"Pass the virtual champagne, please"

Goodbye, chips and dip: The book party comes to cyberspace.

Published June 1, 2000 7:39PM (EDT)

A few days ago I found myself running late for a book party. In the old days, the punishment for such tardiness would have been a tapped-out open bar and canapes curled up like toes.

But tonight's book blowout was an altogether different affair. If I turned up late to this party, my punishment would be far more serious: I'd be turned away... from the chat room.

On May 16, the tweedy world of publishing changed yet again as AOL's The Book Report hosted the world's first online book party. The guest of honor: self-published author extraordinaire M.J. Rose, an ad exec turned erotic-novelist.

Last year, Rose proved that rejection in the Internet age is hardly the final word. After traditional publishers deemed her book "Lip Service" too racy, she started aggressively promoting electronic and print versions on various erotic and romance sites.

Rose quickly generated buzz that attracted the attention of the Doubleday Book Club and Literary Guild, which listed "Lip Service" in their print catalog. Eventually, the e-publishing poster girl snagged a high five-figure deal with Simon and Schuster's Pocket Books; recently, she found herself added to Susie Bright's Best American Erotica 2001 and #4 on Barnes & Noble's list of best-selling e-books.

With "Lip Service" now available in paperback and e-book, it only seemed logical to commemorate Rose's dazzling gifts of Web promotion. In publishing, that usually means a book party. "I always dreamed of having a book party," Rose says. "Even when I was a child."

In keeping with her Web success, Rose decided to throw the party online. The folks at Pocket Books were only happy to oblige; they gave free copies of the e-book to the first 50 pilgrims who bellied-up to the cyber bar. (Rose arranged for another online first -- she "autographed" each book sold that evening with an "e-signature.")

What would have probably cost Pocket parent Simon and Schuster several thousand bucks didn't even cost a dime. Carol Fitzgerald, co-founder of The Book Report, a Web forum for readers and writers, sponsored the low-cost party as an experiment.

Could the terra-firma book party be facing extinction? "I see this happening more and more in the future," says Kate Tentler, the publisher of Simon and Schuster Online. "Marketing budgets are only getting tighter, and this is a great alternative to the traditional book party."

Perhaps, but the online party experience leaves a little to be desired. Take for example, boozing and star gawking -- crucial elements of the terrestial party. At this party, guests had to settle for "cyber champagne," as we learn in the following official excerpt:

Marlene T: Please lift your cyber champagne glasses and clink your mouse.

(Dozens "clink" to MJ's success.)

CKCF: Congrats MJ...(clink)

Not quite the same as a real glass of bubbly.

And as everyone who's done the chat thing knows, people have a tendency to keep their true identities disguised online. A creative chat name frees up visitors to be as candid -- or nasty -- as they wanna be. Which makes hosting an online book party a little like staring down an audience of people with bags over their heads. "It is a little disorienting as a result," admits Kelly Milner Halls, journalist and veteran chat host of four years.

But in many ways the online book party was business as usual -- full of cruising, schmoozing and industry gossip. At the height of the party, the "room" was filled with 66 visitors -- a relatively big crowd, says Hall. And virtually all the guests praised Rose and her accomplishments, though most had never met her before.

Rose was thrilled.

"Before the Internet, authors were incredibly removed from their audience, " she says. "The cyber party is a great, democratic way to get in touch with people who wouldn't otherwise get to come to a regular book party."

Now, if they could only digitize the dip.

By Heidi Kriz

Heidi Kriz is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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