E-book outcast

The Web made me a successful author, but getting people to respect me as a "real writer" has been harder to come by.

Published July 30, 2001 11:07PM (EDT)

I am an e-book evangelist. By default. And right now that has sent me running to hide out in my hotel room while below me in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville, Va., more than 200 unpublished authors are waiting to pick my brains.

One just followed me into the elevator and started throwing questions at me faster than I could answer.

"But where do I go to reach my readers online?" she asked.

"And how do I find sites for angry teens on the Web?" she continued.

"And what format do I publish in?" she added.

When I told her I really needed to get back to my room to make a phone call she became enraged. Positioning her stout body against the elevator door to keep it open, she shouted at me: "But I have a good book, too. You aren't the only one who deserves to get published! I paid $35 to hear you talk and now you won't tell me what to do!"

A few hours before the elevator incident, I'd done a bookstore reading with a very well-known Oprah author. It was a delight to be included in such august company. Until, of course, the host of the event introduced me to the Oprah author by saying that I'd written a much-talked-about e-book that had crossed over to print.

At the word "e-book" the author's eyes glazed over. To this fellow writer I'd ceased to exist. Not another word was exchanged between us -- I'd become invisible.

"But look," I wanted to shout, waving my book, "I'm in print too. I'm just as real as you are -- just not as rich."

I'm used to it by now. My own scarlet letter is the "e" before the word "book." It's the damning term that turns so many heads and stomachs at the same time.

Electronic publishing is the wave of the future. No, e-books won't replace print books completely, but like paperbacks and audiobooks they are a form that is here to stay. They will give thousands of authors opportunities to get their words read. They will solve certain distribution issues for publishers. And they will make money one day.

Millions of people already get their reading material electronically, so why not get books electronically?

In the past six months alone, more than 5 million e-books have been downloaded off the Web. And read.

But when you're the reluctant "queen of e-book publishing" (as Publishers Weekly has dubbed me), everything isn't rosy. You do get lots of questions about e-publishing, but the thing you don't get is the one thing you want most: respect as a traditional writer.

My foray into the electronic world began in 1998, when I self-published my first novel, "Lip Service," as an e-book and sold it from my own Web site.

Oh, I'd had an agent, and she had gotten rave responses to my manuscript from New York publishing houses. But ultimately my book was rejected because New York didn't know how to market my cross-genre erotic/light lit/page turner.

So I took to the Web and did a bit of marketing, and the book got buzz -- which led to its being selected as a featured alternate selection in the Doubleday Book Club and Literary Guild. This was the first time it had ever bought a self-published novel/e-book, and it made a bit of news.

Two weeks later, a New York publisher bought the hardcover rights and released "Lip Service." My first appearance as a published author was on the "Today" show the day the book hit the shelves.

And I should have known at that point what was in store. Because Katie Couric didn't want to talk about the plot of "Lip Service" or chat about the novel's characters. Instead, she wanted to hear about how I'd done it all myself on the Web. And could other authors do it on the Web? And what was the Web going to mean to publishing?

Soon authors everywhere had read about me or seen me on TV and knew my Cinderella story. Did they buy my book? Well, some did. But more wrote me e-mail. They wanted my help. They wanted me to tell them how to self-publish and strike it rich -- or at least how to get in print.

So many people wanting help, so little time. So I wound up writing another book -- this time with Angela Adair Hoy -- titled "How to Publish and Promote Online." I figured that would stop the flurry of e-mail and I could get back to writing fiction.

Ah, I was wrong.

This winter, Pocket Books published my second novel, "In Fidelity." It got some really wonderful reviews, but that's all been overlooked because I've become "the poster girl for e-books," according to Time magazine.

And to make matters worse, I've dug myself in even deeper by covering the e-publishing phenomenon in a weekly column for Wired.com.

All this adds up to a very confusing career.

I am a novelist, but no one wants to talk about my fiction. People want to talk about my facts: how many e-books sell, how many people read e-books, which e-books are popular, what authors can do to promote their e-books and what publishers can do to promote their e-books. Boy do they want to talk about these facts.

During one recent week, I started out in Washington doing an interview on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." We spoke for one hour about e-books.

Then I drove to Maryland and went to a reception for a librarians convention I'd be attending the next day. For two hours I answered many questions about e-books.

Wednesday morning I did two back-to-back sessions on e-books for the librarians.

Then I rushed back to Washington to do an interview on NPR's "Morning Edition." The subject, of course, was e-books.

"But will you at least mention my novel on the air?" I begged the reporter.

"Of course," she said.

When I heard the interview the next morning, I cringed. She'd gotten the title of my novel wrong. Instead of "In Fidelity," she called it simply "Fidelity."

After NPR, I rushed back to Manhattan to be part of a panel discussion at the Kitchen. The subject? You guessed it: e-books.

And then, only 24 hours later, I arrived in Charlottesville to attend the Festival of the Book. I'd been invited to wear both my hats: to do a reading from my new novel and to give out the first Independent e-Book Awards -- and to participate in two panels on e-publishing.

The audience members for most of these events were not readers but aspiring authors and small publishers who wanted to pick my brains.

After I'd been there 24 hours, I think it's safe to say that if the expression were literal, I'd have no brains left.

Two women cornered me in the ladies room, wanting to know what they could do to promote their e-books or print-on-demand titles. When I politely explained I really did have to go to the bathroom, they reluctantly retreated. Or so I thought.

As I locked the door, I saw their two books being slipped under the bathroom stall.

After the last panel, I took a much-needed walk on the mall to get some coffee. I was followed. As I paid for my latte, the man beside me -- who I thought was just another customer -- asked if he could have my phone number. Before I had time to ascertain if I should be flattered or frightened, he told me he wanted to call me because I hadn't answered all his questions during the panel's Q&A session. And he had lots of questions.

I gave him my business card and suggested he send me e-mail. "What -- so you can blow me off? I want answers and I want them now."

Was I going to have to call the book police?

I'm not complaining. Really. I'm just frustrated. And I'm saddened that I can't help all these authors, and that they don't think I'm giving them enough. I'm depressed that more than 200 people showed up to listen to me and requested my free newsletter on e-publishing -- but not one conference attendee bought one of my novels.

The capper to my week was a lovely reception for all the authors and speakers who'd been invited to the festival.

At one point, I was introduced to a reviewer of women's fiction for a very prestigious newspaper, but the person who introduced me began by saying I had been one of the organizers of the e-book day. The reviewer made a face that made me think her wine had turned to vinegar.

"I don't think e-books are really books at all. Excuse me," she said, turning on her heel -- leaving me feeling like one -- and walking away.

The man who'd tried to introduce us never even got the chance to mention my name.

"I guess she's just here to hobnob with the real writers," he said as he grabbed a crab cake from the buffet.

But I am a real writer -- I am, I am. My first novel has sold more than 70,000 copies. My new novel has just gone back for a third printing. I'm published in six languages.

I didn't say any of that, though. I just grabbed a crab cake, too.

I guess I should consider myself lucky to be published at all and shut up. But the thing is that even though I knew all about how hard this business of being an author is and how you never have to stop selling yourself and your books, and even though I knew how tough it is to break through, it still gets to me.

Well, I've learned my lesson. I've got to stop talking so much about e-books and pay attention to my career as a novelist.

The only thing that really worries me is that there's an "e" in that word, too.

By M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose is the author the novels "Lip Service" and "In Fidelity."


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