While her children ran around her, Ruth Cardello wrote in the basement of her tiny house in spare moments, worked on improving her craft, and juggled her day job as a kindergarten teacher.
Then, when the economic slowdown began, and her teaching career became less stable, she took a leap of faith. Her brother had suggested she self-publish. With her husband's support, she turned her attention to learning the business side of publishing. The rest, as they say, is history.
Her first indie published book Maid for the Billionaire skyrocketed up the charts. Over 200,000 people downloaded it almost instantly. That set her on a path to creating a series that would launch her career as an author and have her turning down a 7-figure deal from a Big 5 publisher.
I had the opportunity to ask Ruth about her path to success and her newest book deal with Montlake Books.
How did you get started as a writer?
I've always been a writer, but I finished my first full-length book in 2004. That would eventually be purchased by Montlake Romance and become Taken, Not Spurred. The first draft of that book was awful. I didn't write it thinking that it would ever be published. I wrote it because I love reading romance novels and I wanted to create a world of my own.
Back then, I didn't know any of the rules of writing a novel. I was in and out of everyone's point of view often in the same scene. Also, I hadn't yet met my husband, so the horse in the story had more of a point of view than the hero. At that time, I was riding my own horse six nights a week. The book was full of horse terminology, horse anecdotes, and a few spicy scenes between the heroine and hero. Fortunately, none with the horse.
But how did you go from tinkering with a novel to becoming a bestselling author?
What do you do when you finish a book? How do you know it's any good? My friends said they loved it, but I had to know for sure. I shared the book with an online critique group. There may be many wonderful groups out there, but my experience wasn't the best. My favorite line from one of my critique partners was that my writing was so awful that it made her want to bash your head on the wall until she bled. Needless to say, I was more than a little discouraged.
But I didn't give up.
I found a local chapter of Romance Writers of America because I've always considered failure a challenge and they tout themselves as a place where authors grow. Now, as the youngest of 11 children, and one with eight protective brothers, I didn't go to my first meeting alone. My brother, Gerry, said he was coming with me and told me that he was pulling me out of there if anyone started tearing my writing to shreds. RIRW of Rhode Island was such a warm and wonderful group of women that my brother joined the group with me and started to write just because of the creative energy there.
It was at one of the meetings that I met Annette Blair. She was traditionally published but had gotten there the hard way. She'd written a lot of books, entered them into many contests, received some cutting reviews, and refused to give up. She spoke about the time she put into learning the craft. She thanked all of the people who were patient with her and supportive of her while she was learning. She spoke with eloquence and warmth that I decided right then and there that I wanted to be her when I grew up.
I started entering contests for my writing. I went to workshops on how to improve my craft. I worked with critique partners. I read as much as I could on the rules of my genre. This was the painful adolescent period of my writing career. I was awkward. I was insecure. But I was also determined.
Many beginning writers reading this are struggling with their craft. How did you learn the ropes? How did you hone your skills?
I didn't have the skills back then to fix what was wrong with my first book, so I started my second book. At the time, my critique partner wrote science-fiction. So, I attempted to write a science fiction book. I ended up with a romance about what would happen if electromagnetism came to life and fell in love with a fallen hero. Yes, I went there. It wasn't pretty. But, I was writing. My critique partner was amazing and I learned so much from her.
That year, I was at an author party when someone asked me what I was writing. I believe I spent the next two hours attempting to explain to her the complexity of a romance between one of the original forces of nature and a hero who had thought it was his role was to save the universe. She looked at me and asked, "Is that what you read?"
Such a simple question, but it would change everything. I told her that when I read I love over-the-top, big hair stories with alpha men being tamed by strong women. I also love it when those stories don't take themselves too seriously.
She dared me to write three chapters and send them off to a publisher. That's how my first published book, Maid for the Billionaire, was born. That book was complete escapism romance for me. I wrote it in the basement of my tiny house while my children ran around me. Dominic Corisi was the alpha hero I'd imagined as I'd read the other books, but Abby was me and that book was a humorous poke at a genre I adore. You can see the fun I had with popular storylines clearly in certain scenes. Dominic kidnapped Abby near the end of the book, but she told his guards, "You can pretend you're keeping me on this plane, but the real challenge would have been keeping me off it."
So, the old saying write what you love to read came into?
Well, every time I'd read a book where the woman had been kidnapped I had thought, Wait, rich, sexy, totally into me man wants to take me with him -- I'm not fighting very I hard.
I sent the first three chapters away and received the same feedback over and over: "Good writing, hero is not what we're looking for." This was before Fifty Shades of Grey made the dark, troubled alpha hero so popular. Publishers wanted me to tone Dominic down.
I loved Dominic just the way he was. Long after I finished the book, my pile of rejects grew beside it. I resigned myself to the fact that Dominic would be my book boyfriend and mine alone.
What gave you the idea to self-publish Ruth?
Remember my wonderful brother, Gerry? Well, he was diligently still going to the monthly romance author meetings even as I grew discouraged. He came home from one and said that the guest speaker was an author who said that the best thing that had ever happened to her was being rejected by traditional publishing houses. She had self-published and was happier for it.
Self-published? Back then you might as well have said she masturbated. It was shocking. It was taboo. Only authors who couldn't sell did it.
Life wasn't easy for you while you made this decision to self-publish, was it
At that time, I had three children and was teaching kindergarten full-time. With more than twenty years into that career, my job should have been secure, but my district went into severe financial distress and I was laid off. I was rehired the next year and laid off again. My family was living paycheck to paycheck and the school department was saying they couldn't pay their teachers. Teachers were cashing checks that bounced. I would say I was poor, but I grew up poor.
How poor? When I was in elementary school my clothing always came from donations people gave us in trash bags. I didn't know any different, so I was happy. My father worked three jobs to afford the house we lived in. My parents were God fearing, hard working, second generation Americans who raised eleven children to be strong and independent. They did occasionally dress us in some funny clothing, though. I'm still a little scarred from the colorful pair of pants my mother had made out of a beach bag. But I digress.
After almost 22 years of teaching, the career I had loved was no longer a stable income for me. I decided to take a chance on my writing. I researched self-publishing and discovered that people were beginning to bypass publishing houses and were making more money than if they had sold their books traditionally. I read every blog I could find about who was doing well and what they were doing. I stalked everyone ranking high on the charts and studied how they did it. That sounds bad. I emulated my self-publishing heroes. There. That's better.
How did it feel when you first started indie publishing?
My first cover was horrendous. I made it myself. Google it, but be kind. I couldn't afford an editor, so I begged every last one of my friends to read it over. In April of 2011, I put Maid for the Billionaire up for FREE on Amazon and iBooks and held my breath. Self-publishing would put my book directly into the hands of readers who could give me instant feedback. Would they love Dominic as I did? I had no idea. Almost immediately, two hundred thousand people downloaded my book. Two hundred thousand. I had readers from around the world writing to me to say that they loved my story and wanted to know when I'd finish book two. They also made better covers for me and helped me re-edit my first book.
My husband and I had no idea back then how putting that one book up would change our lives. He supported my love of writing when I was doing it simply for the joy of creating a story. He encouraged me to share my book through whatever venue I could. But neither of us thought it would take off as it did. I wrote my second book, For Love or Legacy, while working full-time and while my youngest daughter was keeping me up all night teething. Without my husband, the schedule would have never been possible. By that fall, I put For Love or Legacy up for sale.
Did you have any idea that you'd make millions as an author?
We thought we would make enough money to be able to pay the electricity bill and our cable bill in the same month. When we dreamed big, we hoped for a paved driveway. We had no idea it would allow me to leave my teaching job to write full time.
Bedding the Billionaire, book three, hit the New York Times, and life changed again. Suddenly, the publishing houses wanted me. Agents were calling. My books went to auction and I received a seven-figure offer for them. Walking away from that was the scariest day of my writing career. I had to trust that I could do better on my own.
Thankfully, I have. I am still continuing to self-publish, but I am now also published by Montlake Romance. Some people call that a hybrid author. My two books in that series, Taken, Not Spurred and Tycoon Takedown began with this Rhode Islander's daydream about Texas.
How has your life changed since the beginning?
Well, I still live in an 850 square foot home. I still wear clothes I buy on sale. I grew up with the understanding that money comes and goes, but family is what matters. I live in an economically depressed area. My first priority was to make sure no one in my family lost their homes. People warned me in the beginning that if I gave money to my family then they would only expect more of it. They don't know my family.
We were born poor, but we survived and thrived because we take care of each other. Two years ago, my niece sent me the most incredible story she had written and asked me if I would help her self-publish it. I gave her a list of about sixty things she would need to do first. She called me back the next day and said, "I'm done. What else should I do?" After that, Danielle Stewart had her auntie's full support. She has 14 books and novellas up now and I couldn't be prouder.
Last year my sister, Jeannette Winters, who has a full-time job as an analyst, told me she dreamed of making enough money from her stories to pay for the new roof her home needs. I gave her the same list and told her to bring me a completed romance. If she did that, I promised to get her the best editors I could afford, help her choose covers that would fit her books and take over the business side of self-publishing. She joined the same author group my brother and I did and finished not only one, but two billionaire romances. And they're good. They're so good I could cry.
It sounds like your family is close.
My parents have both passed away, but I like to think they are looking down at my generation with pride. We're holding to the ideals they raised us with. Family comes first and our legacy is how we live our lives. My books are bathtub reads. They're fun. They're sexy. But they won't change the world.
My children, my nephews and nieces, and their children... if we show them that real wealth is having a network of people you care about who care about you... then I have changed the world. At least, my little Rhode Island corner of it.
Tell us about your latest novel and why you think people are responding so well to it?
Tycoon Takedown is the story of how, Melanie Hanna, a single mother from Texas, goes to New York to find the father of her child. Charles Dery is asked by his sister to watch over her while she's there. A cowgirl and a business tycoon. On the surface these two have nothing in common, but they both are struggling with the past. In each other's arms they find sizzling passion and a chance to start over.
My readers tell me that they enjoy my romances because I take them on an emotional journey of laughter and tears, but I always leave them smiling at the end. These are big hair, escapism romances that I call bathtub reads.