ASK AUNTIE MJ: How to write a letter to someone you found online

Here is an email I got today. I am showing you my reply because I get a LOT of emails like this one, but this one stood out for a few reasons—and I think this is a teachable moment about how to ask people for things.

Hi Maureen,

I’m ——, host of [a personal site]. I came across your work 13 Blue Envelopes on Goodreads, and I thought it would be a great addition to a giveaway blog hop that I’m currently involved in. I wanted to know if you would like to partake in the giveaway blog hop by offering an ecopy of either 13 Blue Envelopes or any other one of your books (as long as it’s family-friendly) to the visitors of my blog. The blog hop begins on October 6th and ends on October 20th.

If you would be interested in offering an ecopy as part of the giveaway that would be great. If you can’t partake, I understand. Either way, I would appreciate a response, so I can know who to add to the list. Thank you.

My reply:
"Hi Maureen,"
- hey, how’s it going.
"I’m ——, host of [a personal site]. I came across your work 13 Blue Envelopes on Goodreads, and I thought it would be a great addition to a giveaway blog hop that I’m currently involved in."
- To be clear, it sounds like you haven’t read it. You’ve just seen mention of one of my books—the third one I wrote, which came out in 2005. I don’t know why you think it would be good (see above note about how it doesn’t look like you’ve read it). Also, what is a blog hop? WHAT IS A BLOG HOP. Don’t throw around terms like “blog hop” and leaving me hanging like this.
"I wanted to know if you would like to partake in the giveaway blog hop by offering an ecopy of either 13 Blue Envelopes"
-SERIOUSLY WHAT IS A BLOG HOP. Also, I don’t have an ecopy to send you. That sounds like a terrible idea. What you want, in essence, is for me to send you, a person I do not know, a PDF of my work—work you have not read. 
"or any other one of your books (as long as it’s family-friendly) to the visitors of my blog."
-Oh. So you want me to send you, a person I do not know, a PDF of my work FOR FREE, but only if it is FAMILY FRIENDLY. I do not know what this means. My book does not insult families. My work has never, to my knowledge, burned down a family home. When I see the words “family friendly,” I tend to slide back in the chair because those words are used by many people to censor materials by using a more or less manginess phrase to justify removal of materials. But go on…
"The blog hop begins on October 6th and ends on October 20th.”

-WHAT IS A BLOG HOP.
"If you would be interested in offering an ecopy as part of the giveaway that would be great. If you can’t partake, I understand."
- I’m not? For those reasons?
"Either way, I would appreciate a response, so I can know who to add to the list. Thank you."
- Well, this is my response. And I’ve written it not to be snarky, but to illustrate that this is not how you ask people for things. But just while we’re here: why is your list my problem? You don’t know me. I don’t know you. You just want stuff, and now your list is my problem too?
Look, I know people have blogs! I have one! THIS IS IT. I give stuff away on it and write for it myself. I understand that it is normal for blogs to give away books and to solicit copies.  This letter is not the worst of its kind, but there are classic failure points here that we can turn into SUCCESS points.
It’s AUNTIE MJ’S LETTER WRITING SCHOOL TIME.
1. Show that you have some idea who the person you are writing to is. 
This is general courtesy to anyone. If you are writing and asking for something, show that there is a reason you have come to them. You don’t need a fancy reason. You don’t need a complicated reason. But you do need some kind of starting point for the conversation that isn’t ”I saw your name on the internet and I figured you would just send me stuff.” Most people are pretty generous and don’t mind being asked things—they just don’t want to feel like they’re being spammed. This kind of thing is one step above a letter that is addressed to “occupant.” “You seem like you have stuff. You’ll do.” Make a small effort.
2. Explain who YOU are. 
This does not have to be fancy either. If you have a site, explain what that site is. It’s not enough just to say, “This is my site and because it exists you should send me things.” It doesn’t have to be big or famous, it just needs a basic explanation. 
3. Explain why you are asking.
I don’t know why this person wants a book from me. I don’t know if this is for a charity (it doesn’t seem to be), or to promote their site (which is a fine reason if you’re polite about it). Blog hop means nothing to me—unless it is a new term for “blog tour,” which is one of my least favorite terms. Just say why you have come and what you intend to do with the object you desire in a way that acknowledges IN SOME FASHION why the person should give it to you. 
4. Consider what you’re asking for.
This letter clearly riled me because it asked for two very specific and problematic things. One, the writer wants an ecopy—so, some kind of unlocked copy of my work that could be disseminated. I am all about giving away free e-copies when I can, but not like this. I don’t have such a thing anyway. Most writers don’t. 
Of course the big problem was the “family friendly,” which is, as I said above, a nonsense term. But also? When you ask for things? You don’t say, “Not only do I want something from you, person I seem to know nothing about, but I want specific things. DON’T YOU SEND ME TRASH.”
To be clear, I have no problem whatsoever with people writing in with requests similar to this! I can’t always do it, because I get a lot of requests and I only have so many books. At a certain point I have to say sorry and no. But that’s fine! I’ve never had anyone be anything but polite when I said I didn’t have any books to give.
My point is, when you are writing to someone—anyone—I’m not just talking about authors here—you have to think through the request. Here is a cheat sheet:
1. Hello. This is who I am, in brief (or long) detail.
2. I know who you are. I’m not just reaching out blindly to someone I just Googled.
3. This is what I would like, and why I would like it.
4. And obviously don’t insult them in the process by making additional demands, especially ones that might cast aspersions on their work. No conditions! You are asking for something!
If you follow these steps, I believe your requests will be more successful. POLITENESS, my friends. POLITENESS.
As I just mentioned on Twitter, I am going to be starting a more formal, regular feature called Ask Auntie MJ. I will start this at the release of my new site, and the idea is to do it weekly. But you can use the ask box to send in questions, IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DO SO.
love,
auntie mj