Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Take 3 . . . with Bertrice Small

I discovered Bertrice Small when I joined the Literary Guild as a teenager. One of the books I bought with my new membership was All the Sweet Tomorrows, an historical romance about an Irishwoman named Skye O'Malley. Even though I'd missed the first book in the series (but not for long), All the Sweet Tomorrows was not a disappointment. It was steeped in Elizabethan history, it was explicitly sensual, and it featured a strong-willed, independent woman. Perfect reading for a hormonal 15-year-old. In fact, Bertrice Small helped me realize two things: that I wanted to write about history, and that I wanted to work in book publishing.

Bertrice Small is still steaming up the romance market, such as with her upcoming The Captive Heart, winning a lot of acclaim along the way. She is a New York Times best-selling author and the recipient of the Romantic Times Lifetime Achievment Award, among others. She graciously took time to answer three of my questions:

1. You've written about so many interesting and memorable heroes and heroines. Do you have a method for developing fictional characters, and which one of your heroes would you want to meet for lunch?

BS: My characters just come to me. And when they do, I begin to consider who they really are, and then I develop a history for them. With actual historical personages, reading their known history can give you a very good insight into who they are/were. For me there really is no methodology for building characters. They really create themselves if you will open your mind and listen.

2. Could you share the story of your first sale--how long did it take to finish, did your agent shop it around for very long, and did you splurge on anything frivolous with that first advance?

BS: My first sale was in February of 1973. The book was The Kadin [pronounced kah-DEEN]. The publisher who first bought it was G. P. Putnam's Sons in New York City. Unfortunately the young editor got into a firefight several months later with the publisher, and he fired her. She retaliated by taking all her files down to the furnace room of the office building, and burning them. He struck back by cancelling the contracts on the 3 books she had bought and was working on. I was one of those books. However I chose not to accept this turn of events. I called the publisher, and thanks to his sympathetic secretary actually got to talk to him. He said he was given to understand I was a new mother. (Our son, Thomas, had been born the month after I sold the book) I said yes I was a new mother. He replied that his advice to me would be to forget this whole "book business," and be a good mother to my son. I told him writing would make me no less of a good mother, and that I would be in publishing long after he was gone.

I told my then agent, a lovely man, to take the book to Nancy Coffey at Avon Books. But he felt it should be a hard cover, and shopped it around for the next 2 years until finally he agreed to take it to Avon. Nancy Coffey bought it within a month; it was published in February of 1978, five years after it had first been sold. I am one of the original authors known as the "Avon Ladies" who started the revival of the romance genre. And the publisher who told me to give it all up? Well, several years later G. P. Putnam's Sons was sold to a big conglomerate, and he ended up practicing family law in New Jersey. And 30 years later I'm still here, and thankfully going strong. As for that first advance - which I got to keep - all my early advances were used for practical items like bills and shoes for that growing boy.

3. Your career spans decades. Please describe something that's changed in publishing--for good or ill--since you started.

BS: A great deal has changed in 30 years. In the beginning it was historicals and series books. Now the Romance genre has at least a dozen subgenres. Readers from the beginning have been fantastically loyal. But today publishing isn't nearly as generous as it formerly was with regard to promotion and publicity; and if a newbie doesn't perform up to expectations immediately, she isn't given time to grow. The price of books has gone up so much that it has spawned a secondhand market that hurts authors' sales because only the books shipped by the publisher show up as sales. Secondhand sales don't show up, so many readers bound by budgets wait for their favorite author to be sold secondhand. Then the publisher thinks the author isn't selling well anymore, and the author is paid less for the next book, or worse, not given a new contract. It's a very tough business now for everyone involved.

Publishing houses are, with few exceptions, owned by giant conglomerates who want a profitable bottom line. Readers who used to "vet" incoming manuscripts rarely exist in publishing houses. There are fewer and fewer editors. Copy and line editing is farmed out to freelance people who have no vested interest in a book's success. And covers are now computer-generated instead of being painted by wonderful cover artists like Elaine Duillo, Tom Hall, and Robert McGinnis. Yes indeed, a lot has changed in 30 years. Whether it is good or bad I may have an opinion, but I'm not really in a position to judge. What I do know is that the genre continues to grow and to thrive, and has since 1972 when Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's book The Flame and the Flower burst upon us. And that's good enough for me.

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