In this session ALLi Director and poet Orna Ross interviews poet Emma Blas about launching a second poetry collection, putting into practice what she learned from her first publication. The interview covers the things Emma did that most moved the needle on her sales. From recruiting an ARC group to doing a blog tour, from setting up a newsletter and social media to expanding formats and formats and sales channels, some things worked, others didn’t. Most of all, Emma talks about the importance of trusting the ebb and flow of creativity.
Emma Blas lives near Gijón in Spain. Her poetry explores transitions, shifts of phase and form in the natural world. You will find her at the beach, walking through the dramatic landscape of Asturias, or with her hands in the soil, trying to learn from the earth. It is these crossing points between the physical, psychological and imagined states of life that are painted in her poetry. Watery Through the Gaps is her second poetry collection.
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About the Host
Orna’s work for ALLi has seen her repeatedly named one of The Bookseller’s “Top 100 people in publishing.” She launched at the 2012 London Book Fair, after taking her rights back from Penguin in 2011 and republishing her books herself, with the titles and treatment she’d originally wanted. Orna writes award-winning poetry and fiction, runs a Patreon page for poets and poetry lovers as well as an active author website. She is on a mission to help eradicate creative poverty through digital publishing and enterprise. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @ornaross.
Read the Transcript: Second Poetry Collection
Orna Ross: Hello, and good evening from the UK. Hello to you, wherever you are. I know it's Memorial day for some of you, and it's a bank holiday here in the UK, but we are here, as ever, to talk about Self-Publishing Poetry. This evening I'm going to be talking to Emma Blas.
Hi, Emma. Am I pronouncing your surname correctly?
Emma Blas: Yes.
Orna Ross: It's Blas, well, I will tell you that in Irish, Blas is a verbal flavor, and the Blas in a poem or a line, I saved this, I didn't tell you this before when we were chatting earlier, the Blas in a line of poetry, or in a story, is very much the voice of the author.
So, you've got a really poetic name in Irish.
Emma Blas: Wow. I had no idea. Actually, it is a pen name and it's one I adopted based on my adopted home, Spain. Blas was a, and it's not meant to be anti-English, because I am English, but he was a captain, a very young captain, who was incredibly successful at Ship battles, chasing the English off, and I wish I could remember more of the details, but he was incredibly young and he was, because it's such a long time ago, it's more like myth and legend, but at the age of 24 or something, he was an Admiral and he'd been through these battles, lost an arm, a leg, an eye, or something like that, and still he persevered. And I loved this resilience in the message, and so it was something from my adopted home. It was something similar to my actual surname, and I'm not one for war, but it was quite poetic, I suppose, about the way that he had persevered through these battles, and nothing could stop him, and maybe I wanted that for my writing.
Orna Ross: That's fantastic, and you have, because we are here this evening to talk about a second collection, getting a second book off the ground, up and out there. We spoke a while ago, I think it was not our last show but our show before that, we were talking about the first poetry book, and the significance of the first book. And of course, it's a hugely significant moment in any writer's life, getting that first collection together.
So, before we talk about book number two, which is going to be on the process of doing that and what you learned from it and what you took from book one into that, just tell us a little bit about yourself, the type of poetry that you write, and the links between book one and book two.
Emma Blas: Sure. I am a bit of a world wanderer, but I have settled my feet in Northern Spain, in the Asturias. I fell in love with it doing a big van trip across Spain and Portugal from the UK to find a forever home. My plan was to live in Portugal, but I completely fell in love with Asturias, which is, kind of, like a hidden jewel in the north of Spain that even people in Spain don't really know about, and hardly anyone in the UK has heard of. It's very like Wales. It's very lush, very green, which means it does rain a lot, but it has more sunshine and warmer weather than back in the UK, just as humid. There's a bordering difference though, we border Galicia and I think Galicia, to me, is a bit more like Ireland.
Orna Ross: Yes, that's where my brother lives actually. My brother and sister-in-law, and niece.
Emma Blas: Well, I'm about 20 minutes from there, so we're right on the border and it's just absolutely stunning. Stunning, stunning, stunning.
And as a poet, the words were just pouring out, being inspired by this place.
Orna Ross: Wonderful.
Emma Blas: Yeah. I've also spent time living as a yoga teacher, and I'm quite interested in the universal spirit, and I think that comes through. So, nature-based, not spiritual in the spiritual sense, like in a religious sense, but I think there's a certain oneness that is found in nature that is woven into the poetry.
In my day job I work in diversity and inclusion, and so I'm quite passionate about inclusivity, and so sometimes my rage against injustice gets woven in, but kind of, metaphorically.
How was writing book two different than book one?
Orna Ross: Wonderful. Now, when you spoke about the experience of book two, we'll just start with the writing, you said that it was much smoother, and I think this is something that's really important to say to self-publishing authors, because book one can be a bit overwhelming. There's so many things to get together. Talk to us a little bit about that.
Emma Blas: So, I definitely approached book two logistically, in the same way that I did book one.
I didn't at any point get overwhelmed with either book, because I just chopped it up into small pieces, and I just concentrated on the manuscript first, before I worried about anything else. So, I wrote the first book in a word document, and then I got to the end and was like, oh right, now what do I do with this? And then I looked into Amazon and other publishers and the feasibility of everything.
So, it was very much that the first book taught me how to write a book, I suppose, and to call myself a poet, and a writer, and author. It was more of a personal journey of standing in one's power, I suppose. And then the second book, I had all of that down, I, sort of, knew what the logistics of publishing were. I had taught myself the Amazon way, and I knew by that point that the manuscript should be in a certain format if it's going to be published.
So the second time, I was able to really sink into the poetry more than, it's strange to say it because, the first book, writing it with no end goal or known end goal, but the second book, I suppose you read your first book back and there's a lot of really good poems in it, I think it's a really good piece, but I do not like my first book, and I'm sure I'm not alone.
Orna Ross: Oh no!
Emma Blas: Because I talk about this often with friends, but it's part of the perfectionist, and the person who you are when you finished the first book is an entirely different person than when you started, and through the process of what you've learned through the publishing process, I would go back, and I would do it differently.
The poems would be different. It would be more integrated, there would be more of a story. I think I weaved the story well in the first book, but in the second one, it was embodied, like the writing, I had something, and it was embodied. The story I was telling was in my bones and it was coming out in the book, and it was definitely more thought through. Writing poetry is something ethereal, isn't it? It kind of catches you, and people write differently, but for me, it's not something like, okay, Monday morning at 10:00 AM, I will write 20 minutes of poetry and it will be about this. I have to create a mood for myself, and all of that mood was created by writing the first book, reading the first book back, putting it out there, not pressing delete, my finger was hovering over delete so many times, and then I talked myself around to it, saying I actually enjoy being able to see my own growth as a poet, as a writer, and other people being able to see that, because I like being able to look at writers.
I follow, I'm a huge Ada Limon fan, and I love seeing how her poetry has changed through her books, for example. And I mean they're strong the whole way through, but the themes and the tone is maturing, and I like that. So, I gave myself a break.
Orna Ross: Thank heavens you did. Michael La Ronn said something to me once that has never left me, I don't know if you know, Michael, he also does one of our podcasts, the Member Q&A, and he said an author, a poet, a writer, is the worst judge of their own work. Never, ever, ever let your own feelings about your work make you press delete, because the reader is taking something entirely different from what you see? What you see is not what they see.
Emma Blas: And it's still good, but the second one, I like it a lot.
Orna Ross: That's great.
Emma Blas: I'm proud of myself.
How was book two different than what you’d expected?
Orna Ross: That's fantastic. That's really, really great. You've spoken really eloquently about the writing part of that, and what was different.
You also said that the book you started writing, when it came to book two, the book you ended up with was different from the book you started to write. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Emma Blas: Incredibly so. The second book, it's part of a, I don't want to call it a series because they're not really connected, other than thematically, so I knew when I was writing the first book that was about, and inspired by, with the muse of the wind, that the second one would be about the water. And the poems were already coming when I was still publishing the first one.
It was a story that wanted to be told, and I was spending a lot of time and lived by the water, very close to the ocean, and so I spend a lot of time at the ocean and there was a lot coming through. So, I kept writing.
I did the functional stuff on putting the first book out, and then we hit a global pandemic. That was the first thing that changed the tone of the book. And then, about three quarters of the way through writing the book, we found out that my dad had terminal cancer and then everything changed.
I didn't even know I was writing about it then, but I look back and, particularly when I look at the reviews, then it became a book about grief. I was writing about grieving the impending loss of a loved one. The books are elemental, natural world, there's definitely an element of human behavior that I'm very curious about understanding. They are very visual. There's an urgency about taking care of the environment and an eco-side message. But there has never been really dark feelings about grief, and there is in this book, and some of them are a little bit painful to look back at, because then I go back to that place of where I was when I was writing it, but I can also see that it is a healing process.
Orna Ross: Fantastic. So, let's talk about the publishing part of it. You kept going, and first time out, you had published with Amazon only, I think, and then, second time you took in IngramSpark. Did you distribute the eBook more widely as well? Talk to us a little bit about your publishing decisions.
Emma Blas: Yeah, the first time around, I'm not a big fan of Amazon, from a kind of, not paying their taxes, what's the word for that?
Orna Ross: Ethical.
Emma Blas: Ethical. Thank you.
Orna Ross: Or perceived ethical perspective.
Emma Blas: Perceived ethical perspective, yeah. I really wanted to support independent book shops, but that was the only thing I would say was overwhelming at that point, it was too much to decide, and I wasn't a member of ALLi at that point, so I was doing all the legwork on my own, and actually part of calling myself an author was joining ALLi after the first book.
I had made the decision about Ingram before joining, but I learned a lot from the Facebook group, it's absolutely fascinating, learning from each other about everyone's processes. And so I decided, this time the writing process is much easier, I'm very clear that I want to expand my distribution and I want to make it as accessible as possible for everybody, particularly those, because I did have some friends who were like, oh, I'm not buying it on Amazon the first time around, and I want to support independent bookstores.
I knew from the offset, rather than bring it in at the end, saying, oh, I need reviews and then, sort of, pushing people I knew had bought it, please, please review me if you would like to, obviously don't feel obliged with all the caveats you have to put in, so as not to be leading anybody, and so I also knew that I wanted to do an advanced reader program. So, I was clear on that from the offset.
I went with IngramSpark. I have not pushed the eBook too much, because I like that the eBook is more accessible from a price point, but I think for myself, with poetry, it's got to be in a physical book, I don't know about you.
Orna Ross: Well, for us, for ALLi, I mean, I think everybody has their own personal preferences and I too ama print book person, but that's partly my age, I recognize. My daughter and all her friends, it's audiobooks. I read fiction, and I do read eBooks and often I'll buy the print book if I've really loved the eBook.
So, I love print, but from ALLi's perspective, it's about the reader. It's not about us as the author. So, it's about making the books available in as many formats as possible, and as widely as possible, and recognizing that as widely as possible might mean just one distributor first time out, or on a particular book, you know, we're busy, time is always at a premium and so on. But ideally audio, eBook, and print, have them up and out there, so at least the reader can purchase in their own preferred format, even if you're promoting one of those formats more than the other.
Emma Blas: Yeah, and so it is now more widely available. And we'll come to talk about the pause later. So, I won’t say more about distribution here.
How did you approach reviews for this second poetry collection?
Orna Ross: Talk to me about the reviews, because I think this is really interesting, and folks who are listening might want to ask questions, please do feel free to put a question or comment in the chat if you have anything that you want to ask Emma about publishing a book second time out, book number two. You, kind of, touched off it there about the reviews, and I know myself that you were determined, and I'm quite interested in how you went about this. You were determined to get reviews, so tell people how you did that.
Emma Blas: I did a bit of research first, because obviously there are lots of companies supporting authors out there in running ARC programs, but there aren't so many supporting poets. So one part of me, because I'm quite stubborn and quite independent, was like, well, I'll just do it myself.
So, actually I started approaching some authors. I was already part of BookSirens, as a reader, because I wanted to support the independent writing community, and I do also buy a lot of e-books. I buy e-books for, for stuff that I know I'm just going to devour really quickly.
So, I write nature poetry, but I love fantasy books, and I've got quite into Gaslamp fantasy recently. And so because I would devour far too many books, and my bookshelf is already heaving, I do buy a lot of eBooks in those kind of formats. So, um I was already part of BookSirens, and so I started approaching some off the reviewers that they have there. I also did a lot of research at the same time, who does art programs?
So, I approached quite a lot of traditional organizations, many of them told me, no, we don't do poetry or, no, we don't do self-published authors. Some of them put me in touch with other ones. They are quite expensive, and I also found it quite complicated about what they were offering. So, there's no standardized package, and at that point I was coming at it completely green. So, I didn't really know what I wanted. But, in short, most of them offer a kind of like quick burst of activity.
So, on your book launch, you can make a big impact, a big fuss about your book by, maybe over three, four or five days, having bloggers review your book each day. They go out and push it in their social media, you push it in your social media. So, in one way you are marketing, and on the other hand, you're getting reviews, which you can then use for your own promotional activity.
So, I think they might vary according to fiction books versus poetry, but what seemed to be available, mostly for poetry, is about a week of activity. So, I reached out into the forum and, it was yourself, Orna, who recommend that I approach Anne Cater, of Random Things, and I really liked the way that she came back with information about what to expect from a blog tour, and the price was quite reasonable.
At this point I still didn't really know too much about it, but I thought, okay, I'm just going to dive in. This book, I'm just diving in and doing everything. So, I had that set up for launch, the premise is that you send books out about, ideally, I think you book this, no later than six weeks before the launch of your book, and you send out, if you can, physical books, or eBooks, but again I think poetry is something to be, you know, you have to touch the pages.
So, I sent out physical books, which obviously increases the cost for the author, and then they get reading and the wonderful Anne, or whoever's organizing your blog tour, will then schedule. They're all scheduled in, and she will give them a little nudge on the day of review, and it's like Christmas for an author. It's like opening up the calendar and there's a little chocolate inside. Every day you're like, oh, what are they going to say about my book? And the reviews were absolutely incredible.
So, I will say, I did a roundabout way of explaining it. So, I did three different approaches in terms of getting reviews. One was using my own mailing list and fans, so I'm more on Instagram than I am in other social formats.
So, I have recruited the more enduring fans, and the purchasers of the first book, who enjoyed it, to a mailing list. So, I offered it out to everybody. One part of me was like, Ooh, but then I'll undervalued the sales of the second book, but like you said, you also buy physical books from an eBook that you like.
I think there's always a scarcity demon sitting on the shoulder, versus the abundance demon, and so I threw everything into abundance this time. I'm investing in my future with this book, so I'm throwing it all in. So, I offered it up to everybody, about 20 people took it, and I think by the end of it, maybe four or five of them actually completed the review. This really surprised me by being my least effective prong, but also that is because of what happened in my life and not being able to engage with people to keep the excitement about the launch going, because the bottom of my world, sort of, fell apart, and then I just couldn't put myself out there.
So, I think that was probably part of that. BookSirens were really lovely to work with, I really love what they do.
Orna Ross: We will include the link in the show notes, but for those who may not know what BookSirens is, if you could just do a short explanation.
Emma Blas: Yeah, they're basically an organization that connect readers with authors. So they recruit based on the kind of genre that you like reading, and they send out newsletters, they're also quite selective about how many books you can have out at the same time. So, for a while, until you have proven yourself as a reviewer, you can only take out one book at a time.
Then, as you prove that you can review on time, they start increasing the number of books that you can have at any one time. I really respect what they do, and I think anybody listening, who's a part of ALLi, should be part of one of these services, supporting other independent authors, and doing the things that we want reviewers to do for us.
I read some fantastic books with them. Some less fantastic, but some really fantastic. So, join BookSirens. I'm not renumerated in any way or form by them, I just really enjoy what they do. I think the only criticism I would have with them, and I think this is because of poetry, and maybe they've ironed this kink out, in terms of categorization, they categorize me as nature rather than poems or poetry. So, I don't think I got as many people even going through to look at the book, because not many people look at nature as a kind of book theme, and then get to it. An even smaller number of people who like nature and also poetry. Whereas, if it was the other way round, I think it would have been more effective. So, that's my small bugbear with that, but all in all, I think my own list was about 30% effective, BookSirens was about 70%, and I would say Anne Cater was 85%, and that was only because somebody dropped out right at the last minute, they decided to stop blogging, and Anne was quite upset about that.
Orna Ross: I've never seen that happen with Anne before, so it's just a one-off thing. Yeah.
Emma Blas: And she tried to recruit somebody else, and I think he got sent the book, but nothing ever came of it.
Orna Ross: Okay.
Emma Blas: However, the quality of the reviews from Anne's list is incredible.
Orna Ross: Yeah, and she's one of the few that does poetry. We're trying to encourage more people to include poetry in their programs. It is a major macro genre that just gets ignored a lot of the time, because there is this myth that there is no money and readers, which has been debunked by authors who are doing extremely well, but has yet to filter through, but it's happening. It's definitely better than it was, and also, this whole thing of being turned down because you're self-published, we're also trying to work on that as well. And I think time will do its work there, but it can be a bit frustrating sometimes.
Emma Blas: When I reached out to people as well, some people didn't know how to review poetry, that was a kind of fear. I think there's still an intellectualization of poetry that maybe people are nervous to step into. I, myself, find it quite difficult to review other people's poetry. I feel there's a pressure to intellectualize it.
Orna Ross: Yes, and it's the way we learned. Most of us learned poetry in school, whereas we would have read more widely for pleasure outside of school and so formed our own way of understanding fiction and nonfiction, the school thing, still looms. And if you've done English lit at university, which a lot of writers and reviewers have, all that just kind of stays with you, but that's one of the reasons I love Instagram, and the whole Instagram poetry movement, is that it is, sure there's a whole load of stuff there that's, is it poetry at all? Maybe not, but it's just wonderful to have that whole expression going on.
Emma Blas: It's so much more emotional. Yeah.
What lessons did you learn from writing and publishing a second poetry collection?
Orna Ross: Yeah, it's freed from the intellectualizing, as you're saying.
Yeah. So in terms of, again, second book and the learnings and everything, what will you not do again?
Emma Blas: I will not make so many mistakes with my proof copy for IngramSpark, or my imagery, so I won't have to pay to re-upload it. Yeah, there was some bugs coming out. I used an editor this time, because I used the manuscript from Amazon and it's just full of bugs, and so I sent it to a professional formatter, but something had gone on with the chapter headers, so I had to re-upload it.
Orna Ross: Okay. You do know that, as an ALLi member, you get a discount on your re-uploads to Ingram. Ingram shouldn't cost you any money at all.
Emma Blas: I did get the first one free, yeah.
Orna Ross: Okay, good, but your revisions also.
Emma Blas: I didn't know that.
Orna Ross: So next time. Yes, it is very nice, we're very grateful to IngramSpark for that very nice discount for ALLi members. Yeah. So, hold that in mind. But anyway, the proofing thing is central. It's important, right?
Emma Blas: Yeah, I'll get the proofing down the next time. I will definitely, well, I'm still, I had mentioned earlier, I had a friend who introduced me to ALLi, and back when I very first started writing, she was like, these are good, Emma. She's like, you should start a mailing list. I was like, I'm not going to start a mailing list, you know, I feel like I need to be sure that I have something to say, I've got nothing to say yet. Blah, blah, blah. She was like, okay, but, and then I found myself, you know, the first book and I was like, oh yeah, here I go, starting a mailing list. And so I still feel like I need to do more work in growing that, and I will definitely do a lot more engagement with my mailing list in terms of getting them to review early and get it out there early.
The power of the pause
Orna Ross: Now, you mentioned what happened there, you lost your dad and grief came in like a wall and you stopped you. And we had a very interesting talk, before coming on air, about the power of the pause, because I had a very similar experience some years ago where I stopped completely and, when I came back, actually self-publishing was happening. So, I really learned about the power of the pause, just in taking you to the next level as a person and as a writer.
Talk to me a little bit about what happened there for you, and what it has meant for your writing and your publishing going forward.
Emma Blas: So, I rushed to get the book together, as it was dedicated to my father, and I wanted to put it in his hands before he passed away, and I managed that thanks to my formatter and my designer, and I'm really grateful for… and sorry, my puppy has just woken up, so there's a weird groaning in the background… I will forever have that memory.
And then it was all about him, and losing him, so the book launched and there was no fanfare in me whatsoever. I think I managed to post one social media post. I think I managed to send one thing out to my mailing list, and then I've just really been in a hole ever since. So, I think what it's made me realize is, the thing about self-publishing and why I do it is about freedom and retaining my freedom. It's, kind of, an emancipation from the chains of, yeah, I'm not sure how to finish that sentence, but, just from the chains. But what it does mean is that, yeah, it would have been really nice at that point if somebody could have done the marketing for me and taken over and gone, okay, you've done your work with the content, with the creative thoughts, you've got your ARC set up, you've come some way, but then I just couldn't do any of the other things that needed to be done, and I still haven't been able to. I was almost reluctant to do this podcast, because I still feel very, very quiet and very, anti-social. I'm sort of in my cave, not licking my wounds as such, but kind of, and I'm in that pause, and it feels like that was something that, I think, most people can resonate with after 2020. Everyone, kind of, fell into a little bit of a pause. In the north of Spain it's been a little bit more open, but as I speak to friends in the UK, coming out of lockdown, there's some people that are a bit reluctant to go back to the old ways and, not feeling so sociable.
Orna Ross: Yeah, wanting to take the lessons, I guess, and hear what it's saying, which I think is, you know, as writers we have to take in before we can give out, and that period of not rushing that, being brave enough to just stay there. Yeah. So, yeah, you stay there as long as you need.
Emma Blas: Yeah. I've gone through my writer's blocks, and I've had my issues, my bugbear with writer's block and challenged it and I want to be out, but I've made my peace with writer's block, and I see it as a time to do other things, whether that's to take in, to bring some different inputs in, or right now it's, kind of, like, okay, well, the book is out, there are things that I've been unable to do, what is this teaching me or what could I do with this time instead? And so it's made me look more at the content, because I am very passionate about inclusion and accessibility, in my day job and in my life, and so I'm now putting together an audiobook, which I didn't have the capacity to do because of everything that was going on and being, sort of, displaced.
So, I'm working on the audiobook. I'm also, after that's done, then I'm going to look at doing a large print version, because I think poetry should be accessible for everybody, so I want to make it as accessible as possible.
When I think about the marketing, I thought after the first book, okay, second book, I'm going to get in there with the Amazon ads and I'm going to do that kind of thing, and I just can't bring myself to do it yet.
So, maybe that will be book three.
Orna Ross: Fair enough.
Emma Blas: For me, now, it's about making it accessible, and also, I think redefining my audience. So, when I feel like I can build community again, then I will be engaging in community, and that's something that I loved most about Instagram. There's a lot of falseness that don't like, and that puts me off it, but the community that I found there is incredible and is wonderful, and it's more instant, instant review, but more instant kudos that you receive, instant feedback. I miss engaging with that and community and I would like to then go and find the way that, that community helps my creative process. I want to then go and find communities in nature and women's empowerment areas.
Orna Ross: Fantastic.
Emma Blas: Community and content, that's what my pause has taught me, and also just to take the time and be sad.
Orna Ross: Yeah. Exactly.
Okay. Well, listen, thank you so much for taking time out of your time out to come and talk to us and to tell us about your book two.
Just tell everybody, I think we've been calling it book two since the start of the show, and we have named it, so just a little bit about the book and where people can find it.
Emma Blas: Yeah. Watery Through the Gaps is available out wide. You can find it in most online bookshops, and Amazon. It's a collection, but it's, kind of, also a curated story of moving from, actually, I'm reluctant to say what the journey is, because I like that everyone has their own interpretation of it, but, for me, it's about how we are separate from nature and in that, we are separate from ourselves. And through the course of the book, we find our way back to nature, and then we find our way back to a certain kind of freedom.
Orna Ross: Fantastic.
Emma Blas: That's really badly articulated.
Orna Ross: No, on the contrary, it's beautifully articulated, and it exactly describes my experience in reading it.
Thank you so much for coming to talk to us about publishing it. When you get to book three, maybe we'll have a chat about that, but until then, happy writing and lying low.
So, that's it, folks. We will have another self-publishing advice on poetry for you in a month's time, and that will be our last one of the season.
I think we're going to have a general Q&A, where we answer your most pressing questions about poetry publishing. So, if you have questions, you can drop them here on this actual Facebook live, or you can send them through to us at [email protected], with the subject line of poetry questions.
The podcast of this, the audio, will be out on the Self-Publishing Advice blog on Friday, and we'll have all the show notes and all the websites, and everything Emma talked about, as well as links to her book and her website.
So, thank you all again. Have a good evening or day, wherever you are.