How Thriller Novelist J.C. Hutchins Turned a Passionate Fan Base Into Successful Book Sales

With the rise of Kindles, iPhones, and the smorgasbord of content we can get from every corner of the Web, the publishing industry must evolve or become extinct. The written word, bound in book form, is in danger of becoming an anachronism.

I firmly believe that people will always crave literature. We all need great stories to entertain us and non-fiction to expand our minds. But the publishing industry is bleeding faster then the music industry, and if it doesn't do something about it then publishers are in for dire consequences.

JC HutchinsOne author is doing everything in his power to help push that evolution forward. Florida-based J.C. Hutchins has a new book on store shelves called 7th Son: Descent, published by St. Martin's Press. I'm a self-confessed Beta Clone (what his fans are known as) and pre-ordered a copy of the book as soon as it became available even though I had listened to the entire story for free on a podcast months earlier.

I wanted to profile J.C. as one of many people who has turned his passion into a successful career. He has been actively promoting the book on his own, putting out a new seven-part podcast with original content leading up to the book, a multimedia press kit, and even an EP of music from one of the characters in the book. St. Martin's blessed these efforts, but had nothing to do with it. All the work is being done by J.C.

Rather than telling you about what he is doing, I wanted to let him speak for himself, so we sat down to discuss all the work he's doing.

You got a major deal with a big publishing house. Why do you need to do all this extra work?

It's a combination of factors, much of which hails from how I'm wired. I call it being hyena hungry. If you want to achieve a particular goal, you've gotta hunt and stay scrappy. Never settle. Never give up. Sure, stop to smell the roses when you can afford to--but understand that contented sighs and navel gazing don't do much to move the needle.

I've built my reputation on giving away high-quality stories in podcast form. To keep my current fan base fat and happy, I need to keep tending that farm. Fat and happy fans are evangelical fans.

While catering to the converted is mission-critical, it isn't enough. Even little fish like me must be concerned about increasing market share. I know that my current fans will support me, but if this book is to be the success I think it deserves to be, it's going to require more eyeballs and enthusiasm from outside sources. That means going well beyond your comfort zone and reaching out to new communities and influencers.

And that means being as fearless as you can be. Any timidity I've ever experienced in pitching bigger fish for exposure (or, in more recent years, mutually beneficial cross-promotion) is nearly always eclipsed by my belief in the quality of my work, and my belief that it is absolutely worthy of wider acceptance. It's part business suit, part bulletproof vest.

Coming up in the zero-budget new media creative space, I know that no one can better tell my story than me. My publisher is doing a fine job with outreach to mainstream media, but I dare not depend on pitches sent to ultra-competitive markets to receive traction. I don't truck with the "Hail Mary" pitch-and-pray philosophy. I have a lot of respect for my publisher's outreach, but I must do everything within my power to see this through, and give my work the best possible chance to thrive in the wild. Completely depend on a stranger's efforts to effectively pimp my wares? No way.

You already recorded this whole book and gave it away for free. Is that a smart idea? Isn't that going to cut into sales?

I think this greatly hinges on an individual's perception of the term "cutting into sales." Are there folks out there who have listened--or will listen--to my free audiobooks and not purchase a copy of 7th Son: Descent? Certainly. Is it safe to say that most of these folks won't purchase a copy? I'm a big fan of managed expectations, so I'll say "yes."

At first glance, this is insanity. But consider that if I'd never given away my audiobooks, I never would have had the opportunity to build a thriving community around my work...which I could then leverage to find a literary agent...which then led to further leveraging of the work's quality and fan platform...which led to its eventual mainstream publication. It's a circuitous route, absolutely unconventional in traditionalists' eyes--and yet it works. It has been working for years in the indie music scene. My fingernails are green, I've been digging in the grassroots so long.

Also, this engaged community became emotionally invested not only in my work, but in me, and in my career. We wooed each other. My fans want me to succeed, and I want them to play starring roles in that success story. There's no ROI calculator for this kind of mutual admiration--and if there was one, it'd break. The value is stratospheric.

7th SonI say none of this with a smug tone. When I started podcasting 7th Son in 2006, I did it because I'd been rejected by so many publishing pros I thought the book was deader than disco, and would never be published. I gave it away to see if I was right, to see if my belief that the novel was a good one was true. I was--and compared to savvy marketers with million-dollar budgets--will likely remain a cavalier, bumbling creator who's more concerned with creating resonant narrative and community experiences than ROI. I'm happily in beta, baby...and I still seem to be kicking the world in the balls. Or at least in my little corner of the world.

I keep hearing that a passionate community is a great thing and can make you money. Is there truth in that?

It's both bullshit and truth. My definition of passion and the definition from someone who's been through the marketing meat grinder may be completely different.

I define passion as being more than a mere admirer or consumer of a thing. My passion is a fire in the belly, powered by excitement and emotion, akin to religion: It's fueled by belief. A passionate community is one that doesn't buy a product because they're told to. They support the product because they believe in it. They are invested in it. They understand that they're part of something cool, of a bona-fide mini-movement, a part of something that's big enough to have momentum, but still small enough to feel like a secret.

Remember the early days of Smartfood popcorn and Snapple drinks? There was a feeling of exclusivity there--and fans of those products were compelled to tell their friends about it. Why? Because they believed in the stuff, and knew it was too good not to share.

That breed of passion is priceless, and can indeed make you money--if and when you choose to monetize. When I was releasing the original 7th Son podcast in 2006 and 2007, listeners begged to send me money, as a thank you for providing them with entertainment. I declined their offers. I sold hundreds of T-shirts at cost to keep prices low for my fans, and told them so. I'm so far in the red from the promotions, giveaways, and personal time I've invested in this, I've stopped keeping track.

I did these things because I believed what I was doing had value, and that one day I'd be rewarded with an opportunity to sell a print edition of the novel. That day has come, and all of the goodwill and good memories I've built--plus the fire-in-the-belly passion my fans have for the book and my career as a storyteller--has created a special breed of enthusiasm and buying power that'll give you a nosebleed, if you ponder it long enough.

An example: I received an email from a college student last week. He said he and his buddy were buying 20 copies of my book, to pass out to friends. A ramen-munching college kid! Twenty copies! Astounding.

Another example: Just days ago, I shook my tail feathers on Twitter, recruiting fans to have their blogs "hacked" on the launch date of my book, by a fictional computer hacker seen in the novel. A fun, zero-budget grassroots way to spread the word, right? Within hours, I had nearly 150 bloggers, Tweeters, and Facebookers volunteering to participate. That's the power of a passionate community.

This all sounds like a bunch of "maybe it'll work stuff." Got any proof?

Sure. Read Chris Anderson's Free--which, I might point out, you can obtain for free. I also have enough anecdotal proof to be a True Believer. Novelist and BoingBoing.net editor Cory Doctorow has given away his fiction for years, in text and audio formats...and he hit The New York Times bestseller list last year. Novelist Scott Sigler, a trailblazer in the podcast fiction space, also became a Times bestseller. Chris Brogan gives away incalculably valuable advice on his blog, and is now a Times and The Wall Street Journal bestseller. Podcaster Mignon Fogarty--aka Grammar Girl--now oversees a thriving media empire, and is a Times bestseller. I can only imagine Wine Library host Gary Vaynerchuk will "crush it" on the sales charts as well.

The music industry has notable success stories here too; the one I'm most impressed with is Trent Reznor's. He released an album for free, sold CDs and stupefyingly expensive boxed sets to superfans, and made a killing. This story is so well-reported that I don't need to dig up a white paper. People in this space know the story, and know that it worked.

Speaking from personal experience, my free-fueled promotions for my first novel (that was released in June) and my personal online-based outreach not only snagged the biggest media "gets"--The Washington Post, NPR's Weekend Edition, etc.--but was the single-greatest contributor to the sales of the book. I have also seen a direct correlation between pre-order sales of 7th Son: Descent and the time I began releasing free 7th Son-related fiction on my site and others, such as Boing Boing. This represents exposure I never would have received and books I never would have sold had I not given it away.

This strategy is not a substitute for mainstream outreach or big ad spends, or other well-proven traditional marketing methods. Those strategies work because they are epic in scope (and price). I tell my publisher's publicity folks to pitch my book like it's going out of style, and to not depend solely on my online outreach to snag stellar "gets." I also tell them that I'm not depending solely on their outreach. Our efforts should complement--not replace--each other's.

So does an author really need a publisher in today's world?

No and yes. Authors and other creators can certainly self-publish and distribute in several media and channels: e-book, audiobook, blog-book, Lulu, Kindle store, iTunes app store, donation model, etc. Technology and services have made it one of the most empowering and exciting times to be a storyteller. It's also easier to make money from your work.

But can you make a sustainable, living wage being a DIY author? I haven't seen much evidence of that. For every one DIY author who's able to support himself solely on his self-published works, there are a thousand who make just enough to buy beer for the barbecue.

Which brings us to the true power of the mainstream publishing industry, as threatened and flawed as it is: Distribution. Only big corporations can afford the mass publishing, shipping, and placement of books where most consumers still buy them: brick-and-mortar bookstores. There's a lot of buzz around the Kindle, but e-books represent a mere 5% of book sales. Shopping online--while growing in popularity--is not where the majority of sales are occurring.

Most of our current shoppers came up before the Internet. For this majority, in-store shopping represents what I call "natural shopping behavior." Online shopping, pre-ordering books and downloading e-books is "unnatural shopping behavior." Thankfully, this landscape will further emulate the music industry and change in the years ahead, which will empower the indie creator to take advantage of unlimited shelf space, nearly-zero distribution costs, and other advantages digital (or print-on-demand) services provide. But until that day comes, in-store distribution reigns supreme--and you still need a mainstream publisher to get that.

C.C. Chapman

C.C. Chapman is the Boston based Creative Director for Campfire where he works with clients such as American Eagle Outfitters, HBO, Discovery Channel, Verizon FiOS, and Snapple. He is the founder of DigitalDads.com and the host of the popular new media podcast Managing the Gray.

In partnership with the ARF

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Ed Loessi

    C.C. thanks for the interview of J.C. his story of what it's like to promote a book casts authors in a very different light then the typical view of the man or woman holed away in their home office plucking away at the computer and mailing off the final manuscript to be read by an editor or publisher.

    It's interesting the amount of promotion that takes place or that can take place if you really want to build out awareness of a particular book or author.

    Either yourself (we are Boston based if you wanted to get together) or J.C. you can check out a product that we have called SmartSymbols, which we recently released as a way for authors and publishers to further engage with potential purchasers of their books http://www.smartsymbols.com/de...

    In this example we bring together all of the social media, author blogs and videos, reviews and location information about a book into a very small footprint that really works to engage with the readers bringing them to the tipping point of purchasing the book.

    Thanks

    Ed Loessi
    http://www.smartsymbols.com
    http://twitter.com/smartsymbol...