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Until this summer, I'd never read a romance novel. No doubt I could've survived another 58 years without reading one, but I would've missed something special - someone special. What brought this about had nothing to do with the romance genre at all. In the process of researching hypermoderns for BookThink's current Gold Edition series, I came across a book that was displaying unusual behavior in the marketplace. And it just happened to be a romance novel.
The Naked Duke, a debut novel by Maryland author Sally MacKenzie, was published in February, 2005 - like most romance novels, in MMPB (mass market paperback) format - at a friendly cover price of $3.99. Approximately 45,000 copies were printed (no small number). So far, so good. Now, speaking as a bookseller, I would've expected to see prices for used copies drop fairly quickly throughout the remainder of 2005 and probably settle in at something well under a buck thereafter, perhaps even under a dime on Amazon. It happens to almost all books, after all, even those penned by best selling authors - maybe especially those.
Instead, at the time of this writing, there are 31 copies available on Amazon with prices ranging from $3.60 to $27.00. Its sales ranking is a respectable 170,951, and in recent months it's spent more time in 5-figure ranking territory than not. Its sales history on eBay mirrors what's happening on Amazon: The average eBay sales price over the past 90 days - and keep in mind that these were books that actually sold and in most cases attracted multiple bids - was $10.35, and one enthusiastic bidder coughed up $36 for a copy! One more point - until a second printing was issued recently, the publisher was out of stock.
True, we're not talking big, big values here, but it's the comparative behavior of books like these that I find intriguing, not to mention instructive. Give this book a few years, and who knows? First printings of The Naked Duke may command even higher values. Add a signature, and we might be well into QMR land. Historically, romance collectors more often collect for content than edition state, but I have it on good authority that this is changing because the overall quality of romance writing has advanced in recent years; in some cases, romances have also moved above and beyond previous genre boundaries.
It's a fundamental bookselling truth that few hard core genre novels ever become intensely collectible for edition state unless they transcend their genres - that is, display qualities that have broader appeal. Going in, I didn't know if The Naked Duke had been attracting crossover interest or if it was more a matter of readers discovering her later books, liking them, and returning to the book that launched the series to see what they'd missed. Or something else altogether. In any case, it was worth finding out what was going on, and I asked Sally MacKenzie if she'd do an interview with us. If nothing else, I thought that I'd gain a deeper understanding of the romance genre - hardly my strong suit - and have good reason to read my first romance novel.
As I read The Naked Duke, I was surprised on a number of counts; maybe I had no business going in with expectations, but I'm not sure this can be avoided. (These points are addressed in detail in the following interview.) As for the book itself, I'm reluctant to evaluate it as a romance novel because I can bring no previous experience with this genre to the table. However, I will say that I found it remarkably well written and a distinct pleasure to read; I'll be surprised if BookThink's romance aficionados don't agree. Sally herself is an articulate, thoughtful woman with much of value to say about books and writing. I like her chances for succeeding in a bigger way than she already has.
BOOKTHINK: Your three books to date - The Naked Duke, The Naked Marquis and The Naked Earl - are categorized, if I'm not mistaken, as Regency romances. I'm aware that one of the criteria for inclusion in this category is that the story be set in the English Regency era - a period in the early 1800s sandwiched between the Georgian and Victorian eras. Apart from this chronological necessity, however, what are the other elements that typically factor in making a Regency a Regency?
MACKENZIE: I'm not an expert by any means, but here's my take on this: Technically, the Regency covers the years that England was ruled by the Prince Regent (nicknamed Prinny, the Regent became King George IV in 1820) while King George III was mad - 1811-1820. However, before Romance Writers of America revised its Golden Heart contest categories, the Best Regency Romance category said the Regency period was typically the years 1795-1840. (The new category definition says merely that Regency historicals are "[r]omance novels in which the majority of the story is set against the Regency period of the British Empire.") That's a broad time span with a lot of changes from the beginning to the end of the period.
BOOKTHINK: So what is it about the Regency era that so intrigues romance readers?
MACKENZIE: Some writers use the various political and civic events of the time - the Enclosure Acts, Corn Laws, Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo occurred in 1815), trade and colonization (East India Company), smuggling, etc. - to fuel their plots, and some readers may be attracted to these novels for those plots and the historical detail these writers supply. However, this isn't what attracts me to the Regency.
The kinds of Regencies I like to read and try to write are the comedy of manners stories. The focus is on the romance (or romances) and the character interactions - hero with heroine, hero/heroine with family, hero/heroine with society. Society - the ton - with its rules and pecking order is very much a force in the story. Wit and language - the Regency period had some wonderful words and expressions - are important parts of the pleasure of Regency novels as well.
I think another attraction for me is the opportunity to inhabit a different, yet familiar world. There are a number of favorite plot conventions - marriage of convenience stories (a couple - complete strangers, long time enemies, old friends, the combination is endless - marry and then fall in love), "chick in pants" - as I think one review site calls them - stories (a woman masquerades as a man), rake reformed stories (a bad boy is redeemed by love), etc. I write - and read - Regencies not so much to come up with a new plot, but to make old plots new, to give favorite conventions a new twist.
Okay, and I'll also admit it's fun to write about mostly wealthy, powerful people with big houses and lots of servants whose main goal is to find a spouse and procreate! What's not to like about that?
BOOKTHINK: A number of romance authors' names are kicked around in bookselling circles from time to time, and one name that comes up more than any other is Georgette Heyer. I understand that she's more or less the matriarch of the modern Regency romance, also that some assert that her work, because of its high quality, transcends the genre. I'm assuming that she was an influence on you. Could you talk about this some?
MACKENZIE: Georgette Heyer was an early love. A librarian introduced me to her books when I was in grade school, and my mother and I worked our way through just about all of her titles multiple times. I loved her wit, diction, and characterization. My goal is to write like a modern Georgette Heyer - same wit, same fun characters, but more modern pacing, dialogue, and sensuality.
BOOKTHINK: I guess I'm going to have to read one of her books to see what the magic is about. Could you recommend one to start with?
MACKENZIE: Only one? I tend to remember scenes, rather than titles, so I went to http://www.georgette-heyer.com to refresh my memory. You might want to browse there - there are snippets from all her books. Some of my favorites are Arabella, Frederica, Lady of Quality, The Convenient Marriage, and The Corinthian.
BOOKTHINK: Ok, same question - this time Jane Austen.
MACKENZIE: I'm blushing here as a Regency writer and English major - okay, I feel like a fraud - but I'm just not that into Jane Austen. I'm sure I've read s and probably some others of her novels, but I get that "school work/assigned summer reading" feeling when I think about them.
BOOKTHINK: You're in good company. My youngest son has been devouring books for the past year or so, and I asked him recently which one he disliked the most. Pride and Prejudice was out of his mouth almost before I was finished asking the question! Anyway, the next logical question is, Who is your favorite romance writer?
MACKENZIE: I can't have any favorites - I have too many who are friends.
BOOKTHINK: Ok, a safer question: Most influential?
MACKENIZE: Definitely Georgette Heyer. Before I started writing Regencies - and before I started writing, Regencies were the only romances I read - the authors on my "auto-buy" list included Mary Balogh, Marion Chesney, Edith Layton, and Joan Wolf among others. Now I find I don't read as much, and when I do, I usually avoid Regencies to get a break from that world. Regrettably, I also find I have a really hard time turning off the internal editor, or worse, the internal proofreader when I read, especially when I read Regencies.
BOOKTHINK: One of the reasons I wanted to take on this interview was that I'd never read a romance novel before and, since one of yours (The Naked Duke) was beginning to make interesting noises in the used book marketplace - and this after only two years - I thought perhaps I could learn something about selling books in a genre which has up until now not been one of my strengths. Despite my lack of experience, I had expectations going in (I have no idea where they came from): I expected a central love story with numerous ups and downs but ultimately a happy outcome, I expected at least one antagonist (perhaps a rival), perhaps some danger, and lastly, I expected a good helping of sex, though primarily of the PG variety as opposed to graphic. Oh - and one other thing - I expected that any harsh realities of 19th-century England would be softened. With this in mind, I'd like to ask you some questions about what surprised me in The Naked Duke.
First, there indeed was an antagonist, but I hadn't expected that he would resemble the Prince of Darkness himself, especially given the somewhat breezy publisher's blurbs on the back cover. When Richard moves across the pages of this book, he leaves a very, very dark wake, a sort of Moriarty-like sense of doom that colors everything. Is this type of character typical of Regencies?
MACKENZIE: Well, perhaps Richard is a little over the top! I wouldn't say Richard's a character type typical of Regencies, and maybe if I'd written him later in my career, I'd have made him more balanced. When I first started writing The Duke, Richard was even worse! The thing to keep in mind, if you're going to read The Duke critically, is that it was the first manuscript I'd written in years. I was trying to see what I could do - what kind of emotions I could evoke, what kinds of characters I could create. I really wasn't thinking so much about publication.
BOOKTHINK: Another surprise, though on second thought I think this probably shouldn't have surprised me - there was at least some graphic sex, both consensual and non- (in the case of several attempted rapes). Am I correct in assuming that including this is a recent trend in the genre?
MACKENZIE: I would say that, in general, romances are trending hotter. There are two ends of the spectrum today - inspirationals that have no explicit sex and erotica that has lots of sex of various flavors. The sweet traditional Regencies - shorter "category-sized" books - are gone from the NY publishing landscape. I think Signet was the last to ax them a couple years ago, though they may be making a small comeback in YA (young adult) lines and in e-books. If you look at what has happened to the level of sensuality in other media - movies, TV - I would say romances have followed suit. But even older romances contained some explicit sex and sometimes even references to rape. Kathleen Woodiwiss, who sadly died in July, is credited by many as having changed the level of sensuality in romances, opening the bedroom door. Her The Flame and the Flower was published in 1972.
BOOKTHINK: Were any family members horrified?
MACKENZIE: My parents actually liked The Duke. They didn't comment on the sex scenes (thankfully!) - they said they liked the humor. Both my parents, by the way, were Regency romance readers. However, my sons and husband are horrified, but they haven't read any of my books, so they aren't horrified by any specific scenes - well, my youngest son did have parts of The Duke read to him by his friends. The older boys were in college or out of college when The Duke came out in Feb. 2005, so they were free to claim a connection to me or not. Youngest son was a sophomore at an all male Jesuit high school. He was trapped. Since I'd been a very active parent volunteer for many years, my new career didn't go unnoticed. However, he has admitted something good came of my writing - it provided him with a ready-made college application essay topic. His essay on how embarrassing it is to have a mother who writes these books was rather amusing - and heartfelt! - and it apparently was a hit with admission officers. He got in everywhere he applied.
BOOKTHINK: Great story. Speaking of sex, I certainly didn't expect there to be any gay adventures, but the book is sprinkled with references, and there's even an episode that involves the antagonist Richard and his valet Philip, though details are almost entirely left to the reader's imagination. Two questions: Is this a recent departure from the traditional genre, and why was this particular love scene soft-shoed?
MACKENZIE: Philip got into the book as an attempt to deepen Richard's characterization - and then I got rather attached to him. I had to be careful with the relationship, though, since if I did the research correctly, homosexuality was a capital offense during the Regency; however I think the burden of proof was significant, so it was more a matter of "don't ask, don't tell." I do think there may be other gay characters in Regencies, but I would say such characters aren't common. However, I've learned in erotica or erotic romance, gay sex is not so unusual. The scene wasn't explicit for three reasons: One, I didn't think my readers would want any more detail (a closed bedroom door is still appropriate sometimes); two, a more detailed scene didn't seem necessary to develop the story; and three, frankly, I didn't think I had the skill to write the scene convincingly in more detail.
BOOKTHINK: Ok, a final surprise: Descriptions of prostitutes and the rooms they did business in were to say the least graphically repellent - no glossing over realities here! If I didn't know better, I'd say this was a romance writer preparing to evolve into mainstream fiction. I'm reminded of romance writer turned mystery writer Janet Evanovich, who mentioned in a BookThink interview last year that she'd run out of sexual positions after penning a number of romances and just had to move on. Do you have any desire to break out of the genre sometime in the future?
MACKENZIE: Before I wrote The Duke, I'd read the abridged edition of Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800. The latest period it covers is a little earlier than The Duke's setting, but I think many of the book's points were still relevant. In any event, the book certainly stirred things up in my imagination. And I think at the time I was annoyed by novels that romanticized prostitution. Also, this event was supposed to be pivotal in James's (The Duke in The Duke) development. It had a huge impact on him - I was hoping it would have a huge impact on the reader so she/he would understand and believe its effect on James. The scene was fun to write and some readers liked it. As to moving out of romance, I have no plans to do so any time soon. I'm just learning how to manage my stories and the genre. Plus I'm a huge fan of happy endings - and perhaps more to the point, I've got a contract for 3 more books, so I'll be writing romances till at least January 2010.
BOOKTHINK: Here's something strange. How it got there I don't know, but I came across a romance writing reference book on my bookshelves last week: The Romance Writer's Phrase Book. This is blurbed on the front cover as "The Essential Source Book for Every Romantic Novelist," so am I correct in assuming that your copy is falling apart with overuse? (Don't answer that.) Seriously, the authors, Jean Kent and Candace Shelton, have filled this book with what they call tags - "short, one-line descriptions so skillfully tucked into dialogue and laced through the narrative that they usually escape notice. The reader may not see them, but they can always be felt. Tags, in fact, make the difference between a cold, factual report and an eager, pulsating, sensuous story." Example: "the stroking of his fingers sent pleasant jolts through her." Okay, so, what's up with this? Are these kinds of prompts something any romance writer actually needs, or do you simply wing it - chuck your own tags in - or, alternately, not even think about tags?
MACKENZIE: Hmm. Can't say I've heard about this tag business before, but since I'm mostly self taught, I suppose my not being aware of it doesn't prove anything.
The romance genre is incredibly varied. Stories can include mystery, suspense, vampires, magic, history, ghosts, etc., but most, if not all, also include a romantic relationship and end happily. There's not a lot of room for surprise in that part of the plot. One of the major challenges in writing romance, I think, is to make that love story compelling and fresh for readers. For me as a writer, this means taking favorite plot conventions and giving them my own twist. And it means trying to find new ways to convey the emotions of a scene, ways to make what's happening on the page as unique as my (hopefully) unique characters. Canned language is not the way to accomplish this, in my opinion. (Actually, the example you quoted, "the stroking of his fingers sent pleasant jolts through her..." would be interesting if this were from a paranormal and electricity was something integral to the hero and/or heroine's nature.)
That's not to say every word in my books is scintillatingly original. Different scenes require different levels of prose - the more important the scene, the more important the diction. And I do get "infected" with certain words or phrases that will show up too many times in a book. One reader pointed out I used "trifle" a trifle too many times in The Duke. And when I was doing the page proofs for another book, I thought I would scream if another character nodded!
BOOKTHINK: A related writing question: Romance writing is clearly not cold reportage, and some would say that it's downright overwrought, florid, etc. What I noticed in The Naked Duke was more restraint than I expected. Your style is crisp and clean, and the pace doesn't linger - all of which contributed in my mind to a more contemporary aura. Again, is this a departure from traditional romance writing?
MACKENZIE: Romances are just like any other novel in that some are spectacular and some ... aren't. I also think - and this is probably truer of commercial fiction than literary fiction - some books carry the reader through on plot or characters and not so much on the sparkling quality of the actual prose. Each romance writer has his or her own style. My style, at least at the moment, does tend to be on the spare side. I agonize, sometimes to a fault, over every word, and I do try to eliminate any that aren't necessary. I think this may give my books a more contemporary sound - which is not always a plus with some historical readers. So, perhaps a spare style is a little more unusual in historical romances, but it's certainly not unique. I don't believe any current romance writers' styles are really florid or overwrought, though, or at least not so that their writing alienates their fans. Getting published is pretty tough, and staying published is even tougher. Publishers now get sales data very quickly and know incredibly (to me) soon if an author's books aren't moving briskly off the shelves.
BOOKTHINK: All genres evolve. Where do you see Regencies headed in the coming years?
MACKENZIE: Gee, that's a hard one - and I'm no expert on the market. Two of the changes that have already happened - and some of these are changes to the romance market as a whole: The sexual content has increased, and there are now erotic Regencies; and genre mixing has increased with Regencies incorporating mysteries, chicklit, and paranormal elements such as ghosts, vampires, magic, etc. I think Regencies are also being written for the YA market, especially since the sweeter, traditional Regencies are no longer being published by NY publishers, though smaller press and e-publishers are starting to offer them. There are a large number of talented writers - many NYT bestsellers - writing Regencies these days, so I imagine the Regency will evolve in whatever direction the imagination of these and other writers take it.
BOOKTHINK: How do you see yourself creating the necessary and plausible historical setting? It seems to me that your approach is to use restraint here as well - include descriptive detail now and again in small doses to set the stage and maintain a stronger focus on character.
MACKENZIE: I sometimes say I write "Regency Lite" because I do tend to go easy on the historical details. When I started The Duke, I decided that I wouldn't put in my books the stuff I skipped in other books - detailed descriptions of dresses, furnishings, etc. This is probably easier to do with Regencies than with stories set in other time periods because there is a large group of readers who are Regency fans and so already know what "the ton" means and what Almack's is.
BOOKTHINK: That's a valuable insight that has, I think, universal application. We're forever suggesting at BookThink that new booksellers learn how to sell books by becoming buyers first - teaching yourself what works for you and what doesn't from that perspective so you can apply it to your sales techniques. What about research? Have you more or less stockpiled what you need from reading other romances?
MACKENZIE: I probably did absorb the bulk of my Regency knowledge by reading hundreds of Regencies over the years. (I've even been known to slip a Regency word into everyday conversation and not realize it until my husband rolls his eyes.) However, I also do research. My favorite tools are the , which gives dates when word meanings developed and The Regency Reference Book by romance author Emily Hendrickson. I also poke around online for details, and I have many reference books on the period as well as a modern guidebook of England. I particularly like books with pictures and floor plans. I've also pulled out some of my college English lit books and a book of paintings that I think was mistakenly bought for some kid's high school art class.
BOOKTHINK: Let's move to character development. I'd say that your hero, heroine and villain in The Naked Duke are somewhat short on complexity in that they are either very good or very bad with not much gray to complicate things. Is this de rigueur for the genre? Do readers expect sharp delineation?
MACKENZIE: Any lack of character development in The Duke can be attributed to my status as a "baby" novelist, not to the genre. I'm working on it, though I suppose the fact that I write humor might affect the depth of character development somewhat. There's an incredible amount of stuff to juggle in writing a book - character development, point of view, plot, setting, diction, etc.!
BOOKTHINK: I'm sure you just love reading reviews of your books on Amazon. Generally, yours are positive for all 3 of your books, but there's definitely some negative moments here and there that would give any writer pause. Have you learned anything from these?
MACKENZIE: I have to confess that when my third book, The Naked Earl, came out I took a more seasoned author's advice and stopped reading reviews in general unless I couldn't avoid them. I have sworn off visiting my books' Amazon pages and Googling myself, and so far I've pretty much stuck to my resolve. I decided on this policy for a number of reasons. Reviews were making me anxious. I cared too much whether readers liked the book, or, perhaps more to the point, whether readers who were fans of my first two books liked the third. Frankly, I was wasting too much mental energy angst-ing about it - and I'm sure I was driving my agent crazy by whining to her about all my review insecurities. I firmly believe a writer has to have some sense of his/her readership, but the writer also needs to protect the "creative well." Writing a book, for me at least, is a kind of struggle of faith. If I come to doubt my internal compass, I'll freeze up on the story. Also, dealing with my internal editor is enough of a pain - inviting reviewers into my head as well was courting disaster. By the time the reviews for The Earl were posting, I had already handed in the next book and was beginning work on the book after that. I hope my craft is continually evolving, so the comments on The Earl might not mean anything to the current work. Ultimately, the main audience I have to please is my editor and, to a lesser degree, my agent. I trust them to help me write something that will appeal to my broad market.
It's important to keep in mind that each review is just one person's opinion, and what one reader hates, another reader (or 10) may love. And it is very true that you can't please everyone all the time; it may be true that the best fiction evokes strong emotions - some negative - in readers. I think fiction that pushes the envelope a bit is more likely to get strong reactions. I didn't want to become too afraid of failure - of negative reviews - to continue to push the envelope. The other interesting thing is that readers definitely bring their own experiences to a book. I do think a writer can structure a book to convey one experience of the story, but the story really unfolds in the reader's mind, a mind formed by many previous readings and life experiences. What a reader takes away from a book isn't completely under the writer's control.
All that being said, I have read reviews and taken away interesting kernels from them. One blogger took issue with the way I handled point of view in The Marquis. She didn't like my technique, but I thought it was interesting that she noticed, since it was something I was definitely experimenting with. Some reviewers objected to the mixing of light and dark in The Duke and The Earl, which is a criticism I'm not sure I understand. It doesn't really resonate with me. Some have said, as you suggested, that Richard and the villain in The Duke are over the top. I'm not sure I agree with this either - that an over the top villain is a bad thing. I think some of my readers liked that. But I am experimenting with not having a villain in my next two books.
BOOKTHINK: That's an unusually articulate and well thought out answer. You must be a writer! In any case, I wouldn't say that Richard was over the top so much as near perfectly dark with few if any redeeming qualities - and, actually, I liked the startling, unexpected effect this had on the story. Here's a more specific review question: An observation that came up more than once was that The Naked Duke surprised some readers with its humor. Apparently this doesn't find its way into many romances? Do you enjoy writing humor? I have to say that I put this book down with the feeling that you were a writer either testing the boundaries of the genre or perhaps making preparations of bolting it altogether. Am I wrong?
MACKENZIE: I think there are a number of humorous Regency writers - Julia Quinn and Barbara Metzger are two that spring to mind - and it was largely Georgette Heyer's humor that attracted me to Regency romances in the first place, so I would say humor is well represented in the sub-genre. Perhaps there aren't many writers who mix light and dark humor, though, if that distinction can be made. I do like writing humor, though I didn't approach The Duke thinking to write funny. My editor nudged me in that direction, and I've since embraced it.
Humor is a bit tricky, though. It's a matter of word choice and timing, putting the elements on the page and letting the reader laugh ... or not. It's risky. What one reader will find hilarious, another will think is just stupid. Humor is more idiosyncratic than drama - I think getting people to cry is easier than getting them to laugh. Chances are, if a reader doesn't get my humor, the novel is going to end up flung against a wall. One of the highest compliments I've received was from a reader who told me she laughed so hard at The Marquis, she fell off her couch.
BOOKTHINK: I must tell you that, as a bookseller, I've observed that The Naked Duke has not behaved like most recent mass market paperbacks do in the used marketplace, genre or not. Prices for your second and third books are where they would be expected to be - with used copies selling for pennies. But used copies of The Duke have been selling for as much as they sold for new or more, sometimes considerably more. Over the past three months, for example, a number of copies have sold for $10 to $15 on eBay. Does this surprise you?
MACKENZIE: Well, my family - husband and sons - were quite impressed at the prices used Dukes were going for on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (I just checked Amazon.ca and they are listing a used Duke for CDN$81.18!) Did it surprise me? Just about everything about publishing and bookselling surprises me.
BOOKTHINK: This explanation may bore you, but a CDN$81.18 copy of an MMPB published only 2 years ago is most likely an example of one of two things - either the copy listed was the only one on the venue at the time (and the seller was feeling especially ambitious) or the seller is what we affectionately call a drop-shipper, somebody who doesn't own a copy of the book but lists it at an inflated price hoping to snag an unwitting buyer. When sales occur, the drop-shipper simply orders it from another bookseller and has it shipped to the buyer. What does impress me about The Duke is its unusual price strength compared to its cover price, also its Amazon sales ranking. Was the first print run small?
MACKENZIE: Drop-shippers? Skullduggery on the used book market? I never would have guessed! I think The Duke's print run was respectable - over 45,000 books were shipped. I don't remember if used prices were high from the beginning. I assume - in my ignorance - that readers who missed The Duke the first time around tried to get it the following year after they read The Marquis. I do know readers began writing to me asking where they could find a Duke. It was frustrating, as the book was very hard to find. My publisher was out of copies, and I think the book was listing as OOP at Ingrams for a while. More readers went searching for The Duke after The Earl came out, since the books are all linked. So I thought the high used prices were a situation of supply and demand. About a month ago my publisher finally ran a second printing, so I'm expecting used prices to come down, though they don't appear to have done so yet.
BOOKTHINK: No, they haven't, and given that 45,000 copies were printed in the first run impresses me even more. I just completed an issue on collectible Mystery and Detective fiction for one of our premium newsletters, and - to give you something to compare this to - many of the featured titles, all of which were debut novels published in the last 10 years or so, had print runs well under 10,000 and often 2,000 or less. By comparison, I'd say there's a very robust market for The Duke. Give this another 10 or 20 years, and maybe that Canadian seller will get the asking price! Also, if BookThink's track record is any indication, I suspect that Duke first printings will begin to disappear from book venues immediately after this interview is published.
Sally, you built a life for yourself - raised a family of 4 boys, etc. - that more or less preempted the writing you started earlier in life. If you'd had early success in writing, how would your life likely have played out?
MACKENZIE: It's hard to play "what if" with real life. In the 80s I was writing and submitting children's picture books, so if I had sold then, my career would be very different. And my family would be much less embarrassed!
BOOKTHINK: Yes, and your youngest son wouldn't have had as many educational options! No interview would be complete without a discussion of your writing habits - what time day you write, how many hours, how long it takes to complete a book, whether or not you work from a plan, etc.
MACKENZIE: My writing habits are very much a work in progress. I try to start the day with exercise, either a walk in the park across the street from our house or a trip to the gym. If I have errands to run, I usually do them then, too. I check email - a huge time sink. If the morning is pretty much gone, I'll have an early lunch and then open up the laptop and get down to work. I'll wrestle with the wip (work in progress) for the rest of the day.
My first goal is to figure out who the characters are and what their story is. I usually have a secondary character or two in the current book who will become the main characters in a subsequent book. So part of planning a new story is going back to the older one and looking at it from the new hero or heroine's viewpoint. For example, the hero and heroine of my third book, The Naked Earl, were characters in both The Duke and The Marquis. I knew they would get together in The Earl, but when I sat down to write The Earl, I realized I didn't know why they hadn't gotten together before this. Answering that question revealed a lot about the hero I hadn't known before.
I'll make notations about characters on index cards and do a chart to figure out how old the continuing characters are in the current wip. I'll often write down, in stream of consciousness fashion, thoughts about the characters, how they interrelate, what their histories are, what some of the background to the story is, what might happen in the story. When I actually start to write, I have a vague idea of where I'm going, some idea of who the characters are, maybe a few scenes - and then I let the characters lead me.
My daily writing goal is 5 pages - some days I exceed that and some days I'm happy to get one page done. At the moment, I work on the loveseat in the living room where I can stare out the picture window - which I spend way too much time doing! I'm not certain how long it takes me to write a book. I'm contracted for one a year, and that's about as much as I can do at the moment. Now that the last kid has gone off to college, I'm hoping to become more efficient. It seems like I should be able to do two a year if I would only be more disciplined - and if the rest of my life would cooperate! I do try to get through the book to "the end" a month before it's due. Then I spend the last month revising and polishing so I have a project I'm pretty happy with by the time I send it to my editor.
BOOKTHINK: Would you share how you got your first book published?
MACKENZIE: The Naked Duke was published as a result of a contest - I never submitted it to publishers. I had stopped writing with a view to publication about 8 years earlier, so the manuscript was my first attempt at fiction in a long time.
After I finished one of The Duke's many drafts, a friend suggested I join Romance Writers of America (RWA). After some initial reluctance, I did so and stumbled upon an online group that was beating the bushes for manuscripts to enter in the Regency category of RWA's Golden Heart (GH) contest. If RWA didn't receive 25 entries, it would cancel that category, which had happened in past years. As I think I said earlier, there used to be shorter books that some people referred to as "traditionals" as opposed to Regency historicals. It gets a little complicated, but these "trad" lines were being dropped by NY publishers. The GH Regency category was for this kind of book, which fewer people were writing as the market was drying up.
I had saved our swim team and our Cub Scout Pack, so it was natural for me to respond to the plea to save the Regency category. I edited my manuscript down to the required length and sent it in. As luck would have it, it made the final round, which meant a group of editors got it to judge. One of the editors liked it, got my contact information from RWA, and called to offer me a two-book contract. She wanted the book as an historical, not a "trad," so I had to make it longer again.
BOOKTHINK: Wow. That's not the conventional road to publication, is it? I recall somebody saying once that a romance writer knows she's arrived when a publisher finally issues one of her books in hardback format. True?
MACKENZIE: Gee, I don't know. At this point, I'm not anxious to move to hardback. That format is so expensive. I think you really have to have a very dedicated readership to be successful. As a reader, I know I've waited until a favorite author's hardback went to mass market - or I've gotten it from the library. But yes, if you've got the reader base, it would be cool to go to hardback. I was thrilled when I recently got a copy of The Naked Marquis's Spanish translation. It's a beautiful book - paper, but larger than our trade paperback size, with end flaps and footnotes - and it sells for 14.95 euros! My editor tells me that the Spanish rights for The Duke and The Earl have sold - I'm hoping that means The Marquis sold well and I'll get equally beautiful editions for the other two books.
BOOKTHINK: Ok, final question: Who gets naked in your next book?
My next release is The Naked Gentleman, coming in May 2008. Mr. Parker-Roth, whom readers met in The Naked Earl, is the hero - the heroine is Meg Peterson, who first appeared in The Naked Marquis (she's that heroine's sister) and who meets Mr. Parker-Roth in the Earl.
BOOKTHINK: Best of luck with it, Sally, and thank you for an unusually enlightening interview. With my new knowledge, I'm sure I'll be able to sell romances with the best of them now!
How to Identify Kensington First Printings
Kensington Publishing Corp. (Zebra line) MacKenzie first printings are designated by the statement "First Printing: [month/year]" followed by a number line beginning with "1." Note that in some cases later printings may also display the "First Printing" statement, so don't rely on sellers' assertions of first edition status without confirming that the number line begins with a "1."
Sally MacKenzie writes funny, hot Regency-set historicals for Kensington's Zebra line. Her debut, The Naked Duke (Feb. 2005), sold when the acquiring editor judged the manuscript in Romance Writers of America's 2004 Golden Heart contest, got her contact information from RWA, and called out of the blue with an offer for a two book contract. There are now three other Naked books in print or scheduled - The Naked Marquis (March 2006), The Naked Earl (April 2007), and The Naked Gentleman (May 2008) - and Sally is contracted for three more. The Naked Earl (of which Publishers Weekly said: "Providing plenty of heat and hilarity, MacKenzie has great fun shepherding this boisterous party toward its happy ending; readers will be glad they RSVPed.") hit the Borders/Waldenbooks and the USA Today bestseller lists.
A native Washingtonian (i.e., District of Columbia), law school dropout, former federal regulation writer (Anyone remember ketchup as a vegetable?), and recovering parent volunteer (though she is just starting a two-year stint as president of the local swim league), Sally lives with her husband in suburban Maryland. Two of her four sons have left the nest and the other two are now college students. She's currently hard at work on The Naked Baron.
To find out more about Sally and her books, visit her website.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sally MacKenzie is scheduled to attend the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association fall conference (October 14-15) in Baltimore, where she will be signing copies of The Earl and handing out associated trinkets ("I'm a Naked Reader!" pens and buttons). Don't look for her at the Kensington booth, though she'll probably stop by; instead she'll be at a romance booth some romance authors are putting together.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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