to spot a good story, and to help do what it takes to make it reach as wide an audience as possible. I’ve always believed that writers and event organizers have to be our own best PR people, because when you rely on someone else to do that for you, unless you’re already famous and guaranteed to get your every Tweet covered breathlessly, you are putting your career in someone else’s hands.
But it also made me realize that asking is not just about me-me-me. If you’re going to bother asking someone to plug your link, event, book, etc., you have to truly believe you have something valuable to offer, and see the value you are offering the other party. If the column I was sending around didn’t resonate with the broader topic of sex and mental health, it wouldn’t have gotten so much coverage. Because it did, those sites got to engage their readers on the topic (the Jezebel comments were particularly robust) and even though I only have the vaguest idea of how to game Google, I saw my original piece come up higher in search results after the other pieces ran. Plus I got to feel good that the subject, who I only had around 700 words to devote to, could get a broader platform. Now, it’s possible some or all of those venues would have covered the story without my asking, but I can safely say that my asking is what led to the initial round of articles.
From what I’ve seen, it isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us—it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one.
It points, fundamentally, to our separation from one another.
American culture in particular has instilled in us the bizarre notion that to ask for help amounts to an admission of failure. But some of the most powerful, successful, admired people in the world seem, to me, to have something in common: they ask constantly, creatively, compassionately, and gracefully.
Asking does not come easily for me, especially if I don’t immediately see the value in what I have to offer. But as I approach 40, I’m realizing that if I don’t see value in the work I’m doing, it’s time to find work that does fulfill me. That isn’t really the problem; it’s articulating what my work’s value is, and using that to sell myself, whether that’s in an article pitch, event listing, newsletter or link request. When I dig deep, I find that with only rare exceptions, I am proud of my work, and when I’m not, I have to find ways to change how I operate so I can be proud of it. You also have to be judicious in your asking, rather than bombarding the same people with similar requests so often they all blur together.
So even with my qualms, I’m working on asking anyway, in this case, approaching sponsors for a sex toy store book tour I want to do for my next anthology, Come Again: Sex Toy Erotica. I’ve also started asking acquaintances for very specific, doable favors that might help further my career, the kind that I am more than happy to return. I always make sure to phrase it in a way that doesn’t sound demanding, because I am always just asking. Similar to my obsession with entering contests, I feel more alive and energized just by going through the process, no matter what the outcome.
I suspect there’s a fear, for many, that asking in and of itself, for anything, will make you feel entitled, will make it seem like you aren’t really asking at all, but rather putting the person being asked in an awkward position. I’ve thought that way and occasionally still think that way. But when push comes to shove, the only way to ever possibly know what someone might say to your request is to ask. For me, the results have surpassed my own modest goals. Rather than looking to the past for inspiration or nostalgia, I’m looking to the now, and focused on learning how to ask, answer and be open to new possibilities.