Podcasting Your Novel: Publishing's Next Wave?

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Sebastian Bergmann

Scott Sigler

Two years into his job as a features writer at a South Florida daily newspaper, J.C. Hutchins left the newsroom to follow his dream: writing a novel. Thirteen hundred pages later, Hutchins finished 7th Son, a thriller about human cloning. Then, reality set in: no one would publish it. But Hutchins has found a way around the first-time writer's heartbreak — and he is now part of a technological wave that may carry writers into a next age of publishing.

In 2006, Hutchins joined a fledgling community of primarily unpublished science fiction authors who turned their works into audio recordings and posted them online. The authors released their work in 30 to 45 minute episodes — free of charge. They aggressively marketed their work with the help of word-of-mouth and cross-author promotion. Over time, tens of thousands of listeners downloaded podcasts of Hutchins' 7th Son. By 2007, St. Martin's Press, a division of MacMillan, was intrigued enough by his success and soon Hutchins scored a book deal. He has just co-authored a book in a new series called Personal Effects, scheduled for a summertime release; and St. Martin's will publish 7th Son in book form as well this year. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)

In an interview with TIME, Hutchins recalls the early dejection and then the determination to release his work in any way possible. "It may not be perfect," Hutchins, 33, says, "but, golly, is it good. I believe in this thing. And I'm not interested in putting this in a drawer." On putting his work out for free, he explains, "If I can't sell it, I might as well share it."

Unlike audiobooks, novel podcasts are truncated into segments and may include ambient sounds, music as well a cast of voices playing different characters. While successful authors pitch their works on their own Web sites, many newer writers are posted on Podiobooks.com. Evo Terra, the co-founder of Podiobooks.com, says 45,000 episodes are downloaded each day. The success of novels is democratically decided: word of mouth leads to more downloads. Voluntary donations to authors (the web site keeps 25%, with the rest going to the writer) are another indicator an author's popularity. In the future, Terra sees authors of out-of-print books capitalizing on podcasting if they want to resurface with a new publication or revisit past works. (See TIME's list of the 100 Best Novels)

It seems a ripe time for novel podcasting to grow. Traditional book publishers are struggling. Book sales are down; MacMillan has laid off employees, as have Random House and Simon & Schuster; and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has suspended the purchase of most new manuscripts. With advance money drying up as well as contracts, Terra says that aspiring writers now feel that "maybe I should try something on my own" and build an audience online.

Scott Sigler of San Francisco also missed out on getting his first novel published, with a deal collapsing in late 2001. But like Hutchins, he built a big Internet fan base on novel podcasting, which led to a 2007 deal with The Crown Publishing Company (a division of Random House), one believed to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sigler reached a milestone this month by cracking the New York Times Hardcover Fiction bestseller list with Contagious, a first for an author emerging from the podcast genre. The print run for Contagious is 80,000 copies and it has made the bestseller list despite Sigler's getting his reluctant publisher to allow him to put out PDF files and podcasts of chapters of the book for free on his website. So far, he has podcast eight chapters.

For all of Sigler's and Hutchins' success, there are critics who downplay the significance of their "pioneering" work. When serving as vice president of the Science Fiction Writers of America two years ago, author Howard Hendrix, in a blog, dubbed these authors "webscabs" who are turning the role of writer into a "pixel-stained Technopeasant wretch." (Hendrix later admitted, in a "debate" with Sigler in Sept. 2007 in San Franciscio, that his comments were "incendiary," but also said, "In the long run, what you may end up with is a vast digital slush pile" and "a mass of novels written by 15-year-olds.") Even David Moldawer, the associate editor who helped sign Hutchins to St. Martin's dismisses novel podcasting's growth. "It's a very small community," Moldawer, who now works for Penguin Books, told TIME. "I think the podcasting thing in general has definitely flattened out." Audio-type books require a longer commitment than reading a book, he adds, and sifting the wheat from the chaff is a time-consuming process.

Sigler heard the doubts from his first agent, who told him it was a mistake to release his works for free despite finding great success with Earthcore, which helped him land his publishing contract. "The condescension comes from people who fully embrace the existing structure," Sigler, 39, said in a telephone interview. "To hear these arrogant, frustrated authors, that's what fuels my opinion that these people are dinosaurs." Meawhile, Sigler says, putting his work out for free helps him "prove to the fans that I am worth their money before they even spend a penny."

Aside from the put-it-out-for-free model, the marketing angle of novel podcasting is what separates it from bricks-and-mortar book-selling. Sigler and Hutchins continue to use the online world to campaign. But how far can this niche truly expand? Most of the copy is generated by tech-saavy, sci-fi loving males, though romantic novels and military fiction are also becoming popular. Mur Lafferty, 35, a novel podcaster who lives in Raleigh, N.C., concedes "there's a lot of guys," but she finds a growing number of listeners are women. What ultimately stands out is the work put into the podcast and the effectiveness of an author's marketing work. "It's not a matter of 'record your books, put it on Podiobooks.com and your dreams will come true,'" Terra says. "They have to do their work."