A Memoir Writer’s Self-Publishing Success Story: An Interview with Mary-Ann Kirkby

Mary-Ann Kirkby, who grew up in a Canadian Hutterite colony until the age of ten, and whose memoir has been a publishing sensation in Canada, has kindly agreed to answer some questions. I chose her publishing story as the focus of my questions, and Mary-Ann gave generous answers that may surprise you. How did she go from a self-published to best-selling author? Read on!

Q. Tell us what it’s like to publish your own book. Was this a conscious choice, a preference from the beginning, or did you try larger publishers before deciding to go it alone? 

A. I most definitely did not want to self publish.  It was a complete act of desperation. Every major publisher in Canada turned me down, many medium sized ones did too and even little struggling ones did not imagine there could possibly be a market for such a book.  I have so many rejection letters I could dance to them!

Q. Where did you get the clever marketing ideas described on your website? Did you start off small or did you start off with all these ideas?

A. The ideas evolved and in fact still do.  I listen closely to what my readers tell me because they made me who I am.  So I will take their thoughts and ideas and toss them about with my wonderful friend and editor Arvel Gray.  Add a glass of wine or a generous piece of pie to the mix and our creative juices really get  going.  My motto is simple and soulful…a balance between enough information or too much information.   

Q. Do you still have a day job? How much of your time are you spending in speaking and marketing your book?

I Am Hutterite has become a full time job. I am a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers so I do a number of speaking engagements every month and of course I sell many books at venues after people hear my story. I am also in the process of writing a sequel that is scheduled to be released in Canada next spring.  It is much awaited and anticipated and I am honored that my fans are so anxious to hear more from me.

Q. How and when were you approached by Thomas Nelson?

A. After my sensational debut here in Canada one of the reps for Wal-mart suggested that we ship to the U.S.  I realized that I had to act quickly to get proper representation and distribution in the U.S so I approached  a few major publishers with my dilemma and Matt Baugher from Thomas Nelson flew to Canada to meet me and I really liked him.  I took him to a Hutterite Colony and he was just “wowed”. Thomas Nelson really extended themselves by giving me a 6 figure deal for U.S. and world rights and flew me to Nashville to meet everyone.  It was wonderful.  Earlier this year my book was also published in Germany entitled, Ich Bin Eine Hutterin.  I am of course, thrilled!

Q. What’s been the biggest difference for you between self-publishing and now being with Thomas Nelson? Are they OK with Polka Dot Press continuing?

A. Oh yes, because I didn’t sell my Canadian rights.   So Polka Dot Press is my little treasure and thriving.  Self publishing is difficult when you live in another country.  I live in Canada so I know Canada and the people and how the media works and that makes all the difference.

Q. Does having a big publisher now make it easier to sell your book or not and why?

A. I suppose it is more widely available having a big publisher but  connecting to my readers the way I did in Canada really rocked my sales here at home and I regret not having that same opportunity in the U.S.

Q. How has your story been received by your family and the larger Hutterite community?

A. My family loves the book, but it is controversial among some Hutterites whose relatives are named in the book who might have had a hand in why we left.  Of course it is difficult to hear negative things about a relative or family member and so I understand that.  I had to weigh very carefully the value of the book against possibly hurting some feelings.

Q. In retrospect, what are a couple things you wish you had done differently in publishing this book?

A. It was all such an exciting and hectic experience, such a wonderful learning curve I just wish I had kept all the newspapers clippings and letters people sent me and organized them in a scrap book so when I’m in the old folks home I’d be able to look back at all the fun I had!  

Q. What advice would you have for other memoirists from small/closed/Anabaptist communities?

A. My biggest lesson: Just because someone rejects you and tells you there is no market for your book doesn’t mean they’re right.  Trust your instincts!

Q. What are the most frequently asked questions when you speak?

A. How did you do it?                                                                                                            

Readers, what do you take from this story? What else would you like to know from our guest author?   

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Anabaptist Memoir, Marketing Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to A Memoir Writer’s Self-Publishing Success Story: An Interview with Mary-Ann Kirkby

  1. First of all, a HUGE congratulations to Mary Ann for a job well done! I can relate so well to this story, for mine is nearly parallel — though I have not realized success quite the way you have, Mary Ann. But I love your persistence and your ability to believe in the potential of your story even when others don’t. I LOVE your advice to writers, and I am doing just that.

    I am waiting for your book to arrive at my doorstep, and I will devour it. I have always been curious about Hutterite life.

    Mary Ann, my childhood was within an Amish community, though it was me who left, not my parents. After embarking on a healing journey that took more than five years, I began to write my story for others. It took 16 years from the time I started writing it to the time it was finally published. I have spoken at more than 40 venues so far, with my audiences clamoring for my second book, which I am co-writing with my husband. I am in that place right before succeeding in placing my second book with an agent, I can feel it. In the spring, I’ll be featured on “American Experience.” I have a waiting audience…. it is bound to happen. But… getting an agent to respond in the affirmative is a whole other story.

    I have so many questions for you, I hardly know where to begin. Most of them are of a nature that I don’t want to post them publicly. I will give you my email address, and you are welcome to email me: salomafurlong[at]gmail[dot]com.

    Now for the question I can ask publicly. You mentioned that you had to balance what to write into the story and what to leave out for the sake of others. What ‘measures’ did you use to decide that — in other words, what would tip the balance?

    Shirley, as always, thank you so much for presenting us with another great author. I love your blog!

    • Dear Saloma,

      If you have an axe to grind, you are not ready to tell your story. If however you have given your experience due process and it has left you “better” not “bitter” then you are ready. You have to be truthful or your readers will feel that you are holding back, and readers want and deserve a story they can learn something from. All of us have had painful, devastating experiences but we’ve also had laugh-out-loud funny ones. When I wrote, I Am Hutterite, I was vulernable and honest and told my truth withount any malice, but I also made people laugh and “wowed” them with how beautiful and extraordinary my culture is and how priviliged I was to grow up on a Hutterite Colony. Balance is important because it gives people hope that they too can overcome adversity.
      And….. always, always trust your instincts. They are there to guide you.

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you for your kind words about the blog, Saloma. With writers like Mary-Ann and readers like you, I feel very blessed. I should say that Mary-Ann has had so many requests to reveal her secrets of marketing a self-published book that she offers one-hour phone calls at a reasonable charge. You can contact her at her website to request that service.

    I have invited her to respond to comments here on the blog also. I hope she will be able to do that.

  3. I like your honesty about how things were when you worked an how you’ve changed during retirement.I have another problem. I enjoy connecting with people but sometimes feel like I have too many I cannot give all my attention to them. It’s because I reach out and then feel bad if I don’t communicate as much as I would like to. I collect business cards at meetings and write to people, but then I have my friends, my blogger friends, my FB friends, etc., and feel like a day can go by so quickly. How do you keep all these connections in balance. I’m in FL right now, on vacation and checking my online connections!!!

  4. Shirley,
    It seems like my comment is incorrect. I wrote to you and Mary-Ann and pasted it,but my comment to Robert appeared instead. Please excuse my error. I shall post again later. I’m in Florida on vacation right now. Sorry about that.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Sonia, I did not post the comment you inadvertently sent to me instead of to Robert. I can wait until after your vacation to get the comment you intended for Mary-Ann and me. However, here’s the most amazing part of Mary-Ann’s story. I didn’t know before I posted this interview that she is not on Facebook and Twitter!!

      Had I known before, I would have put that fact in headline. If I am reading it right, this story is all about building a fan base out of speaking to groups and caring about real people live and in person. It also involves a lot of chutzpah and creativity. Reminds me of the story of how Chicken Soup got started and also Wayne Dwyer with his first book.

  5. I have a very similar story and just self-published my first book, Learning by Accident.
    The comments I am receiving from people who have read the book are wonderful and definately make me glad I finally decided to put my story out there. It’s rewarding to hear when the book touches a nerve in people and many say they feel inspired. I’m also trying to raise funds for a friend of mine that has a brain injury and needs more rehabilitation, so I hope to show a profit at the end of the year so I can donate to the Dan Duggins Trust.

  6. shirleyhs says:

    Rosemary, congratulations for getting your book published. I hope readers will check out your story of caregiving for three relatives and fundraising for a friend who has suffered a stroke. What a wide and generous heart you have. Hope Mary-Ann’s success will give you encouragement and good ideas. Looks like speaking engagements can be very important. Keep us informed of your progress!!

  7. Wow, what great information about Mary Ann not being on Facebook or Twitter… I’m not on Facebook either, and I keep forgetting to use my Twitter account. I like to make the personal connections as well. The book talks are where I do that, and I’ve done more than forty so far this year, with plans for many more. There is no substitute for the magic that happens with an audience, especially during Q&A. Thanks for the information about consulting with Mary Ann.

  8. shirleyhs says:

    Be sure to check out the ideas about fundraising and teachers right there on the site. They may not fit your book perfectly, but they might give you some more ideas. I’d urge you to do the phone call also. Let us know if you found it worthwhile.

  9. Shirley,

    I too would like to hear how Mary Ann made the choice about what to reveal about others and what to cut. Did she use pseudonyms?

    Brenda

    • Dear Brenda,

      I answered part of your question in Saloma’s post above. As for using pseudonyms, I did in the case of the ‘English’ children who made fun of us at school and would not have anything to do with us. I just felt in my gut that I should. There really is no other way to explain it. The rest of the names are real because the characters are so well known in my culture it would have been futile to hide them.

  10. shirleyhs says:

    Hi Brenda, I’ll ask Mary-Ann to make an appearance here. I hope we can entice her to answer this question.

    Also, Jane Friedman responded to this story on Twitter by saying that speeches and back-of-room sales are a tried-and-true method of marketing a self-published book.

  11. Judy McCandless says:

    Mary Ann:
    How did you organize the story, deciding what to leave in, take out?
    Agents tell us the writing must be fantastic. What attracted the publisher about your writing.
    Judy3M

  12. Dear Judy,

    At first I just wrote what came to me. I was all over the place and then when the story started to take shape I began to see an outline and chapters revealing themselves. I must also credit my editor/girlfriend whose curiousity and innate sense of a great story drew things out of me, like sounds and smells and emotions. She was an angel! And we both love to eat so we always had big slices of cake or pie as a treat! What she didn’t do was change my writing style and for that I am so grateful. As for what attracted the publisher, I will only say that I was raised at the knees of the finest and most gifted oral story tellers in the world and I drew alot from from them throughout writing, I Am Hutterite.

  13. Thank you, Shirley, for bringing Mary-Ann back to answer our questions. Very gracious and helpful answers, Judy. Best of luck in your future endeavors!

  14. Mary-Ann, Congratulations to you and I thank Shirley for this wonderful interview.
    I have a few questions:
    1). Did you start speaking before your book came out in order to create a buzz? If so did you collect people’s e-mail addresses?
    2). I was a little confused about the Wal-Mart rep that contacted you. Did the sales figures of your SP book attract the attention of the WalMart rep? Were you selling in stores in Canada or just back of room sales?
    3). Did you consider subsidy/cooperative publishing, versus self-publishing? I’m not talking about a Vanity Press here at all.
    4). Have you hired a publicist? What about marketing in the US market?

    Thanks so much to both of you. I truly enjoyed your helpful post.

  15. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Sonia, for adding these great questions. Mary-Ann is traveling this week, but I hope she will come back to address your issues. Your research on self publishing is evident.

  16. Loretta Willems says:

    Shirley, this interview was very interesting. Thank you for it. I’d read a very good review of I AM A HUTTERITE in the MENNONITE WEEKLY REVIEW (7/11) written by Melanie Springer Mock and decided that this was a book I’d like to read. Now, after reading your posts I’ve decided this is a book I’d like to buy–a decision this frugal Mennonite never makes lightly.
    One of the things that struck me as I read the interview is how difficult it is for Canadian writers to break through the U.S. border. One of my toop-favorite memoirs is Rudy Wiebe’s OF THIS EARTH: A MENNONITE BOYHOOD IN THE BOREAL FOREST (2006). It is a beautiful book that comes after a long and successful writing career. Wiebe is well known in Canada; his books have been awarded numerous prizes; yet, except for Mennonite circles, you never hear of him in the States. (Wiebe”s memoir in Canada is published by Alfred A. Knopf, a major publisher; in the U.S. the publisher is a Mennonite house, Good Books.)
    A question for Kirby: With all her promotional activities, how does she find time to write? By the time I’ve finished writing for the day I’m worded-out, utterly exhausted. I even have trouble talking to my husband at supper. And that question is for you, too, Shirley. I read about all you do and am utterly amazed. How do you do it?

  17. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Loretta. Thanks for these comments. I just read Melanie Mock’s review also and agree it was excellent. If you want to read my review, here it is:http://100memoirs.com/2011/07/26/i-am-hutterite-a-lovely-memoir-from-the-canadian-prairie/. Melanie teaches a course on memoir at George Fox University and has commented on some posts here at 100memoirs.com.

    I hope Mary-Ann will comment on the energy issue. I think she probably has a lot of it, judging from the voice in her book and in the comments. As for myself, growing up in a communal/rural environment that stressed the beauty and necessity of hard work has made a difference in my life. I like to joke that after the farm, all other work is a piece of cake. I do find that morning is my best time for writing. I try not to do social media from 6-8 a.m. You can get a lot done in two hours/day if you do it every day. Little steps add up to big ones.

    • Loretta Willems says:

      Thanks for responding, Shirley. Do you have a sense of how much time you put into internet related writing each day? I am moving towards putting my work onto the web, but am concerned about that competing with my primary writing.

  18. shirleyhs says:

    Loretta, my own example may not be the best one for you, so I invite others to share their experiences also. But here’s my best guess about how I am spending my time. Rather than describe a daily routine, I’ll estimate weekly amounts: blog post generation and commenting, 5 hours; memoir writing 10 hours (with special bursts of writing retreat time to supplement); granny nanny day job 50 hours; other social media (FB, Twitter, blog post reading and commenting 20 hours); networking with a group of women entrepreneurs and coaching 5 hours. Since there are 98 hours in a week of non-eating and non-sleeping, the means I have about 8-10 hours for exercise (I do a lot of walking within my day job hours) and entertainment.

    Those are ballpark figures. I try to read meditatively and pray/meditate regularly also, which often comes out of my memoir writing time. I will need to refocus my time to do more creative writing and less time online as I move toward deadlines of producing one chapter/month for my memoir. Fortunately, I can squeeze some overlap out of this schedule (nap times for Owen give me an extra 1-2 hours/day, for example). I think you have given me a new blog post subject here. All writers struggle with this one–and the “requirement” to build a platform online before, during, and after book publication makes the juggling even more difficult.

    Good luck!

    Mary-Ann has managed, up to this point, to build an ever-growing audience offline, with her website and email her only online tools. She is unusual in this regard, but she has a very unusual story. My guess is that she’s a great story teller in person, and that counts for a lot!

    You will note that I am spending

  19. Loretta Willems says:

    Shirley, this is very helpful. Thank you very much. A blog post on this would be wonderful.

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