Today we welcome author and online marketeer J.C. Hutchins to Writer Unboxed! J.C. is not only the author of a brilliant, multimedia thriller novel, Personal Effects: Dark Art, his technothriller trilogy, 7th Son, has become the most popular podcast novel series ever. Yes, really. Today he’s going to tell us about his unboxed road to publication and share a few of the secrets to his success. Take it away, J.C.!
Why giving it away is okay … and how online promotion can help sell your fiction
Thank goodness for plot twists. Readers love ’em. Authors especially love ’em, as they keep things ultra-interesting, and spin stories into unexpected creative territory.
And thank goodness for real-life plot twists, too. One such twist hit my life in 2005, and sent my fiction writing career into uncharted places. Back then, I was reeling from a stack of agent rejection letters for 7th Son, a technothriller trilogy I’d spent three years writing and editing. I was convinced the series was deader than disco. Put a toe tag on the thing, dig.
But during this nasty revelation, I was exposed to podcasting (if you’re unfamiliar with podcasting, think “free downloadable internet radio”), and a handful trailblazing of unpublished authors who were releasing their novels in serialized audiobook form. I sensed an emerging trend. Since I reckoned I couldn’t sell 7th Son, I could at least share it — so I started podcasting the first 7th Son book in February 2006. I recorded and edited the episodes myself, posted them online, and learned to promote the series along the way.
The success I’ve experienced since has both stunned me, and validated my decision to immerse myself in the online promotion and distribution of my fiction. The 7th Son series concluded in December 2007, but still generates approximately 100,000 episodic downloads each month, with more than 4.5 million total downloads to date. A thriving fan community of thousands has emerged to support my work. Better still, the podcast’s success attracted the attention of St. Martin’s Press, which approached me to write the first novel in a supernatural thriller property, which was released last month.
And despite the odds — yet thanks completely to the free distribution of my serialized audiobooks, promotion and fan support — the first book in the 7th Son trilogy will be released by St. Martin’s this fall. Lightning struck my little book.
While I cannot guarantee that lightning will strike your book or creative project if you freely distribute it online, I absolutely believe that many authors can benefit from this strategy. I hope you can benefit from this mini-manifesto, which explores the risk in pursuing such a wily strategy, and provides a few insights into how to best promote your work online.
To Share Or Not To Share?
I’ve been giving away my fiction online for more than three years, and I’m awfully devoted to the model — mostly because I’ve seen positive results from my efforts. But I wasn’t always this way. Back in 2006, I was apprehensive about distributing 7th Son in podcast form. It was a paradox: I was certain the books were D.O.A. … but I felt releasing them for free was admitting a final defeat, and would kill their salability forever.
This brings up the very legitimate topic of risk. Is it risky to give away your content? Are you compromising future sales by setting your fiction loose into the wild today? It depends greatly on who defines the word, and how you perceive your circumstances.
As I slogged through the agent query process (I found an agent in 2007), and eventually the pitching-to-publishers process, I encountered people in the industry who believed my “giving it away is okay” approach was counterintuitive or downright stupid. They insisted the books couldn’t sell, since free versions were available online. They saw risk at every turn, probably because the new model I represented was very unfamiliar to them. They were just as entrenched in their perception of the marketplace as I was in mine. While it’s not unfair to fear the unknown, my perception of risk was — and remains — very different.
My Definition Of Risk
Where traditionalists may see thousands of Internet users who “don’t have to buy the book” since it’s in the wild in a free format, I see a platform of engaged fans who are hungry to purchase a tangible copy of the work, with more being exposed to the product every day. I see hours and hours of content that advertises the print edition of the novel, should it be picked up by a publisher. I see hundreds of people, who feel they are a part of a thriving community, willing to evangelize the book, both online and off. I don’t see a wall of “nos.” I see an vast expanse of “yeses.”
Frankly, I also see a troubled industry that needs to pursue fresh business and outreach models, and acquire new authors who can bring a lot of skills, enthusiasm and built-in fan interest for their works. The future of this business absolutely depends on successful brick-and-mortar sales … but in a world where mainstream media is slashing book coverage, and the inevitability of e-book ubiquity is becoming more and more clear, the future of book promotion hinges greatly on efforts in the “ones and zeroes” space. We’re standing on the ground floor of a disruptive shift in the way people consume their entertainment. I don’t know about you, but I dare not ignore these changes.
I believed in 2006, and still do, that the benefits for an author embracing this model outweigh the perceived risk from the gatekeepers, many of whom are far too busy managing their current workloads to track emerging trends. That’s not a critique; that’s human nature.
There’s also a great deal authors can gain from embracing this model from a professional development perspective. Savvy creators can network with other players in the space, which lead to alliances, friendships and cross-promotional opportunities. You’ll engage with fans, which will bolster your confidence (and harden your skin for those less-than-gushing reviews). If you’re adventurous, you’ll embrace cheap (or free) technologies and storytelling techniques that you’d never before considered.
Since 2006, I have learned how to:
-Create, design and maintain my own website and blog
-Record, edit and produce professional-grade audio
-Record, edit and produce video content and book trailers
-Design book covers, graphics, promotional posters, bookmarks, brochures
-Craft my own media kit
-Write peppy press releases
-Collaborate with other creators, and cross-promote with influential websites
And while I personally benefit from this ever-expanding skill set, so does my agent and publisher. And so can you. You don’t have to be great at any of it. Just be good enough to be dangerous.
Never say “I can’t do that.” Instead, think about what you can do, and what you’re willing to learn. The adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is wrongheaded; subscribe to it, and you’ll limit your opportunities. Instead, surprise yourself with your gumption.
It’s All Storytelling
In this frontier, new media authors can’t be mere wordherders. Promotion is key. The Field of Dreams mantra — “If you build it, they will come” — doesn’t work online. People need a map and directions to acquire your awesome content. Thankfully, the cost to promote your work online is often dirt cheap, or free.
Another thing to be thankful for is that great promotion isn’t unfamiliar territory. It’s a form of storytelling, plain and simple.
If you can craft memorable, resonant experiences that evangelize your work, you’re set. Conduct research to find creative colleagues who are blazing online trails. Study these leaders. See what works, or resonates with you. Innovate, when you can. Ask for advice.
Be sure to take your research beyond the echo chamber of popular publishing blogs. Head for the fringe. Understand that some of the most innovative stuff in publishing isn’t being covered by these bloggers; these writers are often too invested in covering mainstream publishing news, or are too busy crafting their own content to spot the bleeding-edge stuff. Once you create some resonant content, pitch these bloggers on your achievements. They may be dazzled by what you’re doing.
What disruptive, interesting things can you do to release and promote your creative project? You’re limited only by your imagination — though putting fresh spins on proven tactics works just fine. Check out these unconventional promotions I recently created for the release of my supernatural thriller, Personal Effects: Dark Art, for inspiration:
-A way for fans to become part of the book’s universe [link]
-A fresh spin on the book trailer, the “vlurb” (video blurb) [link]
-A prequel audio novella; a risk-free way for fans to experience the book’s universe [link]
-A “Party Pack PDF,” 50-page full-color blueprint for hosting a Personal Effects-themed party, complete with party games and cocktails [link]
-Printable promotional posters [link]
Remember: It’s all storytelling. I don’t have formal marketing training; I just execute plans that I believe will delight my peeps. All of these examples sport a narrative element of some kind, and are designed to entertain fans and newcomers. If you don’t have the skill set to execute your ideas, ask a friend or fan, or hit some online communities. If you can’t pay them, compensate with public praise on your website, podcast, or other online resource.
Getting Your Hands Dirty (But Not Too Dirty)
If you’re keen to share your content (or promote your work) online, I recommend using these tools and tricks:
1) Get a Twitter and Facebook account, and start making friends. (Myspace is becoming increasingly irrelevant; no need to set up camp there.) Share professional updates, announcements, and the occasional personal detail. Be a person, not just a promotion-obsessed author.
2) Provide tools for your audience to evangelize your stuff. Give them free ways to spread the word. Check out this page at my site for inspiration.
3) Network, network, network. Make friends with colleagues in your genre. See what cross-promotional opportunities exist, so that you can both benefit from publicizing each others’ work.
4) Reach out to bloggers or podcasters. Provide influencers with useful information about yourself and your work. Podcasters will often play a 1-minute commercial for your work, if you ask. Create one of these audio “promos,” and pitch it.
5) Ask your peers and fans to “retweet” your compelling news on Twitter, or post links to your stuff on their Facebook pages.
These are low-impact ways to become initiated into the social media space. Take it slow and easy; you don’t need to be an expert out of the gate. But also understand that the publishing landscape is evolving, and embracing online tools is mission-critical for your success. So dive into the plot twist. Be ready for the ultra-interesting and unexpected creative territory to come.
J.C. Hutchins is an author and online marketeer. His 7th Son technothriller trilogy is the most popular podcast novel series in history. His debut supernatural thriller novel, Personal Effects: Dark Art, is available for purchase online and in bookstores. 7th Son: Descent comes to bookstores this fall. Learn more about J.C. and his work at his website.