The Power of Community
As Smith says, "Momma Love is about community building and the power of honest conversation." To celebrate the theme of community, the Momma Love website includes a section where fans and friends can share their own stories of parenting, along with a photograph. This unique approach for a website stems from Smith's desire to generate honest and open dialogue about what it is to be a mother.
"Let’s hear what matters to you and what the motherhood experience has really been like for you; the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m sure you’re not alone."
An Award-Winning Author Shares Her Story
Q&A With Ali Smith On Her Book, Marketing, and the Publishing Journey
With so many upheavals in the industry, the roads to publishing a book are more varied and numerous than ever. Thanks to the hard work and innovation of indies, creativity and originality seem to be replacing traditional methods as the publishing norm. We got the chance to speak with Ali Smith, a photographer who embodies the independent spirit of today’s publishing world.
Smith’s award-winning book, Momma Love, encountered quite a few setbacks before Smith was able to find the means to publish. After disheartening experiences with a major publisher and a vanity publisher, Smith found new life for her book project on Kickstarter, a crowd-funding community that wholeheartedly embraced Smith’s vision. The result was Momma Love, a uniquely compelling book that celebrates mothers of every kind with striking honesty and poignancy. Smith shared with us the journey that turned her collection of short stories and photographs into an IPPY award-winning book, and the lessons she learned along the way.
IP: Tell us about yourself: your background as a photographer, your past experience with publishing, and the road that led to Momma Love.
Smith: My background is in music and photography with a brief foray into ballet when I was young, dancing with Nureyev at Lincoln Center. Hey, if you're gonna do it, do it right!
After ballet, I immediately shaved my head and moved on to punk music. I toured and recorded for years in bands that explored punk, blues, rock, country, and the idea of making something exciting happen. All along, while playing music, I was photographing what was around me. After touring for several years, while I enjoyed it, I found myself deeply immersed in a very male-centric culture. It made me feel extremely isolated and alone so I sought out women who I felt might be like-minded, women who inspired me and who proved to me that you can succeed even when your work and life philosophy is somewhat out of step with social norms. I photographed 35 women—including Janeane Garofalo, Sandra Bernhard, Alice Walker, Geraldine Ferraro, Mary Karr—and asked each for a “life law” by which she tries to live. That became my first book, Laws of the Bandit Queens (Three Rivers Press, 2002).
That was a very different time in publishing. I immediately received two solid offers from major houses—Random House and Rizzoli—for that book. The offers were based only on five completed portraits and a concept. Plus I got an advance.
Cut to a decade later and publishing houses are not at all eager to take a risk on a photo book. Publishing houses, including the major ones, routinely offer deals that require photographers to pay production expenses out of their advance, or split costs of production outright. Photo books cost a lot to produce and don't usually sell like novels do, so it was a very different climate in which I was pitching my second book, Momma Love.
IP: What led you to self-publish Momma Love? How did you decide to use Kickstarter for the project, and how did this impact your publishing experience?
Smith: My agent pitched for a while and got a lot of enthusiasm from editors, but no offers. In one final meeting, a house I really admire was in love with the book, and really wanted to release it, but their sales team was confused about where to place it in stores—“is this an art book or a book for moms?” That statement was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I thought it showed an incredibly limited perspective and was ridiculously narrow-minded, so I turned to self-publishing.
I was courted and eventually seduced by a long established vanity publisher. They had everything in place including an editorial team, publicity team and, most importantly, distribution. Halfway through my book’s production, the president of the company shut the doors without notice and took all my money, halting production on my book and leaving me without the funds to go elsewhere. That's when I decided to pursue a campaign on Kickstarter.
At first I was trepidatious. I thought it would make me look like a loser who couldn't get a “proper book deal.” I soon realized that it was not like that at all. What did happen was that I found my true audience. The idea of a “proper” book deal has completely changed in the last few years. I found what I was really doing, although it was a very difficult process, was taking back control and ultimately making an uncompromised piece of work that, it turns out thankfully, has been well received.
It has been a very dramatic and difficult journey, but also very satisfying.
IP: So many self-published books fall victim to inferior production and end up looking sloppy. Momma Love is beautifully produced, from the design and layout to the stories. How did you maintain the high quality of the book throughout the production process?
Smith: Thank you! By sheer perseverance! What I didn't already know how to do, I relied on the kindness of friends and strangers to teach me about. I learned a lot about production and design and was insistent on having the content professionally edited and copyedited.
Even though my first book was released by Random House, I learned a lot about what I DON'T want in terms of production values from it. Both the scanning and the printing quality on that one horrify me now. Make me really sad. I vowed I'd never let that happen again.
I think when you're asking someone to purchase a book, you owe them something and that is a complete piece of art in and of itself so they can have a good experience with it. A book isn't just a portfolio to fill up with good pieces of art. It is the art.
Photo by ©Amber DeVos
IP: The reviews for your book are glowing; what do you think sets it apart from other books?
Smith: Well I don't know. Maybe like with parenting; what you put into it is what you get out of it. I poured myself in, no holds barred. I didn't accept short cuts. I fought long and hard to produce something I could believe in. And ultimately, I care deeply about the content and for the people involved. Perhaps that comes through.
IP: What marketing tactics have been most effective for you?
Smith: Perseverance. Looking at every angle in a PR opportunity. For me, anything related to motherhood or to one of the particular mother's stories in my book presents an opportunity. There is a lesbian couple in Momma Love, for instance, so that presents opportunity for press in an entire branch of motherhood blogs, publications, etc. Being on the look out and open to varied ways to approach a request for press is key.
Listening. I had the good fortune of talking with Cory Silverberg who self-published a great book called What Makes a Baby. He had run a really successful Kickstarter campaign so I emailed him for advice, and thankfully, not only was he receptive to talking, but he was proactive about it. He filled me up with valuable info about how to time Facebook and Twitter posts, how to keep content fresh to keep people interested in the project, and how to use social media in general. He was so forthcoming, I will forever be grateful for what he taught me. He didn't have to do it. He just did. That's something very special about the self-publishing community.
Lauren White recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in History and English. She is serving as assistant editor at Independent Publisher and hopes to continue her career in publishing in New York City. Please email her at larenee [at] umich.edu with any questions and comments.