Media

This woman is writing a VC-backed novel — & looking for new revenue for book publishers

Michelle Miller, author and creator of the Underwriting, working on the novel
Image Credit: Yolanda Lu / VentureBeat

What comes to your mind when you put Charles Dickens and soap operas together?

For Michelle Miller, a banker-turned-writer, it’s a venture-capital backed serial novel that’s trying to create a new revenue model in the much-squeezed book industry.

With its own music, audio, and photography, The Underwriting runs like a TV series. Each Wednesday, it releases a new “episode” on its website and will be free to read for 24 hours. After the “air,” the episode will only become available for purchase, which costs readers $1.50.

At a time when the traditional publishing industry is constantly challenged by the digital media, The Underwriting tries to find a new space for not-so-established writers to distribute their books. Unlike traditional publishing houses that design, package, and market the books, or self-publishing platforms such as Amazon.com that only distributes books for self-publishers, The Underwriting takes the responsibility of both publishing and distributing.

“There’s self-publishing, which is writing a book on an island and putting it onto Amazon, hoping it sticks. Then there’s the traditional publishing house, where writers get all the things that the publishing houses provide,” said Miller in an interview with VentureBeat.

“I believe there’s a space in between.”

Traditional publishing houses typically pay authors 10 to 25 percent royalties, and “25 percent is like you were John Grisham,” according to Miller. In contrast, self-publishing distributers like Amazon.com do not provide services such as proofreading and marketing of the book, but they provide a larger gain for the author: 70 percent for a book costing $2.99 to $9.99, subtracting delivery charges based on the size of the e-book file; or 35 percent for a book sold for less than $2.99.

Though the self-publishing percentage seems more tempting for authors, Miller said authors actually couldn’t get as much since they have to pay for design and marketing out of their own pockets. The problem with traditional publishing, on the other hand, is that not so much effort would be put into a book written by an unknown author.

“Publishers are curators, that’s why it’s really hard to break into the traditional publishing media as a self-published author,” said Brooke Botsford, who’s in charge of marketing and platform development for The Underwriting.

“They get hundreds of books from the big guys, and they just don’t have the time to review all those books from independent publishers.”

The revenue model of The Underwriting allows the author to take full control of the costs and profits of the publishing process. Besides the $1.50 per-episode fee or the $10 subscription fee for all 12 episodes this “season”, the author also profits from the sponsorship provided by various companies, including boutique confectionery Lavolio and mobile hotel booking app Hotel Tonight. Readers who purchase an episode of The Underwriting will get a discount for the products of that week’s sponsor, and part of the sales revenue generated by the readers will go to The Underwriting.

No gains come without investment. To create the multisensory experience, Miller has to put together her own team of editor, designer, photographer, music composer, web developer, and audiobook narrators. Though she raised money from angel investors and venture capitalists from both the U.S. and the U.K., recruiting the team was costly.

Still, Miller said she’s profiting more than she would have been earning had she published with Amazon.com. So far, The Underwriting has more than 6,000 monthly readers, most of which come from Miller’s targeted cities: New York, San Francisco, and London.

“What’s really unique about Michelle’s idea is that it doesn’t let the distribution shape the content,” said Botsford, who has been working with more than 50 authors to market their work.

“It’s funny to see how people get stuck in a box related to content. It’s the thinking of 140 characters, a book, an article, and a blog. They think about the distribution first and then the content.”

As the title of the novel suggests, The Underwriting is a fictional tale about the IPO process of a Silicon Valley online dating startup, Hook. Through the relationships between six young professionals, Miller wants the readers to understand the background that shapes the behavior of people working on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, which she thought were missing in popular culture.

“The point is really to give voice to their contexts so that you understand why they do what they do, and why they think what they think,” said Miller. “You may still not agree with those views, but you understand why.”

At 29, the former banker at JP Morgan Chase takes advantage of her own experiences to depict the stereotypes in the startup and finance communities. The characters in her story started out as a “good-looking tall alpha male, a sort of bitchy investment banking woman, a socially awkward computer programmer.” But Miller decided not to write “mean,” even though readers love “mean,” as proved by Miller’s popular essay “Why San Francisco really is that bad.”

Even Miller herself was having trouble getting rid of that meanness. While writing the first draft of the novel in London, Miller spent three days just walking around the city trying to convince herself that Nick Winthrop, the CFO of Hook, was not a bad guy.

“I finally got there; now I really do love Nick.” Miller said with a tone of accomplishment.

Even more satisfying is the readers’ feedback. From time to time, Miller gets emails from readers expressing their views of The Underwriting. The most rewarding moment, Miller said, was when she received a letter from a Latino reader that commented on the socially isolated immigrant computer programmer. “You got the feeling of what that is really like,” the letter says.

“You get to see her try and verbalize a lot of the lifestyles that I have seen,” said Brad Skaf, an analyst at a financial advisory firm and a loyal reader of the novel, “Whenever the character says something or makes a decision, she justifies it in certain ways.”

Skaf, 26, said that he and his friends would read each week’s newly released chapter and discuss the lifestyles of the characters. One of the scenes that Skaf feels extremely familiar with, is when Neha Patel, an analyst of the investment bank that underwrites Hook’s IPO, pulled several all-nighters at the office to finish the work.

The exhausting, long days were actually what first motivated Miller to start thinking about The Underwriting. During the 16-hour workday at JP Morgan, Miller had plenty of time reading blogs between works or at lunch, but there was a “hole” in her life that she couldn’t fill in.

“I was sick of reading the top-10 list of how to get a flatter stomach and reading the New York Times for the seventeenth time,” said Miller, “Meanwhile when I got home, I missed reading fiction.”

With a B.A. in English literature from Stanford University, Miller was always interested in writing. Her M.B.A degree at Stanford adds the business background to her resume and makes The Underwriting a natural product of her experiences.

But it wasn’t until last year while sitting at home watching the soap opera All My Children that a thought suddenly strike Miller: “Had women changed that much that they no longer want a juicy one-hour story each day?”

For 41 years, All My Children has been able to get housewives (and others) to tune in at a specific time of the week. If soap opera can create an “event” that people put onto their calendar, Miller thought, why not novels?

Miller named the new combination of soap opera and literary fiction an “E-series,” the digital form of serial novels. She registered her project as a limited liability company (LLC) under the name of MM Project 1, and plans to run The Underwriting for five seasons.

Despite the brand new concept and experimental models, Miller said she’s still in love with traditional media forms. She still has the paper books on her bookshelves and occasionally listens to NPR 12 hours in the course of a single day. Unlike many startup founders who are determined to disrupt the status quo of an industry, Miller said her project was not intended to break anything.

“I hate the word disrupting. I don’t like this notion of you have to break down other industries in order to create something interesting,” said Miller, “It’s just about creating something new.”