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Getting Unconventional Is Great for Business

photo by tamo neki

Therese stepping in for a second to officially announce the return of one of our former regular contributors, who will now be back with us on a semi-regular basis:  J.C. Hutchins! J.C. is one of the most unboxed writers I know, and he hasn’t stopped doing what made him such a valuable part of our site back in 2009-2010, as you’ll see here. Please join me in welcoming him back to WU.


And lo, the Kindle came unto us in 2007, and the early adopters rejoiced, and the Big-Six-Now-Five gnashed their teeth, and thousands of authors had a psychedelic freakout because—like a bolt from the blue—there now existed a low-cost way to publish and sell their stories to a curious, engaged, and an (Almighty Bezos willing) ever-growing audience.

Mountains that separated conventional authors from audiences tumbled before the mighty Kindle and its store. Enthusiastic authors quickly pushed their content to the marketplace: stories that had been long out of print were now viable sellers … works whose length defied placement in the traditional marketplace could find audiences of thousands … and, oh, the lots and lots

(and lots)

(and lots)

of ill-crafted original stories that had no business ever leaving hard drives all went out into the market. And lots of pretty great original stories, too. DIY-minded first movers found success. Authors selling full-length novels for a measly buck found some success. And verily, the industry-shaking roller coaster ride began, with creators coming and going, with revenue streams found and lost … and here we are, seven years later, standing on more stable ground.

We now understand a few things:

See, if this post-Kindle publishing landscape has taught us anything, it’s that customers are willing to buy more than just novels. Short stories, Kindle Singles, novellas, novelettes, flash fic, phonebook-sized omnibuses, anthos, experimental whackadoo genres—name it, and there’s some omnivore out there who’ll take a chance on it. Both DIY self-pubbers and super-sized traditional publishers are grokking that, and investing effort in exploring it.

If you’re an author, you should, too.

For instance: We’ve seen super-successful self-pubbers embrace the serialization model as a savvy way to engage readers at low prices, and chum the waters for return visits and more sales. The method is genius: Thoughtfully plot and craft a long-form tale that embraces waves of conflict and cliffhangers, separate it into à la carte episodes at low price points (reducing perceived risk and barrier of entry for consumers), then package them into omnibuses (sold at higher price points that deliver much higher per-sale royalties than the à la carte approach). Genius. Genius, I say!

And while not all readers dig this approach, a great many do. It’s an easy thing for them to understand, and get behind. It’s also a reasonably easy thing to attempt, as a creative. If you’re presently chipping away at a long-form story, conduct a thought experiment: Could it be serialized—and not just serialized, but done in a way that maximizes reader investment?

Could you take that traditionally-crafted narrative and tweak it slightly to create a disruptive, engaging—and perhaps more profitable—reading experience?

You’d be surprised how often the answer might be “yes.” Back in the dusty, dark days before the Kindle (this was a bleak time indeed, when authors had to write uphill, both ways, in the snow, with no shoes), I invested heavily, and won big, using the serialization model.

Back in ’06, I leveraged an emerging online trend—podcasting—to release my trilogy of sci-fi thrillers in audiobook format, in free serialized episodes. My success in that space eventually led to two of my books published by St. Martin’s Griffin. Those successes then lead to a thriving career in unconventional online “transmedia” tie-in writing for TV shows and films.

I didn’t adapt my sci-fi thrillers for podcast serialization; I simply identified places in the story that revved up the tension, and ended episodes with cliffhanger chapters. Simple math.

You might spot the same pattern in your own fiction. If you’re going to self-pub your work, consider the approach. Heck, if you’re a traditional publisher, consider it. You can package the full story into a novel-length bundle down the line.

The 33, Episode 1 [2]
The 33, Episode 1

Me, I’m always looking for new ways to tell stories, and ways to get paid doing it. I’m presently investing my creative efforts in a self-pubbed project that may be a spiffy chocolate-and-peanut-butter combo of several familiar formats. My goal is to capitalize on the maturing ebook marketplace, and on readers’ growing willingness to consume serialized narratives.

The endeavor is called The 33 [3], and it’s about a team of misfits who regularly save the world from technological and supernatural threats. Think The A-Team meets The X-Files.

The 33 isn’t a novel, and it’s not a serialized long-form narrative. Instead, I’m combining the strengths of two other familiar media: episodic television and serialized comic books. The 33 is a monthly short story series with recurring characters, told over TV season-like arcs. Some of The 33’s adventures are told over multiple episodes (these episodes are sold à la carte, with eventual ambitions to package the full adventures in “trade paperback”-like bundles), while others unfold as à la carte “monster of the week” one-shot tales.

I’m presently writing and releasing The 33: Season 1; this first season is currently planned as a 12-episode run. Episodes are approximately 10,000 to 20,000 words long. I’m pushing them to market as I write them. I’ve hired an accomplished editor to help maintain narrative integrity and quality.

Creatively and entrepreneurially, this model is a good fit for me—and so far, for my readers. It grants me the flexibility that a traditional publishing model never could. I can craft stories as long as I wish (for instance: the first The 33 adventure is a four-part story, to accommodate the high stakes, larger-than-life narrative), or as short as I wish (one-shots are great for smaller, more contained tales).

The 33 uses serialized and episodic storytelling techniques in its "TV for your e-reader" approach. [4]
The 33 uses serialized and episodic storytelling techniques in its “TV for your e-reader” approach.

The month-to-month writing and release of The 33 also gives me opportunities to embrace current events and fan feedback. If I’m fascinated by an emerging social trend or technology, I can immediately use it as inspiration for a standalone The 33 story. I can also watch online conversations about The 33 (to identify fan-favorite characters, resonant plot twists, that sort of thing), and use that information to help inform the world of The 33 in future stories.

A 12-episode “TV season” approach also gives me the flexibility to weave in a mythology and meta-arc—a bigger picture narrative, just like in TV and comics—that can conceivably span several seasons of The 33, and numerous spinoffs.

Will this model be successful? I’m two episodes in (with Episode 3 debuting in mere days), so I don’t have enough sales data to identify a bona fide trend of success. I will say that the stories, characters, and my “TV for your e-reader” approach has been very well-received by my readers so far, and makes me hopeful for the model. Sales have been higher than expected. I’ll keep you posted.

Now, am I drawing a line in the sand and proclaiming that serialization, or unconventional episodic approaches like The 33, are the key to authorial success? Of course not. I’m not one of those Shouty McShoutypants zealots. There’s no canonical approach, no One Publishing Path to rule them all. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the traditional long-form novel format, or other storytelling formats, are threatened by e-publishing.

I am insisting, however, that thoughtfully watching the maturing ebook space isn’t just great for creative inspiration. It’s great for business.

Authors and biz dev folk: Tweak your creative minds to consider what can make ebook publishing genuinely game-changing. Consider the unique reading experiences that Kindles and other e-readers can provide. Consider how you can attract risk-averse customers with competitively-priced, unconventional offerings—stories (aka products) designed from the ground up to easily surf the waves of a fast-paced online marketplace, drive sales in interesting ways, address evolving content consumption preferences, and deliver on consumer expectations of engagement.

This entrepreneurial mindset should be embraced by scrappy DIY self-pubbers and traditional publishers. No matter what side of the fence you’re on, the future of writing and publishing remains very bright—especially when your eyes are open to new storytelling and business opportunities.

What emerging storytelling and business trends have you spotted in the e-publishing space? Which authors are blazing worthy trails? Sound off in the comments!

About J.C. Hutchins [5]

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.