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Debrief: A month into my novel’s lifecycle

Last month, I explained the circuitous route my thriller novel, 7th Son: Descent [1], 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 [2]. Find part two here [3].

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 [4]” 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 [5], 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.

About J.C. Hutchins [6]

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.