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Interview: November 19, 1999

November 19, 1999

M. J. Rose, author of LIP SERVICE, had the unique experience of being a self-published author who broke all records by self-promoting her book online, and then wooing mainstream publishers. Find out the secrets of her success, hear firsthand advice about writing and self-publishing, her thoughts about the Internet and the way it's changing publishing, and the juicy details about her novel, LIP SERVICE.

Narrated by a married woman who takes a secret job as a phone-fantasy therapist, LIP SERVICE is a steamy book about relationships, sex, therapy, and self-discovery. Join TBR Writer Jana Sicilano in this revealing and informative interview, skating back and forth over the line of sex and publishing.

TBR: Julia Sterling, the thirty-something wife of a prominent Manhattan psychotherapist is the main character in your novel LIP SERVICE. What is it about Julia that makes her so indicative of the empty life of the upper class in the 90s?

MJR: Julia has bought into the "perks syndrome" of many married women. The clothes, the apartment, the Hampton weekends, the idea of being part of a socially "in" couple. She pays lip service to the idea of being a good wife in exchange for a life style that has all the trimmings but little else. She's a truly good mother so it's not until her stepson goes off to college that she finally confronts the reality of her marriage.

TBR: Do you know anyone like her?

MJR: Unfortunately yes. But I have noticed in the last few years that many of those women are at last facing their empty marriages. Gone is the blatant denial I used to see. Many of the women I know are staying in those marriages --- but with their eyes open. That, at least, is a step forward.

TBR: How did you come up with LIP SERVICE's theme of "phone sex"?

MJR: LIP SERVICE is based on two separate incidents that coalesced in my head. The first took place while I was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was accidentally patched into another guest's phone call and overheard a conversation between a famous male celebrity and a phone sex operator.

The second event happened about two months later. I was at a dinner party with a husband and wife who had a certain dynamic in their relationship that I found fascinating. He was very strong, charming, and full of bravado about his wife and his accomplishments, while she was reserved and quiet. Every time he talked about how wonderful she was, an uncomfortable expression appeared on her face. Both episodes stayed with me and became part of the foundation for this novel.

TBR: The "phone sex" company where your protagonist is researching her story is called The Butterfield Institute. Is this a direct homage of BUTTERFIELD 8 by John O'Hara, another era's sexually provocative bestseller?

MJR: Yes, I have a few of those homages in the book, some personal, some more obvious like the O'Hara reference. I loved O'Hara and consider him a master of characterization. FROM THE TERRACE is one of my all time twenty favorite books. (I never have been able to whittle that list down to ten.) TBR:

The Butterfield Institute, at which Julia ends up working, caters to those seeking "phone sex therapy." Do you think that Freudian psychotherapy is a form of sexual storytelling in general --- you sit down with someone you don't know and divulge your fantasies in what you feel is a "safe" place?

MJR: I know Freudian analysis not designed to be sexual storytelling. And a truly experienced, gifted psychiatrist would not allow it to become that. But I know from my research that unfortunately many psychotherapists do allow it to take on that hue. It's a shame. Good therapy is invaluable to our development to becoming integrated, satisfied people.

TBR: What kind of research did you do before writing LIP SERVICE? Have you experienced phone sex first hand?

MJR: I did extensive research with two psychotherapists, a sex therapist, two New York City Police Detectives, a few phone sex operators and a botanist. Then I wrote the novel. When I was done, I decided I needed to double check the whole phone sex experience. One of the phone sex operators I had interviewed asked some of her regular clients if they would talk to me (free of charge) over the phone. A few said yes. So I did do phone sex, but for me it was research, pure and simple.

TBR: What do you think is the main obstacle to communication between the sexes in our lives today?

MJR: I think that men and women have very different erotic triggers and needs. Scientists postulate that through the survival of the fittest theory, men today are an evolution of those men who were the best at procreation. (Monogamy is a fairly new invention in the history of civilization.)

On the other hand, women are an evolution of the females who were the best nurtures. This translates into extremes.

Men are attracted to new and different women. Women are attracted to one man who they are emotionally connected to and see as the father of their children.

This further translates to men who are easily stimulated just by seeing a sexy woman, in person or in magazines or in videos. For women, pictures aren't erotic turn ons as much as stories about men they can imagine being with are.

Our hormones also make the two sexes operate differently.

Add the issues Susan Faludi, Susie Bright and Naomi Wolfe talk about and you have two species that are not sure of what roles they are playing in the mating game. Or any other game.

TBR: Your story about getting published is almost as interesting as your book! After you wrote LIP SERVICE, what steps did you take to publish it? What led you to self-publish? Can you tell us a little bit about this process?

MJR: When my agent submitted LIP SERVICE to the top publishing companies three years ago, all the editors loved the book, but the marketing departments were very nervous because it didn't fit into a particular category. So I sat with the book for a while. During that time, I got increasingly involved on the Internet. I realized that I could test market the novel as a download, and see what kind of response it generated. That initial testing generated such great feedback that I decided to self-publish it and sell it online.

TBR: As a self-published book, LIP SERVICE, received quite a buzz --- what did you do to create this?

MJR: From my advertising background, I knew how books were marketed and why women read certain types of books. I thought that one of the ways to approach those women and give them what they were looking for was on the web, especially because of the privacy factor.

I started with one web site, which was the Erotic Readers Association and I went to all their links, which led me to other links, and the process kept unfolding from there. I made lists of the sites that would be interested in either reviewing the book or having me write an article. In exchange, I would have a tag line at the end of the piece about LIP SERVICE. I also sent out approximately 100 books to various sites.

That's how the incredible word-of-mouth on LIP SERVICE began. Then I started selling the book on, where it became the highest-ranking small-press novel on its list. That's where Doubleday Direct editor, Erika Tsang discovered it. LIP SERVICE was the first self- published novel to become a featured alternate selection. That made the trades and my agent held an auction two weeks later. Since Pocket Books bought it, five other countries including England, France and Germany have bought rights.

TBR: How did you present the book to your publisher now, Pocket Books?

MJR: I didn't, my agent, Loretta Barrett did. Once Publisher's Weekly broke the news that a self-published novel had been bought by the book clubs, she started getting calls.

TBR: In retrospect, now that you have been both self-published and picked up by a major house, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks to both?

MJR: There aren't any drawbacks to being published by a major house. As far as I'm concerned it's all benefits. Amy Pierpont, my editor, is wonderful to work with and improves my writing. She and Linda Marrow have made me feel like I have a home at Pocket.

The greatest drawback to being a self-published novelist is that you are all alone out there. No editors, no feedback. Plus you can't get your book into bricks and mortar stores where 80% of all books are still sold.

But the biggest problem (whether you are with a big press or self-published) is getting word of mouth. That takes time and is the only thing that sells books. Luckily women have been really liking the book and raving about it.

Give it two more years and I think the Internet, Print on Demand Books, and eBooks will have drastically changed the whole literary environment. The web is the greatest thing that has happened to books, authors and readers since Gutenburg.

TBR: Do you find that people in the publishing world respond differently when faced with a self-published book as opposed to a name brand published novel?

MJR: Self-published were the two dirties words in the book biz when I started all this two years ago. I even wrote an article that's up on my website wondering why independent filmmakers get applauded but self-published authors get laughed at. And boy did I get laughed at. In the article I suggested that what the book world needed was the Sundance Book Festival. And it looks like Microsoft just made that happen with the Frankfurt eBook Festival. Next year they are going to give away 100,000 dollars in prizes. And self-published eBooks are welcome.

I think as there are more and more success stories, self-publishing will become respected. Just last month Barnes and Noble purchased 49% of The ramifications of that are enormous. For a one-time fee of $100, self-published authors will be able to publish Print on Demand books through They estimate next year they will publish over 10,000 new titles.

You have to know B&N is going to be scouring those titles for discoveries of new authors they can sell in their stores. Bookstores as publishers? All bets are off on what is going to happen to publishing in the next decade.

TBR: What advice would you give to writers regarding self-publishing?

MJR: I get asked that so much that I just wrote a book to answer the question. THE $ECRETS OF OUR SUCCESS by M. J. Rose and Angela Adair-Hoy (publication date: Jan 2000). How to successfully publish and promote on the Web --- with over 500 links! Includes secrets from over 20 successful authors and publishers. You can find out more about it and preview it on my website

But a bit of advice would be --- don't give up hope and stay focused. It's hard work...but it can be done.

TBR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

MJR: Yes, I never wanted to do anything else. And I never have. I started out as a copywriter at an ad agency and I've also written screenplays (I've had four optioned and one stolen).

I used to play a game with myself when I was feeling the most hopeless about my writing. "Okay, maybe this is a dopey career to pursue. I don't have to be a writer...I can be a..."

But I could never come up with anything I wanted to do besides write.

I love to be with people I care about, to shop, to garden, to shop, to cook, to watch movies, to stay at home and listen to music, to go to the beach, to swim, to shop...but as far as filling the day --- I just want to write.

TBR: What's your daily writing routine like? Do you have one?

MJR: When I'm working on a novel I write about seven hours a day. In two to three hour spurts. I start at the crack of dawn and cannot write once it turns dark.

Working from a chapter by chapter outline and a six inch thick folder of notes, I race through the first draft and don't reread a word until I reach the end.

The second draft (my favorite) is a leisurely line by line edit where I question every word. I love noodling and rewriting. I once spent a week on a paragraph and was in heaven.

I've learned more about being a writer from John Gardner's book, THE ART OF FICTION, than from any other person or source and I highly recommend it!

TBR: Can you tell us a little about your next project?

MJR: Well, I just finished a new novel for Pocket Books that will be released sometime in the year 2000. And early next year will be starting on another (I think it's bad luck to talk too much about future books.)

TBR: What are your plans for the millennium? Any exciting celebrations coming up for New Year's?

MJR: I bet my plans are quite unique. I'm going to be spending New Year's Eve with my boyfriend at the hospital. He's getting his brother's kidney for Christmas and we'll be watching the ball drop on TV from the hospital bed while he is recuperating from his kidney transplant operation. God willing!