Novel Idea: The Book Industry And The Web

December 15, 1999

Novel Idea
The book industry has its first bona-fide Web phenomenon. Will the music industry be next?
By Glenn McDonald, December 1999 Issue – Business 2.0

When author M.J. Rose found no buyers among traditional publishers for her first novel, Lip Service, she turned to the Internet. In a very smart way.

In 1996, Rose — whose real name is Melisse Shapiro — began shopping around her manuscript. But Lip Service had a problem, Shapiro says. Editors liked the story, but the marketing departments of the various publishers she approached could not figure out what to do with it.

“It’s a thriller and it’s a love story,” Shapiro says. “But it’s also erotic and a little bit — oh, I don’t know — intelligent. It’s not a genre book, and that’s a big problem these days with markets being so pigeon-holed.”

Shapiro looked into some small press publishers, but finally decided she could do better on her own. Drawing from her marketing experience (she previously worked with the Harlequin Romance imprint as the creative director of a New York ad agency), Shapiro undertook a remarkable online self-promotional campaign.

She began by setting up her own Website in the summer of 1998, and selling digital copies of her novel as a downloadable text document. She then found a small printer in Michigan, ran off 3,000 trade paperbacks, and submitted Lip Service to the Amazon.com Advantage program, which allows individual authors to sell paper copies of their books through the site’s well-established system.

Shapiro also sent review copies of her book to smaller Websites, asking for a review and a link to either her own site or to Amazon. “For three months I spent six hours a day, six days a week working on the Internet, finding Websites I thought would reach my target audience,” she says. “I would follow links to links to more links to more links.”

Soon, Lip Service had sold more than 1,500 copies and was the highest ranked small press novel on Amazon. In February 1999, largely because of the online buzz, the Doubleday Book Club and Literary Guild selected Lip Service as a featured alternate selection in their prestigious print catalog. The book club had never before picked up a self-published novel. It was a turning point.

“What she accomplished was done in an environment that, for the first time, was open to receiving things differently,” says Shapiro’s literary agent, Loretta Barrett. “[Her book was noticed] by a young editor at the book club who was cruising the Internet and open to finding things differently. That would not have happened two years ago.”

Barrett returned to publishers with the numbers from Amazon, an increasing portfolio of print and online reviews, and the book club deal. Two weeks later, after an active bidding war, Pocket Books bought the hardcover and paperback rights for an undisclosed sum.

Since her novel was published by Pocket Books, it has climbed into the Top 100 charts at Barnes&Noble and been as high as No. 6 on Amazon’s fiction charts.

Those are impressive figures for a first-time author, especially when one considers that Shapiro essentially found her own core audience online, with none of the traditional marketing muscle offered by the book industry.

Amy Pierpont, an associate editor with Pocket Books, says that while it was ultimately the quality of Lip Service that got Shapiro published, her unprecedented online success helped get the book noticed among the thousands of manuscripts submitted yearly. “We had [heard about] her escapade on the Web in publishing,” she says. “All of those things make a great platform for the author, but if the book isn’t good…there’s nothing there.”

Et tu, music?

For the last few years, the Internet has established itself as a viable medium for many things — news, entertainment, multimedia. But despite its immense influence, the Net has yet to “break” an unknown artist of any type.

Even the advent of the popular MP3 online digital music format has not been able to establish a major new musical artist online.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” says CEO Michael Robertson of MP3.com (see “MP3.com: Now What?” Nov. ’99, p86), one of the Internet’s busiest showcases for digital music. “I think it’s a matter of how quickly the Internet population grows, and how quickly the PC becomes a more intrinsic part of the listening experience.”

MP3.com currently features about 28,000 artists, about half of whom participate in its Digital Audio Music (DAM) program, Robertson says. Much like Amazon Advantage program, DAM allows artists to sell their work directly with no need for a publisher — or in this case a record label.

The system has already paid off for one independent band. In April, the Florida-based rock band Gunburner placed some promotional tracks on MP3.com for free download. Much like Shapiro’s quest to get Lip Service published, the band had previously garnered some tepid interest from record labels, but had landed nothing solid. The band signed on to the DAM program and put up two CDs for sale, along with multiple tracks that could be downloaded free. By July, the band boasted an average of 6,000 free downloads a month of its songs, and in October, Gunburner signed a six-record deal with Columbia Records.

Gunburner manager Sean Marra credits MP3.com for generating the buzz that put his band over the top. “Columbia was interested before we posted to MP3.com, but it was moving slowly,” Marra says. “There was a lot of talk, a lot of dog-and-pony going on, but there was no deal. Once we were on MP3.com, we started reporting the results back to Columbia. There was a snowball effect. All of a sudden it’s, ‘Hey, we got a call from Interscope Records, from Capitol, from DreamWorks. We got PR calls, we got lawyer calls….”

Gunburner’s success in getting signed notwithstanding, the band has yet to sell any albums on the Columbia label, so the test of MP3.com’s — and the Internet as a whole — mettle in actually breaking a band has yet to occur.

The vast potential, however, of the Internet to break an act has attracted many hungry entrepreneurs. Music industry veteran Al Teller is now CEO of Atomic Pop, an intriguing hybrid business that is attempting to push both established acts such as Ice T and Public Enemy on its label, as well as be the first to break a musical act online. Launched in February 1999, Atomic Pop hopes to use its rising online profile as a hipster destination site to promote its growing roster of bands — currently at 10 and counting.

“We’re different in that we look at the Internet as the primary launch mechanism for new bands,” says Teller, former head of MCA Music Entertainment Group and president of CBS records. Much like a traditional record label, Atomic Pop signs artists to exclusive record deals and handles promotion, production, and distribution. Atomic Pop also promotes bands heavily both online and off. For example, Teller says, Atomic Pop undertakes traditional radio promotion with a band, but also makes some tracks available for free download online.

Mark Mooradian, a senior analyst with Internet analyst firm Jupiter Communications, says Atomic Pop’s approach has great potential. “Once you get thousands and thousands of bands online, how do people find the music they want?” Mooradian asks. “There’s a kind of noise factor. To me it’s more interesting to see a company that’s doing more A&R, listening to many bands, and saying, ‘Here are a dozen bands that are great.'”

Young lead the way

It is too early to say whether Gunburner — or one of Atomic Pop’s acts — will become the kind of showcase example in the music business that Shapiro has become in the book industry.

“I think we’re going to see a different way of publishing,” says Barrett, who as president of her own literary agency receives “two to three hundred” submissions a week — many by email. “In the publishing community it’s the younger people who’ve grown up with computers that are using the computer differently than the senior people. Publishing houses now are encouraging their younger [employees] to do so.”

The book industry is just now getting hip to the Internet’s potential as a global talent pool. But Shapiro believes that the online writing community isn’t simply waiting around to be discovered. While crawling through those endless Websites promoting her book, Shapiro discovered a groundswell of activity in do-it-yourself digital publishing. Independent authors can now  distribute their writing via downloadable documents, or on disks that can be used with emerging electronic book readers.

“I’ve kept in touch with a lot of these authors and they have such a different take,” she says. “They don’t believe in print at all. They don’t want to be in print. They only want to be in e-books and they’re adamant about it. I know a woman who’s making $4,000 a month selling her nonfiction book electronically.”

What’s it about?

“Epublishing.” Naturally.

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