M.J. Rose has one of the most inspiring stories in our business. From a self-published first book to a television series on FOX based on her latest psychological thrillers, she woke up the publishing industry to expand their thinking of defined genres, electronic books, and how they conduct their marketing. In this interview, we’re going to talk about that transformation, her new book, THE HYPNOTIST, as well as her work helping other authors through her blogs, Buzz, Balls & Hype and Backstory, as well as her company, AuthorBuzz. Please welcome M.J. and feel free to join the discussion in the comments section.
Your newest thriller series was just made into a television show (congratulations!!), and I think where I want to start is to have you look back at your career and describe the journey. Where did you begin? And what choices did you make along the way that you think helped you the most?
Thanks for having me.
Goodness, where did I start? I wanted to be a painter and went to art school. Then I got into advertising and started writing screenplays. That somehow led to a novel, a great agent and rave rejections.
Editors loved it but didn’t know how to position it or market it since it didn’t fit into any one genre.
My agent asked me to write another novel that would fit into a [specific] genre. I tried. She took it out. Same rave rejections for the same reason.
She asked me to write another. And I tried but it was still cross genre.
I had an idea. I’d been the creative director of a big NYC ad agency and I knew how to market stuff. What if I went online, set up a web site where readers could download the book for $9.95, and then seriously marketed the novel on the Internet? Maybe I could figure out if this kind of cross genre thing could sell. It was a marketing experiment, that was all. In no way did I intend to self-publish and bypass publishing forever.
My agent told me not to do it. That I’d never live down the stigma, and it was a mistake. But I couldn’t figure out what else to do.
The book’s website went live in December of 1998. The book, LIP SERVICE, did pretty well. After selling over 2,500 copies online, it was discovered by an editor at the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club. It then became the first e-book (back then it was called an electronic download—there really weren’t e-books yet) and the first self-published novel chosen by the clubs, as well as being the first e-book to go on to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house.
As for my choices. I guess I have to do it my own way, and while that’s hurt, it’s also helped. It’s easier for some reason for me to see the things I did wrong and how my career has suffered. I’m really an optimist but also a realist and I’ve made just about every mistake you can make in a career.
Isn’t it interesting how the same actions look so different to another set of eyes? You see the mistakes, but to me, your story shows resilience, creative prowess (how many people can just “write another”?) and pure bravery.
So tell me, did this send you into despair for some time? And where did you draw the strength and belief in your work to keep at it? Why was giving up not an option?
There were so many times in all this [that]I was in despair. And so many times I did give up. I just didn’t give up for all that long in the end.
Here’s what happened, time-wise.
When my then-agent asked me to write that third book and try to fit into a genre, it sent me into a real depression for about six months. It started in the summer, and I was a real mess. I’d been writing at that point for about six years, and it seemed a stupid and impossible goal after all. So I gave up and wound up getting divorced instead. And then I met someone. And that was heady. And then just when I was settling down with that, my mom got sick and then died. I spent a full year mourning her—we were incredibly close. At the end of that year, the man I’d met and was living with almost died.
During all this—which start to finish was three years, from the time the agent asked for a new book to Doug getting sick—writing was in the background. I’d failed at it. I knew I eventually I’d have to figure out what to do next, but I couldn’t. I could barely do the advertising work I had to do.
It was in that year, 1998, while Doug was sick and waiting for an organ donor, that the idea to test market LIP SERVICE came to me. I don’t think it was for some lofty reason. I just didn’t want to leave the house. I remember thinking that if I could get the book published, finally I could make my living without having to leave him.
You know what they say—necessity is the mother of invention.
Well, I have so much respect for your ability to weather through and then stand up full again. It’s easier to talk of this kind of pain when you’re on the other side of it and you can see what you were able to accomplish. Six months in the big picture sounds like something you can live through, but when you’re in it, each day can be so very painful and you don’t know when (or if) it’s going to end, or if there’s any point.
Which brings me to this question. There must have been something inside of you (your story, your voice, your vision?) that was stronger than the pain you were experiencing, stronger than the discouragement, stronger than the cruel reality of the publishing business. Tell me about the part of you that yearns be heard.
You ask great questions. More than that, you are making me think about things I’ve never thought about before.
This one was hard. I’m not very conscious of myself as a writer—I’m too busy trying to make it all work and deal with surviving as a writer. Your question really stumped me, and it’s taken a while for me to figure it out.
My parents and my grandparents were very creative. My mom was a photographer, my grandmother a painter, my grandfather was in advertising and one of the people who helped turn brainstorming into a formal construct, and my father was in the toy business inventing and creating new toys.
I had all that around me and can’t remember not reading or painting or making dolls’ clothes or writing poetry or keeping journals. Expressing myself was who I was. At the same time, I was one of those kids [who was] happier with adults than other kids. I didn’t fit in, and books were my friends. They were my delight, my escape, and my salvation.
As I said before, I didn’t set out to be a writer—but a painter—then wound up in advertising. And while I was in advertising, in my late 20s, I started writing a novel. This was not an effort at art. This thing I was writing had one purpose—it was the only way I could think of to communicate with a man who I wasn’t with anymore but was still very much and very desperately in love with. I thought that if I wrote it and it got published, he would read it. And read between its lines. That I could reach him that way.
Yeah, a phone call would have been easier. This was a crazy, lofty, romantic, 19th-century way of reaching out to him. To be with him. On paper if I couldn’t be in life.
Well, in the process something clicked. When I was writing, I was gone—my reality was on the page; I was lost in the story. And I loved the feeling. More than that, even when I wasn’t writing, when I was just thinking about the story, I was happy. A better kind of happy than I’d felt in a long time. Being lost in a novel, I discovered then and it’s still true, is when I am the least unhappy, least neurotic, least worried about life and the people I love.
Writing, like reading, became an escape for me. And a drug.
Getting published wasn’t ever the original goal for me. To keep writing was. But being an ambitious person, getting published became part of the goal. And then, once I have any goal, I’m too stubborn to let go. So I had to keep trying.
Voice? Message? My stories? Nothing so lofty. I was reaching out to a man I was in love with and had lost; and in the process, saved myself and found a way to stay sane.
I’m absolutely choked up with this idea of writing a book to try to let a man know you love him. There’s a vulnerability and a guardedness about it that’s so very tender and moving to me.
Okay, so being a stubborn person myself, I’m still determined to find this “thing” that drives your writing. Think through your body of work. Are there themes or issues you keep coming back to? Because my own impression is that you have a willingness to embrace characters who are often ashamed, consumed with regret/guilt, or living with secrets. You walk the reader into the dark and slowly bring light into that space.
Another question I’ve never deliberated for any time.
Anyone who knows me knows I am forever asking too many questions. I’ve always been fascinated with people’s psychology. For a while there, I thought about leaving advertising to be a therapist. I think my characters are all people who’ve cut themselves off emotionally for one reason or another. As a result, they’re not living complete lives and haven’t individuated. My novel starts with them in that place you so poetically call the dark, and then by the end of the story they have been brought into a place of some light. I am consumed by secrets—I want them like chocolate. I hate knowing someone only on the surface and not knowing who they are underneath. As a result, I’m very bad at small talk and cocktail parties.
I think that’s something all of my favorite writers do. They drop you into a world of secrets—not just the things people won’t share in regular company but the kinds of secrets people won’t even share with their closest friends. I love when an author isn’t afraid to take you there and to slow down enough to unpack those secrets and those feelings, because it’s when they’re brought into the light that you discover the humanity there, and it’s suddenly not so easy to judge a person.
And so let’s talk about your newest book, THE HYPNOTIST. You’ve truly created a world full of secrets! Describe this world a bit. And I’d also love to hear you talk about your moody protagonist, who’s haunted partly because he can’t shake an event that happened years before.
Lucian Glass is an FBI criminal art investigator. He surfaced as a minor character in my last book and I fell in love with him. I realized half way through that book he deserved one of his own because his damage was so very deep and disturbing to me. As a college student, he and his girlfriend were involved in a robbery. She was killed and he was brutally stabbed as he was trying to save her. It was the defining event of his life and changed the course of his future. He gave up on the idea of creating art in order to try and save art.
Now 20 years later, he’s called in by the Metropolitan Museum in New York City to investigate the mutilation of a stolen painting, and that sets his story and the plot of the book in motion.
The world of this book is one I’m intimately familiar with—which isn’t always true in my work. But I grew up in New York City, across the street from the Metropolitan, and then moved back to that same neighborhood as an adult. The museum has been almost a temple to me my whole life—certainly a refuge and place of inspiration—and it was wonderful to write about it in such detail. I once figured out that, except for the years I was in college, I’ve never gone longer than six weeks without visiting the Met.
I love knowing that about you and the Met. And that you’ve taken your love for art and placed it right at the heart of the book.
But let’s stick with this idea of being haunted by past events for a bit. Because the sense of haunting extends beyond this lifetime. Reincarnation is also at play here and adding a layer to the urgency and the grief of your characters. Certain souls, it seems, remain connected across time, and events in past lives press upon today. Talk to me about your understanding of reincarnation. And I’m curious if you have a sense that you were once someone else?
I don’t have any actual past life memories. I’ve been hypnotized quite a few times while doing research but never cold dredge up a cohesive memory. The only thing that ever happened was a flash of walking on a stone path, walking toward a house on a cliff that might have been in New England. I could see my feet and [I] was wearing pilgrim shoes. All I learned was, even in my past life, I was a shoe whore.
But I believe I had past lives because of certain connections I’ve had to people and places. Deep, deep meaningful connections that were immediate and spontaneous in a way that would be impossible to explain if not for reincarnation.
It’s been a lifelong fascination, and early on in my life as a writer, an area I always though had amazing dramatic possibility and resonance. And I started doing research into reincarnation when I was in my late 20s and trying my hand at screenplays.
When I write, I often feel I’m channeling other people and their lives… I suppose, in a sense, that has some roots in the idea of reincarnation. But you’re being more thoughtful about all this than I am. I overthink everything in the whole world except why I write, what I write, and how I write. All the things you’re asking me to look at.
Already in the two days we’ve been going back and forth with this interview, you said something that gave me a great insight into a character I was having trouble with. So I think I’m getting way more out of this than you or your readers, and for that I apologize.
I’m thrilled that our conversation gave you insight into a new project. It’s done the same for me!
I’m on the fence about whether having flashes of a past life would give me a wonderful feeling of connectedness to another time or if it would be more of a frustrating, Alzheimer’s-like feeling—a sense of something important that is always out of reach. Although I suppose that emotional conflict is what makes it such a powerful thing to write about.
Do you know if there’s anything in the real world that’s the rough equivalent of The Phoenix Foundation, the organization dedicated to the study of reincarnation?
The Phoenix Foundation doesn’t exist but I was inspired by the amazing Dr. Ian Stevenson who did past life regressions with over 3,000 children at the Division of Personality Studies, which he founded and ran for 40 years at the University of Virgina. When Stevenson died in 2007, Dr. Jim Tucker took over.
Stevenson traveled and researched extensively for most of his adult life, investigating cases that suggested to him the possibility of past lives. He believed reincarnation was the survival of the personality after death.
I just wiki’ed him. Fascinating stuff about perceptual studies, psychosomatic illnesses, and the locked cabinet!
So, I find this interesting that you have a series of books featuring this mythical Phoenix Foundation. And you have another series featuring the mythical Butterfield Institute. Typically with thrillers, the reader follows a particular protagonist from one book to the next, but with your series, the continuity seems to be thematic. Would you talk a little about that choice?
To answer that I think I need to first explain that I don’t think I write true thrillers. In fact I don’t think I clearly fit in any one genre—which is great for me creatively but bad for me, sales-wise. The business works in genres and I don’t make things easy for my publishers. So I wind up in thrillers because I fit better there than anywhere else.
And the reason I don’t quite fit in thrillers is similar to the same reason I didn’t choose to write a continuing character.
My books are as character-driven as they plot-driven. And when I write about a character, I work out their issues with them over the course of the novel. Each novel has a lot of symbolic therapy sessions in it. The therapist in me would feel like a failure if my characters didn’t evolve and find some resolution.
But with that resolution comes a cessation of a lot of the kinds of conflict that lead to great drama. Or it leads to a continuing character who strains my credulity in book after book when they attract personal crisis after personal crisis without ever evolving.
So I chose to create a worlds which give me the freedom to bring in new main characters full of angst, needing help in finding a new path.
A good example of great characters who can sustain a series are Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Carol O’Connell’s Mallory. Interestingly, in both those situations, we’re reading about deeply damaged characters who are frozen in their psychosis. I love those characters as a reader—but as I writer I would need to help them work out those issues, and then I’d ruin the series.
Yes, you’re definitely straddling genres with your books. I find that exciting as a reader, but I know publishing houses are often concerned about things like what shelf to put you on at the bookstore. Pull the curtain back, if you don’t mind, and show us something of the business and the marketing from behind the scenes. How, for example, did they decide to position this book, and how do you know your book is being “marketed” rather than simply “printed”?
I wish I could share what goes on behind that particular curtain but I don’t get to see it. I’d give my right arm to sit in a positioning meeting with the sales force and really understand the choices that are made.
As for how to know if you are being printed or well-published?
There are so many levels of being well-published. Just being published by a quality house will get you more attention by booksellers and librarians and reviewers than you will get if you are, say, self published. Yes, in some cases, all an author will get in terms of marketing is co-op [i.e., table space at bookstores]. But co-op is expensive and it’s critical. So even if it stops there, you are 100% ahead of at least 750,000 other writers a year. (That’s the number of self-published books there were in 2009.)
The real issue here is expectations and how to manage them.
I think our jobs as writers is to keep writing the best books we can until we write the right book at the right time—the one the publisher can get behind and give that magic push to.
For some of us that will be our first novel; for others, our 10th; and some of us will never get it—not for lack of trying or talent, but rather, because our timing just doesn’t sync up.
So I don’t think we should compare ourselves to each other. That’s just inviting madness. Who gets the push is all too often not about talent at all but rather the fit of the book and the market and what the stores say they want and the fads and foibles of the day.
That said, usually if you are getting a good push, you know it. In fact, I’ve never met an author who was getting it who didn’t know it. But I have met hundreds of authors who weren’t getting but didn’t know what was happening.
The business is a strange one. We, the writers, are treated in so many cases, like children. We’re trained to feel lucky we have contracts at all, that we should be grateful and quiet and let the grown-ups work it out. We’re left out of most conversations about the fruit of our labors. That’s fine conceptually—I love the idea of just sitting in a room and writing, or being the “artist” and letting everyone else worry about everything else.
But all too often, if you do that, you wind up wishing you hadn’t. I’ve tried it both ways, and not knowing has seriously screwed up my career more than once.
No one in publishing, it seems, wants to tell the writers the truth. But editors will tell agents the truth—or at least most of the truth. So I believe the key relationship to having a successful career is having the right agent. And I think your agent is the best person to ask whether you are being printed or published—if you are being treated right or not.
All that said, here are some signs that signal you’re being published versus printed. Please understand, too, that this varies house to house.
Are there a sizable number of ARCs being printed? (And sizable has to be compared to other books at the house.)
Is there a serious effort to get reviews?
What kind of pre-pub marketing is being done to the trades? Ads in PW? Shelf-Awareness? Bookselling this Week?
Are you getting to meet any of the players in marketing, sales and PR at the house?
Going to any trade shows or library shows?
If the house does actual tours, are you getting one? If not, are you getting an Internet tour? How big?
Are they giving you and your agent a marketing plan? Sharing advertising? Is there advertising at all?
If the house sends authors to meet accounts, are you going to meet them?
What kind of bells and whistles are going to surround the book?
What kind of co-op is the book getting? Will the book be on tables at the superstores? End caps? 20% off?
Is there a publicist working with you?
I’m sure your answer is setting off all kinds of anxiety for the authors who don’t see that happening as their books move toward publication. And we all know that excitement from the publishing house and, then, word of mouth is what sells books. So let’s talk about what authors can do beyond what they’re given from their publishers. And would you describe your company, AuthorBuzz, and how you think it can help a writer?
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. To put that in perspective, it’s not unusual for a top-10 NYTimes times book to get $250,000 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 with a publisher behind you—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.
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 happen 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. Marketing solutions at reasonable prices for authors. 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.
Going back to your question, 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.
I feel like I just completed a master class in publishing, and thank you for this—for sharing your vast knowledge of this business and what your journey as a writer has been like. But most of all, I’m glad to now know you as a painter, as the young girl who made dolls’ clothes and had books for friends, and as a writer who finds her characters in the dark and can’t stand to leave them there, damaged. Thank you for all of that, and for being here.