Why Would a Writer Need a Coach — An Interview with Ali Hale

There are a wide variety of ways to use writing skills and build a business. I had the chance to chat with Ali Luke on the new coaching service she’s rolling out to help other writers. Full disclosure: Ali is my partner over at ConstructivelyProductive and I think she’s absolutely awesome.

1. How can a coach help a writer? What exactly does a coach do?

Many writers — however experienced — have days when the writing just isn’t quite working. Perhaps they’re branching out into a new area and struggling to find their voice, or maybe they’ve hit a roadblock. A coach will work alongside a writer: looking closely at the writer’s existing work, finding the potential there (even in first-draft material), and making concrete suggestions to make a particular piece stronger.

A coach can also help the writer with big-picture issues — like motivation, finding and developing ideas, and working on bigger projects like blogs, books and novels.

2. What’s the process when you work with a writer? How do you help a writer with his or her craft?

I ask for around 2,000 words of the writer’s current work-in-progress. That could be several blog posts, a novel extract, a short story, or even an outline or synopsis of a project.

My help is very much tailored to the writer, and to their needs. In general, I offer a combination of close reading and overall advice — for instance, I might suggest ways to reword a sentence to make it punchier, along with ideas for fleshing out a particular piece into a series or book.

I always look for the potential in a writer’s work, and I highlight areas which are working well.

3. Are there differences in working with a writer on different types of projects (like fiction versus non-fiction, or a blog versus a book)?

Yes — although the process is similar, the type of feedback I provide differs.

With blog writers, my advice tends to be a bit more strategic — I often encourage writers to try guest posting, for instance. When I focus on the nitty-gritty details, I look for a conversational and dynamic style.

With novelists, I’ll ask about how the writing is going in general. It’s hard to stay motivated over the course of a novel, especially when multiple drafts are required. I find that writers often get stuck part-way through — and then I’ll help brainstorm ideas for moving forwards.

Fiction tends to be more difficult — emotionally and technically — than non-fiction, and I make sure I’m pulling out positive points as well as making suggestions for changes.

In general, I find that writers working on long projects (like an ebook or a novel) will need at least three sessions so that we can discuss the project as it progresses. Bloggers or copywriters focused on one particular piece — such as a guest post — may need only one or two sessions.

4. What’s your writing background?

I’ve been writing seriously (with an eye towards publication) since my teens, and I’ve been in writing workshops since I was 14. I studied English Literature as an undergraduate, and worked on creative projects alongside.

During 2008-2010, I took a creative writing MA part-time. My income throughout the MA came from blogging — a combination of freelance work for big sites and more entrepreneurial projects of my own, like ebooks.

5. What got you interested in coaching writers?

While I was taking my MA, I organised a weekly meeting amongst a small group of fellow students. We shared our work and gave feedback to one another. I really enjoyed doing this — and particularly liked being able to encourage others with their writing.

Online, I’ve built up a name for myself as a writer, and I found myself getting requests from friends to read a guest post or help with a piece of writing. I realised that there was an unmet demand for writing coaching, and decided this was something I’d love to do!

If you’d like to learn more about Ali’s coaching, check out her coaching services page.

Image by Antonina Mamzenko

Don’t Blog About Places You Want to Get Hired

Is there a client you’re trying to land, or even a day job that lets you use your writing skills? It may seem like an obvious rule, but you shouldn’t blog about those places, especially if you’re considering saying something less than pleasant.

There’s the obvious chance that you’ll lose out on the deal to begin with, but many prospective clients will walk away from a writer who has posted unfortunate things about clients in the past — they think ‘that could be my company up there next’ and start looking for another writer.

Yes, Even Anonymously

I’m sure you’re thinking that if you don’t name names, the problem is solved. There’s two approaches to keep names out of it: either you blog under your own name but you don’t use the name of the client you’re hoping to work with, or you write on a blog where your name never appears but you mention the name of the client. It is possible you could be blogging anonymously, as well as not naming names, but for the purpose of this post, I’m assuming that you’re trying to accomplish something specific with your blogging.

But the fact of the matter is that anonymous isn’t nearly as anonymous as you’d like. If someone from the company in question reads a post, he or she will probably be able to figure out what’s going on just from the general details. If you’re writing under your own name, many potential clients will read your blog as a matter of due diligence. If you use the client’s name, it’s relatively easy for the post to be found through a routine Google Search.

I’ve posted a very vague statement about something a client had done to upset me to Twitter (with no names or even much in the way of details). An hour later, I had an email from the client in question in my inbox, asking if I was talking about him. It was a sticky situation, to say the least.

Even If I’m Going to Say Something Nice?

I’m a little wary of even posting nice things about a prospective client — I don’t want to be known as that writer who will suck up just to land a client. If I have something genuinely important that I think is worthwhile to say, I might bring it out here, but if it’s just something run of the mill, I’m far less inclined to bring it up.

There is something worth noting here: one of the easiest ways to get someone’s attention online is to blog about that person. Many technologically-savvy types have Google Alerts set up for their names, so a couple of mentions of them on your blog can create an opportunity for an introduction. But I’d generally restrict that approach to the absolute preliminaries and I’d avoid making a habit of it — after all, if you’ve got a blog, you’ve hopefully got at least a few readers you want to keep entertained. Keep Google Alerts in mind, though: that’s one of the fastest ways for someone to learn you’re writing about them, good or bad.

Image by Flickr user Yohann Aberkane

8 Productivity Questions Writers Need to Ask

When writing is your profession, you have to do it, day in and day out. You can take the occasional break, but the number of words you put on paper (or on screen) directly corresponds to the number of dollars in your bank account. Even if you’ve got some good passive income streams going, you still have to write up your products and marketing materials. All of that means that anything you can do to become more productive is beneficial.

But every writer has a different creative process. What gets me in my chair and working isn’t necessarily going to get any other writer working. That means that we have to ask ourselves some questions about productivity and how we work as individuals.

  1. What does productivity mean to me? Is it just a question of clearing a couple of hours for writing? Or is it clearing out non-writing tasks? Or something else entirely? The answer usually has something to do with what you want to accomplish is a given day. Personally, my productivity is a question of writing a certain number of words per day. I have to have the time and the flexibility to make sure that I get the writing part of my work done every day. Most of the rest of my work can get handed off to someone else, if necessary and if funds are available. But I’ve got to write.
  2. What do I need to be able to write? I’m a big proponent of the idea that we don’t need anything special to write and that getting caught up in the system and the surroundings is just a way to create excuses to avoid actually working. But I freely admit that there are situations and circumstances that I simply can’t work through. Being productive means setting things up so that those situations are avoidable.
  3. How do I keep track of my writing work? With the solitary exception of fiction writers working on novels that ‘tell’ them what’s going to happen next, most of us need some pretty concrete plans in order to tackle a writing project. Keeping track of those plans becomes necessary in order to keep moving forward, but how you keep track of them is a personal question. I know writers who rely on sticky notes all over their walls because they need the physical reminder to keep moving. I know writers who make up very precise task lists. It’s all a question of what works for you.
  4. How do I divide up my writing work? Not every writing project can be done in a single day. That means breaking it up into concrete tasks. Of course, breaking down ‘write an article’ can be incredibly difficult — does ‘write the first 250 words of the article’ actually help guide you through the process? But there are ways to get things into a manageable set of actions. Personally, I break things down between the time actually spent writing and everything else. I have set times when I go through and do all the interviews I need for a given project, as well as set times for the writing aspects.
  5. How do I handle the non-writing part of my work? As much as most of us don’t want to worry about anything except actually writing, we’ve all got little details that need to be handled. Tasks like setting up interviews are a necessary part of our day. There are plenty of strategies for attacking your every day tasks, but as a writer, there’s an unusual aspect. How do you balance writing with everything else that needs to get done? If you’re off sending emails, after all, you aren’t writing.
  6. How do I follow up on my writing? My work doesn’t send itself out to clients, more is the pity. That means that I have to have systems of some sort in place to get my work distributed, paid for and other important steps. Writing may seem like a solitary game, but it requires regular communications as well as an ability to work around specific dates. After all, following up on an unpaid invoice three months later isn’t going to get you paid quickly.
  7. How do I make sure I actually get out of my chair? Writing, for the most part, is a sedentary activity. On top of that, it can be a bit lonely. It’s crucial to get up and out of our chairs regularly — such activities are just as important to our productivity as actually getting our rear-ends into our chairs and working. Just what that looks like can depend on your own goals and needs, of course, but I’ve had to put systems in place that get me up and moving over the course of the day as well as out of my home office and actually interacting with people on occasion.
  8. How do I get the new information I need for ideas? I could spend all day online, just browsing for new information. Despite the fact that I get some of my best ideas that way, it’s probably not the most effective approach to planning my work day. With that in mind, it’s important to consider how much time we’re spending on consuming media, rather than creating it, and how we’re processing that information.

I’ve been thinking about these questions because I’m working on a top secret project with Ali Hale over at ConstructivelyProductive. We’re getting pretty close to finishing up our project and will be unveiling it soon. But we’ve had to put a lot of thought into just how we organize our own approaches to productivity and how anyone in a creative profession can manage her work.

Image by Flickr user Chris Metcalf

Review Copies: What to Do With Them After You’ve Written the Review

One of the perks of writing articles for various publications is that you can wind up with review products. If you write about cooking, you can wind up with pots and pans. If you write about technology, you can wind up with software. And if you write about anything, well… through review copies, I’ve learned that there really is a book on every topic.

All of that is great, but you can wind up with enough review products in your home to drive you crazy after a while. Even worse, you may be technically expected to report any review copies that you receive on your taxes, due to the fact that you received value for your freelancing business. Unless there’s a very good reason not to, I make a point of getting rid of review copies — preferably in a way that does not change my financial situation so that I don’t even have to consider the tax situation. All of this, by the way, does not include books and other items that I bought to review on my own.

  1. Donate ’em: If it’s something that will be useful for someone else, I donate it. Libraries, for instance, are often pleased to see brand new books that they can either add to their collections or resell. Other items can go to appropriate charities. I’ve also been known to give books directly to educators who can use them — the receipts don’t matter in this situation beyond proving that you no longer have the item in question. You can’t actually write these types of donations off on your taxes.
  2. Give ’em away: Every so often, I’ll have a giveaway here on this blog. I try to only give away books here that are actually something that one of you would want. If you saw my stack of ‘books to get rid of’, you’d probably appreciate that fact a little more, but if it’s not relevant I don’t worry about it. I’ve also just handed books off to people who were in my house and said that they wanted to read a particular book. As long as it’s gone, I’m happy.
  3. Trade ’em: I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of this approach simply because I feel like, technically, it might bother the IRS. I’m pretty paranoid when it comes to my taxes and I’d like to avoid any potential problems. But there are a lot of online tools that allow you to hand off books to people who really want them. I particularly like Bookmooch because it allows me to send out books and then donate the books I would get in return to charity.
  4. Send ’em back: In some cases, you can simply return the review copy to the seller who provide you with it. With big items such as microwaves — yes, I’ve reviewed a microwave — the public relations firm is much more willing to take such steps. For smaller items, such as books, though, the postage to send it back seems like too much for most of them.
  5. Delete ’em: With ebooks and other digital review copies, I make a point of getting rid of items that I don’t need anymore. Even if it’s just cluttering up my hard drive, it’s still clutter that I don’t need. I may as well get rid of it and make sure that I’ll have that much more room still on my hard drive to fill up with my own writing. I’ve actually started requesting electronic copies when possible because it makes getting rid of them when I’m done so much easier. Sure, I could just toss print copies in the trash, but I’d feel pretty guilty about it.

There are a few ethical concerns that go along with review copies, especially these days, and I’ve found that getting rid of books and other products after you’re done with them is the easiest way to resolve the issue. In a time where, every so often, we hear about a blogger asking for (and even getting) a new laptop in exchange for a review and equally unethical situations including reviews, I feel that it is important to make sure that my readers here and elsewhere have no reason to question my integrity. What about you? What do you do with your review copies?

Why No Negative Reviews?

Not too long ago, I was asked why I didn’t seem to ever post a negative review here. As a matter of fact, very few of the reviews I write are negative, no matter where they appear. The reason why I don’t seem to write negative reviews is simple: it’s because I actually don’t write negative reviews.

If I think a book or a product is junk, I simply won’t write about it, in most cases. I’m certainly not going to waste space on it here and I’m not going to waste my own time on it either. I have only so many hours each day and I really have no interest in reading something that is poorly put together in any way. I receive plenty of review copies I never write about. I even buy more than a few products specifically for reviews that I wind up not writing about. That may be life, but I don’t feel a need to put less-than-great stuff in front of you.

Similarly, unless I have a very good reason, I’m not going to pitch one of the editors I write for on a review of something that their readers don’t need or want. It’s partly a matter of making sure that I land the assignment and get paid, but it’s also is due to the fact that I’d prefer to review something that I find enjoyable to write about. Finding a pleasant and new way to express that a particularly book will hopefully be remaindered soon is not a great use of my time.

The Exceptions

There are some situations in which I will write a negative review, although they are few and far between.

    • If I find a product that seems to be universally reviewed well but I find problems with, I’ll write up those problems in the form of a review.
    • If an editor requests a specific review, I will do it — I do like my paychecks, after all.
  • If a review, even negative, is truly relevant to what I’m writing about. This category is particularly rare and is typically limited to ‘You’re doing it wrong!’ reviews.

I don’t give positive reviews just because I know the author of the book. If I did that, I’d have to read books that family members have written, such as how to manage the serial collection at a large library — I love my family and far too many of us are writers of some sort.

I also don’t give positive reviews due to affiliate programs and other monetary considerations. While a nice steak dinner may bump a book to the top of my to-read pile, that’s as far as financial considerations will extend. I will promote (vigorously, even) products that I believe in and if they have an affiliate program, so much the better. But we have to be talking about a quality product to begin with. And any time I post an affiliate link, you’re free to use it in such a manner that I don’t get a commission, if that’s a big concern for you. I’d rather you don’t — I have hosting fees and a mortgage — but it’s not a big deal to me either way.

Women, Technology and Blogging: Happy Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Bloggers all over the world are taking a few minutes to acknowledge the contributions of women in technology and science — women like Ada Lovelace, who managed to write the first computer program and dream of a world of advanced computers while Charles Babbage was still trying to get his calculating machine to add up numbers.

For me, there are a few bloggers I’d particularly like to point to. These women write amazing things about science and technology every day. They’ve inspired me not only to write, but to explore new and interesting areas with every post they put up. Yes, there are plenty of female bloggers out there, but we could always use more interesting posts from writers with two X chromosomes in science and technology.

  • Gina Trapani: I’ve looked up to Gina Trapani for years now. She was one of the first women I heard of who was not only making a living from blogging, but she was doing it by talking about computers, programming and productivity. On top of that, she’s a whiz with computer code, building the tools she needs to be productive on a regular basis. Trapani’s blogging career really took off at Lifehacker and, while she’s not writing full-time there, she continues to post cool stuff both to Lifehacker and to her own site, Smarterware.
  • Maggie Koerth-Baker: A relatively recent find (at least for me), Maggie Koerth-Baker seems to have a pipeline straight to the coolest science as it happens. Her byline pops up all over the web, but I’m particularly fascinated with her posts at BoingBoing. Her recent headlines include “T-Rex’s on Saturn: The theory that will re-make science as we know it” and “Saturday Morning Science Experiment: Melting steel with the sun.”
  • Suw Charman-Anderson: While it doesn’t hurt that Ada Lovelace Day is the brain child of Suw Charman-Anderson, her other projects are incredibly fascinating. Her resume includes titles like Executive Director of the Open Rights Group and Social Software Consultant, as well as blogger. She writes at Chocolate and Vodka — where posts on volcanoes follow write up on book binding experiments — as well as working with her husband on Strange Attractor, a blog that offers insights on social media, business and journalism.

Templated Writing: One Way to Speed Up Your Writing

Writing is a creative process. Every client gets a different end result and pays you accordingly for your time. At least, that’s what we like to think. But the truth of the matter is that some certain types of writing can look very similar from client to client. You could even create a template for such pieces and at least start with filling in the blanks.

A good example is a press release. When a client comes to me, asking me to write a press release, I’ve got a form that I ask him to fill out. A lot of it is basic organizational information and standard details I need to know in order to create the press release. But each line on that form corresponds to a line in my press release template. When I get the information back from my client, I just plug it in to the template.

Of course, that doesn’t make for a great press release and I would never send a client a fill-in-the-blank press release. But it gives me a starting point that lets me get my work done a lot faster than starting from scratch each time. It’s like a very detailed outline — you know that you’re going to have to move stuff around, but you know everything you want to get across and you have a general line of thought you want to follow.

There are plenty of opportunities to use this sort of template as a starting point:

  • Resumes
  • Marketing letters
  • Some blog posts (like big lists)

I can even think of a way to turn a template into a marketing tool: release it to your customers, free of charge and then let them see why just filling in the blanks doesn’t result in a solid piece of writing. They’ll see that they need you to take their project to the next level. Of course, you’d need to refine the strategy a bit for specific customer bases, bust as templated marketing method, it’s not too bad.

Are there any other ways that you may use templates to speed up your writing? Or have you used templates in other ways to build your business?

Be Careful of Writing Routines

There was a period of time when I thought my notebooks had to be just so; I would only write in a specific type of notebook, with a particular pen. That routine just about did me in as a writer. Rather than offering me a way to be a better writer (no matter how cool I thought my notebooks were), those routines offered me an easy way to procrastinate. If I didn’t have my notebook with me, I couldn’t write.

If I found myself with a spare hour but without my notebook — well, I wouldn’t be using that hour for writing. You can be sure of that. That writing routine of mine actually was an excuse not to write. I know that I purposely forgot my notebook at times when I could have gotten some good writing in, effectively giving myself permission to slack off and do something else.

Breaking Routines

Today, I write on different computers, type out notes on my phone and scribble notes on any piece of paper left in my vicinity too long. I still prefer using a notebook for hand-written notes and writing, if only because I can’t lose pages as easily as I can lose random notes. That said, the type of notebook certainly doesn’t matter to me.

I didn’t set out to break my routine: I found myself in a position where I was traveling and could only write on my laptop for several months. My notebook suddenly wasn’t an option. So I started working on my computer instead and rapidly realized that my notebook had little affect on the quality of my writing. It just happened to be the place where I was writing.

The Right Kind of Writing Routines

There are some kinds of writing routines that do support us in writing on a regular basis and those routines are well worth cultivating. Simple habits, like writing on a daily basis can get us to the point where we’ve completed books or have successful blogs, just by having a routine of writing every day, no matter what. The hard part is recognizing these routines.

Find the routines that work for you: the ones that support your ability to write on a regular basis and improve your skills. Toss the fancy notebooks and special pens, though, along with anything that is an excuse masquerading as a routine.

The Practicalities of Going Beyond a Kill Fee

I’m not the biggest fan of kill fees, mostly because they tend to mean that I completed a project to the best of my abilities but my client decided not to pay me the full price for my time. If I’m working on a piece that gets killed, I won’t turn down a kill fee, but I also won’t abandon the piece.

I’ve actually been seeing fewer kill fees of late: while magazines, newspapers and some other publications will offer them to writers when a story is killed, many online publications and other websites do no such thing. That fact makes it even more important to explore alternatives to simply jettisoning a project.

Selling a Killed Story

When one of your articles is killed, all rights should immediately revert to you, which means you can publish the article anywhere you’d like. That offers you a lot of options.

  • Pitching it to a competing publication: Just because your article wasn’t right for one editor doesn’t mean that you can’t submit it to another who publishes similar material. Personally, since I almost never submit work on spec, I tend to use articles that haven’t gotten published for one reason or another as a way to break into markets that want to see the first article on spec. Since it’s written already, there’s nothing to lose.
  • Submit it to a content site: I have several articles that somehow never managed to get printed up on Constant Content.* I get a solid trickle of money for the articles I have up there, without having to run around finding new publications to submit to. It’s certainly not my largest income source, but it’s useful to me. It’s worth noting that Constant Content is not a content mill — you set the price for people to use your article. You don’t have to worry about page views or anything like that to make money. Evergreen content is the most likely to make you money on Constant Content.
  • Use it in your own projects: Hopefully, you have a couple of money-making projects of your own in the works, like a blog or an ebook. If your killed article fits in with the topics of your personal projects, you can use it to move that project along. It’s not the sort of upfront money you’ll make by selling the article, but you may be making money off of it for years to come. You can even use it as a guest post to market your work.

The only thing you shouldn’t do with a killed story is let it sit around gathering dust. If it’s a timely article, you need to get it in another editor’s lap or posted somewhere else before it becomes irrelevant. It can take a little work you weren’t planning to do, but the alternative is receiving no payment for your work, except some fraction of what you expected when you agreed to write the article.

*That’s a referral link. If you sell articles through Constant Content after clicking my link, I get a cut of their commission.

J.C. Hutchins: Getting A Novel Past Rejection and Into Print

These days, getting a book published isn’t just a matter of getting an editor to take a look at your work. It takes a lot of ingenuity and a willingness to pursue a project on your own. J.C. Hutchins did just that. His book, 7th Son: Descent, was rejected by publishers. J.C. bought a microphone, recorded an audiobook and shared it as a free serialized podcast. His podcast attracted tens of thousands of listeners, which, in turn, attracted the attention of St. Martin’s Press.

St. Martin’s Press released 7th Son: Descent on October 27th. The novel was recently option by Warner Bros. On its release day, it hit 188 overall at Amazon.com. To put it mildly, it’s a success.

In order to get behind the scenes on how J.C. was able to turn publishers’ rejections into success, he agreed to answer a couple of questions for us.

How did your first attempt to get published go? Did you get any responses? How many queries did you send out?

It was a disaster — and I have only myself to blame. I wanted to tell an epic story about high-tech conspiracies, human cloning and a villain so cruel he’d make Cobra Commander wet the bed . . . and I did just that. I spent three years writing and editing 7th Son, and when I came up for air in 2005, I was the proud papa of a 1,200-page manuscript. Most thrillers never clock past the 400-page mark. I hadn’t written a book. I’d written a phone book.

I’d doomed my story. I pitched around 60 agents, and was universally rejected. During ’05, I was listening to podcasts, and discovered novelists who were releasing their unpublished manuscripts as self-produced, free serialized audiobooks. I smelled an emerging trend, and reckoned that since I couldn’t sell 7th Son, I’d share it.

I rebranded my epic story as a trilogy, and chopped my monstrous manuscript into thirds — act one became 7th Son: Descent, act two became “book two,” etc. I began recording and releasing the first novel in early 2006.

What was the learning curve like as you started offering your book as a podcast? How did you learn how to record your audiobook and promote it online?

I studied the space before I ever recorded a word. I did online research on recommended equipment (microphones and mixers, mostly), listened closely to other podcast novels to spot best practices (and things to avoid), and watched how others promoted their work.

My greatest learning curve came in the recording process. I discovered that I was — and remain — a terrible narrator. My performances are great in the final product, but I constantly flub lines. My audio requires lots of meticulous editing.

I’m not a born promoter; it’s a learned skill. I was timid to promote at first … but once I realized the success of the podcast hinged solely on my personal commitment to evangelize it, I got learning, fast. It’s been a blast, experimenting with promotions over the past four years.

How did you attract listeners? How did your audience lead to a deal with St. Martin’s Press and eventually a movie option?

Back in 2006, I quickly saw the flaws in most podcast promotion of the time (popularity content-style voting on a few websites, shilling for reviews in iTunes, etc.), and realized the fastest way for me as a “new kid” to score credibility was to cross-promote with influential podcasters. I’d invite them on my show for a quick two-minute cameo in which they read a “previously on 7th Son” segment and could promote whatever they wished. These folks then mentioned their 7th Son appearances on their shows, which drove listeners to my site.

My most successful promotional campaigns have been variants on this cross-promotion model. No one spends a dime, and everyone comes away a winner.

Most of the folks who came to the 7th Son podcast enjoyed it, appreciated the entertainment value (and the fact that I was giving it away), and wanted to help spread the word. I created an online street team called “The 7th Son Ministry of Propaganda,” and crafted evangelistic missions for my listeners. I also solicited fan-created artwork, music, poetry — whatever fans wanted to create, they could, and I’d post it on my site (and thank them in my podcasts). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was building a vocal, emotionally-invested audience.

The success of the podcast eventually helped get me a literary agent in 2007 — I pitched more than 200 that time around. It also put me on the radar of St. Martin’s Press. An editor there approached me for a “for hire” supernatural thriller project, a gig I happily accepted. Once my foot was in the door, I pitched them on 7th Son, and they went for it.

With a book contract signed, my film agent then pitched studios. The film rights for the trilogy were optioned to Warner Bros. late last year.

What sort of marketing did you do for the launch of the actual book? How did you sell so many copies in your first week?

I took everything I learned from my four years of promotion, and used the very best ideas. I wanted to dazzle longtime fans and newcomers with killer content, so I wrote and podcasted original fiction — a prequel short story anthology set two weeks before the events seen in 7th Son: Descent. I enlisted the help of a musician friend, who — with my help — created songs “written and performed” by a folk musician in the book. This became a crowd-pleaser. I also recorded a brand-new version of the “print edition” of 7th Son: Descent, featuring the new scenes and plot twists seen in the print novel.

With content covered, I approached several influential websites and asked if they’d be interested in re-distributing this, and other, content. In exchange for access to their audiences, I’d promote their work with in-content advertising. Sites such as BoingBoing.net agreed, putting my work before audiences that had never before heard of 7th Son. This content began rolling out a few weeks before the novel’s bookstore debut.

On the day of publication, 20 websites — including those of BoingBoing, Chris Brogan, Grammar Girl, C.C. Chapman, Tor.com and others — released a 10-chapter PDF excerpt of the book. These sites also received in-PDF adverts for their participation. That PDF has been online for about a month, and has been downloaded more than 30,000 times. Again: no money was spent by anyone, yet everyone benefited from the multi-site distribution and cross-promotion.

Finally, I’m also doing gobs of dirt-under-the-fingernails outreach — pitching blogs, podcasters and mainstream media. In the past month, I’ve done more than 60 online interviews/guest posts … and if I have anything to say about it, this is just the beginning.

Why are you continuing to offer free fiction on your website? What’s your next step?

Free content serves several purposes:

  1. it keeps my current fans fat and happy, which is a priority
  2. the low barrier of entry ensures new fans can experience my work risk-free, see if it’s right for them, and support the work by purchasing a copy of the novel
  3. the fiction can be freely redistributed by fans, which increases the size of my community
  4. it’s fun.

What’s next? More free audio fiction in early 2010. By the summer, I aim to be writing two new novels, and sending some movie treatments to my film agent. I still gotta put food on my table.

What advice can you offer to writers trying to find a home for their manuscripts? Any resources you can point writers to?

While I’ve found success with the Free loss leader model, I always suggest that writers submit their manuscripts to agents the traditional way first. If you snag representation, you’ll save yourself a great amount of energy and effort creating — for instance — a podcast audiobook. (Every 30 minutes of final audio often represents around 6-8 hours of behind-the-scenes effort.) If the gatekeepers turn up their noses, screw ’em. Embrace the DIY route. Create your own success. Don’t let anyone tell you your work doesn’t have value. With the Free model, the market (aka listeners) decide.

The best one-stop resource I’ve found is AgentQuery.com. It has a robust listing of agents representing all genres. It’s also free to use.

What do you see as the future of how books will come to market? Will publishing houses still pick and choose from slush piles? Can we expect more writers to succeed by building online platforms?

I don’t think we’ll see much change in the process during the next five years or so. Major publishers are very slow to change, and — while writers can grouse about it — the current system of finding an agent to pitch your work to publishers works well. It offers some quality control. Despite 7th Son’s podcast success, it took me acquiring an agent to get business done.

I don’t suggest writers submit unagented, unsolicited manuscripts to publishers’ slush piles. Few publishers accept them, and those who do can literally take years reviewing them. While that manuscript is in that single publisher’s hands, it cannot be presented to any other publisher. You essentially forfeit any leverage or influence you have. Get an agent, cut a deal with a small independent publisher, or self-publish.

I absolutely believe we’ll see more online success stories like 7th Son’s in the years ahead. Creators who embrace this DIY approach are in for some seriously hard work, especially if they want to create the best-possible product, and promote it effectively. But those who do can build a thriving fan base, and their works’ successes can build a strong business case for publishers.

You can learn more about J.C. Hutchins at his website, where you can also read his work!