How to publish your own poetry with Karen McMillian
My name is Zoe and I journal on Instagram as @limberdoodle. A year ago, the journaling I did to #recordnoticevalue the transition to motherhood, was entirely on foot and smellable, in my local community; I did not know what a hashtag was. But when this pandemic turned all our lives upside down, I knew I needed to find connection, and had heard of this scary thing called social media. So, I posted the first page from the journal I had started doodling, and dipped my toe in the water.
I have not loved everything about it, but certain things have made me stay, and Karen McMillan is one of them. When Katharine of @themumpoempress (another of the things that have made me stay) asked if I would like to interview Karen, it was a case of ‘Do bears toilet-train in the woods?’
Karen’s work as @mother_truths has been a guiding light. First, the extraordinary quality of her content: lapping up elegantly crafted work in bite-size chunks from my pocket, I decided if literature this good lived here, it was somewhere I could hang out. From exquisite poetry to prose that documented the experience of parenting in the pandemic, all from a perspective that in its heartfelt specificity reaches to the universal. But Karen’s approach and methods too, have been an inspiration. Her generously collaborative sharing of others’ artwork, and friendly interactions seemed a blueprint for using this new and alien platform.
I noticed how she supported others’ work including my own, and it was not long before we were privately chatting and sharing 80s playlists. When I realised she had a print book of poetry out, I knew I wanted one in my sticky paws. Prose work just about to come out too? I nabbed an early copy and reviewed it with relish.
I suspect those reading this will be as big fans as I am, and perhaps wondering, like me, if self-publishing could be a route for them, particularly if we could do it as well as this.
Here is what she had to say in response to my nosey questions.
Had you read many self-published books before making your own?
I'd not read any self-published books prior to writing my own. I've since enjoyed several, mostly in the mum poetry genre by Kate Thirlwall, Jess Urlichs, Onajite Clarke, Sally Wilkes and Leander Moore. And the amazing zines by the Mum Poem Press. I also really enjoyed a self-published non-fiction book by Suzie Jay Goldsmith called 'The Rallying Cry' a fantastic book about creativity as self care.
What was your route to realising you wanted to self-publish?
I had always wanted to be traditionally published and spent about six months approaching agents and every publisher I could find. I received many rejections and some candid feedback that poetry is deemed quite niche in the publishing world and it would therefore be unlikely for me to have success seeking the traditional route.
So I decided to change tact and self-publishing was in all honesty a bit of a plan B. I had loved the idea of having the support of a publisher to design and market the book. I guess I felt like I needed that permission in a way.
However, in hindsight, self-publishing has given me complete freedom to write and market the book in my own way without feeling answerable to anyone. And there's something quite lovely about the fact that my partner Spence designed the cover and my brother in law edited the book. It also kept costs down!
What research did you do before deciding how to do it?
I literally googled 'self-publishing success stories' and was particularly inspired by the story of Jennifer L Scott, an american writer who after a series of rejections from agents and publishers, self-published a novel called Madame Chic, off the back of a popular blog she had created. She then went on to become a New York Times bestseller.
I also listened to a podcast on spotify called "Bestseller" whereby different self publishers are interviewed each week which also spurred me on.
There's also a fantastic instagram page called "Inspired to Write" which is super encouraging for all writers, particularly when you get an attack of imposter syndrome.
In terms of researching the process, I watched Youtube videos about Amazon kdp and created an Amazon kdp account and they had free step-by-step guides on there which were really straightforward.
And from then, how long did it take you to get the books made?
The poetry book took around 4 months. As a stay at home mum to a two-year-old I worked on it in dribs and drabs, for an hour each day when he would nap. The second book "Lessons" took a bit longer because he had stopped napping by then!
Are there any pitfalls to avoid? Things you wish you’d known before you started?
One thing to be aware of is that Amazon kdp don't distribute to certain parts of the world, namely Australia and New Zealand. I created an ebook which is available worldwide but most people prefer a hardcopy book.
What decisions does someone wanting to self-publish need to make before embarking on it?
What platform you want to use. I settled on Amazon kdp because it was free and the most popular one at the time. I've heard good things about Ingram Spark too.
How you will layout the text of your book. What design programme you will use. I used Adobe indesign which was fantastic. Again, watched lots of Youtube tutorials.
The order of the book. Early motherhood naturally provided an order of things; from pregnancy through to toddlerhood etc. I was conscious that quite a few of my poems are bit heavy in tone so wanted to mix them up with a few lighthearted ones.
- the book title
- how you will price the book
- who will design the cover
- who will proofread or edit the book
An idea of how you will market the book once released or how you'll direct attention to your social media pages.
A blurb/elevator pitch for how to describe your book on the amazon description section. This also comes in really handy for any social media marketing.
Other decisions are how many pages the book will be because that dictates the front cover dimensions/ spine length etc. Also colour of inside pages (white or cream), material of front cover (matte or glossy etc), fonts used, trim size etc
Did you edit your work yourself or find someone else to work with?
My lovely brother-in-law Mike edited the poetry book. He is not a professional editor but has a wonderful ways with words. I am so glad he did. There were lots of mistakes I had missed and he made some fantastic suggestions.
My uni friend Gemma edited my second book. She has always been the most grammatically correct person I know and she did a brilliant job of forcing me to use more commas!
Is it necessary to be a competent social media publicist for yourself? And if so, do you have any recommendations for learning that side of things?
Having an audience on social media was paramount to selling copies of the book (beyond friends and family). But I certainly wouldn't call myself an expert in that area. Lots was trial and error. Strangely I found my voice in a facebook group for sleep deprived mums. I would share poems and try and make them laugh and their reaction was so lovely. So that, alongside a nudge from my little sister, gave me the confidence to start an insta page.
I use Instagram and facebook. It's quite a long-game slowly building up followers but just consistently putting out content that you would enjoy reading yourself slowly attracts likeminded people who are more likely to appreciate any book you might bring out.
I decided to consistently share a mixture of poems and prose all on motherhood. You never know what posts will get peoples attention. It's very hit and miss. But if you build it, they will come!
I found it quite uncomfortable (and still do at times) marketing the book. I hate feeling like a saleswoman ramming it down people's throats but as a self-published writer if you don't market your book, nobody else will.
How does it feel having your books out there?
It's really fun. It was very exciting/scary seeing it appear on Amazon for the first time. I felt sick for about a week at the thought of the book arriving in peoples homes, especially people I know but that feeling soon passed and now I'm just really happy to have the books out there and being read and have been so touched by how lovely and supportive everyone has been.
Thank you, Karen. I do think the publishers who find poetry ‘niche’ and failed to snap you up are fools to themselves, but it is so good to hear that their loss was your gain in so many ways.
For my part, the design element is a lure (if anything I will be too picky about this) while the marketing aspect is a terrifying prospect. And I am learning, slowly, that ‘permission’ can be sought in other ways – not least by the communities we find online.
I loved hearing about your research process, and the details of putting your books together, working around the differing demands of specific stages of motherhood. And it is a delight to hear about your family of helpers – it must be a real buzz for them to see the work out there too.
Your admission that marketing feels uncomfortable is, strangely, a relief, as, in spite of this, you are doing it – so maybe I can too!
Thanks so much for these insights – I am sure they will give so many of us the kind of sisterly warm hand of support that you specialise in.
I cannot wait to see what we spawn!