J.C. Hutchins is a groundbreaking pioneer in the realm of building participative fan-based communities around works of fiction. He is the author of the 7th Son trilogy, the most popular podcast novel series in history. The technothriller trilogy, distributed as free, serialized audiobooks on the Internet, has featured cameos by science fiction/horror icons Nathan Fillion, George Romero, Richard Hatch, Alan Dean Foster, Kevin J. Anderson and others. Hutchins’ work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and as a Blogger & Podcaster magazine cover story. Affter a successful career specializing in feature and entertainment reporting, in 2002 he left journalism to begin writing the 7th Son trilogy.
He recently agreed to talk with Future Perfect Publishing about his writing, the 7th Son fan community and what’s next for himself and the future for writing.
FPP: What prompted you to start 7th Son originally and what gave you the idea for the characters and storyline?
JCH: I’m a huge fan of superhero comic books and wanted to write my own. But as I developed the idea for 7th Sonand its core concept – seven human clones who had identical childhood memories, thanks to an ultra-secret technology that records human memories and “downloads” them into human minds – I realized that the story would be better served as a prose fiction novel. Since I believed then … and still do .. that it’s very difficult to convincingly tell a superhero story in a prose novel, I cast aside many of the “super” elements of my ideas (spandex suits, powers such as flight, ray guns, etc.) and made my seven clone protagonists “everyman” characters. Despite some of the high-tech plotlines and tech still seen in 7th Son, this creative choice grounded the narrative for me.
The story line – seven unwitting participants in a human cloning experiment brought together by the government to stop a megalomaniacal villain, the very man they were cloned from – unfolded organically during the writing process. Nearly all of the conspiracies, technologies, characters and plot twists revealed themselves to me as I wrote. It was a blast to discover this world as I wrote the book.
FPP: Who are the writers that you most admired or had the most influence on your work?
JCH: My inspirations are all over the place, found in many media. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Jeffrey Deaver, Brad Meltzer, James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Joss Whedon … the list goes on.
FPP: You have developed a very active community of listeners for the 7th Son trilogy. Was that surprising and can you tell us how that has evolved over time?
JCH: It was surprising, yes. I was initially shocked that so many people wanted to contribute something to “the 7th Son experience,” as I call it. But after receiving a few fan-created stories and pictures, I began to actively solicit such content from my listeners. Soon there were galleries and pages on my site filled with artwork, music, photos, poetry, fan fiction, screen savers, images and more. I still receive photos and artwork from listeners, even though the 7th Sontrilogy podcast concluded last December. It was incredible and life-changing, knowing that people were so invested in my fictional world.
FPP: Was it a little scary when your fans first began creating and sharing their own content based on your work?
JCH: Why would I be frightened? I believe the contract between an author and his audience is straightforward: authors produce entertaining content, and the audience consumes it. That’s it. Anything else the audience may do – tell a friend about the work, send the author an email, buy a branded T-shirt or other merchandise – is positively heroic in my world view, and far above and beyond what any author should expect. In that context, the fact that people quested for my content, leaped through a few technological hoops to obtain it, listened to it, enjoyed it … and then invested even more of their personal time and creativity to create their own art inspired by my story is as staggering as it is humbling.
There’s nothing frightening about that. It’s nigh-miraculous, and I’m touched by my fans’ generosity.
FPP: To what extent has the community influenced the development of characters and storyline in your novels?
JCH: None. I wrote and edited the 7th Sontrilogy long before I released it as a podcast. I did not write the series as I released the content, and I don’t recommend authors do it that way. I believe the work should be as tight and polished as it possibly can be before it’s released in the wild, and that nearly always means completing the work, editing, rewriting, rinse, repeat. I know a few writers who are good enough to release serialized fiction as they write it week-to-week, but I’m not one of them.
FPP: What is the process you would go through to create a podcast episode? What were some of the things you had to learn or hurdles you had to overcome in the production of the podcasts?
JCH: Creating a typical podcast episode for a serialized audiobook such as mine involves recording what I call the “core content” (the chapter that will be released in that weekly episode), editing out all the reading flubs, writing and recording timely announcements that preclude and conclude the core content, adding promotional recordings for other podcasts, mixing the entire production down into an episode, uploading it to a Web server, and then activating the content in my podcast feed.
I won’t bore your readers with the minutiae of the things I had to learn in those early days, but they involved learning what affordable recording gear to purchase (in 2006, I spent around $100 for the microphone and mixer that I still use), using an audio editing program (I use the free Garageband program for the Macintosh; there are free programs for other computer platforms, as well), understanding the fundamentals of what powers a podcast (RSS and XML technologies), and how to build and manage a website. It sounds daunting, but nearly all of this stuff was easy to grok, once I realized that I didn’t have to be a “master” of all of these things at once. LIke writing a novel, I baby-stepped my way through learning these things, and only after I was confident that I knew the basics did I launch my podcast.
The greatest revelation I made about podcasting my fiction was that it can be a colossal time suck. I’m a solid performer of my work, but I’m a terrible reader. Recording a typical 45-minute episode takes around 90 minutes for me, and another three hours to edit it. Even more time is required to write and record the timely announcements. The mixdown of an episode can take as long as 30 minutes. Even more time is taken uploading the final audio file to the Web, and activating it for people to download.
The technology is relatively easy to master, but the time investment can be enormous.
FPP: In the past, you have delivered your work through podcasts. Now you’ve announced a print title for summer 2009. Why did you choose the podcasting route first and how do you think your listeners will respond to seeing your work in print?
JCH: From 2002 to 2004, I wrote what we now know as the “7th Son trilogy” as one long manuscript. The complete story – nearly 1,300 pages in length – was far longer than any publisher would purchase and release from a first-time novelist. Egotistically, I ignored this and spent 2005 querying literary agents. I received deserved universal rejections from the industry. The project I’d spent two years of my life writing (and breathing) was dead on arrival. It was disheartening.
During 2005, I was listening to podcasts and discovered the serialized “podcast novel” works of Scott Sigler, Tee Morris, Mark Jeffrey, Jack Mangan and others, and realized that if I couldn’t sell 7th Son, I could at the very least share it. In early 2006, I chopped my monster manuscript into thirds (act one became Book One: Descent, etc.) and began releasing it as a podcast. More than two years — and more than 40,000 listeners and nearly 2 million downloads later — I now have a print deal for that first novel in the 7th Son series. It will be released next Fall by St. Martin’s Press.
And yes, I have another novel that will be released in Summer 2009, also by St. Martin’s. This for-hire project, called Personal Effects: Dark Art, is an ambitious novel-meets-Alternate Reality Game supernatural thriller that will break more than a few rules in the way readers perceive and experience prose fiction. This deal also hailed directly from the success of the 7th Sonpodcast. St. Martin’s Press associate editor David Moldawer facilitated both deals.
How do I think my audience will respond to these two print releases next year? I think they’re going to love it. I’ve received thousands of emails from fans during the past two-and-a-half years as a podcaster, and a great many of them specifically mention how excited they are to know that these books will be published, and how they’ll purchase copies for themselves and friends. I’m humbled by this, as I believe they – the fans – are the No. 1 reason for any success I’ve experienced as an author.
FPP: How would you like to extend the community in the future?
JCH: This is an excellent question, and one I’ve yet to answer for myself. I believe the key to audience and community growth will come from extending my reputation and work beyond the microcosm of podcasting. When my current podcast fiction project – called 7th Son: OBSIDIAN – concludes in September, I’ll be thinking very seriously about this. How can I present myself and expertise in more visible places? What advice can I offer the fiction and social media communities to help creators explore this exciting landscape?
While I have no satisfactory answer for myself (or your readers) yet, it’s something that’s on my mind. I want the print releases of my novels to be successful in 2009, and I want to do everything I can to make that happen. Growing my fan base – and the awareness of what I’m doing – will become my absolute priority, rolling into the new year.
FPP: You’ve described yourself as “a shameless (but tactful) self-promoter.” Can you elaborate on that?
JCH: Sure. Maybe it’s my folksy Kentucky upbringing, but I try to treat others the way I’d like to be treated. That’s why I’m as cheerful as I can be on my podcast, I answer every email I receive from listeners … and when I promote myself and my work – and I do it quite often, and quite vociferously – I try to be as kindhearted and realistic as I can be about it.
This might be an affront to traditional authorial sensibilities, but I believe my job as a writer is not only to entertain folks with my work, but to shake my ass and get as many newcomers to my content as possible. To do this, I often ask my audience to evangelize on my behalf, and will occasionally provide incentives such as merchandise, exposure on my podcast, etc. to make it worth their time. I make sure that the promotions I create are not morally offensive, are generally fun (or funny), and have an “opt out” clause for my audience. I try not to make people feel obligated to promote my stuff, and I try to be as up-front with my listeners on how I might benefit from their hard work.
In addition to this, I personally promote my work on my podcast, on social media sites/services, and to other podcasters. Whenever possible, I make an offer of reciprocity to colleagues who help me. I want to be treated with respect, and I do everything I can to do the same for my fans and peers.
FPP: How much of your time is divided between interacting with the 7th Son community and writing?
JCH: Podcasting, keeping up with fan correspondence and managing my social media persona and all that comes with it – my website, etc. – currently consumes nearly all of my creative time and energy. Times such as now, when I’m releasing podcast content, force new projects to the backburner. This is a dangerous game for authors, and it’s challenging to keep all the plates spinning.
Despite my love for podcasting, I believe I was put on this planet to tell stories. I’m taking the risk that this “front end” work of community-building, podcasting, etc. will help create a supportive network of fans that will purchase my work when it’s released in print, and make those releases a success, so I might someday make this my full-time profession.
FPP: What would you like to do after 7th Son?
JCH: The podcast release of the 7th Son trilogy concluded last December, and 7th Son: OBSIDIAN’s finale will debut next month. When 7th Son: OBSIDIANconcludes, I plan to take a well-deserved vacation from podcasting, and begin focusing my efforts on creating new stories and content. Some of this will be used to promote the Summer release of Personal Effects: Dark Art. Some of this will be new novels and short stories.
FPP: How do you see the emerging social media affecting the way writers create and market their work in the future?
JCH: It’s mission critical. The frontier for self-promotion, content creation and ways of telling never-before-seen breeds of stories is changing rapidly, and for the better. Technologies and services are so cheap – or in many instances, free – that the tools for creative expression are accessible to nearly everyone with a computer and Internet connection. Combine this with the inarguable reality that digital distribution of stories and promotional materials is becoming more and more mainstream – and will someday become ubiquitous – and it’s obvious that writers must explore this new Wild West. They must carve a place for themselves in it.
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