Welcome to the My First Sale series. Each Monday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between. Dona Lea Simpson writes historical romances. Her latest book, Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark, is in stores now.
The business side of romance writing is distinctly unromantic, and definitely a business. So "my first sale’ is really a story of several "first sales’, but among them, two are most important.
I had always wanted to be a writer. My first love was mystery writing, and I wrote and flogged two (Or maybe more? Have I blocked out others?) murder mystery novels with no great response. Around that time I discovered Regency romances. For someone who adored Jane Austen and had read all the works, including the partials and juvenilia, Regency romances were manna. I discovered the wonderful works of Mary Balogh and Jo Beverley, among many other gifted authors.
Something about the novels felt right to me. So- I set out to write one and-‘surprise, surprise-‘found out I could do it! I took what had begun as a historical mystery and "re-imagined’ it as a romance. Now- what to do with the finished product? I knew nothing, nada, zero, zip about the romance publishing industry. All my time and (pre-internet) research had been spent on how to market a murder mystery. But in the back of my monthly bible, Writer’s Digest, I found an advertisement for a publisher looking for romance novel manuscripts. Perfect, right?
The problem was, the publisher was called Rubenesque Romances and the heroine had to be a Rubenesque woman (a lady of size, y’see), so what’s a writer to do, when she has created a little gray sparrow of a lady for her romance heroine? I did what any writer who longed to be published would do, I recreated the heroine in my own image as a zaftig kind of gal. I sent it in, and I wish I could say I just forgot about it and went on with my work, but no, I anxiously waited. Joanne Morse, editor/publisher of Rubenesque Romances, wrote back and said she loved it and wanted to publish it.
I was ecstatic, as you can well imagine. I won’t go into the comedy of errors that was the publication of The Absentee Heart, but I remember it fondly as a happy time. Joanne was a pioneer in plus size romance novels, because no one else could imagine readers would be interested in heroines who were so out of the norm.
But I knew I wanted more. I wanted a bigger publisher, pardon the pun, and I was already writing another Regency, since the first one had flowed so beautifully from my pen. (Yup, pen.) Now, here’s where my publishing secret weapon comes into play. I’m a gutless wonder to some extent. I’m a little (read: overwhelmingly) shy sometimes, especially when it comes to the telephone. I would never have the nerve to phone a New York publisher to ask about submitting a manuscript for consideration. That’s just not how you do it, right?
Well, enter Mickey Simpson (Mick) my sister and a historian and writer in her own right before me. She’s gutsy, a trait you have to possess in spades to be a freelance writer, which she was, as well as, at the time, an aspiring author. There were two main publishers publishing Regency romance in 1998, Signet and Zebra. Signet editors were not reading manuscripts from unagented authors, but we couldn’t establish whether Kensington Zebra was or not.
So- my forthright sister phoned the publisher of Kensington Books, said she was me, and asked if "I’ could send in a Regency romance for consideration.
The publisher! Mr. Steven Zacharius is a very nice man, by the way. I still don’t know how Mick got through to him. I mean, you don’t just phone up the head guy and say, "So, hey, Stevie, can I shoot a manuscript your way?"
But the secret words were that I was a "previously published author, published by a New York publishing company’. Might as well have been "Open Sesame’. Rubenesque Romances was situated, at that time, in Tarrytown, but that’s New York, right? Okay, so it’s a tiny suburb of New York, but it’s still New York. Mr. Zacharius responded by saying to my irresistible sister, "Well, I don’t usually do this, but here’s the name of our editor in charge of the Regency imprint. Send the whole manuscript to him."
So in the cover letter accompanying the proposal we were able to say, "Mr. Steven Zacharius suggested I send this synopsis and manuscript to you’, we sent it off to John Scognamiglio, and on January 11th, 1999 (wow, ten years ago) Mick got an email in my name. I didn’t have the internet on my computer, and in the dark days of dial-up, the internet tied up your phone line. The email said, "I’ve been trying to get a hold of you but your line is tied up. Could you phone me? John Scognamiglio."
Well, I was afraid to hope. Mick, the optimist, said, "He wouldn’t want you to call him just for a rejection, right?" So I called, (this time it was really me, light-headed and sweating profusely) and the next few minutes were a blur- something about publishing Lord St. Claire’s Angel, a contract and an advance- money? US dollars! They were going to pay me up front for the book?
After I hung up-‘I think I probably mumbled a "yes’ in there somewhere-‘my sister and I did the happy dance, the tears, hugs all around and even, yes, champagne.
So that’s my tale of two first sales, and how getting published is sometimes step by step up a ladder, even if the first rung is a little wobbly and precarious, and the second one seems a long ways up.
Donna Lea Simpson is celebrating the start of a new historical romance mystery series with Sourcebooks, beginning with Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark – April 2009. Find her online at http://www.donnaleasimpson.com