05/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's A Person's Story Worth?

I just got off the phone from someone calling herself a friend of one of the major characters in my new book, Dirty Water: One Man's Fight to Clean Up One of the World's Most Polluted Bays. She asked me how this person could get a box of books from my publisher. Turns out, she meant a box of free books.

Well, that's not really done, I said. I only got a few books myself and those were long gone after going out as review copies. From that point on, the conversation got a little uppity on both sides. In what I consider to be a rather snide tone of voice, she wanted to know if I wrote the book for free. Of course not, I said, I hope it sells well enough that I see some royalties. "So why doesn't he get some of that for telling his story?" she asked. "Because I'm the one who did all the work in researching and writing the book," I snapped.

That pretty much ended the conversation, if that's what it was. But it did bring up a question I've often wondered about and that is, when I interview someone--especially when it's someone with a unique story as his was--what is their time, opinion, version of events worth? When I cold call someone to request an interview, I figure they might ask me why should they talk to me, but no one ever has. A few don't return my calls, but never do the ones who sit down with me for an interview say, "So what makes you so special that I should spend an hour or two answering your questions?" with the corollary question dripping between the words--and do it for nothing?

I realize this sounds as though I'm sliding into a discussion of checkbook journalism, the disreputable practice of paying usually loads of cash for the exclusive rights to a story, but it's nothing that spectacular. I'm talking about everyday reporting and if there's a kind of arrogance to the notion that if I call someone for an interview that I should expect them to stop what they're doing and talk?

Actually, the benefit of the interview doesn't only go to me. In the case of the characters in my book, their largely forgotten stories were retold and with that, a permanent record of their deeds were collected in one location, namely the book (as opposed to various articles buried in old newspapers, or, even more difficult to locate, television reports). Recognition is a huge thing and while I wrote the book for other reasons, I knew from the start I was acknowledging the past exploits of several people who contributed to the clean-up of the horribly polluted Santa Monica Bay. And there's no reason why I shouldn't feel good about providing that kind of credit to deserving people.

Just the same, there are other reasons why people talk to me. Anytime I quote someone who's running a business, I've just given them a droplet of free advertising. In the case of controversial issues, anyone involved wants to make sure their side is heard and so they will almost always talk to every reporter who calls them. Same with public officials (well, usually; my experience with politicians is that they will sit down for an interview but in the end give very few, if any, straightforward answers, so I get nothing). Lastly, there are those normal folks who are simply flattered someone wants to ask them about their lives or their opinions, and they're thrilled to see their names in print.

Perhaps it's cynical to suggest that interviewees always have an alterior motive, no matter how benign, for talking to me, but I'm convinced it isn't just so they can contribute to a freewheeling exchange of ideas, which is the ultimate principle behind a free press. Nope. I suspect many of them have already calculated why they sit down with me before they answer a single question and I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that.

However, to suggest, as this person did, that if I get paid for my work, her friend should be compensated for his time is a spurious calculation. I spent a year and a half researching and writing the book and he sat down for a few hours of interviews. People who are so dismissive of that kind of labor don't deserve a dime, let along a free box of books.