WD Editor Cassandra Lipp talks about the combination of self-doubt and excitement that came along with her first book advance.
Just shy of one year after I graduated from college with my undergraduate degree in English and journalism, I got the call from a photographer I’d recently connected with telling me I was hired to collaborate with him on a book about Cincinnati’s record stores—Queen City Records. I’ll always remember where I was when I took that call: inside the main branch of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, where I was elated that the book would one day live on the shelves.
It all happened so fast. A journalism professor in the program I had just graduated from found a job listing asking for a writer to pen the words to a coffee table book about Cincinnati’s record stores and shared the listing with alumni. I applied for the job with a few writing clips, and Mike Spitz, the photographer who had posted the listing, called me after a few days. He talked to my former supervisor at the student writer position I held in college, and one week later I was writing the book that I felt was destined to be written by me.
As part of our agreement, Mike sent me half of my pay upon my acceptance of the job and would send the other half once I was finished with the writing. I didn’t care that the advance was coming from a photographer who was self-publishing a book, rather than a traditional publisher. I didn’t care that I knew nothing about writing a book. I didn’t care that the advance was only about $300. I didn’t care that the beef kafta plate I ordered at my celebratory dinner didn’t agree with my stomach. Because my name was going to be on the cover of a book, and I could say that I got my first book deal at 22. (I thought this was a major accomplishment until I remembered that Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth at 21.)
Of course, my mood wasn’t all pure joy. I still had the lingering self-doubt that my writing was not good enough and that it would be bad luck to spend all of the advance. What if I sucked at the job and had to give back the money? Instead, I resigned to only spend about $12 on two packs of socks, because I needed new socks at the time, and kept the rest of the money in my savings. During the six months that I was writing the book, I lived on babysitting money and freelance income from working as a copy editor for an online content mill. Getting paid a rate of $0.80 cents an article, I still had to edit 250 articles each week at the same time as writing the book in order to earn enough money to cover monthly expenses. I never felt poor; I felt like a real author.
I still haven’t touched the money from my book advance because it feels too sacred. Every time I pull those socks out of my sock drawer, I think of how I wrote a book so that I might put them on my feet.
The amount of self-doubt I had about the project was minuscule compared with how excited I was get started writing the book and eventually see the finished product. So, with no hesitation, I visited my local library again, this time to do some research on King Records, which would be the subject of the book’s last chapter. Looking back, I wasn’t consciously working backward. It was the part of the book that seemed the hardest to write since I didn’t know much about King Records to begin with, and I somehow instinctively knew that tackling the part of the book that seemed the hardest to me was the way to start.
After isolating all the unknown variables—asking myself How do I write a book? How will I support myself while I am lost in this world of the book? What research materials do I need to find—I got to work doing what I already knew how to do. In j-school and my short freelance writing career before the book, I had already honed the art of the personal interview, asking the right questions, and telling a story through someone else’s eyes. I did this for each of the 14 record stores in the book, with a few things different from all of the writing I had done before: The finished product would be put together and preserved as a part of my city’s history, my name would be on the cover of a book, and I was getting paid to write it.
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