Today I’m sharing some sad news. After nine years of trading, and having spent the last few difficult months trying to keep things moving, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that I have to close Mother’s Milk Books.
Of course, many companies and industries are struggling at the moment due to Covid-19, but running an indie press has always been a labour of love that survives on the edge of financial viability. I’m very proud of the books that we’ve published – along with all the beautiful greetings cards and prints we’ve produced – but I feel that the time has come to take a break and do other things. I have loved working with all the authors, poets and artists who have entrusted me with their wonderful creations and feel very lucky to have met so many amazing people – readers, writers, reviewers, booksellers and fellow publishers – along the way. The community that has grown up around Mother’s Milk Books is full of talented, kind-hearted and generous individuals.
However, the closing of Mother’s Milk Books does not mean that I’ll be vanishing into the ether. I’ll still be blogging about all things publishing over at The Book Stewards and sharing my own creative news over on my personal blog, Twitter or Facebook (come follow me if you’re interested). I also have my writing mentees and freelance editorial work to keep me busy (as well as my two children, of course!) and so editing will continue to be a large part of my working life.
As to the books, cards and prints… well, there aren’t that many left. But what does remain is now being sold in a final sale, with 50% off – the 16th October being the LAST DAY EVER of Mother’s Milk Books selling books to the public. So now is the time to get hold of a bargain!
Lastly… thank you again for your support. Mother’s Milk Books couldn’t have continued for as long as it has done if it wasn’t for its amazing writers, artists, readers, reviewers, booksellers, magazine editors (not to mention all the fine indie publishing folk who have cheered me on throughout the years). You are all stars!
Now that all the contracts have been signed, sealed and delivered, I am delighted to be able to announce the authors of the upcoming The Forgotten and the Fantastical 5, which will be published either late this summer or autumn time. They are:
I am ever so glad to welcome these authors to the Mother’s Milk Books family – some of them are relatively new to writing and some are experienced and, indeed, very well known. Some I’ve already published. All the authors’ stories complement one another; themes running through the anthology are: glass, wolves and what it means to be human. It’s going to be a fantastic book!
Now to commissioning some art for the cover. Please do let me know about any artists I should be aware of.
Having only published two books this year it may seem as though it’s been a quiet year for Mother’s Milk Books. But as anyone involved with a small press knows, there’s a huge amount that goes on behind the scenes to: a) produce those books, b) keep making sales to enable the press to stay afloat, c) keep up-to-date with all the business administration, and d) put in the groundwork for future books. And as I don’t really pay myself for the work I do on the press there’s the paid freelance work I take on to enable me to keep my children in shoes. (Their feet do have a habit of growing…)
However, amidst all the seen (and unseen) busyness of 2018 there were some very special highlights for me. One of them was seeing the amazing reception to Angi Holden’s debut Spools of Thread (which was the winner of our inaugural Pamphlet Prize). Despite heavy snow Angi had a brilliant launch event, sold plenty of pamphlets and reviews were highly positive. As a publisher I can’t really ask for much more than that! Then there was Inheritance, by Ruth Stacey and Katy Wareham Morris, which won Best Collaborative Work at the Saboteur Awards (that was a super proud publisher moment for me), as well as the launch of The Forgotten and the Fantastical 4 which was a lot of fun. (Also, TFATF4 has almost sold out which is both heartening and daunting!) Having new readers connect with Ana Salote’s Oy Yew – and write glowing reviews – was just brilliant (and makes me super excited about launching the last in the Waifs of Duldred trilogy next year), and meeting people at various cons who are readers and fans of the books (not a con goes by when someone doesn’t gush about what a brilliant book Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith is) continues to be wonderful.
Receiving accolades at the inaugural Nottingham Writers’ Studio awards – one for ‘Writing Teacher of the Year’ as well as ‘Just Cause’ on behalf of the press was another highlight. And alongside all this, my husband and I launched The Book Stewards which is our little space of the internet in which we blog about the ins and outs of publishing, providing insider information and motivation for writers. One of the reasons we set it up was because there’s so little information about publishing out there, so hopefully, writers wanting to progress their careers – indeed, some who may want to be published by Mother’s Milk Books – will be able to drop by and pick up some useful tips.
And of course, there was plenty of reading. Here are some of the Mother’s Milk Books’ authors/editors/supporters favourite reads of the year:
Angela Topping: The #MeToo anthology, the Poems for Grenfell anthology and Deborah Alma’s Dirty Laundry.
Beth McDonough: I was hugely impressed by Robin Robertson’s The Long Take. Apologies… as I know it’s on some of the big prize lists… but despite that, it’s daring indeed. As far as anthologies from the smaller presses go, I’m sorry Luath has had to delay publication until April, but Scotia Extremis (edited by Andy Jackson and Brian Johnstone) will be a cracker! But Jim Stewart’s This (Voyage Out Press) has to take top place. I just wish he had lived to see it published.
Also, though not a publication, and not easily definable… Martin Figura’s Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine was the high spot of a superb time at StAnza this year… by turns heartbreaking, funny and hugely life-affirming.
Rebecca Ann Smith: The best book I read this year – well my favourite anyway – was The Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman – highly recommended for anyone who enjoys smart, feminist sci-fi. It’s about technology, sex, nature vs nurture, men and women, medicine and its limits, and what we can learn about connection and community from bonobos (that’s a lot I know!). Packed with ideas but also engaging and relatable.
Ana Salote: I’ve been retreating into comfort reads from the 30s. Just finished The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff. It’s about a working class family on holiday in Bognor and it’s utterly engaging. It’s so sensitively written and made me nostalgic for the modest but deeply appreciated satisfactions of the old analogue world.
Angi Holden: I keep a reading log and usually it’s packed with goodies but, largely due to health issues and the ensuing tiredness and lack of concentration, I’ve read less than usual this year. However, two novels have stood out for me: Vanessa Diffenbach’s We Never Asked for Wings, the story of a woman finally taking charge of her complicated life (which made me question how much of the support we give our adult children is really in their best interest) and Rachel Rhys’s Dangerous Crossing, about the blurred social, national and political boundaries aboard an Assisted Passage Scheme liner in 1939. Both easy reads but thought-provoking.
Of my non-fiction reads I particularly enjoyed Kathleen Jamie’s Findings and Sightlines, both re-reads. The nature and landscape of Scotland through the eye of a poet.
Much of my reading this year has been poetry, some of it acquainting myself with poets’ work in preparation for courses or workshops. Difficult to choose favourites but Josephine Corcoran’s What Are You After?, Deborah Alma’s Dirty Laundry and Clare Shaw’s Flood stand out. Tishani Doshi’s Girls are Coming Out of the Woods was a particular delight as I’d not met her work before. Here’s the title poem. http://poems.com/poem.php?date=17879…
Teika Bellamy: Although I read (and write) a fair amount of science fiction short stories (both Interzone and Shoreline of Infinity provide a continual supply of excellent stories) and have read some of the scifi classics I know that my science fiction knowledge is still seriously lacking. So I set out to remedy that by reading Adam Roberts’ The History of Science Fiction. Though an engaging read it did take me a while to finish – purely because it’s so stuffed full of facts and nuggets of insight into the huge genre that is science fiction. Now there’s *just* all the books Adam mentioned within to read…! Poetry-wise I read a fair bit; I’m hoping to review the books I loved in more detail on my personal blog soon. Favourites were Angela Topping’s The Five Petals of Elderflower, Kate Garrett’s Land and Sea and Turning, Cathy Bryant’s Erratics, Grant Tarbard’s Loneliness is the Machine that Drives the World and Rachel Bower’s Moon Milk. Fiction-wise I really enjoyed Kij Johnson’s novella The Man Who Bridged The Mist and Damage – a collection of short stories – by Rosalie Parker, and I thought Emma J. Lannie’s pamphlet of magical realism short stories Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis was exquisite. I’m also really excited about getting hold of a copy of Angela Readman’s Something Like Breathing which will be published by And Other Stories next year.
Tom Bellamy: Francis Plug: Writer in Residence by Paul Ewen was a highlight. It’s very funny and very moving, and the author somehow makes you care for and like Francis – a grotesque though endearing character.
Rebecca & Jerome Bellamy: Pamela Butchart’s Pugly series as well as the Wigglesbottom Primary and the Baby Aliens series are BRILLIANT! (Note from TB: we also really enjoyed reading Nikki Young’s Time School: We Will Remember Them about children’s lives in World War One. It’s a page-turning though informative read – and particularly timely as we finished reading it just before the local Remembrance Day service which my daughter was involved in. It helped her to connect to what happened a century ago. And reading about a delightful mouse who lives in a steampunk world – ‘Gelsomina and the Moon Yarn’ by Valerio Vitantoni – was a lot of fun).
2017 was another interesting year for me as a publisher – and I use the word ‘interesting’ in the way it is used in the apocryphal Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
Of course there was much that was good in the year – the great reception to the three books I published: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3, Nondula by Ana Salote, and Inheritance by Ruth Stacey and Katy Wareham Morris; the five awards that Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith picked up in 2017 (the fifth is the just-now-awarded Red Ribbon from The Wishing Shelf Awards); as well as the continued support from our authors, readers, helpers and all our “tribe”. But financial worries persisted in casting a cloud over me as costs (print, in particular) continued to rise, unlike the price of books – and our sales – which remains steady. The sad truth is that the profit margins in publishing books are tiny; to make the whole thing work profitably isn’t impossible, but clearly, it’s something I’ll have to spend much more time thinking about next year. Maybe I’ll ask my fairy godmother for a magical business hat that’ll help steer me in the right direction!
2017 also had its other challenges – the added administrative and accounting complexity of becoming a Ltd company; book piracy; the issue of literary “convergent creativity” (i.e. the discovery that the themes within Baby X, by Rebecca Ann Smith were also to be found in a newly-published book, The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick); the continued non-response from the traditional media when trying to promote/publicise our books; as well as one of my authors, Alison Lock, having had a horrendously bad accident. All these things made me feel a whole range of emotions and forced me to think through the issues and how to respond to them in a positive and productive fashion.
Most importantly, Alison is on the mend, and inspiringly, as committed as ever to her writing. She has also very kindly agreed to judge the 2017/2018 poetry category of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. So if you have a poem that you think she may like, please do send it our way.
I’d like to think that the other challenges I’ve handled as best as I was able to. Indeed, looking at the positive, it’s been great to have the help of other publishers who’ve empathized and said helpful things along the lines of: “Yes, these things happen, it’s not ideal, but here are some ideas…”
Looking at the bigger picture, the literary world (okay, specifically, the indie publishing world, which is what I know best) is as robust and as radical as ever. Here are some of my literary heroes and heroines of 2017:
2. Nikesh Shukla and Julia Kingsford’s hard work in making The Good Agency (an agency with its focus on advocating under-represented voices in publishing) a reality. (ACE, just the other day, awarded them over half a million pounds in funding). Excellent news!
3. Jamie McGarry of Valley Press and Emma Wright of The Emma Press for opening up the conversation about what it’s really like to run a small press in their new fortnightly podcast (I’m their biggest fan). I applaud them for making the workings of indie publishing more transparent – I think it’s of a great benefit to authors, and useful for publishers too. Do check it out – listening to two such friendly, intelligent and passionate-about-books people talking about publishing and how they make their businesses work is both incredibly useful and inspiring.
4. Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press and Deborah Alma (aka The Emergency Poet) for putting together the incredibly important #MeToo poetry anthology – due to be published in March 2018 (with all money going to the charity Women’s Aid). The book won’t make for easy reading, but it absolutely needs to exist.
5. The good folks at Comma Press. Comma continue to publish politically necessary books. When I went to a Comma event at the excellent Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham (for the launch of their anthology Protest) I was inspired by what both Ra Page (of Comma) and Andy Hedgecock (one of the contributing authors) had to say about how, historically, protests were one of the few ways “ordinary” people had effected political change. Where protest hadn’t brought about change, for whatever reason, one could look at other instances where, in fact, culture – films, books, art – had greatly influenced societal thinking, which had its own role to play in effecting change. It reminded me that indie publishing, too, has an important (though perhaps small) role to play in bringing about change through the shifting of societal thinking.
6. Shoreline of Infinity. As I wrote in my own blog a while back, the SFF world is still dominated by male writers. The editors of Shoreline haven’t passively sat back and ignored the problem; they’re doing their bit by asking for more women reviewers and encouraging more women to send in stories; indeed Issue 11 will be a women-only issue. Hoorah!
7. The incredible AndOtherStories will be publishing only books by women in 2018, which is a much-needed shake up to the system, and Influx Press recently had a call for submissions from only women of colour. I’ll look forward to seeing all those exciting books in print very soon.
8. Kate Garrett of Three Drops Press. Kate is one of the most productive (and prolific) creative people I know; she also has a lovely large family, so the way she continues to be so creative, in publishing and writing terms, alongside being a brilliant mum always inspires me. 9. FantasyCon and the SFF community. This year’s FantasyCon was the first ‘Con’ I’d ever been to (like, ever), and I was blown away by the wonderful, friendly atmosphere, and how so many of the people there – readers, authors, publishers – made me feel truly welcome. I’ll most certainly be going again! (The below photo of me at FantasyCon is courtesy of David Stokes of the relatively new and exciting Guardbridge Books.)
10. My authors, who continue to remain patient with me when I know I’m sometimes a frazzled and (very forgetful) editor.
11. All the quiet people who offer their kind support to indie publishers and creatives like myself every day – by buying books, writing reviews, engaging with us on social media and offering help. And especial thanks go to Helen Lloyd, Susan Last, Maddy Bennett, Emma Sheffield, Ronne Randall, and Sarah Hindmarsh who have been a huge help (and brilliant cheerleaders) to me this year. Also, a shout-out to The Only Way is Indie publishing folk; you really help to keep my spirits up! Super special thanks go to my husband and children who continue to support me. 😊
And here are a few of the ‘team Mother’s Milk’ favourite books:
Teika Bellamy: The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories), The Book of Tides by Angela Readman (Nine Arches Press) Fairy Tales for Writers by Lawrence Schimel (A Midsummer’s Night’s Press), Vertigo by Joanna Walsh (AndOtherStories), When You Lived Inside the Walls by Krishan Coupland (Stonewood Press), Deadly, Delicate by Kate Garrett (Picaroon Poetry), Empires of Clay by Becky Cherriman (Cinnamon Press), Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas (Stonewood Press), The End edited by Ashley Stokes (Unthank Books), Bone Ovation by Caroline Hardaker (Valley Press).
Also… Memoirs of My Body by Shreya Sen-Handley, Why The Politics of Breastfeeding Matters by Gabrielle Palmer (Pinter & Martin), Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph, and I’ve just now started reading the gorgeous First Fox by Leanne Radojkovich (The Emma Press), as well as dipping into Reward for Winter by Di Slaney (Valley Press) which I’m really appreciating. I’ve also heard that Francis Plug (published by Galley Beggar Press) has another book on the horizon, which I’m super excited about!
Angi Holden: Leafing through my reading log (I kept one as part of a course over a decade ago, and have continued the habit) I’m reminded of some cracking fictions: The Chimes by Anna Smaill (fantasy, dystopian yet hopeful), The Course of Love by Alain de Botton (insightful and forensic analysis of a marriage), The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Chinese-Japanese relationship during WW2) and Our Souls at Night by Kent Harif (the challenges of a relationships between older widow & widower) stand out as particular gems.
I read a number of non-fictions that have surprised, moved and impressed me: Becoming Drusilla by Richard Beard (“one life, two friends, three genders” about poet and artist Dru Marland), The End of Your Life Bookclub by Will Schwalbe (a terminally ill mother and her son share favourite books), The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (a brother’s survival is a worse option than death – persistent vegetative state) and The Dragonfly Diaries by Ruary Mackensie Dodds (a memoir of an environmentalist) were among my favourites.
I don’t know where to start with poetry. In what has been called a thin year for poetry (John Burnside, New Statesman) there have been some superb pamphlets and collections. The Poetry School’s list includes a number by poets I’ve heard read this year: Hilda Sheehan, Kayo Chingonyi, Polly Atkin, Steve Ely. None have disappointed. I would add James Sheard’s Abandoned Settlements, a surprising omission since it’s been shortlisted for the forward prize. My favourite read of the year was probably Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons.
And finally a “heroine” – Rebecca Bilkau, editor of Beautiful Dragons, an entirely collaborative, not-for-profit poetry press. Despite financial constraints she continues to publish wonderful themed anthologies – Chemical Elements, Oceans and this year Poems of Dissent. Its impact goes beyond publishing. Rebecca draws poets together, encouraging them to get to know one another, interact, share performance spaces.
Rebecca Ann Smith: My favourite book of 2017 was The Power by Naomi Alderman. This novel is thrilling, upsetting and thought-provoking. And it’s always good to see speculative fiction getting some attention.
If you have any book recommendations, or any literary heroes and heroines you’d like to mention, please say so in the comments. I’d love to hear from you! And finally…
WISHING YOU ALL A HEALTHY, HAPPY, PROSPEROUS, CREATIVE AND PEACEFUL 2018, FULL OF LOVE! ❤️
What a year 2016 has been. Enough has been written about the negatives (for the world in general, as well as the literary world) so instead I will focus on the positives. Please do feel free to add your own literary heroes/heroines in the comments below. And here’s to 2017!
1. Anyone Involved with the Running of an Indie Press or Literary Magazine
I had the pleasure of meeting Nikesh in Nottingham at the launch of The Good Immigrant last November. He struck me as being an intelligent, witty and gentle man, full of passionate energy for making the literary world more inclusive and diverse. Tired of constantly being asked to discuss the ‘diversity issue’ by those who have the power (yet not the inclination) to do something about diversity in publishing, Nikesh actually did something. And he’s continuing to do something. Inspiring. @nikeshshukla
3. Danuta Kean
Danuta is an incredible journalist who doesn’t shy away from investigating stuff that stinks in the literary world. Her reporting on diversity (or rather, the lack of diversity) in the publishing world makes for sobering reading (although perhaps, things may be on the up?). She also shares really useful tips about the publishing world on Twitter and is, overall, rather fabulous. @Danoosha
4. Matt Haig
Matt’s book Reasons To Stay Alivemakes for powerful reading. And as a highly-visible author on social media he’s done much to make it okay to talk about depression, and his book and kind words have helped many. A sensitive soul, Matt is simply one of the best of the ‘good guys’ out there. And we so desperately need more of them. @matthaig1
5. Ira Lightman
Ira ‘poetry sleuth’ Lightman has uncovered a fair deal of plagiarism in the world of poetry, and although (I don’t think) there’s been much to uncover recently the past cases have a habit of popping up again and again, causing tension and unpleasantness amongst poets. Considering all this, Ira has been absolutely professional and diplomatic throughout and to me he’s a hero for sticking up for what’s right and doing the right thing. (Surely, one of the hardest things to do.) @iralightman
Zion Lights, a journalist and ‘science mum’ is passionate about the environment and bringing decent evidence-based research to those who wish to parent their children in a more environmentally-friendly way. She’s also one of the most thoughtful and giving people I know. http://www.zionlights.co.uk/
8. Maddy at Writing Bubble
Maddy is a wonderful creative woman who hosts the ‘What I’m Writing’ linky from her blog Writing Bubble. She puts in so much time and energy to create a warm, supportive environment for a whole bunch of women writers and considering how much work she does to make the whole thing happen week in, week out, she remains positive always. I’m thankful for her encouragement and her dedication to supporting other writers’ work. @writingbubble
9. Ross Bradshaw and Jane Streeter and Stephen Holland of Page 45 (in fact, anyone who runs a bookshop)
Ross of Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, Jane of The Bookcase in Lowdham, and Stephen of Nottingham-based comic shop Page 45 are three of the stars out there making sure that independent bookshops still have a place on our high streets and towns. Selling books and comics is incredibly hard so I’m in awe of how they and others manage to keep going when the bookselling climate is against them.
10. Angela Readman
Angela is someone I got to know through her excellent writing in Mslexia and her book of short stories: Don’t Try This At Home. She’s now one of my friends on Facebook, and I’ve discovered her to be humble, generous, kind and thoughtful. Whenever I feel somewhat down I know that I can go to Angela’s page and read something that’ll make me smile and feel better about the world. @angelreadman I have got to know many wonderful people through Facebook and she, along with Bharat R. and a whole host of other wonderfully bookish and creative people fill my life with the knowledge that there are many, many kind people out there.
11. The Nottingham Writers’ Studio Crew and All Those Involved with the Nottingham Literary Scene
There are probably too many to mention (and I don’t want to leave anyone out) so all I’ll say is this: all those involved in making the Nottingham literary scene (and Nottingham Writers’ Studio as a huge part of that) are incredibly passionate and hardworking and I feel proud to run a press that makes up a small part of that scene. (And it was totally thanks to them that Nottingham became a UNESCO City of Literature.)
12. Readers and Reviewers
Anyone who has read a book, connected with it in some fashion and gone on to write a thoughtful review is heroic in my eyes. Authors write to connect with readers; so if no reader feels moved to write anything about a book that an author may well have invested years of work in… well, that feels pretty crap. So every thoughtful review is of use and will give much joy to the author (and the publisher!).
13. My Authors, Illustrators, Supporters and Co-Editor Helen Lloyd
I would like to mention my authors and illustrators – they’ve been very understanding of the ups and downs I’ve had this year, patient and super hardworking. They also happen to be incredible people as well as brilliant writers. The press wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for them and all our supporters who buy books, make donations (some amazing individuals have even invested in the press) and who email us with kind words and in general, believe in me and the press. And I simply have to mention my co-editor Helen Lloyd who, along with her day job and looking after two small boys, provides me with much support and encouragement. Thank you from my heart.
14. My Family
Huge thanks to my lovely little family who put up with my endless work and who are always supportive of “mummy making books”. You make everything worthwhile.
And finally, a few words from two of my authors who wanted to give a shout out to some of their literary heroes:
Beth McDonough: Andy Jackson does a vast amount for the poetry community. He’s the coordinating, organising energy behind several anthologies, and at the helm of Scotia Extremis with Brian Johnstone, and at the same time, co-steering New Boots and Pantisocracies with Bill Herbert. That’s really the tip of his iceberg. Generous, selfless, inspired and disciplined (and no mean poet in his own right), he’ll never flag up how much he does for so many …but he does.
Cathy Bryant: I’d put Philip Ardagh in there. He’s extraordinarily kind and funny and encouraging – you’d never know that he writes for the Guardian and has written bestselling children’s books. His FB posts are my to-go places if I’m feeling low. I love writers who love other writers!
WISHING YOU ALL A HEALTHY, HAPPY, CREATIVE AND PEACEFUL 2017 FULL OF LOVE!
Last year I received 60 submissions for The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 and I want to write about what the selection process was like.
First, a brief breakdown of the submissions.
Out of the 60 submissions sent to me:
10 writers didn’t read the guidelines and didn’t send in an accompanying invoice number with their submission (i.e. they didn’t buy or read the first in the series: The Forgotten and the Fantastical). I responded politely to them, suggesting they re-read the guidelines and buy a book. I don’t believe they did.
Which left me with 50 actual qualifying submissions which I will further break down into genre (I made up these categorisations by the way – they’re probably not the most elegant way to sort stories but still, they give me a rough guide. And on another note, I realize that some of these categories overlap too and the stories don’t always sit neatly in the categories. That’s all right – that’s in the nature of stories.):
UF (urban fantasy, i.e. a key element of the story was the urban/suburban milieu)
FTL (new, original story, fairy tale-like i.e. set in the world of the Grimms)
TTR (traditional tale retold in another setting/time)
WF (world folk or fantasy i.e. set outside Europe)
LF (literary or literary fantasy/magical realism)
I would also like to point out that out of the 50 submissions only 2 were from men. And… there were only a handful of stories submitted by BAME women writers (I would certainly welcome more submissions from BAME writers).
So by far the most common ‘type’ of story I was sent was by writers trying to write a completely original tale. Which is interesting because I believe it is ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS TO SUCCESSFULLY ACCOMPLISH!
Now 50 doesn’t seem to be too much of a reading pile. However, look at it from my point of view. There is no time assigned to reading during my work day (which is now officially 6 hours per day when my children are at school). I’m too busy dealing with the other books I’m publishing (and selling) and all the other aspects of running a small press (please remember too, that I am doing all of this voluntarily – the press does not bring in enough money to pay me for my labour). So I read in snatched moments – when I’m eating my lunch, or sat waiting in my car in a car park, or (dare I mention it?) on the loo when I want to escape the noise of the telly in the late afternoon when my children come home and I’m on snack, cuddles and dispute negotiator standby.
I realize that there is a ‘slush pile reading mindset’ (i.e. I need to get this job done, and the quicker the better) and a ‘general reading/reading for pleasure mindset’. The latter is definitely more accommodating of errors, more open and more enthusiastic. The former looks at the task, well, like a task, and I was certainly aware that reading fatigue set in after I’d been reading stories for a fair while. Now, I wish this wasn’t the situation. I wish I could come to each story fresh and open, but by the nature of it being a task I cannot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still incredibly excited when I begin to read each story, thinking This could be the one! but experience soon told me that this particular response would be in the minority. So… quite honestly, I am reading each story with a view to what is wrong with it and why I should reject it (because I know I have more in the pile than I can possibly publish).
So let me look at some of the reasons for what makes a story The one! and why I may reject a story. (And writers, please, please, please, don’t take a rejection of your story personally. The problem is numbers/volume. There are a lot of good writers and a lot of good writing around. My job is to take the best of the best [in my opinion, which is subjective, after all] and to turn it into a good, well-rounded book with a variety of stories that I think A LOT of people will want to buy and read. Because if no one wants to actually buy the book, well, the press will not survive and keep on publishing more writing.) So let’s get back to some of those things I’m looking for:
1) A strong beginning paragraph which somehow sums up the conflict and entices us in so that we want to know more about that conflict. Some of the writers who submitted stories took a couple of pages to describe the milieu and the main character’s day-to-day life before the action took place, by which time I wasn’t so interested in what the action would be. So a strong beginning gets me hooked. (I’m not saying that I don’t have the patience for a novel that takes a few pages, or even chapters, to get going, but the nature of short stories is that they’re short, so the conflict must be quickly set up.)
‘Twice my brother has lived in a cage.’
(the first line from ‘Hansel’s Trouble’ by Lindsey Watkins)
So I’m thinking, A cage? What kind of cage? And twice?Does he get out? What happened to him? I would certainly like to know more.
And what about this?
‘When Dr Yelena Ivanovna Belova first opened the door to the young woman she did not notice the bruises on either side of the woman’s neck.’
(first line from ‘Little Lost Soul’ by Marija Smits)
Are you interested in the bruises? Want to know how they got there? I’d like to think the reader would like to know more and read on…
And Julie Pemberton’s opening paragraph to her story ‘Bear, Hare and Ptarmigan’ is a perfect example of setting up a conflict (and an apparently insoluble situation) but making the reader want to know more.
2) An action-filled middle with a cohesive plot, believable characters and well-described milieu. Now, if you’re writing a TTR (traditional tale re-told) creating the milieu is a doddle. The Grimms have got it all sorted for you; likewise with the characters, they’re sorted (the characters in traditional fairy tales don’t have particular depth, but that’s because the storyteller wants you to focus on the plot, or the moral of the tale). Again, with a TTR, the plot is sorted for you. So a TTR is surely easy to write, right? Think again. I’m not going to be particularly interested in a virtually identical copy of a traditional tale. But what if you were to somehow twist the plot, to get me looking at it from another angle? And what if you manage to somehow get breastfeeding, or mothering, or the difficulties of creativity into the tale? Well, Rebecca Ann Smith and Becky Tipper did just that with the source tale, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and I love those authors’ stories very much. I did wonder if I should include two stories from the same source material, but as they were really very different (in theme, plot, voice and milieu) I was sure that they should both go in. And placing them at the ends of the book, I felt, gave them the space to be appreciated. (Although I realize that some readers may feel this doesn’t work, but ultimately, compiling a book is very much a subjective task!)
Another writer who successfully took a traditional tale (The Lambton Worm) and retold it, was Sarah Hindmarsh with her story, ‘The Worm’. The worm in her story was no longer a 2D stereotype, all vileness and aggression, but instead it was a much more rounded character. And Sarah’s story had a much better ending than the original, to my mind. When I read Sarah’s story, I really felt the writer understood animals, and could empathise with them – something that was borne out when I learnt more about Sarah being the owner of several animals!
And now to some plots of stories that just didn’t work for me. There were 5 stories submitted where the twist was about the heroine’s sexuality. Even in a batch of 50, having 10% of the stories with, essentially, the same twist meant that (to my mind) the twist wouldn’t surprise the reader. I suspect that having read Lindsey Watkins’ gorgeously-written story, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in The Forgotten and the Fantastical, these writers wanted to write something on the same lines. Yes, sexuality is a theme in Lindsey’s story, but it is not the only vital theme. (Lindsey also happens to write in a rich, evocative style, which is very, very difficult to master.) And speaking of styles, the more I read Nathan Ramsden’s ‘Icarus’ the more I was impressed by the depth and mastery of the language he used. (I believe Nathan has a M.A. in medieval literature – it shows!) I would categorise ‘Icarus’ a ‘literary’ story (with an influence of myth). Nathan’s plot was compelling, taking from well-known source material, but again, he turned it into something very much his own. So… when it comes to plot I would suggest considering Orson Scott Card’s tip: reject the first idea that comes to mind. Because if it is the first idea to mind, it is very much likely to be a cliche, or unoriginal. So keep thinking, keep searching for that original, inventive plot.
Elizabeth Hopkinson is also another writer who can vividly conjure up images, with rich, gorgeous prose. Her story, ‘Reve/Revival’ was one of the first stories I read, and when I came to the end of it I just knew it had to be in the book. Reading Elizabeth’s story I very much had a This is the one! experience, as I did with Deborah Osborne’s story, ‘Solstice’ which is beautifully written and vivid, and left me smiling at the end with admiration.
Anuradha Gupta’s writing also captured me from the very first, AND, she sustained the rhythmical (almost poetical) writing throughout her whole story, ‘The Jungle Goddess’. I loved its milieu and the rhythm in the writing and, again, it was a story that I knew that I wanted to publish right from the very start.
Imagery is also very important when it comes to short stories, particularly fairy tales, and the Chamber of Mirrors in ‘Mirror Mirror’ by Laura Kayne, with the idea of the princess looking at her strange ‘double’ in the mirror created a strong emotional response in me. ‘Lilasette’ by Ronne Randall, also conjured some very powerful images in my head, such that the dark queen, with her eyes of onyx, took root and inspired me to create an image of her (which ended up gracing the cover). So thanks very much to Ronne for managing to do that! ‘Fox Fires’ by Jane Wright also had some beautiful and heart-rending imagery within, and I hope you’ll agree that Emma Howitt’s illustration to accompany Jane’s story is absolutely spot-on. Jane managed to tell a sad story without it becoming overly sentimental, again, something that is very hard to do. It requires restraint and an eye for pared-back, simple language (again, something that is very difficult to successfully do).
‘How Women Came to Love Mirrors’ by Hannah Malhotra had an utterly, fabulous premise, which, I thought, worked beautifully. (It also happens to be my husband’s favourite story in the book!) And what I liked about Finola Scott’s story ‘Paths of Desire’ was that there were older female characters in the story, and their presence gave the story real depth and an another aspect to femininity, which helped to enhance the book as a whole.
Now, on to my last point about characters… fairies. Over the years I’ve read plenty of tales with fairies who are twee and ridiculously glittery and ‘girly’, so I’ve come to the conclusion that stories about actual fairies aren’t high up on my wish list. Even a whiff of kitschy twee and I’m put off, so when Ana Salote sent me her story ‘Grimm Reality’ I read it with a certain amount of trepidation. However, this being Ana (of Oy Yew fame) I needn’t have worried. Yes, there was a tiny bit of sparkle on the fairy’s outfit but, the story was also quirky and funny, and set in an urban milieu (The Elephant and Castle, for goodness sake!) and actually, it was about capitalism, marketing and self-image in an image-obsessed world. So if you’re going to send me a story with fairies in it, cut the glitter and think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke, think The Spider’s Bride by Debbie Gallagher and you should be all right. (Oh, and you also can’t go wrong by reading Ana’s story and comparing it with Elizabeth Hopkinson’s deliciously baroque take on fairies too…)
3) Now to endings. I’m looking for stories where at the end, I, as the reader, feel satisfied (although it may not particularly be a happy ending). All loose ends have been tied up, but there’s still enough ‘give’ in the ending such that I can still think of the characters and what they might do in the future. Oh, and if you can happen to cause a tear to well in my eye, better still. Rachel Rivett, who wrote ‘Seal Woman’ manages this every time with her final line:
‘My seal child. My soul child. My love.’
Enough said! And if you’re still willing to send me your stories, even with the whole loo admission thing earlier on I will very gladly welcome them.
And a final tip. Read the guidelines. Read the book. Buy the book. Read this blog post. Follow the guidelines. Send me a well-rounded, complete and compelling short story/fairy tale. Not the first chapter of what could be an intriguing novel. Not a stretched-thin piece of flash fiction. And don’t send me a PDF. Or work that has been previously published. Sending chocolates won’t help, but they will make me happy (and fat).
The guidelines can be found here: http://www.mothersmilkbooks.com/index.php/submissions
To (belatedly) celebrate the publication of The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 I’m hosting a blog link-up on the theme of fairy tales. So if you’d like to share a review of the book, or if you’d like to write about one of the stories in the book that has touched you in some way (or you just want to discuss what fairy tales mean to you) we’d love to have you involved.
All we ask is that (technology-allowing) you insert the image/badge below at the bottom of your post and then click on the blue froggy linking button and add your link. And if you could comment on the other bloggers’ posts that would be very welcome. (Also, why not tell us about it on Twitter? We are: @MothersMilkBks.) Many thanks for taking part! (Please note that this blog link-up closes at the end of this Friday – 3rd June 2016.)
It’s been an age since we’ve had a new post so I will do my best to do a succinct round-up of our 2015 highlights.
To date, 2015, was our most intense publishing year, with four books being published: The Forgotten and Fantastical, Hearth, Oy Yew and The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: The Story of Us. My youngest was at home with me for most of that time, and so I have to remind myself that it was quite a feat to even produce these four books while looking after him and running a household!
Financially, Mother’s Milk Books is run very much as a break-even affair, which means that pre-orders and trade sales to authors and shops etc. ensure that I manage to pay the costs of printing. However, in June this year I realized that we wouldn’t have enough money to cover the costs of printing of Oy Yew, so I emailed out an SOS to our newsletter subscribers. I was heartened by the amount of support (financial, practical and emotional) we were given and due to this support it got us through a tough time. Every month since June has continued to be difficult (we REALLY need to make more sales) but fingers-crossed we will be able to “keep on keeping on”. With SEVEN books being published next year, with a bit of luck our sales figures will increase. These are the seven titles I am getting very excited about: Echolocation by Becky Cherriman, The Forgotten and Fantastical 2, Maysun and the Wingfish by Alison Lock, Handfast by Ruth Aylett and Beth McDonough, Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith, Nondula by Ana Salote and The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2015: Love.
2015 was also the year I received the Women in Publishing’s New Venture Award. Here is what I put together for the press release (which, ironically, got buried here in The Bookseller, but which will, hopefully, be seen here):
“I am delighted to be the recipient of the Women in Publishing’s New Venture Award for pioneering work on behalf of under-represented groups in society, particularly so because having been in the publishing business for four years now I am very aware of how challenging the book trade is! Mothers (and breastfeeding mothers and children) shouldn’t be an ‘under-represented’ group in society, but sadly we are because, all too often, our stories aren’t heard or are dismissed as being merely about ‘women’s issues’ and therefore niche and uncommercial. I am extremely proud to be part of the diverse and thriving UK independent publishing scene, which dares to take editorial and financial risks to ensure that vital, unheard stories get told, particularly since Nottingham, where we are based, has just now become a UNESCO City of Literature. My hope is that this award will go someway to highlighting the excellent work of my authors, illustrators and co-editors so that Mother’s Milk Books can continue to keep publishing books for many more years to come.”
My statement got me thinking more and more about ‘unheard stories’ and so I asked my authors and co-editors to list some of their favourite books of 2015, which had been mainly published by indie presses and were, by and large, given little recognition by the national press. I hope you will add some of these to your 2016 to-read pile!
Cathy Bryant: Selkie Singing at the Passing Place, poetry by Sarah Miller and Melanie Rees. It’s the best BOGOF deal I’ve ever experienced. Though Hearth by Sarah James and Angela Topping is up there when it comes to collaborations.
Beth McDonough: Nell Nelson at Happenstance is doing amazing work, and publishing beautiful pamphlets. In her reading windows, she gives so much of herself to support poets. I’ve just read Jim Carruth’s Killochries (Freight Books). Described as a ‘verse novella’, it’s very wonderful.
Alison Lock: The Emma Press for tales of myths and legends for children with Falling Out of the Sky.
Angela Topping: Ruth Stacey’s Queen, Jewel, Mistress: A History of the Queens of England & Great Britain In Verse (Eyewear)
Becky Cherriman: I’ve just read Sumia Sukkar’s, The Boy From Aleppo who Painted The War (Eyewear). An emotive portrait of the war in Syria condensed into one family’s experience. Telling the story from the perspective of an innocent with flaws (the protagonist is on the autistic spectrum) and a unique way of seeing the world makes us focus on what counts in war – people. It couldn’t be more relevant.
Sarah James: Ruth Stacey’s Queen, Jewel, Mistress: A History of the Queens of England & Great Britain In Verse (Eyewear). Each queen is a given a distinct voice, in poems that take a range of poetry forms and styles befitting their time. They’re women’s viewpoints, but the worlds they belong to and are set in mostly men’s; its depiction therefore unconfined. The imagery is wide-ranging: nature, animals, birds, blood, war, lust, secrecy, politics, violence and the hidden messages of nursery rhyme. The poems are full of memorable lines and metaphors. Some of the poems are thoughtscapes, others landscapes. Some carry a narrative, others spark against each other to create a bigger story. All of them are very human, and very much recommended.
Mark Goodwin’s Steps (Longbarrow Press) is one of those beautiful collections that somehow manages the feat of being in constant movement (word play, riff, layout) while also capturing the stillness of each precisely observed moment and creating a sculpture of words on the page. These are poems of all the senses alert and voiced, with energy in the lay-out, punctuation and varying line lengths to create pieces that are quietly adventurous and daring, and always uncluttered. All of the poems are alive with beautifully stunning but entirely unfussy or unforced images. A very beautiful and enjoyable collection to read. Robert Peake’s The Knowledge (Nine Arches Press) has been a delight. These poems are the kind that create their own space of existence, no matter how noisy a place or head space I was reading in. To bring such calmness and focus to a reader reading in unideal surroundings is no mean feat, perhaps enhanced by the fact every poem feels complete, crafted and sufficient in itself, not needing the reader to move on at any pace other than what comes naturally; this what comes naturally being subtly and imperceptibly set up by the poems. From closely observed nature, Peake links to philosophical insights, human needs and warm humour. Family relationships, not belonging and the surreal humour of English phrases can also be found. This is, in fact, a wonderfully wide-ranging and encompassing collection of poems which resonate after putting the book down.
Rebecca Ann Smith: I am very much looking forward to reading Erinna Mettler’s Starlings early in the new year, it’s very nearly reached the top of the reading pile. Starlings is similar in structure to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that it is made up of linked short stories. It has some fabulous reviews, and is published by Brighton-based indie Revenge Ink. Mettler, who’s also written award-winning short stories, is online at http://www.erinnamettler.com/
Ana Salote: I love Liz Brownlee’s Animal Magic, Poems on a Disappearing World. Liz has astonishing empathy for the animal world. She doesn’t just observe, she inhabits her subjects. She cares deeply about animals and makes us care by homing on the essential character of each species. Diversity is more than the mere shuffling of DNA. We share her fascination with the results of that process. The fine-tuning of the animate to its surroundings produces delightful quirks of design; each one individual, precious and irreplaceable. She expresses all of this in language which is exquisite, poignant and frequently witty. It can be read by children and adults with equal enjoyment. I can’t think of a better way to educate children about wildlife and conservation.
Tom Bellamy (co-editor and founder): These are very funny: How To Be A Public Author by Francis Plug (by Paul Ewen and published by Galley Beggar Press) and We Go To The Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Guide by Miriam Elia (Dung Beetle Books).
Rebecca Bellamy (beta-reader and young editor extraordinaire): Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and Oy Yew by Ana Salote.
Jerome Bellamy (tea boy):Puff The Magic Dragon.
Teika Bellamy: Sara Maitland’s Moss Witch (Comma Press), Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press). I was profoundly moved by Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I was also glad to read Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (published by Pinter & Martin) and I can see why it was described as a masterpiece. There is so much in it that is still so relevant to society today. I’ve also just now started reading Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed which is simply stunning. Also, for budding writers I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s writing guides: Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (which is where I first found out about Butler’s books; Card is a big fan of hers). Poetry-wise I very much enjoyed Only The Flame Remains by Adam Horovitz (it is beautiful and haunting) and also Destroyed Dresses by Cara Brennan (Valley Books) touched me with its gentle, bittersweet charm.
Thank you for all the support you have given us throughout 2015. I wish you and your families all a happy, healthy and creativity-filled 2016!
As we celebrate the publication of our latest book The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US I’m delighted to be able to share this interview on the blog. A huge thank you to Jessica for taking the time to share her thoughts on motherhood, writing, and what it means to win this prize.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I live in the north of England with my husband and our two girls who are aged 2 and 5. I am currently in the second year of a PhD in which I am studying how people communicate multilingually within the arts, specifically in street theatre production and performance.
Being a mum to two little ones and a PhD student means that life is certainly never boring. I have lots of inspiration to be creative, but not so much in terms of time! I hope that although juggling the two different parts of my life can make for an extremely busy time, my children will understand more about the joy of learning and the possibilities that are open to them. I enjoy reading, poetry, crafts and visual arts. I count myself incredibly lucky to be able to work doing something I enjoy and to live near my family who are supportive. As a family we try and spend as much time as possible outdoors and we are fortunate in that we live only a short drive from lots of beautiful countryside.
2. How, when and why did you first start writing?
I think I have always enjoyed writing in some form, certainly when I was a young child I would write little stories for my friends and family. I find writing a very satisfying way to communicate and to play with ideas and stories.
3. How often do you write?
Technically I write every day, as my PhD requires me to do so! I believe that the more you write, the more you can write and I try to mix up the kind of writing I do. I write for a couple of work-related blogs, I write my research journal, I do my academic work of course but then, when I have the time and the inspiration takes me, I do some for myself.
4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?
Having left my long-term job in September 2014 to become a postgraduate student and after just about coming out of the fog that is sleepless nights and small babies I found myself reflecting a lot on the change in my situation and this process of reflection led me to start to consider some of the themes I was presented with through thinking about my own experiences. Motherhood is wonderful and yet also all-consuming in ways I hadn’t expected before I had children myself. I find it to be a source of never-ending inspiration: it pushes me to write about it and to explore my emotions and experiences creatively through writing. I needed somewhere to ‘place’ this kind of work and to see it as a creative output of its own. I saw the opportunity to submit a piece of writing for this competition on the Mslexia website and thought it would be worth a try.
5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?
I was surprised to say the least! It was the first piece I had ever submitted for a prize of this kind and to be honest I was not expecting to win at all. I then felt quite nervous of it being in the public domain and asked a few friends and family members to read it and to pass on their comments. They were very positive about it and reassured me that it could be published: their support and kind words were very gratefully received! After that, I felt quite proud of it. The nicest thing was being able to tell my eldest daughter that I was going to have my writing published in a book as she is very keen to write and to become an author when she grows up: her eyes lit up and she was so excited. I think she told her teacher the next day at school. She’s been writing her own little books ever since: perhaps we can set up our own little family writing group!
6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?
The piece itself is quite a personal story about my eldest daughter who was taken very ill at four weeks old and rushed to hospital (terrifyingly). Although I talked about it a lot both at the time and since it happened, I had never written about it. I found the process simultaneously cathartic and overwhelming. I did find it hard to read again as it brought back the memories of that time and the fear I felt both as a brand new mother to a tiny baby when everybody wants to ‘have a go at holding the baby!’ and then the shock of her illness and being rushed to hospital. The experience did characterize the first few months of motherhood for me: this sense of being so afraid that she would be ill again. It’s interesting now to reflect on that time as I can see how different things are now.
I do think it’s important to portray this side of motherhood which so often doesn’t get talked about: the fear and the intensely fierce protection that we feel towards our babies as new mothers (and forever more!).
7. Any future writing plans?
Well, I’ll be writing a thesis over the next couple of years! I plan to write more of my own creative work too – probably less in terms of memoir and personal writing like this piece was and more short stories and fiction. I have this idea for a book…but it will probably have to wait until I graduate.
8. Any tips for writers?
I do think writing gets better the more you practise. I also read a lot and I think this has helped me with my own writing. I find showing my work to people to be a very difficult process, and so my response is to make myself do it as much as possible! I try to get outside myself comfort zone, even if it is frightfully uncomfortable. Also that you can find inspiration in everything, even the unexpected: I recently wrote about the never-ending ‘soft play centre’ party circuit that parents of 5 year olds are so familiar with.
Jessica’s winning prose piece ‘The First Winter’ was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of JUNO. It also features in The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize, please read the full guidelines here.
To celebrate the publication of our latest book, The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US we’re having a blog link-up on the theme of ‘The Story of Us’ (in a family context). So if you’d like to share some poetry or prose, or if you’d like to write about one of the pieces in the book that has touched you in some way, we’d love to have you involved.
All we ask is that (technology-allowing) you insert the image/badge below at the bottom of your post and then click on the blue froggy linking button and add your link. And if you could comment on the other bloggers’ posts that would be very welcome. (Also, why not tell us about it on Twitter? We are: @MothersMilkBks.) Many thanks for taking part!