• Advice

How one freelancer turned her hobby into a book deal

1. How do I parlay a blog into a book deal?
2. Which news sites should I pitch?
3. How do I clean barf out of a leather handbag?

Jolie Kerr, freelance columnist and author of My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha, can answer all three of these questions. A self-proclaimed “Clean Person,” she’s created a career around advising people on how to deal with offensive household smells, remove pit stains and manage other forms of personal squalor. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions on getting her start as a columnist, making time for writing and (of course) the best way to keep one’s home office tidy.

How did you get your start as a professional “Clean Person?”

JK: I started writing the column "Ask a Clean Person" in 2011 as a hobby, for lack of a better word, at the suggestion of a friend. I truly did not think anyone would read it! But, of course, people did read it and I found that writing the column was the thing I most looked forward to in my week. In part because it was just so fun, but also because it provided a much needed break from the grind of my corporate life.

As I put more and more work into the column, and then later into the book, I went from being a person who knew a lot about cleaning to a person who was an expert in cleaning; by the time I moved the column from the site where it originated to Gawker Media, my knowledge base was such that I felt totally comfortable referring to myself as a 'cleaning expert' or, in your words, a professional Clean Person.

This year you published the (hilarious and informative) book My Boyfriend Barfed in my Handbag and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha. How did you parlay column writing into a book deal?

JK: I was approached by several publishing companies asking if I was interested in writing a book, which was what planted the seed for me—before that, I still really considered writing the column just a fun little thing I did on the side. I wasn't getting paid, it was just a lark and not something I really thought of as work. But I also knew I was good at it, and that I'd hit on something that people enjoyed and benefitted from, so the notion of doing an entire book was appealing.

Check out the book on Amazon.

Freelancing looks different for everyone. How do you make it work?

JK: Now that the book is done and most of the promotion I'd been doing in support of it is winding down, I'm in the process of transitioning back into full-time corporate work. I'll continue to write Ask a Clean Person, but on a reduced basis—I'll work full-time and then write on the evenings and weekends, the way I did when I first started writing the column. It means I won't have a lot of time and energy for other things, but because I enjoy writing as much as I do I don't mind too much. The biggest difference between now and then is that I'm married, so I don't have as much freedom and I also have a lot more household responsibilities. So that part is something I'm not looking forward to juggling, but I'll do my best to make it work.

How does your lifestyle differ when you’re writing exclusively vs. when you’re working a more traditional 9 to 5?

JK: There are a lot more pairs of pantyhose involved when I'm working. I'm only half joking when I say that! I have more time to manage my home and take time for myself when I'm not juggling a full-time job with writing, but the tradeoff is that our finances are much, much tighter.

What advice do you have for freelance writers looking for gigs?

JK: Pitch the places you want to be writing for, even if you think there's no way that they'll say yes. When I was trying to find a new home for Ask a Clean Person, the one site I really wanted to write for was Deadspin, but I held off for months on pitching them because I thought for sure they'd be all, "Cleaning? On Deadspin? That makes no sense, you loon." But then one day I just sort of woke up and went, "What they heck, can't hurt to ask!" And they said yes.

Many of our members work out of their houses and apartments. What are some tips for keeping home-based workspaces neat and clean?

JK: Take five minutes when you sit down to start working to organize your workspace—you can get a lot done in five minutes! Things like tossing/shredding/recycling papers, stacking up bills to be paid later, taking dirty coffee cups and water glasses to the kitchen to be washed don't take a huge amount of time but make a big difference in keeping things tidy.

Another helpful thing is to have some sort of schedule that includes taking time to do housework, even if it's a small amount. I generally start working fairly early in the morning while I'm still in bed, but I take a half hour every morning from 8:30, when my husband leaves for work, until 9, when I sit down at my desk/kitchen table, to tidy up the home and my person—I make the bed, wash the dishes, put on real pants* and contact lenses and brush my hair. It's a good ritual.

*Okay fine, they're usually yoga pants—but that's because I go to the gym around lunch time and already being in my gear makes it more likely that I'll make it out of the house.

You can see Jolie Kerr, Tyler Coates and some of NYC’s favorite writers on June 18th for “Say It to My Face: Confronting the Comments Section” at Housing Works. Click here for info.