Susan Wiggs is a best-selling romance writer. The publishing business is struggling yet she’s sold almost 30 million books. In this interview, Wiggs discusses her secrets to success.
Susan was a math teacher before turning to writing to full-time. She shares her advice to people who want to break into the book publishing industry. In conjunction with the release of her new book, she is sponsoring a contest to win a trip for two to a Sonoma, California resort. She explains how YOU can get in on this. Find out more about Susan Wiggs at www.susanwiggs.com.
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Start of Interview with Susan Wiggs
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Susan Wiggs to the show. She is a bestselling romance writer. And when I say bestselling, I’m not kidding. In the world today, we have so many books being published, people are just inundated. But she has sold almost 30 million books. That is a huge, huge number in today’s world. Susan, welcome. How are you?
Susan Wiggs: I’m fine, thank you. And I was pretty confused when I first learned that I would get to be chatting with you because I thought, wow, I’m a romance writer. I know nothing of wealth. But then I realized actually, you know, I’m such a fiction writer and I love that I get to talk about this particular book – it’s called The Apple Orchard – and I love that I get to because it’s about an estate in Sonoma, California that is on the verge of bankruptcy. And so your topic would be timely for my fictional characters.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, well fantastic, fantastic. And I’m a hopeless romantic. So let’s jump into this. So, first of all, 30 million books, Susan, congratulations. That is an amazing accomplishment.
Susan Wiggs: It makes me wonder if that’s fiction as well, but judging by the feedback that I get from readers, maybe there are that many.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, exactly. Now, how many books is that? What’s the number of titles?
Susan Wiggs: Oh gosh, Jason, honestly, I quit counting after like 30 because it was starting to make me feel old and like a drone, like a life support system for a novel writer. So, yeah, in the 30s I would say – 30s or maybe 40s now.
Jason Hartman: So maybe each book on average slightly under a million copies sold, I mean if you average them out.
Susan Wiggs: Of course the earlier ones sold fewer copies than the later ones because it sort of snowballs and that’s one of the great things about a writing career that lasts. I sold my first novel in 1986, so it’s really nice to have that kind of momentum. And it’s all the readers – I give it to the readers. They have been loyal, they stuck by me even when I’ve had to switch publishers and make changes in my business and so forth, it’s really the readers that are the common denominator here. They are voracious and they’re loyal and they love to talk books – and word of mouth is everything.
Jason Hartman: Uh huh. And that actually brings up a good question – do all 40 or so of your titles appear to the same reader? Or are there different sets of readers or is it your certain base of readers that wants to buy every new book you write?
Susan Wiggs: Oh, I love that question, Jason. I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that. Well, see, The Apple Orchard, which is the new one, is what in publishing is called a mainstream book meaning it’s not so categorized by the romance genre, whereas in the past I’ve written historical romances which have the bodice ripper covers and they’re very targeted to a particular reader. So a mainframe book like The Apple Orchard has the broadest appeal, but under that there are subsets. There are readers who only want to read a romance and there are readers who won’t read a romance but they want to read a big juicy novel. And so there’s some crossover I would say. There’s overlapping and I love that because I have like overlapping interest as a writer. I’m a hopeless romantic like you and so I do want to write this amazing Downton Abbey costume drama, right, and then I also have this side that is really preoccupied with home and family and all the issues that fill a woman’s life.
And I do have to say most of my readers are women. I think most readers in general are women. I think when you look at statistics, you find that the majority of books are bought by women. I’m not sure about who reads them but most of them are women.
Jason Hartman: That’s interesting. I didn’t know on the whole – I mean certainly for romance novels I would definitely say it’s a female genre, but in general when you put in all the business books and so forth, yeah, you’re probably right even nowadays because women are filling the business schools, so the world is definitely changing. So, I mean, 30 million books in an era when the publishing industry is trying to figure out what it is and what it’s gonna do…
Susan Wiggs: There have been scary times for publishing just because it’s a good time to be a reader I think because you can find anything out there and you can find it in 10 seconds for your iPad or your kindle or whatever. For publishers and authors, it’s a little trickier because you don’t have control of your own industry basically. So it’s kind of good news, bad news. But my publisher has a lot of talent there in terms of the editorial staff and the marketing staff and the sales. So they focus very much on individual authors and what they bring and the unique voice of each author. And so one thing about especially loyal readers is they can’t be hoodwinked. You have to be good or they won’t sit still for you, you know. And so my publisher really pushes me to write the best book I can every time.
And I think quality control is tantamount nowadays. An independently published book might have to cut corners and might not have the editorial and marketing support that a commercially published book would have. So I have that advantage and the actual making of the book has become more and more of a fine art. And because I think people at my publisher feel like if somebody throws down for a hardcover book, they should get something pretty special. So The Apple Orchard features this really beautiful like end paper stuff in the very beginning and it has epigraph pages with special apple recipes and they try to make it seem more of a collector’s item or something like that.
Jason Hartman: Right, right. More of an experience for sure than just being a book.
Susan Wiggs: You’re right. They’re looking for new ways, new outlets, new ways to keep their readers happy, so hopefully it worked.
Jason Hartman: With your very first book, did you have a publisher right away? I mean, that’s back in the 80s so it was unusual to self-publish back then.
Susan Wiggs: No. I took the route most working writers take. We always hear the big splashy overnight sensation stories in publishing because they’re much more exciting but I think it’s more common for an author to possibly stumble and try writing and shift gears and it didn’t work and so it’s very much, you know. So I wrote two complete books and part of a third before I got any interest from a publisher at all and then I had literally hundreds of rejections. So it wasn’t just an overnight thing. And then when the book was published, I wasn’t as the movies love to portray – I wasn’t an instant bestseller. I kind of had to work my way into that which makes sense. You know, publishers can’t simply put fairy dust on a book and throw it out there and have people automatically embrace it. So it’s a process and luckily it’s a process in a business that I love. I really do. I’m passionate about it.
Jason Hartman: Yeah. Well, that definitely just comes through in your voice – no question about it. So I’m sure everybody wants to know and they ask you what is your secret of success. And that’s such a cliché but there must be something. You alluded to a couple of things – having a publisher, editing support, marketing support of course, the quality of the writing, your publisher pushes you to write quality stuff – but when it comes to romance novels – and I don’t know this, I don’t think I’ve really ever read one – but is there a formula? You see these authors like yourself, like the other famous authors, people say – and I don’t know because I’m not a connoisseur of their books – but people say they’re formulaic. Once they get the formula, then they just keep going with it and they insert new content into it. Is it true? Is there really…
Susan Wiggs: That sounds more like a template or a recipe.
Jason Hartman: I don’t mean to minimize it when I say that.
Susan Wiggs: I do and I definitely heard that, and my response when I hear that is always I wish.
Jason Hartman: You wish it were that easy.
Susan Wiggs: Because it’s darn hard and I would love for it to be easier, as easy as plugging something into a formula. But, unfortunately, it’s just every book is unique. It’s very nuanced. It’s like an artist who paints the same scene over and over again, there are certain elements that are common to it but it will always be different. It will always be something created in that moment and people change, writers change, nothing stands still. So, unfortunately for me, there isn’t a magic formula as much as I would love that. But I think probably…Well, there’s a couple of secrets of success. And one of them is something that I would wish for every person and that is to have the parenting that I had as a kid. I mean my parents were just all about their kids. They were all about books and reading. My mother actually used to take down my dictation when I was a toddler. I would tell her stories and she would write them down. And I would scribble my illustrations and well…I grew up thinking, well, that’s great. That’s how parenting is done. When I became an adult, I was a teacher for a number of years and it came as a rude awakening to me but not every parent embraced that or had the skills and caring that my own parents had. So they really fostered that. So that’s one thing. But in terms of day to day and what I do for myself is the short answer to that is I hustle every single day. I keep my promises, I do my best work, I work hard at my craft, I don’t take anything for granted and, as you said, I cultivate professional associations that keep my career vibrant and alive I guess.
Jason Hartman: Well, it’s the business side but everyone wants to think – and I think you would agree – that the writing side is a creative side. I mean, can anybody be a good writer?
Susan Wiggs: Yeah. Anybody can, and that’s kind of one reason that we’re so inundated with ideas. The thing is everybody can write but not everybody will sit down and write a book. A book takes months and years. It’s 120,000 words. It’s sort of like building a house all by yourself from scratch. And it’s not for the faint at heart or for people who lack concentration or will or something like that. I know many, many writers who can sit down and bang out 17 awesome pages of a story. But where are the other 500? And when emerging writers come to me and they want advice on writing, I often will tell them “Well, go finish writing your book and then bring it back to me and then we’ll have a conversation. And 99.9% of them never come back to me. I can think of actually 2 writers who said that to me and then came back to me with a finished book and went on to become published authors. But I’m talking about hundreds of people who I’ve heard that problem. And it’s no indictment of people. It’s simply that reading is such a pleasurable, wonderful, flowing activity that it feels like the writing should go the same way, you know what I mean? When you sit down and read a book and get swept up in the story, it feels like you’re part of something. It’s amazing. And that’s what really drew me to writing.
And I was the same way when I first got started. I thought oh my gosh, I love reading, I love storytelling, I’m good, I have some skills, and I’m just gonna sit down and do it. And it was really a learning process for me to learn this craft. So my long-winded answer is definitely coming to a conclusion, but yeah, it’s harder than it looks but it’s supposed to look easy. A really good novel should look effortless. I want people to sit down with The Apple Orchard and just sink into it and forget the world.
Jason Hartman: So do you have a certain style of writing? I mean what do you call your style?
Susan Wiggs: I like my style to be…I would call it very accessible, like having an interesting, more grammatical conversation with a girlfriend I suppose with fewer hesitations and repetitions and things like that because one of the many nice things about writing is you get to rewrite. So you can hone your prose a little bit better than the spoken word.
Jason Hartman: Have you done any or considered doing any movie deals with any of your books?
Susan Wiggs: I have had material that’s been optioned. And you probably know what that means but, for your listeners, it means a production company will pay you for the exclusive right to develop a property, a book, and that’s happened several times for me, but just because they option it doesn’t mean it’s going to be made into a movie. It just means they get the exclusive right to do it for a set amount of time. And what happens in my case is the time runs out and then the movie doesn’t get made. But, in the meantime, it’s a little income stream for the writer, so I don’t sniff at it. I would love it if somebody would make a movie. I have the main character of The Apple Orchard all picked out. The minute I saw Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark Thirty I thought, wow, that’s who I was thinking of and I didn’t even know she existed. I needed some sort of really kind of hard-edged smart but emotionally this redhead.
Jason Hartman: Uh huh, right, right.
Susan Wiggs: And it doesn’t occur that she looks like Jessica Chastain, so yes. So she’s in my mind, so as readers are reading along I hope that they’ll kind of picture someone like that.
Jason Hartman: And a quick search of Audible shows many books on Audible in audio format. How do you do and how do you like the audio format of your books?
Susan Wiggs: I love them. To me, it’s such a brilliant art form and it’s the only way that I read my published books. Because after a book is published, I’ve looked at it so much that I want to hit myself in the head with a hammer, and so I never read my finished book.
Jason Hartman: And you don’t narrate any of them, right?
Susan Wiggs: No, I don’t. I’m not a voice talent as you can probably hear from my voice, not an actress. The professional productions I think they’re just stellar. And there’s something that a really good actor, a really good narrator can bring to the text that’s like nothing else. So, what I love is when I get my audio book in the mail or on my iPad or whatever and I get to hear somebody’s interpretation of my work. It’s really awesome, I love it.
Jason Hartman: Do they follow it exactly or do you sometimes notice…
Susan Wiggs: There are two editions. One is an abridgment, meaning it’s a shorter version and it’s about 60% of the story and then there’s the unabridged edition which is word for word exactly what I wrote. And I actually like them both. Sometimes people don’t have 22 hours to listen to an audiobook.
Jason Hartman: I couldn’t agree more. And I find that nowadays hardly any of the audios are abridged. I wish more of them were. But I think they pretty much think they can sell them for more money if they’re longer, number 1, number 2, they’re in digital format so the bandwidth is almost free. And, number 3, abridging them is another task the author has to go through and cut it up and decide what to cut out.
Susan Wiggs: Yeah, my audio publisher does the abridgment but I have to read it to make sure that there’s not any giant gaps that are gonna make listeners be confused or something like that. So you’re right, it is an extra step there.
Jason Hartman: Yeah. Sure, sure. Well, anything else you’d like people to know in terms of advice that you have? I mean you were a math teacher.
Susan Wiggs: I was. I was, and I was a good one, too. I was very good.
Jason Hartman: So you were a good math teacher. What grade?
Susan Wiggs: Mostly 5th grade but I had some shorter stints in some other grades, but I really loved the 5th grade. And I think that novel writing, you have to access both sides of your brain, the logical step by step side which is the mathematical side as well as the creative whimsical side as well. So I have a feeling that I might have like both sides that are equally involved when I’m writing a novel. And, in conclusion, I would love to invite your readers to visit my webpage, SusanWiggs.com, and that’s where they can hook up with me on Facebook or on Twitter and see some articles and join my mailing list and that sort of thing. I would love to hear from your listeners.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, that’d be great. Well, I’m sure they will be in touch with you. Tell us a little bit about this contest that you’re doing.
Susan Wiggs: Oh my gosh, I forgot. I’m such a bad promoter.
Jason Hartman: Pretty innovative, yeah.
Susan Wiggs: My awesome publisher is giving away a trip for 2 to Sonoma, and sadly it’s limited to US and Canadian residents and it’s a drawing that’s gonna take place I believe on or about May 1st. And the details are on my website, SusanWiggs.com and the prize is amazing. You get airfare for 2, round trip. You get a car, a rental car. You get a stay at the Fairmont Sonoma, which is an amazing boutique style, mission style inn. There’s a hot air balloon ride, a tasting at Benziger Winery and one at Imagery Winery and a couple other things. And then they’re also giving away some secondary prizes. They’re giving away sets of my books and an iPad 2, so yeah, definitely tell your listeners to go check that out. And sooner rather than later, because I do believe the drawing is next week.
Jason Hartman: One last quick area I’d like you to cover, Susan, and that is you talked or alluded to at least kind of the discipline of writing. And maybe to ask you about you about your typical day, any of the methods that you use, when you write are you actually typing into a computer? I had an ex-girlfriend who claimed to be a writer, like so many people, and she liked to write freehand just because…
Susan Wiggs: Yeah, that’s how I write as well. And it’s not the most efficient, and I have tried to type directly onto the laptop, but it doesn’t really work for me. And so I still write my first draft in longhand and it’s in a big spiral bound notebook with a certain kind of paper – I’m a little bit picky. And what I used to do is I use to type that up and then edit it on screen. But what I do now instead of typing is I dictate with dictation software. That really has streamlined my process.
Jason Hartman: Do you use Dragon?
Susan Wiggs: I do. And the latest Dragon Naturally Speaking, I think it’s like Dragon #12 or something like that, it’s very accurate and very intuitive. So I’m a fan. Yeah, I’m a fan and I can’t dictate directly because I hesitate when I speak and I backtrack and I have a lot of ums and ohs and just things like that. So I’m not a good dictator of cold text, but I can read my work with fluency into the software and the software really likes that.
Jason Hartman: It’s interesting that you use the software rather than an actual person to take your transcript down.
Susan Wiggs: I tried using somebody, but you know what I discover, Jason, is that I tend to do some revisions while I’m transcribing. I’ll be reading along and I’ll realize that what I’m reading isn’t working or needs work and I’ll make notes to myself and that sort of thing. And so that step was missing when somebody else was doing it. And also my drafts kind of jump around like I have strange code where I have to jump ahead a few pages and capture what I’ve done there and so it would just be crazy making to somebody who’s not inside my head. So I have to do it that way, but it’s a process I really love.
Jason Hartman: Do you recommend that people, aspiring writers or working writers now that want to be better, that they dedicate a certain time of day that they keep office hours if you will?
Susan Wiggs: I think not so much office hours as consistency. And for some people that means getting up an hour earlier than the family or staying up an hour later and so I think depending on everybody’s personal schedule, they have to find what works. When I first got started, I had a beautiful baby girl and so I just tended to set my alarm an hour earlier and I did stay up late at night and I think I missed all of the TV shows of the 80s cuz I was either teaching, raising a baby or writing a book. So in my case I just made writing a priority, so I think maybe the takeaway from this would be make it a priority – you make time for what’s important to you.
Jason Hartman: And where do your ideas come from? Do they come from real life experiences? Or are you creating your characters and your story plots just out of…
Susan Wiggs: They come from all over. The inspiration for The Apple Orchard was very specific, yet often it’s not. It’s just the feeling that I have or an urge. But The Apple Orchard came to me when I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. which is a very haunting and incredible exhibit. And there was this little wooden boat and nobody was looking at it. It was like this kind of dark, shadowy exhibit and it said it was part of the Helsingor Sewing Club. And I went “Helsingor Sewing Club?” And I learned that Helsingor was Danish for Elsinore where Hamlet took place. So that kind of glued it into my mind. I was already hooked by that and then, as it turned out, at the time of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, there were approximately 5000 Jews in Denmark and the Danish underground saved about 4500 of them which is a huge accomplishment. And what they did with a lot of them is they just varied them across this little narrow like one mile straight to Sweden which was neutral. And that was it. And then a lot would migrate to America. So that’s the backstory. It’s a contemporary novel, but the characters in the novel have to go and research the past and find out what really happened with their grandfather who came from Denmark and the lost art treasure and that sort of thing. So this was a book that had a really specific moment where I said, boy, I want to write about that. I am intrigued by that. I am excited by that.
Jason Hartman: Very good, very good. Well, Susan Wiggs, thank you so much for sharing and giving and just helping people and telling them how they can become more successful at writing or get into the business, whatever, math teacher. We only hear that you were an English teacher, not math teacher.
Susan Wiggs: No, no. I was an English dreamer, but I would never dream of being able to grade somebody’s story because I love everybody’s story. Everybody gets As!
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well, Susan Wiggs, thanks so much for joining us today.
Susan Wiggs: You’re very welcome.
Narrator: This show is produced by The Hartman Media Company, all rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights and media interviews, please visit www.HartmanMedia.com or email [email protected] Nothing on this show should be considered specific personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate or business professional for individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc. exclusively. (Image: Flickr |
Transcribed by Ralph
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