J.C. Hutchins is the author of “7th Son: Descent” – a science fiction thriller filled with action. It features a presidential assassination, cloning, and a villain that would J.C. says “make Cobra Commander wet the bed.” As a struggling, unpublished author, he used social media to land a book deal with St. Martin’s Press. J.C. was kind enough to grant HighTalk an interview so he could talk about his experiences and tell us how social media helped him land a book deal.
HighTalk: So you finish 7th Son and you’re excited about it and then what happened when you tried to find an agent and a publisher?
J.C.: It died on the vine! [laughs] 7th Son has a nutty back story: I wanted to write a book that was big — REALLY big. So I just started typing, and two years later, I had a manuscript that was 1,200 pages long. Big rookie mistake. Another rookie mistake was assuming publishing pros would give me the time of day when I pitched them on a novel the size of a phone book.
Predictably, they all passed. I was crestfallen; I’d hoped the system would make an exception for me. But during that year — 2005 — I discovered podcasting, and something called “podcast novels.” Several scrappy authors were releasing their unpublished manuscripts online in free serialized audio episodes — episodic self-produced audiobooks. I smelled an emerging trend. I also realized I could never sell 7th Son, so I decided I’d share it.
I decided to re-brand the book as a trilogy of books. I made the monstrous manuscript’s first act “Book One,” the second act “Book Two,” etc. I began releasing the first novel in serialized audio form in February 2006.
HighTalk: Tell us about your thought process – when you decided you could no longer wait for the publishing industry and decided to put your book up online for free? Were you nervous? Frustrated?
J.C.: I pitched 7th Son to at least 60 agents in 2005. That wasn’t as many as I’d planned on querying, but it became very clear very quickly that something was fundamentally wrong with the book. In hindsight, it was most likely its length — most thriller novels clock in at 400 pages, max. At first, I was frustrated with the industry, and then became increasingly frustrated with myself. I knew I’d written a solid thriller, but I apparently painted myself into a corner.
At the time, I didn’t think I “had it in me” to rewrite the work — another rookie mistake. I’ve since learned that is B.S. writers tell themselves to validate their personal fears, especially the lack of confidence so many of them have. I thought I’d exhausted all my options. But I needed to know. I needed to know if this book was worthy of an audience (as I thought it was), or unworthy of one (as the publishing pros thought it was).
I was very nervous releasing 7th Son in podcast form. Would people like it? Would they ignore it? I’m blessed to say the podcast became a breakout hit within that growing subculture. A community came to enjoy and support the book — and even evangelize it to friends and family. No one was more surprised than I.
HighTalk: How did you start with social media? And then how to you expand on the original plan?
J.C.: Very tentatively … but that was okay, because the social media landscape was so different back then. Back in 2005 and 2006, MySpace and Frappr were the coolest things in the multiverse! I started slow, with a blog … then made it to MySpace … then reached out to fellow creators the old-fashioned way: via email and instant messenger.
I’ve tried many social networks since then, but I’ve found most success with podcasting/blogging, Twitter and Facebook. Those are the holy trinity for social media these days — but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to you or your readers!
HighTalk: Once the content was up – how did you promote it?
J.C.: Before the content was publicly available, I reached out to some influencers in the podcasting space and asked them to listen to some of the content and — if they thought it was worthy — provide a positive blurb or review about the story. This put me on the radar of a few cool creators, and added credibility to the work.
I then did some conventional promotion (or at least conventional for the space): I recorded and released an audio commercial for the book, which other podcasters could play on their shows; I shilled for “popularity contest”-style votes at various podcasting websites, I pleaded for reviews on iTunes. This was fine, but it felt … well … it felt boring and a little tired. I wanted to do something new.
I realized that presenting cross-promotional opportunities to podcasters was a solid strategy. I wasn’t asking them for favors; I was alerting them to my work, and — through a brief partnership — providing an opportunity for them to evangelize their own content. I invited well-established podcasters to read “previously on 7th Son” recaps for each episode. Their appearance boosted the credibility of my work, and they were able to promote whatever they liked. They would often then mention their cameo on their podcasts, which drove traffic to my content. Everybody wins. I even had movie and TV stars appear on the show.
I’ve since done far more ambitious cross-promotional efforts, and also recognized the power of fan-fueled evangelism. I’ve successfully deployed “zero budget” marketing strategies that take advantage of these cross-promotions, and have mobilized my fans to become “soldiers” in a 7th Son-themed street team.
In the microcosm of the podcast fiction space, I’m probably as well-known for my nutty promotions as I am for my thrillers.
HighTalk: Were you surprised at the reaction you got from readers?
J.C.: Totally! Remember, I was coming out of Rejection-A-Thon 2005, in which I heard the word “no” so many times, it stopped hurting. I had fundamental fears about the quality of the work … and yet, I was also stubborn enough to carve my own path.
I vividly remember those first few emails from listeners who said they were really enjoying the story. That delighted me — and still delights me. It’s the greatest compliment a writer can ever receive.
HighTalk: How did you end up connecting with St. Martin’s Press? Did they discover you through social media?
J.C.: They did. Remember when I said I asked a few podcasters for blurbs way back in 2006? One of those dudes was David Moldawer, a brilliant podcaster and book critic for a popular show. He enjoyed the first few episodes, posted a positive review on a site, and that was that. But David kept listening to 7th Son, and became a fan.
Little did I know he was an editor for St. Martin’s Press at the time! He called me out of the blue in 2007, and told me about a “for hire” novel writing opportunity. The book was a supernatural thriller, and right up my alley. I accepted the gig, got writing, and then pitched him and St. Martin’s on 7th Son. Things moved forward from there.
So, in a way, if I’d never had emailed David for a review back in 2006, 7th Son might still be unpublished. I owe a great deal to David, and his generosity.
HighTalk: The trade paperback book came out on October 27. Was being an officially “published” author different than what you had already published via the web?
J.C.: Yes and no. I’ve been promoting my work for nearly four years, so that aspect of the process hasn’t changed much. In fact, I’m grateful for those years of experience, as I bring an audience and promotional savvy to the table that very few first-time novelists have.
However, things become fundamentally different once you’re asking for people’s money (to buy the book). You have to continue to delight your audience with free content — which I’m doing: I’m releasing the “print edition” of the novel in free serialized audio and PDF formats, released prequel fiction, even folk songs “written and performed” by a character in the book! It’s my hope this continued commitment to my fans helps remind them of 7th Son’s fun story, and that they can make a tangible difference in the print novel’s success.
And of course, there’s pressure to deliver strong sales for the publisher. St. Martin’s wants the book to be a success. I want the book to be a success. I’m doing everything I can to ensure that happens, via personal outreach and firing up my fans to evangelize the novel to friends and family. As always, I’m trying to push the boundaries of traditional book promotion; one such effort is my fan-powered World War 7 initiative, found here: http://JCHutchins.net/WorldWar7. And did I mention it makes a great holiday gift? ;-)
HighTalk: What is your advice for struggling writers trying to find an audience?
J.C.: Make your work the very best it can be — no half-assing, no “it’s good enough,” no excuses. Then give away some of your content online, and shake your fanny so people know about it. You don’t have to record a full audiobook; you can post PDF excerpts, or short stories.
The movie Field of Dreams famously said, “If you build it, they will come.” That’s not entirely true. People need a map; they need to be told where to go. That’s what promotion does. Once you get folks to your content, make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. Do that, and you’ll be on your way to building a thriving community around your work … and making fans for life.