More than 35 reviewers representing the readers' voice in the romance industry picked the winners, the Web site states.
Donovan - who lives in the Hagerstown area with her physician husband, their two children and two dogs - received her award in New York City on Friday, March 26. She said she was surprised her "atypical" romance snagged the win.
"Take a Chance on Me" features a hero who's not particularly likable at the start, comedy and doggie dialogue. Readers learn "Hairy's" thoughts on various issues.
"People either really love my books or they really don't because I have a really strong voice," said Donovan, 42. "I like to think of my books as entertaining fiction for smart women. ... My characters are unabashedly sexual beings. My books are very spicy."
Donovan's editor, Monique Patterson of St. Martin's Press in New York, said she wasn't as surprised as Donovan by the award. The author mixes traditional romance ingredients with a "slightly off-beat" style to create books that stand out among other romance novels, Patterson said.
"Susan knows how to make her stories fresh. And romance readers are eating it up," Patterson said.
Donovan strives to craft tales with fully-developed main characters in realistic worlds, compelling plots, interesting settings, strong secondary characters, humor and sexual tension that keeps readers turning the pages to reach hot love scenes, she said.
"I am attacked by my characters. These people just pop into my head. I sit down at this keyboard and I let them tell their story. My best writing comes when I just get out of the way," Donovan said. "I just really try to put everything in to make it a book that you close the back cover, smile to yourself, and say, 'What an adventure.' That's my goal."
She'd never read a romance when she decided she was going to write one about four years ago, she said.
"I had a very skewed perception of what I thought a romance novel was - a 'bodice ripper,'" Donovan said. "I was a literary snob."
She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern Western University's Medill School of Journalism, and worked full time as a reporter from 1984 to 1992 at newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune. After moving to Maryland in 1992, Donovan worked as an aide to a U.S. senator until the birth of her first child. At 39 in May 2000, she left a part-time job at The Maryland Theatre to pursue her goal of writing her first book before she turned 40.
She chose to write romance novels because of the relative flexibility of the genre - romances can dabble in other genres as long as there's a central love story, and because of the market for romances, Donovan said.
Romance novels boasted more than 51 million readers in North America in 2002, and U.S. romance fiction sales tallied more than $1.6 billion that year, according to information from the Romance Writers of America Web site at www.rwa
national.org. More than half of all paperback sales in 2002 were for romance fiction, and the genre comprised about one-third of all popular fiction sales that year, the organization states.
Donovan joined Washington Romance Writers - a chapter of Romance Writers of America - for guidance and support, and began writing. She cranked out three novels within one year - and "hit the mother lode" with her third book, "Knock Me Off My Feet," she said.
Patterson, whom Donovan met in April 2001 at Washington Romance Writers' annual retreat in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., signed the author to a two-book contract that's since been renewed. The novice romance writer found herself in the "enviable position" of writing for publication - at the pool, ballet rehearsals, baseball games and anywhere else she could squeeze in a few pages to meet her deadlines, she said.
"Knock Me Off My Feet" was a big hit with readers, and garnered Donovan a Reviewer's Choice Award nomination for Best Romantic Suspense novel in 2002.