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 During ’05, I was listening to podcasts, and discovered novelists who were releasing their unpublished manuscripts as self-produced, free serialized audiobooks.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!