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On Tour With Best-Selling Suspense Writer M.J. Rose

It's midday in New York and suspense novelist M.J. Rose has spent much of her morning dropping in on area bookstores to promote and autograph copies of her new book, The Hypnotist.

After 11 novels and multiple book contracts, Rose still works tirelessly to promote her books.

"It's all a game of what can we do -- what on earth can we do -- to make books more noticed and stand out from the crowd," she says.

That can be especially tricky when it comes to big bookstores like the Barnes & Noble she stops in at for another round of book signing.

"You walk in and you go, 'Oh my god, there are so many books. How is anybody going to actually find my book?' " she says.

One way is to pay for better visibility -- publishing companies often buy space on those display tables that are featured so prominently at the front of bookstores. Another way is to show up and do book signings so that precious, signed copies can get a special sticker. That special sticker is the key to selling books -- and selling them fast.

"That's actually why we schlep around and do this," Rose says.

Twelve years in the book-writing business and a background in advertising have made Rose a pro at selling her work, but it wasn't always that way. When she first got started in 1998 -- with an agent but no book deal -- she optimistically turned to a young Internet for help.

"I figured I'll get a website and I'll put the book on the website," she says -- "$9.99 for this Word document and I'll market the book and I'll see what happens."

After a month, it became clear that people weren't really interested in downloading her novel -- "there was no such thing as an e-book," she says -- so she found a way to make printed copies that she began taking around to bookstores. But even that was an uphill battle.

"Nobody would even talk to me," she says. One local bookstore owner actually told Rose she would never even look at a self-published book.

But Rose kept at it. Through industrious self-promotion she managed to get enough media attention to catch the eyes of The Literary Guild and the Doubleday Book Club. Within a few weeks, she had a book deal. Since then she's seen more success than a lot of writers -- her book Reincarnationist had a brief second life as a TV show -- but she is not a household name. And that means she can't rest quite yet.

Back on the road, Rose visits the site of one of her more recent successes. Until recently The Mysterious Bookshop in Greenwich Village wouldn't carry her books because they thought she was a romance writer, the genre her publisher at Harlequin is best known for. Rose worked hard to set the record straight -- she writes suspense, not romance, novels -- and while she won the battle at this store, she still faces it in others.

At an independent bookstore in Grand Central Station she learns that her books have been shelved in the romance section, but when she tries to persuade a store manager to move them, all the manager has to say is, "It just sells better there."

"This is when a writer wants to jump into a pool of water," Rose says. "All the marketing and advertising sells the book as what it is and hopes that the book will be displayed so that your readers can find it. The people that read this book -- you know, they're just not going to go and look for me in romance."

These are the experiences that make Rose skeptical about the recent hype surrounding self-publishing. With more than 1 million books published last year alone -- about three-quarters of them self-published -- it's hard for a book to rise to the top. And according to Rose, it should be.

"You are going to have to break through," she says, "but if you want to make a career out of this then you have to make sure you are doing it in a very professional way."

And most important, Rose says, is to remember the writing. If she had her way, she'd spend her time writing instead of touring area bookstores.

"I just want to sit in my room and write books," she says.

But for the moment, the writing will have to wait because at the end of a very long day M.J. Rose still has more books to sign.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.