I have a wicked treat today! M.J. Rose, the international bestselling author of 12 novels, is here to give us the scoop on her newest novel, The Book of Lost Fragrances, book marketing, and her role in supporting the writer community. Plus she reveals her fantasy profession which I know she would be as talented at as her highly-praised novels.
ON BOOKS, WRITING, & MARKETING
Q. Congratulations on the praise and success of your newest novel The Book of Lost Fragrances! Tell us about it and where the idea came from.
I was reading Cleopatra (69 BCE to 30BCE), who was the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, and found she was fascinated with, and some say obsessed, by scent. Marc Anthony built her a fragrance factory where he planted now extinct flora and fauna including groves of balsam trees (important in the creation of perfume at the time) confiscated from Herod.
In the 1980s a team of Italian and Israeli archaeologists believe they unearthed the factory at the south end of the Dead Sea, 30 km from Ein Gedi. Residues of ancient perfumes along with seats where customers received beauty treatments were found there.
Cleopatra was said to have kept a recipe book for her perfumes, entitled Cleopatra gynaeciarum libri. The book has been described in writings by historians Dioscorides, Homer and Pliny the Elder. No known copy of the book exists today.
When I read about that book, I knew I had the idea for a new novel.
Q. Who is your favorite character in your book?
I shouldn’t have a favorite but I do – it’s Robbie. He was the first character who came to me when I started working on this idea and he arrived fully formed and so interesting – it was love at first sight.
Q. You write genre-busting dark and sexy suspense. What draws you to tell such tales and do you ever see yourself writing in a different genre…say for children?
I don’t see myself writing for children – I’m too interested in the sexual lives of my characters.
I do want to try a totally historical gothic series though and have an idea I’ve thrown into the soup pot. (I have metaphorical soup pots simmering with ideas all the time… I throw in a lot of ingredients as I find them… let it all cook for a long time… and see which tastes the best.)
As for why stories like these? I have a lot of dark thoughts and no matter how I start a novel – even when I try to go lighter – I can’t. As for the sexy part…
Q. You also write The Butterfield Institute Series. What is the biggest challenge for you in writing a series?
The predictability (for me and the reader) that Morgan would make it in the end. There’s that lack of drama I feel I give up with continuing characters.
Q. Your book Lip Service was the first e-book and the first self-published novel chosen by the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club and the first e-book to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house. How did you accomplish this?
It was 1998. And 1998 was the dark ages.
I had an agent and two finished and unsold novels. Publishers had been really excited about them but ultimately too uncomfortable with my genre-bending writing to bite. They wanted me to write either a suspense novel or an erotic novel, or a mystery… or something less sophisticated… or more sophisticated.
Not a little of this and a little of that. They said there was no way to market a book that was so hard to categorize.
But I was in advertising and didn’t understand the words never or no or can’t when it came to marketing.
I’d gone on line in 1994 and been fascinated with the marketing opportunities I imagined possible. So what if I did an online marketing test for my novel- get some sales and then my agent could take my plan and approach to one of those publishers and show they how to market my work.
I figured could print up a few copies and offer an electronic download on line.
The only place to sell the electronic book was from my own website. And the only place to direct sales of the print book was to Amazon – they’d just started the Advantage program for anyone with a book, an ISBN, and a dream.
I didn’t think I was doing anything terrible. It was a marketing experiment. But my agent said I was self-publishing and that it would end of my career before it began. She was very unhappy with me and we split over my decision.
My friends thought I was nuts and said people would think I was self-publishing because I was a failure and that no one would ever take me seriously.
That seemed absurd. I had so many friends who were painters, photographers, sculptors and artists and Indy filmmakers – individuals all who operated creatively and on their own. I didn’t see what I was doing as being very different.
So I printed up the books and set up the website with the electronic books and started the different marketing efforts. They were going pretty well and I was getting excited. That winter, I took a copy of the novel to my local bookstore and told her what was happening online and asked the owner if she’d look at it and take a few copies.
She wouldn’t even turn around and face me – “I don’t look at self-published books,” she’d said with utter derision.
I stood in the snow outside that bookstore and burst into tears. And out of those tears came determination. I became tireless in marketing the book and it really started selling. Within the first six months I sold almost 3000 copies.
Six months, after I’d started my online marketing test Lip Service went on to become the first self-published book and the first ebook discovered online (at Amazon) to go on to be traditionally published.
The publishing world could not be more different today. In a lot of ways it’s very gratifying. The world many of us – Douglas Clegg, Seth Godin, Doug Ruskoff and others – envisioned, is here.
Q. How would you describe your life in only 8-10 words?
Lucky. Neurotic. Dog centric. Happy. Worried. Passionate. Determined. Striving.
Q. If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
Q. What’s your greatest fear?
Illness – for those I love and myself.
Q. What is your biggest pet peeve?
People who can’t see two sides of the story.
Q. What are you reading right now?
Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore.
Q. What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m always writing in my head.
Q. If you couldn’t write what would be your fantasy profession?
Q. If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
French food- the simple stuff on the menu in the bistro on the corner of Rue du Bac and the river in the 7th.
BACK TO BOOKS!
Q. Do you travel for book research?
When I can – yes!
Q. Do you have one sentence of advice for new writers?
Write because you love to write – not for fame or glory. If they come you will be pleasantly surprised – but if they premier-pharmacy.com/product/ambien/ don’t at least you will have spent your life doing something that makes you happy.
Q. Share with us one writing quirk your readers might be interested to know about.
I have to buy something that belongs to my main character before I can start writing a book.
Q. What can we expect from you next?
My next novel is coming out in March 2013 – it’s a bit more gothic than thriller and I’m really excited about it. Victor Hugo plays a large part in it.
Q. You also support the writer community in being a founding member of ITW – International Thriller Writers and the founder of the first marketing company for authors: AuthorBuzz.com. How did these come about and what’s the experience been like?
In 2004 David Morell and Gayle Lynds presented the idea of a thriller writers organization to a group of about 40 of us at Bouchercon in Toronto. They felt thrillers were marginalized and deserved their own organization. Lee Child and I brought to that the idea of a writers organization that would reach out to readers and help authors find their audience. Tess Gerritsen and David Dun formed the rest of that founding board and the organization was born.
We’re still the only writers organization that has a newsletter for readers (with over 15,000 thriller readers subscribed) and that charges no dues to our members but funds our efforts with collaborative projects. My favorite is one that I helped create with Audible – The Chopin Manuscript – Winner of the 2008 Audiobook Of The Year . ITW’s most recent anthology – LOVE IS MURDER – edited by Sandra Brown – debuted on the USAToday Bestseller list in June.
As for what its been like – one of the best experiences of my career. I’m so crazy about it that if elected, I’ll be going back on the board this year. We have a great motto – when we imitate we fail… when we innovate we succeed. I love helping ITW innovate.
As for how AuthorBuzz.com started.
I was in the unique position of being the creative director of a top ad agency before I got published and then got into the business at a very strange time. A friend joked it was like becoming a Russian princess on the eve of the revolution. Books were suddenly in competition with the burgeoning Internet, cell phone, and video/CD market. It was harder than ever to get attention for a book and it’s only gotten more difficult in the ensuing ten years.
Once in publishing, I realized that for the most part, no one really had the time or money to do serious advertising for most of their titles; and so when they did, they didn’t have a great grasp of its potential.
85% of all books published by traditional houses get less than $2,000 in ads/marketing, outside of co-op. (Then and now). To put that in perspective, it’s not unusual for a top-10 NYTimes times book to get $150,000 and up in marketing. And to put that in perspective, the last product I advertised was a new perfume. Our budget to introduce it was 40 million dollars.
It’s not that publishers don’t want all our books to succeed. Of course they do. They wouldn’t buy our books if they didn’t. But they simply don’t have the time and the money and the manpower to treat every book the same way. It’s not personal. And, again, it’s not even about talent. It’s about being the right book at the right place and at the right time.
I realized early on that there were things I could do as an author to help my books. Not to make them giant bestsellers—you can only do that if you win at the publishing lottery —but I could help keep myself alive and keep my sales solid enough so I could keep getting published until the day I had that right book, right place, right time, and the winning ticket.
I started writing articles about the things I was seeing and what I was doing about it and speaking out at conferences.
In 2000, I teamed up with my friend Doug Clegg—a brilliant author, marketer, and idea person. We started teaching a class called Buzz Your Book—all about what we can do to help our books, especially with things publishers can’t do for us even if they want to. The class led to us writing a book, Buzz your Book. And then that led to consulting work. (I still teach an online class at Backspace.org every January for six weeks.)
And then two things happened almost simultaneously.
I’d always said that the day a publisher or agent suggested I change what I was writing to meet the market I was going to go back to advertising where I could make money without compromise. That happened in 2004. So rather than change what I was writing, I started looking for a day job.
At the same time, I was noticed while teaching Buzz your Book that even though there are a million things authors can do to help our publishers market out books, most of our students don’t have the time or the inclination or the spirit for it. Many had day jobs and/or families and/or too many books to write. They wanted to do something for their books but not do it themselves.
So I came up with Authorbuzz. The first ad agency for authors. (But many many publishers use us.) Major marketing solutions at reasonable prices. Solutions publishers would feel comfortable about their authors buying because I’d market in places where publishers would be comfortable. So I made deals with Shelf-Awareness.com and DearReader.com to market books to booksellers, librarians and readers.
Since 2005, we’ve added Bookmovement.com for bookclub readers. And we added ad campaigns and creative consulting, as well as KidsBuzz.
Even though the service was created for authors, we do about 50% of our work with authors and the other 50% with publishers—some publishers use us as their ad agencies.
But the thing that I’m really proud of is that over 70% of our business is repeat business. Authors and publishers come back all the time. And we keep hearing how our authors’ books have better sell-through—that more titles go back to print than expected—and occasionally we even help someone make a bestseller list.
What we do isn’t magic.
Nothing sells books like word of mouth. But how do you get word of mouth started? How do you get the first 300, or 500, or 2,000 readers?
No one ever buys a book they never heard of. No one walks into a bookstore or a library and says “I want to read a book you never heard of and I never heard of.”
So how do you get people to know about your book?
There are many, many ways. Authorbuzz is one of the easier and more affordable ways.
M.J. Rose, is the international bestselling author of 12 novels; Lip Service, In Fidelity, Flesh Tones, Sheet Music, Lying in Bed, The Halo Effect, The Delilah Complex, The Venus Fix,The Reincarnationist, The Memorist , The Hypnotist and The Book of Lost Fragrances.
Rose is also the co-author with Doug Clegg of Buzz Your Book.
She is a founding member and board member of International Thriller Writers and the founder of the first marketing company for authors: AuthorBuzz.com.
Catherine Stine says
Good cover art and titles! Yes, lucky & neurotic, I relate to that. Ha!
Catherine, lucky & neurotic. I think that describes many of us authors! So we shouldnt feel so alone. 🙂 M.J. does have fantastic covers and titles. I agree. They alone make you want to pick up her books.
Kathryn Craft says
What an amazing, in-depth interview! I think M.J. may have been at The Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA years ago. Anyway, congrats M.J. on all your hard-won success, and all you do for other writers along the way! You’re a dynamo.
Kathryn, I would have loved to see M.J. at The Write Stuff conference. Bet that was a good one! She really is a dynamo.
Sandra Carey Cody says
Fantastic interview! You covered all the things I needed to hear today. Thanks.