Maria Nikolai – How the writer from Metzingen, Germany, became a Penguin bestselling author

In conversation with Maria Nikolai, author of the “Schokoladenvilla” (Chocolate Mansion ) trilogy from Metzingen/Germany

Her trilogy „Schokoladenvilla“ (Chocolate Mansion) has reached six-digit sales figures and has been translated into different languages. Since publishing her first volume of “Schokoladenvilla” with the famous publishing house Penguin each of her books has hit the bestseller list without fail. In her novels, she writes about love and strong women, embedded in carefully researched historic settings. We met for an interview in the Café Mayer in Metzingen where quite a few bestseller passages were written.

Maria, before you published „Schokoladenvilla“ you had already written five – most likely equally well-written – books with a smaller publisher. Was it the big publishing house that has given your work the push to make it to the bestselling list?

Cover design, sales, marketing – of course, a big publishing house can offer more. It has happened before, that books from small publishing houses have made it to the bestseller list but this is rare and much more difficult to accomplish. Small publishing houses usually run smaller editions. But in order to become a bestseller, people need to get the chance to see and buy the book everywhere. Usually, you can`t make a living when writing for a small publishing house. Personally, I am sure that going with a big publisher who recognized my potential was the entry ticket to the bestseller world.

On your homepage you state that with „Schokoladenvilla“ you took the plunge and signed a contract with a big publishing house. I mean, taking a chance is one thing but getting the contract is a whole different story – especially with a publisher like Penguin…

It really was a „Lucky Punch“. When it came to finding a publisher for the „Schokoladenvilla“ trilogy in 2017, I initially had my old publisher in mind. I had written 80 pages of the first volume and the idea for more. A friend of mine said: Why don`t you try with a big publisher this time! First, I thought: ‚No, that just means pressure – way too stressful.’ And yet, I sat down the very next day and wrote to three literary agents. I knew then that the way to a big publisher is through an agent. You have to know, it`s not easy to find an agent especially as I couldn`t refer to a recommendation but had handed in an “unsolicited sent-in manuscript”.  One of the agents called me three days later – funny enough that very moment I was just standing on the Viennese Prater in front of the Chocolate Museum.

"Hitting the bestseller list is like winning the lottery."

author maria nikolai
How lovely! How was your gut feeling when you applied: more like „50:50 chance” or “It might as well happen”?

I did sense that it might happen. However, I never heard back from the other two agents. Then again, the one who did call was just the right one: He immediately saw that my story might be interesting and signed me up a few days later. That didn`t automatically mean a book deal though. This deal happened only later at the Book Fair in Frankfurt: there, the publishers are on a shopping tour, agents are pitching, and contracts are negotiated – and the end of the story: Four publishing houses were interested! Penguins’ offer was unbeatable, and we agreed on it. That was the best that could have happened because Penguin has a brilliant team and I immediately felt at home with them.  

Fab! So you didn`t really have to „fight“ to get a contract…

It was the years before that felt more like „fighting“: When you knew that yet again your book didn`t become a bestseller, to nevertheless start again, to pick up a new topic, to keep on going – and believing. It seems crazy now because only 1 percent of all authors are able to make a living from their books. And hitting the bestseller list is like winning the lottery.

Author Maria Nikolai
Well you did exactly that, a couple of times even – since the first „Schokoladenvilla“ you have written one bestseller after the other: three volumes of „Schokoladenvilla“ and next week the second volume of your new Lake Constance Saga “Daughters of Fortune” hits the shelves. How do you write a novel? Is it the same strategy every time? Or is it a different process with every new book?

So far, I have started with page one and written chapter by chapter. The story developed in the process which includes detailed research. With the first volume of „Schokoladenvilla“, I set off with 80 pages knowing that I need to finish the book within 10 weeks. Until then it had taken me two years to write a book… That was pretty intense – lucky enough I had my editor by my side. With the following books, I followed a similar process. I have worked a lot by intuition and because I`ve devoured books, I had a feeling for the structure. With each book, I`ve gained more experience. And I have changed my approach on purpose in the book that I`m currently writing, the third volume of the Lake Constance Sage.  

Interesting – how do you write now and why the change?

The chapters of this book are basically „prewritten“, they are lined out and now only have to be written out in full. I have lined out what exactly I still need to research so that I can do my on-location research with a plan in mind.  With this new system, I hope to be able to be faster because there are new books waiting to be written…

With creative work the beginning is often the biggest hurdle. How do you start?

I usually start with an idea for a love story – oftentimes ideas arise from research for another book. With the Lake Constance Saga for example the idea for the third volume was there first. Only then I thought of the second and first volumes. About Helena, the main character of volume one, I initially just knew that she wants to turn a small guest house or bakery – something to do with food and enjoyment – into something big.  I think about what my readers might find interesting. Then I start with research, first at large. This puts the story on a historical basis and the first ideas for chapters evolve. The characters take shape, and the structure develops. It`s like sketching for a painter.  

"I`m creating a connection to my readers via my homepage and Social Media. Lovely opportunities for connection are book signings and last but not least my complex reading concept “reading with movie feeling” that I`m on tour with."

In only a few days your new book „Töchter des Glücks“ (Daughters of Fortune) is going to be out. Are you nervous and do you feel the pressure to repeat previous successes?

Of course. Every author would probably feel that way. I try to handle it professionally which means giving the best I can where I can. Which implies of course to hand in an excellent manuscript. The other thing is caring for and creating a connection with my readers – via my homepage and Social Media. Lovely opportunities for connection are book signings and last but not least my complex reading concept “reading with movie feeling” that I`m on tour with.

What`s that exactly?

It`s a professional show that triggers all senses. Music, audio book excerpts – and also me reading – with very cinematic, partly animated photography. The texts are mostly rewritten specifically for the event and are matching the photos – a very own concept. This kind of reading is very much in demand.

Maria Nikolais’ latest volume of the Lake Constance Saga „Töchter des Glücks“ (Daughters of Fortune) is published by Penguin and is available in German bookstores from now on. You can find more about Maria Nikolai, her work, and her reading events on her homepage: Her Instagram Account is @maria_nikolai_spot

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