by Pat Holt
Tuesday, January 30, 2001
'NOT SINCE ANAIS NIN': AN INTERVIEW WITH MJ ROSE
'NOT SINCE ANAIS NIN': AN INTERVIEW WITH MJ ROSE
What a treat it is to interview MJ Rose, the novelist who was rejected by every New York publisher to whom her agent Loretta Barrett submitted her book, "Lip Service."
When she ran out of possibilities, Rose, who writes for Wired magazine online, wrote a second book, "In Fidelity," which got no takers either.
"Editors loved my writing but they couldn't fit my books into any category," Rose says. "Loretta told me to write a third book, but I couldn't. I didn't have the heart. After 12 years of writing on my own, I wasn't getting anywhere. So I decided to give up."
Rose, a former New Yorker now living in Connecticut, had left "a difficult marriage" to write "Lip Service" and was now desperate for a way to make a living.
"My big question was: If I stop writing, what will I do? I had this running fight with my boyfriend about it.
" 'I'm stopping,' I would say.
" 'Really? What will you do?' he'd ask. 'Where will you go?'
" 'Back into advertising,' which is where I worked for years in Manhattan.
" 'You hated advertising, You'll hate the commute.'
" 'Okay. I'm going to open an antique store.'
" 'You're going to stand and talk to people all day? And you a hermit?'
" 'Okay. I'm going to raise maltese dogs. I've always had Maltese - I love them and I -- '
" 'Maltese? The dogs you love? You wouldn't give any of them up,' he would say.
"It went on like this for quite a while. Eventually, I realized the reason I wanted to stop writing was true of a lot of writers. It had nothing to do with money or making a living as a writer. It had to do with believing I had no readers.
"All writers know writing is a stupid thing to do, The chances of succeeding at it are ridiculous. But the question was NOT how to get a book deal - it was how to find ways to see if readers wanted to read me."
Rose says she wanted to find "one reader, two readers, a handful of readers" who might want to read her book, so she searched the Internet for websites that might attract the kind of reader she had in mind.
"I drew this inverted pyramid with all the little websites I thought might be interested on the bottom, and all the bigger sites on top. I had a book and no reviews, and nobody knew who I was. The plan was to get the sites on the top to review it.
"So I went to the little sites first that had maybe 100 people per week, and I offered them a copy of the book or an article about what I was doing and anything they wanted for free if they would review it.
"I offered to download the book at $9.95 as an unencrypted version (nobody knew what 'unencrypted' meant at the time, but I sounded like I knew), PLUS, because I thought nobody would want it, I also offered a photocopied copy of the manuscript, which cost $20 (380 pages xeroxed and mailed)."
Rose test-marketed five different sites with five different query letters. She also pitched the book, reader by reader to anyone she "met" on the Internet. Eventually she realized that more people were buying the photocopied manuscript than were downloading the e-book.
"For every person who bought the downloaded ebook, 10 wanted the photocopied manuscript," she says with a sigh. "By the time I sold the 30th or 40th xeroxed manuscript, I realized I had to learn everything I could to get the book printed."
She finally published 3000 copies of the book herself, tried to sell them to independent publishers but got nowhere.
"This is not an anecdote you'll like," she says. "I was told that no woman had successfully self-published a novel since Anais Nin in the 1920s, and I very soon realized that was true. The ones who made it as self-publishers? All men."
Indeed this fine old tradition of piling books in her car and visiting independent booksellers where she had been a trusted customers for many years - didn't work. "No one - not a single independent - would take one copy of the book," Rose says.
"They all said that if it's self- published, it can't be any good. All of them. I didn't waste more than two weeks at this - it was so obvious the reaction was going to be universal that I put the book on Amazon.com."
Everybody who wrote about Rose live-linked the book to that site, and soon the POD version of "Lip Service" was selling well enough, and Rose was writing enough free articles for websites, that her notoriety attracted the very industry that had once rejected her.
For the first time ever, Doubleday Book Clubs adopted a self-published book direct from its author, and for the first time in ITS history, Pocket Books re-published a book its author had already sold online (500 copies) and through print-on-demand (1500) copies.
Pocket even bought 500 of the POD edition to use as advance bound galleys, while Rose, who sure knows her promotional stuff, phoned Reuters, Associated Press and Bloomberg.com and asked for the "culture desk," whatever that is these days.
"Listen," she said, "I'm this, like, nobody person and something just happened to me that's really kind of interesting. So do you want a press release?" That's Rose's style - shy and aggressive at the same time.
Two said yes, and after more phone calls (probably hundreds), Forbes, Time, Newsweek, The Industry Standard, New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other print media all ran incredibly long pieces about Rose's gumption as a self-published e-book author who was going to make it big (see her site, www.mjrose.com, and click "Press").
But while all this golden publicity was a godsend, it emerged from the business press and was not aimed at the target audience for Rose's book - women looking for another Anais Nin; women who love wit and irreverence with a heart, as one might find in Olivia Goldsmith's books ("The First Wives' Club"; and women who aren't afraid of the kind of unabashed erotic writing that paid the rent for Nin and Erica Jong for years and is doing the same for Candace Bushnell ("Sex in the City," "Four Blondes") today.
It seems so easy now to find that right category for "Lip Service," in retrospect. The novel tells the story of a woman who is so subtly and cruelly belittled by her psychiatrist husband that she turns to phone sex for a living, finding in this job a sense of equality but within a world of danger and power.
"The literary establishment was upset that I had gone through outside channels and become a media darling," says Rose. "Book reviewers assumed the book couldn't be any good and dismissed it without reading it."
I did exactly that after reading the phone-sex scene of the Prologue, which was offered free on the Internet, and concluding the rest of the book was just seedy. Thanks to readers for chastising me about premature conclusions, once I read the whole thing I had to say that MJ Rose was a very solid, very clever, sometimes eloquent and certainly up-and-coming midlist writer.
But oh, how one wishes this phase of publishing in which marketing departments rule editorial decisions would pass. "Lip Service" was rejected, says Rose, because nobody could find a category between Women's Fiction and Psychological Thrillers, though I expect the explicit erotica put many publishers off in this day of Catholic League and Silent Majority phone and letter blizzards against anything "indecent."
Nevertheless, by word of mouth, "Lip Service" went on to sell an astounding 70,000 copies. Rose is now the proud author of novel #2, "In Fidelity," just out from Pocket, about a psychotherapist who can't forgive her husband's infidelity. She's raising a terrific but bull-headed teenaged daughter and worrying that a psychopath just out of prison may be stalking them all.
"In Fidelity" is richer for the many different angles that sexual differences between men and women are examined by the therapist, her husband, her best friend (who's considering an extramarital affair), her daughter and the daughter's possessive boyfriend. Throughout the tough exterior of New York street scenes is contrasted beautifully with the lush beauty of the Long Island sound, both offering a revealing mirror to the Mom's steely but vulnerable heart.
The book has the usual midlist problems - its pace sometimes slows to a crawl, the flashbacks feel a little forced, the surprise twist ain't no surprise and the characters get a bit mired down - but "In Fidelity" has a sense of hope (for love, for marriage, for raising children) that sustains our interest throughout, and just enough eloquent writing to warrant, one would think, hardcover publication.
But no, "In Fidelity" has come out in trade paperback, too. "Once I got over the emotional snob factor that the book wasn't coming out in hardcover, I had to say of my readers that more people will buy a $13 paperback than a $22 hardcover. I'm certainly a person who monitors how many hardcovers I buy, but I never watch how many trade paperbacks I buy because $13-$14 is a much more acceptable price point. As a marketing person I didn't even argue."
PW once called MJ rose "the e-book Queen" and "an e-publishing sensation," and no wonder: Reading her columns for Wired and watching her negotiate the tangle we call "new publishing," one must conclude that Rose is one of few observers who understands the lay of the e-pub land.
"For electronic publishing to work," she says, "a couple of things have to happen: There has to be, first, an acceptable, very inexpensive reading device for e-books; and second, there has to be a response to something that's broken.
"So far, novels on paper in book form aren't broken. They're great to read, inexpensive and easy to take wherever you go.
"But health books are broken because they get obsolete pretty fast and need to change all the time. Travel books are broken when people don't need a whole book about one aspect of their trip - when they want to take a chapter from one title and a chapter from another to build their own a personal guide. Textbooks are broken for much the same reasons. I think ebook publishing is having its first success there. We already see it in reference books.
"In fiction, ebooks will work when they are priced the same as throwaway paperback books (mass-market reprints) - you know, the kind where you feel there's nothing precious there, nothing to keep. Not like a trade paperback, let alone a hardcover, you can't bring yourself to throw away.
"Now the ebook has already become a throwaway book. After all, you don't necessarily want to save an electronic file forever, and even if you do, you can only save it as a byte on your computer.
"So if ebooks are priced as throwaway books at, say, $5-7, the thought is that people will buy them, once they have a comfortable way to read them, though not if the book exists just as cheaply on paper, at least not for a long time."
Rose then winds up with the most exciting idea for publishers to come down the pike in years.
"What nobody's taking advantage of with the Internet in terms of POD and ebook publishing, and I think they will, is that editors always say they're finding all these wonderful writers they can't afford to publish.
"They could very easily afford to pay a writer $2000 advance and publish the author's work as an ebook and a POD, and say to the author, 'we'll market with you - we'll promote the book on the Internet and get reviews and see if the book takes off in whatever way it 'wants' to.
"Then, if people start liking this author, the publisher can go back to what I think of as the old days of publishing when a house taking a chance on a new Fitzgerald or Hemingway would start with 1000 copies, never expecting anything, except that they would build this author. They could afford to because the investment was so small, and anything over a very small number sold would be gravy.
"Today on the Internet, we can build authors with PODs and ebooks the way those publishers used to - with no returns, no warehousing, no loss. If you only sell 2,000 of the first books, it's a bonus. It's nothing negative.
"I'd also love to see every publishing company start with a New Voices department, let's say, and have booksellers help bring these authors to the public. That's a place where ebooks and PODs could become incredibly important in publishing. PODs especially, I think, are going to save the midlist. If they're published carefully and strategically, you won't know the difference between them and books published traditionally."
Perhaps what amuses Rose most of all about the ebook revolution, if that's what it is (and she thinks it is), is the way the media has so quickly started to downgrade it. "I liken the whole phenomenon to what's happening with the DVD industry," she says.
"Today we have both DVDs and videotapes out there. DVDs are 4 years old, and they haven't taken over yet. People are still renting more videotapes than DVDs, but nobody's running around screaming that DVDs are dead or are never going to work.
"Television took 10 years to become acceptable. Ebooks are not a year old. While there are wonderful independent pioneers in ebooks, the mass public didn't find out about electronic publishing until March of 2000 when Stephen King came out with 'Riding the Bullet.' So in terms of mass consciousness, ebooks started less than a year ago, and already the press is talking about whether ebooks are dead.
What does Rose think about Barnesandnoble.com announcing itself as the big breakthrough ebook publisher offering a royalty rate (35%) that's higher than Random House's 25%?
"I don't have any problem with a bookstore trying to be a publisher," she says, "since we know that publishers are trying to be retailers.
"But I will say that when I interview people about B&N.com's plan, they ask this question: Will other bookstores stock B&N.com titles? If they won't, how many writers are willing to give up all other bookstores to be sold only at Barnes & Noble? I called Amazon but they wouldn't give me a comment. That's going to be a curious question.
"When you figure that 80% of all books are sold in bookstores; 10% of all books are sold online; and 10% are sold in Costco and Wal-Mart, the picture is very intriguing - for one reason, of that first 80%, B&N counts for 10%.
"An agent said to me, 'B&N.com is going to give my clients 35% of the cover price of the ebook? That's really nice -- it's 10% more than at I can get elsewhere. But if another publisher can get the book into every outlet and every store in the country, and B&N can only get it into B&N, with B&N counting for 10% of all sales through bookstores, that's a stumbling block.'
The exciting thing about whatever kind of revolution this is, says Rose, and who doesn't agree with her, is that publishing has not been this energized or in the news or full of possibility as it is now for eons.
"Look at this whole matter of encryption of ebooks. It's getting crazy. If you price things right, people won't steal them. They only steal things when they're too expensive. That's the theory about why Napster existed. If CDs, which cost a quarter to make, had cost $7 to buy, people wouldn't have gone berserk trying to steal the music."
What's the best way to market an ebook right now? Follow the Seth Godin ("Unleashing the Idea Virus") model, says Rose: "The best thing you can do with an e-book right now is to use it as a marketing tool and NOT sell it. 300,000 people downloaded Godin's book, which he offered free; he self-published that version, and then self-published the hardcover for $40, only available on Amazon.com. At that point, 30,000 people bought the hardcover for $40 in three weeks. He made a fortune."
Another ebook publisher to watch is Doug Clegg, says Rose: "If you sign up at egroups for the Doug Clegg list, he sends you a free chapter a week of the book he's writing, and when he's finished writing it, six months later it comes out in print. He's done this with two books; He has 10-11 books published through traditional houses and used to sell 10-20,000 copies of each book he wrote. He's been doing this new approach on the Web for two years: He now sells 100,000 copies of every book he writes."
Rose, with her refreshing ideas, her speech about why writers should never give up and her knowledge of the Internet, will appear with colleague Doug Clegg at one of those expensive-but-worth-it luncheons hosted by Michael Cader in New York on February 7. "I'm going to announce a business at that lunch," she says, but won't elaborate. Check Cader's announcements at Publishers Lunch or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I thought I'd respond (as a POD author) to the letter you printed from the Anchorage bookstore owner [who could not afford iUniverse's terms when trying to order a book by a local author].
I'm not arguing with the iUniverse terms. I wish they could be better, percentage-wise. As for returns, though, I'm glad they don't accept them. The consignment system I think is what has forced every independent book publisher to sell out to the conglomerates. Name any other business that would put up with the consignment system...
But I must say I'm surprised that it did not occur to Lynn Dixon to order the books from Ingram, since iUniverse makes it clear in their deal that the books are made available immediately through Ingram.
Indeed, my experience from the start has been to tell bookstore owners, --none of whom in my area have had ANY difficulty ordering mine-- to go through Ingram like they do with any other book.
To me that's just common sense. iUniverse provides an ISBN and has the book listed with Bowker's and Book In Print. What else would a bookseller do?
In fact, one bookseller (Brookline Booksmith) went ahead and ordered a couple after I sent an introductory email saying I was a local author. I was surprised and delighted to see two copies of my book in the SF section the first time I went to the bookstore.
I've had no illusions about iUniverse in terms of helping to market the book--and have from the start treated them simply as the company that makes my book available through the same channel as any other book. It's up to me--as it is with many a mainstream published author--to get the word out about my own book.
Glamorous? No. Progress? Incremental perhaps, but yes.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thank you for running the letter from Valerie in #210. It gratified me to learn the extent of the protest against Bush's inauguration was far greater than the major media reported. (NPR was so busy joking about proper attire for the balls to follow that I wondered if Martha Stewart's domain now included radio.) I too was protesting that day--it was either that or shoot myself. I'm the publisher of a very small poetry press, and while it's true that poetry often sells better under repressive regimes than in supposedly free societies, I don't think the trade-off is particularly worth it. Tom Benford's attitude bugs me. In fact, it brings out the mule in me. To him I say, SHAKE IT OFF, STOMP IT DOWN, AND RISE TO THE NEXT LEVEL! I'll try to do the same.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In response to the letter from Tim Benford (who protested Valerie's dispatch from the inaugural): The letter from Valerie in #210 was useful, informative, and NEWS that wasn't covered in any detail in the national media. This is one of the great things about the Internet: it's getting increasingly harder to suppress information. Of course, it's sometimes a problem to assess the value, or accuracy of the information that floods through the email gates daily, but it's worth the trouble to be able make your own decisions as to what's worth knowing.
Or so I believe.
Hail to the Thief!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I really appreciated reading Valerie's description of the protesters at the inauguration. I hadn't heard anything about it, either. I feel there is a link between the anti-censorship policies my bookstore champions and the legitimate criticism of the media that Valerie's story implies. After all, we have to fight to hear all the real news, just as we have to fight to keep all literature available even when we don't agree with it. www.indymedia.org is a website where alternative versions of the news all over the world can be found.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just want to verify Valerie's post about the Inauguration parade. I was there, too, between llth and l2th Streets at Pennsylvania Ave. Despite miserable weather, the protestors were indefatigable. I too was curious about how the media would (under)report the event.
Linda Kauffman author of "Bad Girls & Sick Boys" (University of California Press, 1998)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was one of those with a "Hail to the Thief" sign at the inauguration. I live in D.C., and I've been present for almost every inauguration since Nixon's. I have never seen such a large contingent of protestors at an inaugural before. For the most part, they were well-behaved but vocal and obviously angry (hmmm...just like me!). All along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, protestors clearly outnumbered Bush supporters by a significant margin. The president's limo sped by them fairly rapidly, stopping only once (in front of a group of Texas supporters), but even then not getting out of the limo. I don't blame him. This was NOT a place to do any hand shaking! (He did eventually get out and walk a few paces, but only after the limo was well inside the cordoned-off area away from protestors.)
Those of us with bookstores in Washington certainly knew the Republicans were back in town. Our sales for the inaugural weekend were the worst we've had in eight years. No, I'm not making that up. (Of course, the weather -- rain, sleet, and snow -- MIGHT have had something to do with it.)
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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