The ALCS Interview: The Unmumsy Mum

Sarah Turner, aka The Unmumsy Mum, tells us how her honest and hilarious blog about parenthood went viral and earned her both awards, and a major book deal.

id you ever have aspirations to be a writer? Was it ever part of the plan?

Being a writer has always been The Dream, but I never seriously expected that it would be realised! In fact, I was so concerned that writing for a living would prove to be too competitive and/or financially unsustainable that I took a different path altogether at university and ended up working in finance. Being a writer was just a pipe dream, or so I thought.

What were your ambitions for your blog when you began it?

I honestly don’t think I had an ambition in mind at the start, not really. I certainly didn’t have a long-term game plan or blogging goal, I just knew I wanted to write something honest about parenting that was true to how I was finding it. I hoped that somebody, somewhere, might read it and take comfort in what I was writing, but I wasn’t sure if anybody would read it as I had no experience of blogging at that stage. If nothing else, it was somewhere for me to vent my frustration.

How, and how soon, did you know that you had struck a chord?

The first six months or so were slow-going, and I could tell by looking at my page’s stats that only a handful of people had read what I had written. It wasn’t until I set up an accompanying Facebook page (and my follower numbers exploded) that I realised I might have tapped into something pretty special. I started to receive messages from mums thanking me for finally representing a version of motherhood they recognised, which gave me the confidence to develop the blog further.

How has your blog evolved over time?

In many ways it hasn’t changed at all – in fact to look at the page is almost identical to how it was when I typed the first post back in 2013. However, the more posts I have written, the more I have developed a writing style I am comfortable with. It sounds corny to say you have to ‘find yourself’ as a writer but I think perhaps you do.

How has the blog changed your life?

It has completely changed my life! Though I also have to credit social media for that change, because without all the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram sharing the blog would never have been read. Taking the plunge and sharing my first post is without a doubt one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have now given up my 9-to-5 day job and am writing for a living, which is something I never could have forecast.

How did your book come about?

I was approached by both a literary agent and a publisher, initially via social media. Several telephone conversations and a meeting later and a book deal had been offered. I couldn’t believe it.

How difficult was it to convert your blog into a book? How much new material did you have to come up with and write?

I knew from the outset that the book would have to be at least 70% brand new material and in many ways it was the writing of the new material that proved the most fun. Blogging has always been a sporadic affair, posting as and when I feel like it, so the book gave me the chance to document the parenting adventure from the beginning with a bit more structure. I absolutely loved writing it.

What qualities does a good blog need to attract an audience?

That’s a tricky question, as I don’t think there is a One Size Fits All approach to blog-writing. I follow a wide variety of bloggers who are all doing very different things successfully. I do think it’s obvious if you are being insincere as a blogger, though, so being honest about who you are and what you’re trying to do is important. Generally, I think people like to read blogs they can relate to (because the life described is just like their life) or blogs they can aspire to (because the life described is just like the life they would like, if they could have it). My blog is definitely the former!

What tips do you have for would-be bloggers?

Be yourself! There is absolutely no point trying to write in the style of somebody else, even if that’s a proven ‘successful’ style, because if it’s not really you it simply won’t sound right. Equally, don’t be too scared to write a post that’s similar in style or content to another you’ve read – the crucial thing is that it doesn’t feel forced. Obviously it would be immoral to plagiarise another’s post and steal their pictures, but if you fret about covering the same ground as another blogger whenever you write then you’d never write anything! No two posts are exactly the same, anyway. The most important thing is that you are writing something you feel inspired to write.

What have you learned about the publishing industry? Can you share any advice for writers who are trying to get a book deal from their blog?

The whole publishing process is a bit of a minefield when you’re new to it, but my experiences have all been positive thus far! The most vital piece of advice I was given at the outset was to find myself an agent, so I was extremely lucky that my agent found me! An awful lot goes into negotiating contracts and an agent is an invaluable sounding board when you’re not quite sure what you’re doing.

Your blog is an online showcase of your writing work, so don’t be disheartened if you’re not ‘technically’ a writer (I kept telling everybody I wasn’t a proper writer until somebody pointed out that I wrote stuff which lots of people were reading).

I also think that having confidence in what you can bring to the table is a pretty important part of the process. I may not have had a clue about how getting published would work, but I had been busy steadily growing a social media following which is actually worth quite a lot in its own right when it comes to plugging a book!

You’re quite principled about not accepting sponsored posts and brand collaborations, although you have accepted some free products. What are your views on the rights and wrongs of making money from a blog?

Transparency is key with sponsored posts, I think. I don’t have anything against brand collaborations or adverts on blogs, I just decided early on that I would only post authentic content on my blog. I’ve been lucky enough to receive prams, holidays and a variety of baby goodies over the last couple of years but they have all been things I would have embarked on or purchased anyway. I draw the line at being paid £500 to post a picture of me enjoying an organic cereal bar, but each to their own.

That’s the moral aspect of blogging. However, writers increasingly have to find new ways of making revenue. Do you have any practical tips for writers who are trying to find ways to monetise their blogs?

That’s another tricky question, as for two years I blogged purely as a hobby (albeit a time-consuming one!) while also holding down a ‘normal’ job to bring in the pennies. If you have decent blog traffic you can host adverts on your site and there are lots of opportunities for paid content which may work well with what you are writing about. It’s actually quite a skill to earn a living wage from blogging, and I’m probably not the best example, as I’ve never monetised my blog (though it was the blog which landed me the book deal, so indirectly it has made me money).

What other things are you doing to earn a living as a writer that you didn’t initially expect to do?

The most random writing project so far has been a series of car reviews for GQ magazine. I actually really like cars but I can’t say I ever thought I would end up driving the kids around in a Rolls-Royce for a week (and being paid to write about it). My husband was delighted.

Writers are increasingly expected more and more to get involved in the marketing of their own books – can you share any wisdom on how they can go about it and what their expectations should be?

Social media has been absolutely key to the success of my book, but it has been all the other marketing and publicity activities that have been the most fun. From library and bookshop events to radio phone-ins and magazine interviews, the schedule has been busy but a great experience. Some of the events, particularly literary festivals where I have been required to talk on stage, have been way outside of my comfort zone, but I know they have been important to spread the word about the book. I now appreciate that signing off the final version of the manuscript is not the end of the hard work!

You’re very good at interacting with your audience on social media, and you had a huge online audience before you got your book deal. Does this help to shape your blog posts? How important generally is social media and interacting with your followers to your work?

The online interaction is absolutely crucial. The Facebook page in particular has become a real community for parents to share the not-so-glossy aspects of daily life with children and that sense of comradeship encourages people to keep coming back, which I hope in turn encourages them to keep reading my new blog posts.

What’s next?

I am midway through writing the difficult second book! The Unmumsy Mum Diary, which is basically a warts-and-all account of this year, will be published in February 2017.

Sarah Turner began writing as The Unmumsy Mum in 2013. She has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Times, GQ Online, and Mumsnet, and has a regular column in Exeter Life. Her phenomenally successful blog has now had in excess of 7 million hits and won awards for Best Writer and Best Baby Blog at the Mum and Dad Blog Awards 2015. Her bestselling book, The Unmumsy Mum, was published earlier this year by Bantam Press. Sarah lives in Devon with her husband and two sons, and is currently working on a sequel to her book, entitled The Unmumsy Mum Diary.