M.J. Rose burst onto the publishing scene with her self-published first novel Lip Service in 1998. After garnering signicant buzz and selling over 2,500 copies, it was picked up by Literary Guild/Doubleday Book Club, and Rose has since gone on to pen five more published novels including In Fidelity,Flesh Tones and The Halo Effect. Rose is well-known for her journalism for publications such as Wired,Poets and Writers, and Pages and online presence, having authored How To Publish and Promote Online (with Angela Adair-Hoy) and Buzz Your Book (with Douglas Clegg), as well as maintaining the popular writing-related blogs Buzz, Balls & Hype, covering various aspects of the publishing industry, and Backstory, allowing authors to explore the motivation behind their work.
In fact, at times her own backstory (she’s been called the “poster girl” for e-publishing by Time) and work championing authors and covering the industry has threatened to overshadow her fiction, which would be a shame as Rose has been at the forefront of the brigade leading the erotica genre into the mainstream while infusing her own, unique perspective on the field. Her forthcoming novel, Lying in Bed, (out in June) about a woman who has a sexual awakening in the course of her job penning erotic love letters for clients, is the lead title in Harlequin’s new Spice line, and The Delilah Complex, part of her Butterfield Institute Series starring sex therapist Dr. Morgan Snow, about a group of women who form the anonymous Scarlet Society, where they host parties with masked men as their willing sexual servants, is a nail-biting, fast-paced whodunnit that also delves into the psychology of submissive men. The third book in the series, The Venus Fix, tackles a topic seen in the news, with a twist, exploring teenage boys, online porn—and murder. Here, Rose tells Gothamist how she juggles fiction writing and blogging, what an author needs to do to stand out from the pack of 195,000 books published per year, how she chooses her reading material, and elaborates on new arenas for book promotion, the rich online literary culture, and what's changed in publishing since she wrote Lip Service.
You're the author of six published novels (with two more on the way this year) as well as two books about writing. What's your novel writing process like? Do you write for a set amount of hours or pages every day, or do you just get totally immersed in whichever book you're working on and not stop until it's finished?
I work on one book at a time. And yes, I am immersed. Six days a week, for four to six hours a day. In between books I stop writing for as much as two to three months but during that time I do research and think, plot and plan the book. They always change as I write them, but I need to treat each novel like a journey and know where I'm going before I set off.
How do your blogging and online promotional activities mix with your fiction writing? While the former obviously is meant, in some way, to promote the latter, does the time it takes detract from your fiction? How do you balance the two?
I do the marketing/blogging after my writing. It uses a totally different part of my brain so it doesn't seem to interfere. In fact, even when I've consciously tried to stop anything but fiction writing, I've found I still come up with ideas. I was in advertising for 13 years, so it's hard to just stop thinking about it.
You write the book blog Buzz, Balls and Hype, covering various aspects of the publishing industry. What motivated you to start the blog, and what encourages you to keep writing it?
From 1999 on—until 2003—I covered publishing in a weekly column for Wired.com and wrote for several other publications—altogether writing over 150 articles. After I stopped, I found I missed it a little more than I thought I would and wound up unofficially posting a lot at Readerville.com in much the same capacity as I did in Wired. Then, late in 2004 when Michael Cader of PublishersLunch.com decided to offer a blogging service and asked me to be his first beta tester. It was a perfect opportunity.
You also run the blog Backstory, where authors share the history of their novels. Do you think having this personal behind-the-scenes peek at these writers' thought processes helps readers connect with a given book? Do readers need that in order to feel closer to the author and their work?
The blog isn't about process. It's about what inspired the novelist to write the novel. I think that's the single most often asked question a writer gets from his/her readers.
You claim that 195,000 books are published every year, and that they can't all get reviewed in the New York Times. That number seems so huge, and my immediate reaction is a bit of sadness knowing that I'll never be able to read as many books as catch my eye and may appeal to me. So first let me ask, what do you read for fun? How do you decide which books you'll read or won't read?
Well, that number is about half self-published and half traditionally published, just to keep the record straight. And it’s sad and wonderful at the same time knowing that while it’s tough to get noticed, there is enormous opportunity for authors.
I decide what to read in three ways:
1. I meet a lot of authors and try to read the work of people I meet and like.
2. I browse a lot and am attracted to covers that imply the novels have something to do with art or certain historical periods. In those cases I read backcover copy and a few pages of the first chapter. I read the blurbs too—some you can tell really are sincere and they tend to influence me.
3. I read a few blogs and occasionally will read a description of a book I'll get.
I have favorite authors from a lifetime of reading, so there are some I'll automatically read every time they have a new novel. Included in them: Robert Goddard, Jeffery Deaver, Sophie Kinsella, Katherine Neville, Greg Isle, Laurie King, Lee Child, Lisa Tucker, Susan Howatch, Paul Auster. Barry Eisler, David Hewson, Tracy Chevalier.
Are there certain types of books that get less press coverage? Does it depend on being with a small press versus a large one?
Generally, the bigger the PR and marketing budget the more the press seems to pay attention. But there is reason for optimism. There are a lot of books from the smaller presses that get coverage. Soft Skull and Hard Case Crime—for instance—are two small publishers that get press.
What can authors do to make sure they get the most publicity possible? Do they need to be more proactive?
It’s tough. It’s not why we became writers. It’s not what we know how to do—or even in my case—I know how to do it—but it’s not what I want to do. I left advertising to be a novelist. I didn't want to stay in the biz. But here we are.
Generally I think writing is an art and publishing is a business and the day you get a deal you stop jut being an artist and you also become a businessperson. So should we be proactive? It’s up to each author.
The only thing you have to think about is: You can sit back and let the publisher do what they will, but if they don't do enough and if the book disappears, you'll always wonder—what if I tried? Would it have been different? I can tell you that authors who get involved the right way can energize a publisher into doing more.
Speaking of publicity, last year you heavily promoted VidLit, a new way of spreading the word about books where viewers could watch a short video promo for your book, The Halo Effect, or other books. How did that go over, and what do you see as the next frontier for book promotion online?
Book trailers like Vidlits (vidlit.com) and interviews done through companies like Booklook.tv are fabulous vehicles—think of them like commercials. They are exciting and communicate the flavor of the book or the author really well. The trick is to realize that just having a great commercial in the can doesn't do you any good unless you make a wonderful media buy and get people to see it.
That's not easy. It's why in the fall of 2005 I created Authorbuzz.com. It gets the word out about videos, reviews, and author contests—to over 330,00 readers, 10,000 librarians and 1200 booksellers. It's an affordable channel—and the first of its kind.
You recently took umbrage at a Slate press release claiming there's a lack of literary culture on the web and are even sponsoring a contest where readers write in about their thoughts on the topic. How would you characterize the literary culture on the internet, and how has it grown since you first started covering the topic?
It’s rich, it’s abundant, it’s vital, it’s revolutionary and it is currently more important than print or TV combined when it comes to books. What TV shows offer a literary culture? How many magazines? Even The Atlantic pulled its short stories out of every issue and put them in one issue a year now. Reviews are down in traditional media over 50% from where they were five years ago. There are over 60% fewer short stories and excerpts of novels than there were in top magazines five years ago. It was laughable to me that Slate even suggested that. I've been on line since 1995 and the literary culture gets richer every year. As for what the early days offered—Beatrice.com and Bookreporter.com and TheWell.com were there then. And more ezines that posted poetry and short fiction than I can even name.
You self-published your first novel, Lip Service, to great acclaim, and it was later picked up by a major publisher. Do you think it was the erotic nature of the subject matter that made it so tough for you to get it published in the first place?
No, it was how much of a cross genre novel it was. It had some suspense but not enough to be called suspense, it had some erotica but not enough to be called erotic, it was slightly literary but not enough to be called literary fiction. I remember being enough of a neophyte to ask my agent why they didn't just call it a good book if the editors all liked it that much to write asking for another novel that would be easier to market. Ten years ago—which is when my agent shopped it—psychological suspense wasn't a genre. I believe there would be no problem selling it now.
What would you recommend to an author who's gone through rejection after rejection and is at their wits end as to what to do with the novel they know is brilliant but isn't getting picked up? Would self-publishing or serializing online be advantageous, or should they keep sending it out?
I'd write a second book. I wouldn't self-publish in this environment until I'd really tried to get more than one book published. There is just so much fiction being self-published it’s getting harder and harder to break out.
You're now working on the Butterfield Institute Series, starring sex therapist Dr. Morgan Snow. How did you come up with the idea for the series, and what are the constraints and pleasures of writing a series versus a stand-alone novel?
I'm actually doing both a series and some stand alones—we'll be alternating them. And the reason for that answers your question. I love the series and coming back to the same characters and following them. It’s reassuring to me, comforting the way old friends are, I know who I'm going to be living with for the next ten to twelve months. But writing two Morgan Snow books back to back is very hard for me. I need the excitement of a whole new cast of characters. And by the time I finish the stand alone I'm anxious to go back to the sex therapy.
As to how I can up with the idea—since you asked—it’s at my blog Backstory!
Do you use an outline when writing a thriller? Is it clear from the moment you conceptualize the book "whodunnit?" What's the most challenging thing about writing mysteries?
I have a very short, two page outline. Writing a novel is, for me, a journey and I need to know where I'm going to wind up. I don't need to know every stop on the way.
The most recent book in the series, The Delilah Complex, involves a secret society of anonymous dominant women and submissive men, and a murder mystery involving them. How much research did you do into the psychology of dominance and submission? Because that was one of the best parts of the book to me—you getting inside the heads of these characters.
I research everything in these books. And when I'm done with the last draft, I have a top NYC therapist read them.
Are you trying to make a statement about sexuality in our culture with these books, or are you simply telling a story?
My goal is to tell a story. But I'm only interested in writing about people who have strong ideas and feelings. So I wind up writing stories that do make some statements.
As erotica becomes more and more mainstream, I feel like that is a sign in and of itself that people are looking for authentic stories about sex that speak honestly about sexual impulses, even within the framework of a clearly fictional story, so I'm wondering if you see that as having a cultural impact. Why do you think erotica has become so big in the last five years?
I've read a lot of history and the desire for the authentic stories is nothing new. Human beings always look toward stories about other human beings in order to understand themselves. And we want stories about all aspects of ourselves. Including our sexuality.
The difference is:
A. These days in publishing when publishers see a sales bubble up in any area they all jump on it. Think about how every publishing house started a chick lit line when they thought that was what readers wanted. So this erotica craze is because of the sales bubble of the last few years in the erotic area.
B. And the reason I think there has been a sales bubble in erotica is because of the internet.
With Lip Service, the publisher sold about 25,000 copies in stores. But the Doubleday Book Club and Literary Guild offered the book via direct mail and sold twice that number. People wanted to read something erotic but not necessarily ask the salesperson in the store where the erotic section was. Or which one of the two dozen titles on the shelf was better.
So I'm not just saying the net is someplace to buy erotica without anyone seeing you do it, the net is also someplace to read about what erotic fiction is out there, read reviews of it, and read excerpts of it.
As long ago as 1998, that I know of, hundreds of websites like Cleansheets and the Erotica Readers Association were instrumental in this, offering readers hubs where the could go to discover what was new and what was worth reading.
You also have a new one coming out from Harlequin's new Spice line of erotica called Lying in Bed. Can you tell me more about that and your inspiration for it?
It’s about a woman who writes erotic letters for other people to send. A sort of erotic Cyrano De Bergerac, which is the inspiration for the novel.
What's next for you?
I have two novels coming out this summer. Lying in Bed in June and the next book in the series The Venus Fix in July.