A long time ago, I looked into starting a business — a writing business, to be precise. I even had a name: “Your Wordsworth.” Catchy, isn’t it? Like, you’re getting your words’ worth from my services? And I always love invoking a Romantic period poet, which is why I have a kid named Keats.
I attended a lot of info and training sessions for would-be entrepreneurs, and I learned so much — way more, in fact, than a home-based, one-person business would require.
But one useful thing I learned was about bartering — that many businesses exchange goods and services, and that the value of the items exchanged is the same as money, and just as taxable.
The idea of bartering has always been interesting to me. I tend to pull out cash when I need something, just as most people do. Even offering an exchange can seem sketchy, and believe me, as someone whose main marketable skill is writing, I get a lot of this. One example is that on more than one occasion, people have offered to let me ghost-write their books for exposure or a share of royalties. This is a ridiculous offer for reasons I hope are obvious: Exposure for a ghost-written book is pretty negligible, and most books that are released barely recoup their costs, much less make enough profit to pay their writer, even many months after the fact.
Good bartering is equal, really, with both sides getting what they want and need from the arrangement with nobody feeling slighted. That said, I think the offer should properly come from the person in the bartering relationship whose goods or services have the most apparent value, just to avoid the notion that someone is looking for something for nothing.
Last week, I had a chance to do some bartering, and it ended up being really fun and even kind of moving.
I am a poet with a handful of books, including two recent full-length collections. I was invited to an event — a literary festival — to read from my newest book, “Passing Through Humansville,” and there was an opportunity to sell copies afterwards.
Literary events always include a certain kind of audience member — a student, undergrad or grad, who has very little disposable income to spend on books. This is, coincidentally, one of the only people in the world who would be delighted to receive a book of contemporary poetry.
My book has a cover price of $16, but I can get author copies for much less, and it’s my habit to buy up a hundred or so, just to have them on hand. For this event, I’d brought an optimistic 20 copies with me, and I sold a few — enough to pay for my travel.
But after my reading, I made this offer: Dig through your backpack or purse or wallet and find me something you consider to be of value, I told the crowd. Give me something cool, and I’ll give you a book.
Purse junk isn’t usually worth $16, so I felt I was making a good bartering overture — one that might seem kind instead of exploitative, although it might have seemed a little desperate as well.
Guess what? People brought me stuff — beautiful stuff, stuff a poet values.
I got a pretty green sweetgum pod (a gumball, we call them when we step on them around here). I got a cool robot keychain fob. And I got a tiny angel figure that came with a story.
The woman who handed me the angel told me that her son had found it and given it to her, with the admonition that she must pass it along when she found someone who needed it.
I must have looked like I needed an angel, since, of course, I always do.
I made an allowance for people who didn’t have a bunch of extraneous stuff on them. They could sing me a song, draw me a picture, write me a note or a poem.
And of course there’s always cash ….
At any rate, by hook or by crook, I got a bunch of strangers to take my words home with them, and they looked happy to get them. I’d call it a successful set of transactions and a pretty successful sales day.