I’ve never met another writer like J.C. Hutchins. And I’ve met plenty over these years as a blogger and novelist. Author, innovator, and just a darn nice guy, J.C. Hutchins does more in a day than the rest of us do in a month. And he’s breaking the mold in terms of what writers need to do in terms of marketing and promoting.

Plus, his debut thriller 7th Son: Descent kicks all sorts of ass.

Regular readers of WU know J.C. as one of our newest contributors. Therese and I were intrigued by his philosophy of “freeware” promotion, where he gained a legion of loyal fans by giving his book away for free. Word-of-mouth and viral marketing lead to a publishing deal with St. Martin’s. His website is a wonder to behold, loaded with content and innovative distribution angles. WU readers are learning alot from J.C.

But it all starts with the story, and it doesn’t hurt that J.C.’s book 7th Son: Descent is potato-chip addictive. Loaded with sympathetic characters, a compelling high-stakes plot, cool scifi details, and a riveting conclusion, 7th Son: Descent ranks right up there with Michael Chrichton and Robert Ludlum. His series has a promising future ahead of it.

And it all started when he decided to give his book away for free. But quality speaks for itself.

Please enjoy part one of our two part interview with J. C. Hutchins.

When did you realize you wanted to write fiction?

I wrote stories when I was a kid — hand-drawn comics and home-brewed Choose Your Own Adventure books, mostly. By the time I was in college, my interest had shifted to nonfiction writing. I eventually became a newspaper reporter . . . but I was never able to fully hush the part of my brain that wanted to play make-believe with words. I’d read books or see films and always think, Now THAT looks like fun.

I was absolutely terrified when I eventually decided to try to write fiction; I didn’t have any pals who wrote fiction, so I just took the plunge and figured things out as I went. In late October 2002, I began writing my human cloning thriller 7th Son, which eventually became a trilogy. The first novel, 7th Son: Descent, was published in October 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.

Your journey to publication was unusual in that you gave away your novel in the form of a free serialized audiobook via the internet, which became the most successful “podcast novel series” in history. It sounds counterintuitive to distribute your novel freely if a traditional publishing deal is viable. Can you tell us why you decided to go the podcast route first?

You’re absolutely right — giving away a novel’s worth of content seems absolutely insane. In fact, I recorded and released what eventually became the 7th Son trilogy as free serialized podcast novels in 2006 and 2007. But I chose to do this only after I queried agents in 2005 about the project and was universally rejected. In my mind, a publishing deal wasn’t viable. If I couldn’t sell 7th Son, I reckoned I could share it.

I did this mostly because I believed in the quality of the work. I thought I’d told a really cool story, and that it deserved to be shared. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t nuts for spending two years writing this epic action story, and another six months editing it. I’m glad I did it. The story did find an audience online, who championed and evangelized it. The series has more than 5 million episodic downloads to date, and still generates around 100,000 episodic downloads each month.

But then, things got interesting. The podcast’s success attracted the attention of St. Martin’s in 2007. The company presented me with a for-hire supernatural thriller project called Personal Effects: Dark Art, which I joined and co-wrote with Jordan Weisman. (That was published in June 2009.) My work on that book eventually led to the deal to publish 7th Son: Descent.

Ultimately, 7th Son’s publication hails from me not taking “no” for an answer, rolling up my sleeves, embracing an emerging trend (the free podcast distribution model), being open to other creative opportunities, and leveraging my credibility as a storyteller. When 7th Son: Descent was released in print, I went even further with my free content-fueled model to promote the book.

Why you think St. Martin’s wasn’t concerned that there were freebies out there to take away sales of the print version?

I think St. Martin’s was a bit cautious at first — and that’s okay. A publisher is obligated to be cautious, especially since the words “Online” and “Free” are often perceived as threats in the traditional publishing business.

I invested time and effort in educating my partners at St. Martin’s on how releasing free content via social media would boost, not reduce, awareness and sales. I carefully devised a distribution platform that leveraged the interest of my invested fan base, and worked deals with other websites to redistribute my content to their audiences . . . audiences who had never heard of J.C. Hutchins or 7th Son. I made the argument that providing free content to these newcomers would result in additional interest and conversions.

I further sweetened the pot by creating and releasing a new serialized audiobook version of Descent (which reflected changes in the edited “print edition” manuscript), producing serialized PDF episodes of the novel, writing/recording free prequel podcast fiction content (to please longtime fans and attract newcomers), all at no cost to my publisher. I also promised an ambitious social media outreach campaign, and additional cross-promotional opportunities.

I’m happy to say that it worked. 7th Son had a spectacular Week One debut, and is still generating better-than-average weekly sales.

How surreal was it to be featured in A-list publications like WaPo, Time, NYT?

It was surreal indeed. I still don’t quite believe it happened.

You use lots of social media to promote the 7th Son series, the most I’ve ever seen any author use. What has been the most effective? What advice do you have for other authors who want to get creative with unboxed promotion efforts?

It’s all about making connections in a community, and cross-promotion. Authors new to social media must invest effort in learning about the space, and finding communities and creators whose interests/genres intersect with theirs, and their work. Introduce yourself. Make friends.

Then present your fellow creators with cross-promotional opportunities that benefit everyone. Collaborate on a short story, or a contest, or a scavenger hunt whose “items” can only be found in each other’s fiction. The possibilities are endless. For 7th Son’s release I conceived and executed two successful cross-promotions, in which blogs and authors were incentivized to distribute PDFs featuring 7th Son excerpts because of the exposure they would also receive. Approach these collaborations as business proposals, in which all parties can benefit.

Click HERE for part 2 of our two part interview with J.C.

About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.