The Contemporary Small Press speaks to Dr. Teika Bellamy from Mother’s Milk Books about femininity, breastfeeding mothers, and publishing.
Teika, you are the editor of Mother’s Milk Books, publishing books that aim to
normalise and celebrate breastfeeding, femininity, empathy and parenting. What
made you choose this as your specific focus, and have there been any surprising
challenges for you as a publisher?
Well, after I published our first title, the fundraising anthology Musings on
Mothering (which raised money for the breastfeeding support charity, La Leche
League GB), I received many emails from readers and writers (mothers, in the
main) who were incredibly enthusiastic about the idea of Mother’s Milk Books.
It made me realize that many mothers were thirsting for books that reflected
their own understanding of mothering as a life-changing, creative and overall,
joyful experience. There are other publishers, of course, who publish books in
this area (I am in awe of the indie press, Pinter & Martin who publish, mainly,
non-fiction titles on pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding) but I felt that there was
a need for books in other areas, such as poetry, commercial fiction, children’s
fiction, even sci-fi, fantasy and fairy tales, in which we could explore in greater
detail, the issues of motherhood. Eventually, I twigged that femininity and
empathy were two themes that linked all my books so that has become our
specific focus, and part of our tagline!
I’m not sure I have had any particularly surprising challenges; I think our
greatest challenge, like that of many small presses, is financial. Because selling
books is damn hard! The lack of finances seeps into everything, sadly. It means
that we only have a tiny marketing and publicity budget, which means that not
enough people know about books, which means that we don’t sell that many
books, which means that we only do short print runs, which means that unit
costs per book are high, which means that we can’t afford a distributor, which
means that we can’t get all our books into Waterstones or supermarkets, or sold
by Amazon Prime, which means that fewer people are aware of our books… etc.
etc. and round and round it goes. So a lot of my time is spent simply juggling our
cash flow to ensure that we can just about keep the whole crazy show on the
road. (And that’s without ever paying myself.) So we’re always on the lookout for
anyone who may want to invest in us. Let me know if you’re interested!
You recently won the 2015 Women in Publishing’s New Venture Award for
pioneering work on behalf of under-represented groups. What do you think are
the main reasons that breastfeeding mothers continue to be under-represented
I’m not entirely sure that breastfeeding mothers are entirely under-represented
in literature. When I asked my authors and supporters this question on Facebook
a fair few books and writers were mentioned, including Shakespeare, Steinbeck,
Toni Morrison, Emma Donoghue, Lissa M. Cowan… But, what is very clear is that
a reader has to go out of their way to find authentic representations of
breastfeeding mothers. It can be very easy for writers to stereotype mothers who
breastfeed, and most mainstream literature deals with mothering as something
that is dull and a chore. And although I can think of several children’s books
where breastfeeding is portrayed in an authentic manner, it isn’t the norm in
children’s literature. I think it says something very pertinent about our society
when breastfeeding, which is the biological norm for our species, becomes a
taboo topic and is, essentially, airbrushed out of our children’s reading (and
Can you tell us a bit about The Only Way Is Indie, the event that you were involved
with in Nottingham?
We had a huge amount of enthusiasm for the event, with approximately fifty people attending. I think that all us publishers made some great contacts on the night — with writers, illustrators, readers, reviewers and other publishers — so, overall, it was very rewarding. One reviewer wrote this excellent write-up which provides a good insight into the evening.
The feedback we had from those attending was really positive and it’s clear that many writers want more of this kind of thing to happen in the future. And they’d like it to go on for longer and to hear more from each individual publisher. I think it’s obvious that actually meeting with publishers and hearing about how their business is run is something that especially emerging writers long for, as much of the workings of the publishing industry is unfathomable and opaque. Getting writers in the same room as indie publishers so that they can see that we’re passionate about what we do — and also human! — is key to making an informed choice about how to go about being published.
Also, as there’s so little support for indie publishers (who are, in the main, often just individuals running the press out of a spare bedroom) it was good for us, as individuals, to meet and share a drink with like-minded people and to spread the word about our books. And to let the writers know that most of us didn’t earn a living from the publishing and that we’d all given up our time for free so that this event could happen probably debunked a few myths about the indie publishing world too! Oh! And we sold some books. Always a bonus.
What have been some of your favourite indie-published releases recently?
My first name, Teika, means fairy tale story in Latvian so I’m a bit mad on fairy
tales. So I loved Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press),
which I read recently and I’m hoping to get the follow-up to that The Bitterwood
Bible very soon. And as I have a background in science I really appreciate what
Comma Press are doing with bringing together scientists and writers in the
creation of short fiction. Moss Witch by Sara Maitland is a fine example of how
science can be beautifully woven into short stories. I’ve also just now started
by Galley Beggar Press), and it’s making me laugh. A lot. (Which is very much
needed at the moment!).
Finally, what are your memories of books and reading as a child, and is
childhood the ideal time for parents and children to bond through good books?
I have many very happy memories of visiting the school library when I was
young and having to make the exquisitely difficult choice of what books to
borrow… English wasn’t the first language of either of my parents (my father,
who died when I was fifteen, was Latvian and my mother is Russian) and so I
can’t really remember them reading much to me. But they were good storytellers
and singers, which counts for a lot, I think. You can convey a fine story in a song
or a tall tale. So I discovered my love of reading with the help of the library and
the books from my older sister’s bookshelves!
Now that I am a parent and nearly always busy (such is life as a 21st century
mum!), stopping to read with my children is a good way for us to get away from
the mad bubble of every day life and simply slow down and enjoy each other’s
company. I read to both my children before bed every night and it’s such a
precious and joyous time. So yes… I think that there is something magic that
happens when a parent reads a book to their child.
Find out more about Mother’s Milk Books here.