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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!


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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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