In the course of publishing more than 100 books, Susan Wittig Albert has had very good timing. In 1985, she made the leap from academia to commercial writing and started out ghostwriting novels in several popular series, including Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Sweet Valley Twins. “At that point, mass-market young-adult fiction was going great guns,” Albert says.
The prolific author is best known for her mysteries, but recently, Albert moved into another surging area of the industry: self-publishing, or “author-publishing,” as she prefers to call it. Her first author-published novel, A Wilder Rose, centers on Rose Wilder Lane and the Little House series of books—Little House in the Big Woods (1932), Little House on the Prairie (1935), etc.—authored by Lane’s mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Noting A Wilder Rose’s insightful portrayal of the relationship between Lane and her mother, Kirkus’ starred review called Albert’s book “pitch-perfect.”
Albert’s considerable writing experience is evident in A Wilder Rose, as she brings a polished voice to telling another writer’s story. Though the story is fictionalized, with the reader’s enjoyment at its core, Albert also proves to be a passionate researcher, hewing closely to the historical record.
Albert moved into adult mysteries in the 1990s, as the genre was taking off. She sold the first book in her China Bayles series—which is still going strong; the 23rd book is due out soon—to Suzanne Kirk at Scribner. Natalie Rosenstein bought the paperback rights for Berkley and eventually acquired all rights to the series. But Albert’s success was due to more than just landing on the cusp of a genre trend.
“When I first began writing mysteries, I discovered almost by accident that I was writing for a niche audience,” Albert says. China Bayles, the series’s protagonist, runs an herb shop and found a devoted fan base among gardeners and herbalists. Readers told her they saw themselves in Bayles, even if they weren’t about to run off and open herb shops of their own. Rather, Albert says she realized she had created a character who “appeals to that dream and that hope that a lot of people have.”
Albert extended her connection to those hopes and dreams by starting a regular newsletter, About Thyme, which features frequent updates on the gardening world, herb-related trivia, and occasional references to China Bayles and other series Albert writes. By keeping track of the click-through numbers on the links she shares, she gets valuable insight into what interests her readers. Aside from the newsletter, Albert also stays in touch with readers through her blog, Lifescapes, and on Twitter.
Kirkus Reviews ran an in-depth article about Albert and A Wilder Rose, and others in the industry have taken notice. “This book has gotten a lot more attention than my legacy-published fiction,” Albert says.
After the launch of A Wilder Rose, Albert has more author-publishing projects in the works. She acquired the rights to two of her out-of-print nonfiction books—Work of Her Own (1992) and Writing from Life (1997)—and besides the next China Bayles book and the sixth book in the Darling Dahlias series, she’s working on another biographical novel. Will she publish it herself? “That’s an empowering thought, actually,” she says. “It means I can write what I want to write.”
Based on her 30-plus years of success in publishing, what Albert wants to write will be something worth reading.