Writing Secret No. 1 Is Keep Your Day Job

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of more than a half dozen books. Her latest,  “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” is a collection of essays which humorously explore feminism.  Her syndicated columns and articles are often focused on empowering women through humor. In this article she doesn’t talk about her new book but about her career as a writer.

The Hartford Courant

Here’s everything you wanted to know about writing and publishing but were too afraid to ask: These are the questions that come up at the end after bookstore readings. I thought it made sense to address them all at once.

Do authors make money? About 17 people make enough money from writing to purchase both a coffee and a bagel every day.

A larger coterie of authors, recently estimated at 136 individuals (two of them aren’t answering their phones), will earn sufficient funds to buy either the beverage or the bread product, but not both. Condiments are not included.

Does it cost money to write books? After getting breakfast, few writers break even. Given the cost of printer cartridges, tech help and bubble-wrap mailers (not to mention paying for your own publicity, marketing or even publishing as increasing numbers of authors seem to be doing) the amount of money spent producing a book is significant. You’re not paid for appearances at bookstores or festivals; your travel expenses are your own. You pay to ship your stock. I still carry books to sell out of the trunk of my car. If you’ve ever met me, you know I’m not kidding.

Are there alternatives? You could, of course, handwrite your text, design your own cover and send your manuscripts wrapped in wax paper to Manhattan book reviewers, but that’s a little bit like knitting your own car. Although it’s an original and intriguing concept, it probably won’t work.

Do people in publishing know what they’re doing? A highly respected academic colleague at a distinguished university once told me about being hit by a double whammy: Not only did his press leave his name off the spine of his scholarly book’s cover, but they also omitted his name as author from their catalog. Also omitted was any description of the book. In other words, only the title appeared, orphaned and naked on the page, surrounded by blank spaces as if someone at the press had simply neglected to get the copy in on deadline. That’s probably what happened.

You haven’t experienced anything like that, have you? The new book coming out this week initially had a cover where three words of the title were printed in fuchsia so as to offer a fashionable, sexy contrast to the stylish blue background. When the final version of the cover appeared, however, the title was entirely in black. Someone left out the pink dye during the final stage. They swear they’ll use the fuchsia for subsequent print runs, if there are any, and I comfort myself by imagining that these rare first editions will become collectors’ items. And then I pour myself a comforting drink, which rarely resembles the coffee beverages mentioned above.

Why isn’t my book available at the bookstores? Bookstores can only afford to keep a limited number of titles on their shelves and, except for classic or best selling authors, they only keep those titles for a few months at a time. What happens to books after that? Is there a book heaven? Reports differ, but some industry estimates say nearly half the books end up being “pulped” or destroyed in order to free up space in warehouses. On my bulletin board at work, I’ve posted a small clip from the U.K. Daily Mail from 2009 that reads: “Of the 86,000 new titles published in the UK in 2009, 59,000 sold an average of 18 copies.” I use it with my creative writing students to foster both a sense of perspective and a sense of urgency about getting a day job.

Writing and publishing are blood sports and they don’t necessarily become easier over time. The week before a book is launched (I’m in that week right now) you feel as if a creature, part yak, part rhino, part Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”, is sitting on your chest and making it impossible for you to breathe. And this, remember, is for those fortunate enough to be published.

So why on earth does anybody write? To make a story out of everything. Once I write it down, the story becomes simultaneously mine as well as everybody else’s. What could be better than that? Nothing, except maybe free condiments.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. 

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