Interview with Donna Alward, author of 23 books and two-time winner of the Bookseller’s Best Award

Okay, everybody! It’s time to introduce our first author in our Author and Editor Interview Series here at The Literary Mom! Today’s author is one who is published through a large publishing house. Her twenty-third book will be out in November and she’s a two-time winner of the Bookseller’s Best Award. Please give a warm welcome to Harlequin author Donna Alward!

Donna Alward-Marti Corn Photography

Thank you so much, Donna, for agreeing to do this interview! Now, on to the questions.Me: How did you become a published author? How did break into the publishing business and what processes did you go through (querying, pitching, conferences, etc). Did you get “the call?” What was that like? How long did you write before you became published?

Donna: I wrote for nearly five years before I sold my first manuscript. And they were a busy five years – we’re talking 2 very small children at home, a husband working shift work and writing time at a premium. I wrote ten manuscripts during that time, each one a bit better than the last.  At the time, I didn’t belong to RWA, had never been to a conference, nothing. I did however know that the sort of book I was writing would be geared for Harlequin. At the time, E-publishers were more of an idea than a big thing. This was 2001-2006. That part of the biz was just coming into existence. But I DID belong to the eharlequin community, and the other writers and already published authors there helped me learn what I needed to know – both about writing and about the process of submitting. I was truly a slush pile author. I submitted, got rejected, and repeated the process until it stuck.

Around 2005 I started getting more requests though and in the spring of 2006 I sold 2 manuscripts to a brand new publisher. You may have heard of them – Samhain Publishing. J It’s exciting to see how much they have grown in the past 6+ years.  That offer came via e-mail.  I remember doing the school walk that morning and beaming the whole way because I was going to be a published author! Shortly after that I got a request for revisions from Harlequin. I sent them in and went on holiday with my family. We were at my inlaws (we’d travelled home to visit our extended families) when I checked my e-mail to find 2 rather urgent sounding messages from the editor I’d been working with. Freaking out, I called the office as she requested. She said she’d call me back and I officially got The Call that Friday afternoon.  We celebrated that night by playing canasta with my husband’s parents and popping some rather cheap champagne. I went from unpublished to selling four manuscripts that year.

Me: Tell us what a day for you is like, in terms of writing. What’s your schedule like? Where do you write? Do you have any weird quirks or habits?

Donna: I get up, get everyone off to work/school, walk the dog, and hopefully come home to peace and quiet. I used to write with music, I think because when we lived in the city it drowned out the city noises like traffic and voices – we were on a fairly busy street. Now I like silence to keep the focus. I work until about 2:30 or 3 – depending on what’s going on with school activities. From 3-5 I usually end up doing household chores and being the chauffeur for whatever is going on with the kids at the time. After that everyone is home and I find I do need some downtime in the evening to keep my brain from frying, so I guard that 9-2:30 time slot big time.

Quirks…habits… I find I get a lot more done using #1k1hr on twitter. I’m far more productive. I’m a list maker so I like making up my morning list and crossing things off it. I like a neat workspace, so my desk might be slightly messy but it won’t be out of control. There may be 2 stacks of papers but they will be neat stacks and probably organized, waiting for me to deal with them. I think I sound pretty boring when it comes down to it! But I find I like order in my Real Life because it balances out the chaos of my creativity!

Me: Tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be a Harlequin author. What is it like working with Harlequin? What is their publishing process like? What do you like best about working with them? What is the hardest thing about working with them, if anything?

Donna: Being a Harlequin author is way cool. I love working with them. I am edited out of the London office, and I have a fantastic editor.  The process, at least for me, goes something like this: write book, submit book, revise book (and maybe repeat this step, though hopefully not), do the art fact sheet (AFS), breathe sigh of relief when it is accepted. Then I get a chance to look at it again after it’s been through copyediting, and then there’s the wait for the cover – usually 3 months before the book is set to release. Release dates are generally 6-9 months after acceptance.

There are a lot of “best” things to working with them. They have fantastic distribution, for one, and a built in readership for series lines. And I’ve felt very supported – when people say that HQ doesn’t buy a single book but buys an author, they are right.  They are looking to build careers. Some fantastic opportunities to build my readership have come my way through Harlequin, things like online reads, special projects and reprints.  The hardest thing about working with them? With series books the shelf life is only a month long, but really we all know that going into it, right? And if you look at my book list, you can see I write mostly contemporary westerns for them. There’s a very good reason for that (to do with branding, reader expectation and building my readership), and being a farm girl I do love writing my cowboys and ranchers, but every now and then a girl likes to get off the farm. Which leads us right into your next question…

Me: I know you also have books out through Samhain Publishing, an E-Book publisher. In what ways are their publishing processes different from Harlequin’s? How are they similar? What do you like about working with an E-book publisher?

Donna: The publishing process is actually quite different. I submit a book and then get the yea or nay from my editor, and a contract. I’ve only ever done single book contracts with Samhain.  It won’t be until later that I get edits – and unlike my revisions at Harlequin, these are done with Track Changes in Word. I’ll go through a few rounds of these, and then once more when the copy edits are done, and then I’ll have a last chance to pick up on errors etc. during Final Line Edits.  I will have done an art fact sheet etc. probably even before edits.  I do get to see the cover art and have some input at that time – for example with Sold to the Highest Bidder I loved the art but wasn’t crazy about the font, and they adjusted it to something I liked much better.

It used to be that the time from sale to release was really short, but lately it’s about as long as it is with Harlequin. My next two Samhain releases are about 10 months after acceptance to release.

There are lots of reasons why I’ve liked working with them, too. The different style of editing brings different issues to my attention, so I think both styles help me improve as a writer. I do get to write different stories – same sort of heartwarming, emotional read but with a different twist and different lengths – my latest project was a trilogy of novellas about First Responders.  And many times having a Samhain release has filled a gap between HQ releases, and I think it also gives me visibility in perhaps a slightly different demographic of readership.  The royalty payout is more frequent – monthly as opposed to biannually. And it is about 9 months after the ebook releases until the print version. If  I could change anything, I’d probably want that gap to be a little shorter.

Me: I’m planning to cover small presses and self-publishing in addition to large publishing houses and E-Book publishers. Do you have any thoughts/ideas on these other forms of publishing? Would you have considered any of them if you hadn’t become a Harlequin author?

Donna: Looking at small press and self-pubbing as a new author is, in my opinion, very different than looking at is as someone with a backlist and readership behind them. I probably would have considered them, but again, in my opinion, the problem debut authors with small press or self-publishing have to face is that of discoverability. It’s an issue that faces us ALL but I think is even more of a challenge for someone who is starting from square one in building their readership. Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant success stories but there is a lot of hard work involved.

Would I consider it now? I would and have. I’ve even gone through older manuscripts – some being proposals I started in the last few years that didn’t fly for one reason or another – to see if they could be revised and fixed so I could dip my toes in the self-publishing waters. I’ve seen a lot of friends benefit from blending their traditionally published careers with self-publishing.  Never say never, I say. J But as of right now – I  don’t have anything of a high enough quality to put out there, and no room in my current writing schedule to really work on something new.

Me: Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for my readers hoping to publish a book? If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were just starting out, before you had any success, what would you say?

Donna: This is such a good question. I have no regrets. I made a few mistakes and learned from them. But I think I did a lot of things right too.  Look, there seems to be an urgency right now that if you don’t have something out there you’re somehow missing the boat.  I have felt it myself and last year it created a lot of pressure until I decided to just let it go (and note – I’ve been far more productive since).  If I have one HUGE caution about self-publishing it’s that you have to make sure that your work is ready.  Be patient. If your work is rejected this is not an indication that you should turn around and put it up on amazon. When I was submitting, a rejection was a rejection full stop. Now writers have options. But just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, either, but the last thing you want to do is put out material that is substandard because you need to wow readers and build a readership. You have to think of the big picture and not just the right now.  It’s not enough to be published but you need to do it right.  Looking back I’d remind myself to have patience. To look at the end goal and dig in for the long haul. And truthfully – one of the best things I did during that five years was turn down a contract for a book that wasn’t ready. It certainly wasn’t a book to launch a career upon.

That’s kind of a bit of tough love, I know, and a very tall order.  Patience is hard.  But I would tell myself that patience and persistence will pay off. It will happen when it’s the right time.

And finally, I’d remind myself to just enjoy the writing. Enjoy creating characters and different worlds, to go ahead and laugh and cry with it.  Because if you’re not enjoying it, it’s truly not worth it. Not only will it show in your writing, but the ultimate goal is happiness.  When it’s all said and done, I do this because it makes me happy.

Me: Thanks so much for being here today, and for providing such thoughtful and insightful answers.

Donna: Thanks for the interview!

You can find Donna’s website here, her blog here, and you can buy her books here!


8 thoughts on “Interview with Donna Alward, author of 23 books and two-time winner of the Bookseller’s Best Award

  1. Great interview! And really great advice about being patient, which can be so hard. Donna, your books certainly show that you place a lot of emphasis on the quality of your writing.

  2. Enjoyed your interview Donna. Were the 10 stories you wrote before you sold to HR, all targeted to HR? Or were they for different publishers?

  3. Interesting article! Full of practical information some of us do not know, or do not have access to. I also liked her comment about keeping her work space fairly orderly in order to “balance out the chaos in creativity”. I always wondered why I needed to do that!

  4. I had a big ol’ response here and WP made it go poof! Argh! OK here goes again: first of all hello to Rhonda, Paula and Nannette!

    Anne, you asked about where my stories were targeted. For the first half-dozen or so, I knew they were meant for HQ but didn’t know which line in particular. I was SOOOOO green. I submitted to LOTS of different lines. The problem was I hadn’t found my voice, and so much of where someone’s writing fits within series is about voice. Around book 4 it started to come through…that unique way I have of writing, the core stories I seem to tell, etc. By book six or so, I realized that where I FIT was the Romance line. Once I realized that, things started to move quicker. I got more requests and personalized feedback – my voice and my writing in general was getting stronger as I went along, and now I knew WHERE I should be sending it so I could also focus my stories better to line characteristics.

    It’s okay though, because I had to write all those other ones first to figure it out and get my writing to a point where it became clear.

    Great question!


  5. Thanks for stopping by, Traci!

    Jennifer – speaking of congrats, how awesome have the last few weeks been for YOU? Congrats on your best-seller status! The web’s been buzzing with it. 🙂


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