In this 5 On interview, Anna Schmidt discusses how she became a romance novelist, the nearly accidental way she acquired her current literary agent, her journey from successful romance novelist to self-published literary novelist, and more.
Under the pen name Anna Schmidt (@annaschmidt70), Jo Schmidt has written over thirty novels that have collectively sold over half a million copies. She is also the author of Parkinson’s Disease for Dummies and several books on eldercare published by AARP. Her latest novel, The Winterkeeper (March 2019), is her first literary fiction release.
A former marketing and communications professional for two international corporations who has also taught at the college level and run a mom-and-pop adult daycare business with her husband, Jo is now retired and focused only on writing. She splits her time between Wisconsin and Florida.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: Your writing career began after you received a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the National Endowment for the Arts to write a play about Holocaust survivors.
What, specifically, motivated you to write that story—and, too, to write it as a play, something to be performed and viewed more than read?
ANNA SCHMIDT: I have a masters in theater arts, so the foundation was there. On top of that when I write novels, I see them as plays or films—characters on a stage, moving around. I have always had a fascination with the Holocaust—that level of cruelty and disregard for human beings stuns me.
Since writing the play, I have continued to be a student of WWII and the Holocaust. A trip to Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day was so inspiring.
Similarly, I am captivated by ordinary people who see some massive wrong and decide they must act—however small that action may be.
How did you find your way to writing romance novels? What inspired you that very first time you sat down to write your first one?
I started doing romance because at the time I saw it as the way to learning the craft of writing and moving into the more complex stories I always wanted to tell. When I began writing (thirty years ago), romance was a route with fairly open doors. Also, I had attended a conference of the local chapter of Romance Writers of America and learned a lot about the publishing industry. Joining that group as well as the Romance Writers of America organization put me in a place where I saw I could learn and grow.
I could have just as easily gone the mystery/suspense route, but I felt uncomfortable trying to write those. Also, the agent I had partnered with for my non-fiction project was very active in the romance market.
As it turned out, I got pigeon-holed into that genre, and it has been a long uphill battle to break out with a story like The Winterkeeper.
Stepping away from a sure thing—the almost certain publication of another romance novel—to write something different, and less certain, seems like an exciting, revitalizing move.
What was it about The Winterkeeper’s story that drew you to it so powerfully that it was the first book you wanted to write in this new phase?
The three main characters literally drove that novel. I knew them—knew their internal dialogues—from the first page. Each of them faced a challenge that needed an answer. There was no going back.
Nate was aging and coming to the end of a career he loved; Ginny was facing financial ruin and pregnancy; and dear Millie was so alone through absolutely no fault of her own. They had to keep moving forward.
They weren’t based on any live person (other than Nate, the winterkeeper, who was in a small way modeled after a man who had been a winterkeeper for several decades and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning). In short, the writing flowed, the story revealed itself to me rather than the other way around.
I guess the story came at a time in my life when I faced a similar challenge: my husband was dying and then he died, and I was alone. Oh, how I wanted to go back, but that was not real. I had to find my way.
In the comments section of a guest blog post you wrote for Writer Unboxed about your move from the romance genre to more general fiction (The Winterkeeper has been categorized in different places as literary, YA, and historical fiction, respectively), literary agent Donald Maas replies, in part:
“Romance fiction reads like no other type of fiction. Its characters are singularly focused. Romance fiction even has unique language found in no other type of story. Habits are hard to break and that can be true for writing in the romance mode too.”
What did you initially have to teach yourself about the writing style and/or formula within the romance genre to produce a successful romance novel?
Different romance editors/publishers have different requirements and styles.
Without naming names, one publisher I wrote for micro-managed everything, including how the story developed.
In one case, due to people leaving or having a baby and such, I had five separate editors on one manuscript and each of them had a different idea of how she wanted the story to go. By the time I turned that ms in, I didn’t recognize it!!
In another case, I was given far more freedom.
Of course, one cannot mess with the basic concept of a romance—in the most simplistic terms: boy meets girl (or vice versa); boy loses girl; boy gets girl.
Fortunately, as time passed and I grew as a writer, I was given the freedom to stretch my wings, developing sub-plots and secondary characters. Specifically, my editors at Barbour embraced my more complex stories for my Women of Pinecraft and The Peacemakers series.
Because I read mostly in the non-romance areas, I learned far more about the complexities of research, character development, dialogue, and plot development. I will always be indebted to Jodi Picoult for teaching me through her incredible novels how to blend research into story, and through reading the works of writers such as Kate Quinn and Fredrik Backman, my understanding of how best to weave time and plot and people has been enriched.
I also stretched by trying my hand at screenwriting and attending conferences well outside my genre (like Thrillerfest in NYC).
Having said all that, I will give enormous credit to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) organization and the skills I developed through my membership over the years.
What keeps you motivated through the writing of each book?
Writing is enormously therapeutic for me. During my husband’s long years of ill health and in the years that have passed since he died, writing has been my salvation. The ability to escape into some character’s head and live in their world for a few hours every day is very healing for me.
From childhood on, I have been a storyteller (sometimes to get myself out of tight corners!). I believe one way we learn tolerance, understanding, and acceptance is through story. Frankly, there are books I would dearly love to make required reading for our politicians—every one of them regardless of party. We have become far too focused on winning—the vote or the next election or….? Whatever happened to the government that was founded on mutual respect and equality and….but I digress.
5 on Publishing
How difficult or how easy was it to find an agent, and then a publisher, for your first published romance novel?
This will reveal how old I am, because in those days it was possible to send a romance novel “over the transom” and catch the interest of an editor.
I partnered with my first agent after selling a nonfiction book on elder care to a publisher. She represented me in fiction and nonfiction until she died of cancer several years later. At that time, I naively thought I could just send out a query and any agent would leap at the chance to represent me.
I got very good at dealing with rejection during that period. My current agent actually called me to tell me why she was going to reject me. We spoke for nearly an hour, and at the end she decided I needed her help and took me on.
Publishers liked, but weren’t sure they could sell, The Winterkeeper, so you self-published. What had you learned about marketing and publicity in your years as a traditionally published romance novelist that helped you navigate the marketing landscape for a self-published title, and what, if anything, did you hope you’d be able to do, marketing- or publicity-wise, that ended up being a lot harder, or not possible, without a publisher backing you?
Believe it or not, I spent 15 years working in corporate communications for two international companies. One would think I would be an old hand at this. But selling is not my forte, and frankly I believe social media (not to mention the 24-hour news cycle) is a pox on our society. So, I hired help.
Fortunately, I have the means to do that. I am totally undisciplined, so making sure I do the things I need to do to interface with the public, such as regular posts on social media and keeping up with my part as a GoodReads and BookBub member, is a huge challenge for me.
Twitter is easier, because when I come across a quote that inspires or something like a Little Free Library story, I can post it without much trouble. Both of those subjects seem to connect with others—certainly more than posting something about BUY MY BOOK!
I am trying to improve, but, frankly, my dear, I’d rather be writing the next book!
Many readers attach to a genre more than to a particular writer. They read only romance, or only literary fiction, or only historical fiction. When you branched out, you considered using your real name, Jo Schmidt, but decided against it because you’d already created a name with Anna Schmidt.
Why did you choose a pseudonym to begin with, how confident were you that your established audience, or a certain percentage of them, would follow you on your new-genre journey, and what steps are you taking with your marketing to build a new audience? Is marketing general fiction much different from marketing romance fiction?
A thousand years ago, when I first started writing romance, some publishers had in the contract that they owned the author name in the sense that a writer could not use that name at any other publishing house. By the time they saw the error of their ways (that readers might actually follow a writer they loved from house to house), I had already assumed a pen name.
I wasn’t at all sure readers of Anna Schmidt would follow me down this new path, but it occurred me that some might, and no one knew Jo Schmidt.
The folks at BookSavvy have opened doors for me that would have taken me months or even years. I know my strong points and I know my limitations. As for the difference in marketing? I have no experience trying to market romance because those opportunities were always put in front of me by the publisher. They have been enormously proactive in getting me guest blog spots and reviews for the books I write for them. The difference is that with The Winterkeeper, I am not only the author, but the publisher/editor/marketing team as well, and it’s up to me to seek out those opportunities.
What failures did you experience (and learn from) in your foray into self-publishing, and what stands out as a meaningful success?
Answering the second part first: I DID IT!! I wrote the story I wanted to tell and put it out to the world.
The learning curve was a steep climb—I uploaded the ms several times trying to figure out the font/page design details, and The Winterkeeper has had three different covers!
The cover snafu was the most frustrating failure part. I started by using KDP’s Create-a-Cover and was really pleased with the result until my web designer asked for a file, and I realized I didn’t have one. I tried downloading the cover with no success. Then I called KDP and was basically told I didn’t own, and could not have, the file.
I spent an entire afternoon going up the ladder asking how they expected me to sell my book if I had no access to the file. The answer was some form of “That’s just how it is.”
Advice: spend the $$ and hire a professional designer so you own the cover! Once I did that, I got the cover the story needed, and I have the files I need to use for marketing and promotion.
Similarly, BUY your ISBN numbers rather than accept the freebie from Amazon (there are strings attached).
You write in the guest blog post:
“Just as I published The Winterkeeper, I was finishing revisions on the final story of my romance series, Harvey Girls and Cowboys, and found myself wanting to tell the heroines of those novels who were bent on finding romance: ‘Honey, you are not getting this. Love is so much more (and so much more work) than romance! Real love is a lot more fun and challenging and even more mind-boggling than anyone can expect.’ And that’s when I realized I don’t have to choose—if I have a story to tell, there are paths for telling it. It’s my story—and my career.”
Now that you’ve self-published, and you seem genuinely excited about the independence it affords you, do you have plans to self-publish future novels, whether literary fiction or romance?
I will always start with my agent on the traditional pubbed route for any story I write, and only when that fails, and I still believe the novel is worthy of the public’s scrutiny, will I turn to self-publishing.
I guess that makes me a hybrid—not the worst thing I’ve been labeled!
In either case, I will never say never to any genre. There’s every possibility I will wake up one pre-dawn morning with a great idea for a new romance series. The choice to write is based on my enthusiasm for the story—my belief that the characters have something to share and the plot might inspire or move at least one reader.
That said, at the moment, while I have fond memories of the trials and triumphs of romance—falling in love—they are just memories. Being in love and navigating all the good, bad, ugly and never-saw-that-coming challenges of life—those are the stories I want to tell now, and I will tell them in whatever way leads to reaching out to readers.
Thank you, Anna.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.