Debrief: A month into my novel’s lifecycle

Last month, I explained the circuitous route my thriller novel, 7th Son: Descent, took to finally getting in print . . . and then outlined the ambitious online promotional campaign I’d crafted for the book’s debut. The post was so danged long, Writer Unboxed had to break it into two parts!

Find part one here. Find part two here.

We’re a month into the book’s life out in the wild. I’d like to share some results, and some conclusions I’ve made so far.

In case you didn’t read those two posts linked above, here’s the super-quick recap: In 2005, I realized the 1,200-page thriller I’d spent three years writing and editing didn’t have the proverbial snowball’s chance of being published. Convinced the story had value, I rebranded the book as a trilogy, turned to the Internet, and released the first act as “Book One: Descent” as a free serialized audiobook. Tens of thousands of folks showed up, enjoyed it, and cheered me on. I released the second and third acts the same way. Eventually, I got on the radar at St. Martin’s Press, inked a deal for the series’ first novel, and here we are.

7th Son: Descent is a trade paperback original. I’m not a competitive person by nature, but I knew I’d be squaring off against other original trades, as well as books that were once in hardcover, now “ported” to trade paperback. This eliminated Bestseller opportunities. I also knew that my publisher wasn’t putting forth money for co-op (valuable placement on the front tables / displays in bookstores), and would publicize 7th Son: Descent as much — if not more than — a typical fiction newcomer.

My personal promotion for the print release was pretty ambitious:

• A free prequel short story anthology, released as serialized audio
• Free music “written and performed” by a character in the book
• A completely re-recorded, free serialized audiobook of the print manuscript, released at my site and three others
• Free fan updates with “street team” missions and prizes
• Free serialized PDFs of the book, released at my site and one other
• A free serialized “blog text” version of the book at BoingBoing.net
• A 10-chapter PDF excerpt released on 20 sites
• A program that rewarded fans for multiple book purchases
• Mucho pitches to blogs, podcasts and mainstream media

As we roll into December, only one aspect of my promotion and outreach has yet to be realized: the mainstream media outreach. That begins today, actually. But the rest of the machine has been chugging along for more than a month. Before I get to what I can share about sales results, I’ll provide the results of the outreach itself:

• Very positive reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist and several book blogs
• Robust downloads of all free content (the 10-chapter PDF has been downloaded more than 30,000 times; audio and PDFs are nearing 9,000 downloads; excellent for a month online)
• My fans are engaging in “street team” missions; they’re currently participating in my “World War 7” campaign
• The rewards program is a success; one fan purchased 100 copies of the book
• I’ve conducted more than 40 podcast interviews
• I’ve written more than 20 guest posts / Q&As for blogs
• Fans have posted dozens of reviews on their websites and blogs, and hundreds of testimonials on Twitter
• I spoke at a tech conference and a writers’ group, and did two signings
• I scored an interview on ABC News Radio

I think that’s a pretty successful list.

And how is the book doing? If you’re an aspiring novelist, or have a book coming out soon, prepare for a revelation. If you’re a published author, feel free to sagely nod along.

Thanks to my built-in fan base, we slayed in the first week. On its first day on sale, 7th Son: Descent hit an astounding 188 overall at Amazon.com, with incredible rankings in several genres including Mystery & Thriller and Science-Fiction & Fantasy — and even more remarkable rankings within subgeneres. The Bookscan numbers were very positive. We were off to a fantastic start . . . but I anticipated a precipitous drop on the Amazon charts, since my hardcore fans had showed their support during Week One. Sustained sales would soon become the priority.

Sure enough, I was right. After chatting with my publisher and watching Amazon.com, I’ve deduced that sales are lower than I’d hoped for this new release. (And trust me, my expectations were effectively managed.) I can’t fault my outreach — I’m doing everything right. I can’t fault the novel — it’s a damned good read; I have the reviews to back me up. I can’t fault my fans (and never would) — they’re evangelizing the cause. So what’s wrong?

Perhaps given the lousy state of the publishing industry, the more appropriate question is, “Is anything actually wrong?”

Let me explain. Since the book isn’t in the front of stores, it’s being shelved in the general Sci-Fi section. (I’ve always contended that 7th Son: Descent is more thriller than SF, but an author’s influence only goes so far.) This means the only real competitive advantage the book now has is its fire-engine-red spine.

That being said, the book is selling slightly better than other titles found in the Sci-Fi section. The hundreds of hours I’ve dedicated to content creation and outreach are apparently ensuring that the book’s doing a bit better than the decades-old competition that surrounds 7th Son: Descent. Given all my fanny-shaking, I’d hoped to clear 400 copies a week. I’m selling about half of that.

I suspect this book is doing the level of business most new books do; its underwhelming performance (to me, anyway) appears to be the norm. So what’s up, buttercup? If there are issues, I believe they come down to the way publishers promote books, what book-friendly mainstream media still exists, and money.

I’m willing to bet the publicist assigned to 7th Son: Descent had at least 30 other titles to pitch to mainstream reporters and book critics. I’ve personally met this publicist; she’s remarkable, brilliant and talented . . . but she’s working on dozens of projects. There’s no bandwidth. Publishers must do more with less.

Of course, publicists pitch to an ever-dwindling number of book-friendly mainstream media outlets. Those outlets, representing the Last Men Standing in a journalistic bloodletting that’s been happening for years, are likely being crushed by an ever-increasing number of pitches. There’s no bandwidth. Media outlets must do more with less.

I’m proud of 7th Son: Descent and believe it has mainstream appeal beyond the science-fiction crowd, but understand why the novel didn’t receive coveted bookstore co-op. Because of this, it must fend for itself — like most debut novels must — in the hinterlands of the genre sections. There’s no money, honey. No co-op means no mainstream peepers. Publishers must invest its biggest marketing bucks into the books that were awarded the biggest advances. There’s no cash bandwidth. Again, more with less.

Which leaves the blogosphere, and new / social media. There are hundreds of book-friendly websites; surely the Web represents the secret weapon for promotion, right? Yes and no. Yes, these sites are book-friendly, but are often maintained by one or a few people. There’s that bandwidth issue again. Their audience sizes, based on the Compete.com data I’ve collected, are pitifully small compared to mainstream standards. Fewer write reviews than you might think, or they specialize in specific genres. Further, these bloggers are not journalists in the traditional sense: Some are willing to do an author Q&A or guest post — opportunities for which I’m immensely grateful — but the responsibility to craft that content falls to the authors themselves. To properly craft these posts, authors must invest hours of time, which pulls them away from other promotion.

Nothing beats co-op and mainstream media coverage, both of which are rare for a newcomer author to receive. We all must do more with less.

Being a new author is like being a parent of an outcast: Each day, your book comes home, bruised and bloodied from a playground scrap. Each day, you say, “I love you.” The marketplace for newcomers is brutal. You’ve got to bust your ass to give that book its very best chance of survival. You gotta bust your ass to engage your fans. You’ve gotta bust your ass to promote your stuff. You’ve gotta bust your ass just to keep up with sales of back catalog books.

Where does this leave 7th Son: Descent? Not out for the count, not by a long shot. My free fiction will continue to roll out until the holidays, and I’ll continue to ask my fans to evangelize. The holiday season will likely help. And while my podcast and blog “tours” are winding down for now, I’m about to elbow my way into that hyper-competitive mainstream media space and pitch anything with a pulse.

What have I got to lose, man? The only way to go is up. As always, I’ll keep you posted.

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About J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.

Comments

  1. says

    Ouch. I’ve read several blog posts that tell how getting published changes nothing. The worrying continues, the self-doubt, all those persistent hobgoblins that haunt most every writer. Your story bears that out. BUT your pragmatic approach and “what have I got to lose, man” attitude look to carry the day. Thanks for keeping our eyes wide open and keeping us up to date on the rollercoaster ride of publishing and promoting 7th Son: Descent.
    .-= Jonathan´s last blog ..How’s It Going To End? =-.

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  2. says

    Thanks for the kind words, Jonathan. Interestingly, my faith in the novel’s quality hasn’t wavered … but yes, a new breed of worry emerges once the work must justify its existence with robust sales.

    It’s true: once the book is on shelves, the battle’s just begun. :)

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  3. says

    Keep chugging! Your efforts are really impressive, and you’ve already beat the odds by going from self-published to traditional house with St. Martin’s (no small fish). It’s clear you really believe in your story and are willing to fight for it. Like you said, that means the only way to go is up! :D
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..Fiction: “more true than real life” =-.

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  4. says

    I’m curious how the sales of Personal Effects compare. I had dinner with my critique group buddy last night and she mentioned trying to pick it up but it was sold out everywhere in town. She did come home with 7th Son (:

    I didn’t realize going directly to softcover eliminated bestseller opportunities, interesting–and disappointing because I’ve been rooting for you to hit that title!

    I admire your practical approach–and I’m taking notes ;)

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  5. says

    Even with all that promotion, this is the first I’ve heard or seen of your novel, so there is always room to expand, I guess. That being said, you’ve got me interested now, and I’m going to check it out. Which means that I, too, will be posting a review at some point and spreading the word to all my contacts. Hopefully, things will upturn. And I’ll echo those who commented before me, your attitude is inspiring.

    All the best,
    Lydia
    .-= Lydia Sharp´s last blog ..Time’s Up! =-.

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  6. says

    Many thanks, J.C. I’m gearing up for my personal publishing adventure, The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles. Have created a sound track for a trailer that a designer friend is going to create for me, and just orders a stack of ARCs for blurbs, reviews, and other promotional attacks. Your reports are hugely helpful. Luck.

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  7. says

    A fascinating & eye-opening post, J.C. Keep plugging away and doing what you’re doing! You have the backing of a huge writing community and many fans rooting for you. I hope the sales climb with those looking to purchase Xmas gifts for the readers in their family!

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  8. says

    Thanks for the detailed update on sales and marketing. The publishing industry is in upheaval right now, as you have discovered first-hand. You’re doing everything right; just keep at it. Word of mouth will continue to build.
    .-= Connie Reece.´s last blog .. =-.

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  9. says

    Hutch –

    I hear you on this stuff. To me, it seems like being shelved with science fiction is a big mistake. It should be with the other thrillers. I never go into the science fiction section of a bookstore myself because I read mostly thrillers, humor and some non-fiction. I would never have seen it.

    Obviously you can only focus on the things you have control over, so I won’t say any more on that subject. You’ve written something great that has appeal way beyond one genre. It’s hard for me to imagine most fans of Clancy or Crichton not enjoying it. While it’s not true that every great book will be a big success, it is true that an author who can write great books will be successful if he persists. No one could fault you for deciding at some point that it isn’t worth the effort, but from what I know of you, there is zero chance of that happening.

    Keep up the fight!

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  10. alphanitrate says

    When I went to look locally at the book store, they only had 2 copies in stock.

    I just finished rereading the book and the hard parts to convey are:

    1. The paper copy doesn’t have you doing the voices. (Although, I heard them myself.)

    2. The regular person doesn’t have a clue to the culture that has been created around this story. Part of my enjoyment of this story was the community that goes along with it.

    I have this image in my mind of a person looking at this book in the store and in the background behind their shoulder is a group the size of the Verizon support team saying “Can you buy me now?”

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  11. says

    Wow! I self-pubbed my first two YA books. I’m currently working on a series and a friend suggested I try podcasting to gain an audience first, before contacting agents/publishers, etc. I’ve been on the fence about it: podcast or blog, podcast or blog…I don’t know. Podcasting seems like it would be a lot of work, but being a YA writer, I could probably make it fun and interactive somehow.

    Thank you for the informative posts, though. It’s given me a lot to think about, and a lot of ideas.

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  12. Abhijit Dasgupta says

    Hi there,

    I am the Executive Editor of India Today, Asia’s biggest English language weekly with a print run of 800,000 weekly.

    Stumbled upon this while searching for “How to Publicise Your Debut Novel.”

    Unfortunately, I am yet unpublished but I hope to be published one day. Yes, one day, but that is better than never, I guess.

    Pl do read on because at the end, you might think it was worthwhile.

    I wrote my 110,000-word Indian historical-reincarnation-romance, Heaven Can Wait, novel in 2006 and went shopping for an agent in London. I found one almost immediately in Sonia Land of Sheil Land Associates ( then one of the top 5 in the UK and agent of Prince Charles, Peter Ackroyd and Tom Sharpe).

    She advised extensive revisions and I rewrote 60k words, yes, 60,000 words, but then Disaster Downturn happened last year and even Sonia couldn’t land a publisher.

    I gave up a fortnight back and fired her.Nobody sacks Sonia Land, ex-CEO of Harpers, but I did.

    In the last fortnight, a desperate me set about agent-hunting in the US and UK again, and surprise of all surprises, I got requests for 33 partials and fulls in just 10 days which, people in the industry tell me, and you can check out the Absolute Write Ask The Agent Thread, is a record of sorts.

    Even as I write, I have rep offers from one UK top agent and two in the US while at least four others have asked me to parry these three before they read the MS and come up with an offer.

    It is quite an interesting, almost historic, situation.

    A rejected, unpublished author with a problem of plenty now.

    I must also add that I made around 500 queries the world over which goes quite against the canons of agent querying as preached by the law books so to say.

    I am almost sure as to who will rep me ( Patricia Moosbrugger …US…over Maggie McKernan…UK…in the last lap) but making that choice has been killing, more so after my experience with someone as big as Sonia whom I had chosen over a reputable agent in the US in 2006.

    I was wondering whether you could tell me how to look forward. Patty is convinced she will get a buyer and her enthusiasm has had its rub-off effect on me.

    Now, what do I do in the next few months, pl? How to aggresively promote myself? I have already got permission from the Guide To Literary Agents and Authortrek to write a column post on my situation; how a rejected writer now has a problem of plenty and why I finally am about to pick Patty over the rest.

    But being where I am, India, thousands of kilometres away from the place of action, tell me more, please.

    And no, do not ask me to get cracking on my novel. Not me, no.

    My day job is killing. I need to sit back and promote the novel so that it catches a biggie’s eye even before Patty reaches him/her.

    Do not forget I am in the business of publicity; I know what it means and how it can make or mar success. Have done it to others in my time ( not mar, but make, thank you).

    And pl keep the US situation in mind though Patty works with agent Teresa Chris in the UK.

    Help, please, and write in with any suggestion at abdasgupta1@gmail.com

    Regards
    Abhijit Dasgupta
    Executive Editor
    India Today magazine

    Cell: +919830046661

    My Blog in India Today:

    http://blogs.intoday.in/index.php?op…emid=1&blogs=1

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