Thursday, July 07, 2005

An interview with MJ Rose

Several years ago, my mother brought to my attention a writer who self-published her book. Self-published? What’s that? The writer was MJ Rose and the novel was Lip Service. I had no idea that at some point in my future, I would get to know MJ Rose. Let me tell- you this woman is brilliant. She is knows a lot about publishing and writes well enough to claim status as an International Best Selling Novelist. MJ has a thought- provoking blog and consistently keeps up tabs on the world of publishing, book selling and marketing. I had the opportunity to interview her, I feel honored! Grab a vodkatini and have a read.

Tell me about your history as a novelist? Getting published was an adventure for me. I self-published my first novel Lip Service late in 1998 after several traditional publishers turned it down. Editors had loved it, but didn't know how to position it or market it since it didn't fit into any one genre. Too commercial to be literary, too literary to be commercial. Too erotic not to be erotica but not erotic enough to really be erotica. A little bit suspenseful, but not enough of a mystery to call it a mystery ... you get the idea. Frustrated, but curious and convinced that there was a readership for the book despite it not being easy to classify, I set up a web site where readers could download the book for $9.95 and began to seriously market the novel on the Internet.

I wanted to find out if people who didn't care about labels would actually like it or not and give that info to my agent so maybe she use it when she talked to publishers with my next book. And then a little baby miracle happened. It started to get buzz and I got mainstream offers for it. After selling over 2500 copies (in both electronic and trade paper format) Lip Service became the first e-book and the first self-published novel chosen by the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club as well as being the first e-book to go on to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house.

I've since had four more novels published traditionally. But because of my unusual start I've a been called the "poster girl" of e-publishing by Time magazine and have been profiled in Forbes, The New York Times, Business 2.0, Working Woman, Newsweek, Poets & Writers and other publications, both in the U.S. and abroad. I've also appeared on The Today Show, Fox News, and The Jim Lehrer NewsHour.

My latest novel is The Halo Effect. About a New York City sex therapist who gets involved in the hunt for a serial killer when one of her patients goes missing. To get a little taste of The Halo Effect click here.

Why do you think actors are paid such enormous salaries while writers, even successful ones, often have to work a full time job to keep themselves financially secure? Well, I wouldn't say that. From what I understand the percentage of actors who make huge salaries is pretty much the same as the percentage of authors who make huge salaries. That said, even though the second richest woman in England is an author not an actor there are probably more actors who make more money than there are writers who make that much money. The simplest reason is that more people watch more movies at home and at the theaters and more television shows than they read books. There's just more money to be made in that media. Stars are what draw the crowds. As for the second half of your question. Pretty much the same percentage of actors have a second jobs as authors.

I think I've read that less than 10% of all actors made a living at it which is very close to the stat for authors. Why so many?There are a lot of novels published a year. Over 15,000. That's almost 300 a week. Of that number many are "good" books but a "good" book isn't enough. A book really has to be special in one way or another to stand out. Even if they all were really extraordinary, there just aren't enough readers to make that many books profitable for all of those authors to sell enough copies to make a living writing a book a year, or a book every two years.

Do you think writers should be paid more by the publishing companies? I'd never turn down a bigger check. Heavens, there is a lovely little house by the water I'd love to buy. But I really don't think publishers underpay. Publishing a book is a gamble and the risk is all on the publisher's part not on the authors.The realities of the business dictate what we get paid. If a publisher gives you $15,000 for a novel and the book only sells enough copies to bring in $7000 in royalties, you, the author, don't have to pay the difference back. And if the book does better than expected, you, the author, get royalties. The author isn't the one taking a chance. The publisher is. So I don't think the problem is that the payment scale is off. The frustration is that it so few books sell well. So on the high end, there are authors who get several million dollars a book. On the low end there are authors who get $5000 a book. And in between is every thing you can imagine.

How come writers are not on par as celebrities when the goal of both actors and writers are to entertain? I think our society is more focused on actors than authors because actors are visible. They entertain us with their voices, their faces, the way they move. We watch their art.But it's an author's written words that entertain. We are aren't what matters to the public, our stories are. Think about Dan Brown. He has sold over 12 million copies of his novel in the last two years and made about 80 million dollars. As much as any actor has made in the last two years. But no one knows much about him or his wife or their house or their dog if they even have one. Nor do any of us care. No one covets his smile or his muscles. It's what he's written that matters, not who he is.

Authors' aren't movie stars. It's not about our looks. Our bodies and faces are not our fame. Our brains are. And our brains don't get us TV gigs. Being smart and creative on paper doesn't guarantee you can sit next to Jon Stewart and quip cleverly. Ever go to an author reading? Most of us are as exciting to meet in person as a turtle. It's our thought process, our imagination, our wordsmithing that makes us successful. With an actor it's the opposite. Their thought process is unimportant. It's how they look, how they charm, how they read their lines and strut in the limelight. It's how much we lust after them, or want to look like them, or be them. Aren't we all so screwed up:)

Please talk to me a bit about commercial novels versus literary? Do I have to? A lot of writers get their hackles up over this question because all it does is serve to set up a competition between all of us. Readers, generally are not even aware of the two terms. Most of them just want to read good books. Some want fast paced books. Some want books that really make them think. Others want love stories. Others want suspense. But, as is true with any industry, the people inside of it are the ones who want to qualify and quantify what they do. But to answer you question, generally a commercial book focuses on the plot - or the story. A literary book generally focuses on the character and the quality of the writing. In some writer/publisher circles there's an attitude that commercial equals crap while literary equals brilliance. In other writer/publisher circles there's an attitude that literary equals boring and commercial equals fast paced entertaining. You say potato, I say potato.

I think there are commercial books that are brilliantly written with characters drawn as well as any literary book out there. And I think there are literary novels with plots that take your breath away.I wish we could just talk about good books, fun books, great books, brilliant books. But I'm a hopeless idealist. (A hopeless romantic too, but that has nothing to do with the answer to your question.)

We both know many excellent writers who have not received the acclaim they deserve. Do you attribute that to a lax marketing from the publishing companies, lack of reviews in major magazines, or something else entirely? A lot of things happened at the same time to create this situation. Ten years ago most of us did not have 100 channel cable TV, cell phones, Netfilix, iPods, nor were we all connected to the internet. But now most of us do have all those things and are all on line. And all that is head to head competition for books. Ten years ago, the average reader read 6 -10 books a year. Now that same reader reads 3 or less. Also, in the last 3 to 5 years, newspapers and magazines have been cutting the amount of attention they give to books. (features and reviews). The book review pages weren't drawing enough ad dollars - advertisers wanted to be on more exciting pages.Also because of the internet, cell phones, and cable TV, we all now see about 3000 -5000 marketing messages a day as compared to the 2000 we saw ten years ago. That means it is more than 40-50% more complicated to get a message through to us - about say - a terrific book. At the same time, the number of books being published a year has gone up. It's almost doubled in the last ten years.

Why you may wonder? Well, for one thing there are thousands of superstores now and a superstores can stock over 175,000 books at a time. Its sort of like "If you build it we will fill it" mentality. And when there are more books in the store, each one is less visible, each one gets that much more competition. More people reading less, plus more entertainment options, plus more books, plus it's harder to convey a message for a reasonable amount of marketing dollars makes it harder for a book to break out and all too easy for a terrific author to get lost in the shuffle.

What can we as writers, do to encourage people to read more? There are too many wonderful books filling the book stores and not enough people taking time to turn the television off and pick up a novel. What do you think? Well, its not having more celebrities write novels. And its not having more novelists become celebrities. Or maybe it is. (I just hope it's not.) Or maybe we all need to start being more outrageous and getting in the news more. Maybe we could get big television shows to show more characters reading books. (When Carmella Soprano was seen reading Memoirs of A Geisha a few years ago sales of the book went through the roof.)

One thing for sure. We need more Oprahs. What she proved was if someone who you trusted told you they loved a book, you bought it. We need more people who have influence talking about books and suggesting books and getting books attention. We do have a great challenge set out for us -- to get better at figuring out how to harness word of mouth. We also need to get into the 21st century when it comes to marketing books. For the most part, we're just not being creative. Not making books look or sound as exciting as they could. We still package and promote a book the same way we did 25, 35 years ago. I also think that audio books - which let you multitask - might save storytelling. Since the internet boom, we've gotten really good at multitasking.

Right now I have the news on and the computer on my lap and I'm writing you and checking my email. And if the phone rang, depending on who it was, I'd still be able to write you and talk.When you pick up a book you need to focus and do one thing - read the book. But audio books allow you to listen while you are walking the dog, commuting, exercising, etc. And sites like allow you to download a book and put it on your iPod and take it with you. The industry has to come up with a better message to the consumer than "get caught reading" which is the only outreach advertising there is. As if we need to make reading any more covert than it already is.

What is it that drives you as a writer, to keep writing? Are you looking for fame and money, or are you content to see your books on the shelves? At first the goal was just to get the story out of me and onto the page. Then to do it better. Then do it well enough to get an agent. Then I got an agent and thought that was the pinnacle. Then I wanted the book to be published and on the shelf. That, I was sure, would be enough. Then it was published and on the shelf and I found I cared about getting people to read it. And not just read but love what they were reading. And then when people started writing and telling me they loved my books and that they were really different and they couldn't put them down, I thought that was enough. Except then I realized I wanted more. I wanted to make a living at this amazing thing. And so it goes. But I know how lucky I am. I get to do what I want to be doing. I get to write about characters I'm in love with, whose lives fascinate me, who get caught up in suspenseful situations and erotic entanglements, who sometimes have to do the wrong thing even though it's for the right reason.

And lastly, when you are not writing or writing about writing, or blogging. What do you like to do? Take very long walks with my totally spoiled dog, Winka. Read, watch movies, spend at least a day a week in Manhattan and go to museums and art galleries and just so you don't think I'm a cultural snob - I adore shopping especially for shoes even its just window shopping. In the spring and summer I garden a little. And most days I enjoy cooking. (On the days I don't take- out does just fine.)


Blogger Nancy said...

Thanks for the interviews and the constant education about books, authors, and the writing life.

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