Mark Jeffrey

Mark Jeffrey

Most of us have enough on our hands just keeping up with our day jobs.  But Mark Jeffrey, author of the ultra popular Max Quick series of books and podcast audiobooks has two day jobs.  His first podiobook, Max Quick 1: The Pocket and the Pendant, has received over 2 million downloads to date.  And he is currently CTO of Mahalo.com, a human-powered search service.  Previously, Mark co-founded ZeroDegrees, a business social network (sold to IAC/InterActiveCorp in 2004).  He was CEO and co-founder of SuperSig in 1999. Mark also co-founded The Palace, Inc., an early (1995) avatar chat platform backed by Intel, Time Warner and Softbank with 10 million users (sold to Communities.com in 1998). Mark lives in Santa Monica, California. 

We recently interviewed Mark about his work, as well his thoughts about writing and the future of publishing.

FPP:  How did you come to write the Max Quick series and why did you choose to pursue the young adult audience?

The Pocket & the Pendant

The Pocket & the Pendant

MJ:  Initially, it was because it was something I thought I could do, that it was within my abilities as a first-time writer. I thought I would start with a ‘toy world’ and graduate from there to more serious stuff. But I quickly realized that I had actually, unwittingly, begun writing in one of the most serious of worlds possible. Paradoxically, it’s adult fiction that is usually rather trivial. Think about it. Who’s zooming who, who killed who — it’s all the same stuff, over and over. But Young Adult (YA) deals with large, archetypical themes. We are dealing with stories from the collective unconscious. That’s explosive. That’s handling nitro, baby.

Carl Jung once said, “One of the most difficult tasks men can perform, however much others may despise it, is the invention of good games and it cannot be done by men out of touch with their instinctive selves.” I think the same can be said of good YA fiction (though I don’t think it’s as much despised these days 🙂 )

The Two Travelers

The Two Travelers

I think Harry Potter and His Dark Materials opened some eyes to the fact that this sort of thing could be successful in recent years. Of course, there have been countless similar examples over the last century: Star Wars, the Oz books (easily the ‘Potter’ of the turn of the century), Narnia and Lord of the Rings are all supposedly ‘young adult’ content. In fact, I find the stuff I like best tends to fall into this category.

One other bit of ‘young adult’ content I would highlight includes ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card. I had not read it before I wrote ‘Pocket’. But a lot people told me ‘Pocket’ reminded them a lot of ‘Ender’s Game’ in that the children have to grow up very fast, and they’re kind of on their own. The children are not there to be cute. Nor are they sort of half-people. Rather, they are narratively full, rich individuals and are taken very, very seriously as people. Same thing with ‘Stand By Me’, actually. I tried very consciously to do the same thing.

But finally, there is a certain marketing logic to YA. The movie industry whispers in awe about a ‘four quadrant’ hit — one that appeals to young and old, men and women equally. Good YA is likewise ‘four quandrant’. It has much more hit potential than anything narrowly focused. Why? Because it is archetypal. It is universal and timeless. At least when it is done correctly 🙂

FPP:  What do you think has been responsible for the tremendous success of the Max Quick series?

MJ:  It’s simultaneously very similar and very different to other things out there right now. ‘Potter’ opened everyone’s minds, of course. And created an audience. But after that, in the book world, you pretty much have Pullman, and that’s it. Nobody else has delivered! Space has been done to death. Sword and sorcery has been done to death. But YA … its been done well very few times. I like to think I’ve done it pretty well 🙂 At the very least, I’ve done something people like, judging from the reviews in the iPhone App Store.

Secondarily, the podiobook version of ‘Pocket’ was early enough and popular enough (it’s gotten 2.3 million downloads to date) that it provided the early explosion in the fanbase. That was certainly a factor, and I owe a thanks to Evo Terra and podiobooks.com for that early success.

FPP:  Are there particular authors who have influenced on your work?

MJ:  Absolutely. I am a huge fan of Stephen R. Donaldson and Anne Rice in particular. I’ve also read lot of Carl Jung, Stephen King (specifically Dark Tower), Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), Mervyn Peake, Karen Armstrong, JRR Tolkien, Philip K. Dick, JK Rowling, Carlos Casteneda, Frank Herbert, Phillip Pullman — all great stuff. Movies and television influence me as well — some of my favorites include Star Wars, Amadeus, Somewhere In Time, Fight Club, The Natural, Blade Runner … and TV: LOST, Battlestar Galactica (new, not disco version), Deadwood, Carnivale … it’s an interesting mix.

And all of this stuff influences me, of course. There is a theme of both Philip K. Dick and Donaldson that is a big one in ‘Two Travelers’. As Dick puts it: “Anyone who defeats a segment of the Empire, becomes the Empire.” In Donaldson’s ‘Thomas Covenant’ series, Covenant thinks he is supposed to destroy the Banefire — and he very nearly does — which is exactly what the Enemy wants him to do. Lastly, Jung has a saying: “The which we resist, persists.” I find this paradox fascinating, that the more we fight something negative, the more we actually give it power. Kind of a Chinese finger-puzzle, if you will. So that became a big theme of ‘Travelers’.

FPP:  You are a serial entrepreneur who has started a number of businesses based on new Internet technologies. How has that influenced your writing and marketing of the Max Quick series, if at all?

MJ:  Oh, it has influenced the marketing of it quite a bit. A lot of my previous businesses succeeded because myself and my partners were among the very first people ever to do them. ZeroDegrees, my third company, was the very first win in the social networking space. It was sold to Barry Diller’s IAC/Interactivecorp in Feb 2004. At the time, we didn’t even have the word ‘social network’ anywhere on our business plan! We didn’t know it was called that.

Similarly, the Max Quick Series has been marketed in many innovative ways — and was among the first in each case. And that can be directly traced to my ‘DNA as an Internet Guy’, if you will. I released the book first via Lulu.com in 2004 as a self-published paper book and as a downloadable PDF. In the beginning of 2005, ‘Max Quick 1: The Pocket and the Pendant’ was one of the very first podiobooks ever released (Scott Sigler’s Earthcore and Tee Morris’ MOREVI were the other two). I also released ‘Pocket’ on the Kindle. And most recently, ‘Pocket’ and ‘Max Quick 2: The Two Travelers’ were both released in the iPhone App Store as $5.99 ebook downloads.

FPP:  You’ve distributed your work as podcast, in print form, as a download, an e-book on Kindle and now on the iPhone. What adaptations, if any, did you have to make for each of those formats?

MJ:  The Kindle was a bit of a pain. The iPhone was quite easy — my partner on that, Tom Peck, took my original Word documents and converted them to his iPhone e-reader format — and it was some work on his end, but nothing terrible, I’m given to understand.

FPP:  Has the free podcast version aided or detracted from sales in print and other paid formats?

Abigail Breslin

Abigail Breslin

MJ:  Definitely added. The free podcasts have gotten over 2.3 million downloads. And as a direct result, Oscar-nominee Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) heard the podcasts and recently called it one of her favorite books. Which was great marketing, of course — nothing better than one of the top child actors in the world saying nice things about your books!

FPP:  Could you tell us a little about how the community of readers / listeners for the Max Quick series has evolved since you began writing it?

MJ:  A lot people follow me on Twitter and friend up with me on Facebook these days. Some people email me. It never gets old, either. I love hearing what people think about the series — the good and the bad. I love hearing how they found out about it. It’s still sort of something that you have to discover somehow on your own.

In the second edition of ‘Pocket’ I included a lot of fan art that people sent in to me. Most of it is quite good! There are some seriously good artists reading the books!

FPP:  How do you see technology changing the way consumers read and authors write over the next several years? Is the printed book in danger of extinction?

MJ:  I don’t think so. Personally, I am still a big fan of being able to have a book on my bookshelf — and I think a lot of people feel the same way. Maybe if I were younger I would feel differently — I might be too old to adopt fully digital books.

However, I was shocked at how much I liked reading books on my iPhone. I wouldn’t have called that one. I am personally not a big fan of the Kindle or the other e-readers out there. Probably because I already have in my iPhone a multi-purpose device, and the Kindle is a one-trick pony. It seems ridiculous that I should have to purchase a bit of standalone hardware like that. My iPhone is already my email client, iPod, web browser, ebook reader, GPS device, camera, etc. It’s already in my pocket. You get the point. And I’ve sold way more iPhone copies of my books in the first two weeks than I’ve sold on the Kindle in the last year. So, I think the iPhone — or other multipurpose mobile device — crushes the Kindle. You heard it here first! You can’t be a one-trick pony hardware device anymore.

I also love the fact that I can go direct to a market of millions without a publisher as an unnecessary intermediary. I published directly to iPhone via Tom Peck’s wonderful e-reader application. Apple takes a cut, Tom takes a cut, but I — the artist — take the biggest cut. Now that is a proper world! And of course, I am very happy to see both Tom and Apple do very, very well. I want them to do well!

FPP:  How do you balance managing your new startup, Mahalo, and your writing?

MJ:  Ha. Well. 🙂 Mahalo.com — where I am CTO, for your readers who do not know — is a new human-powered search engine. All the results are hand-crafted by humans. No spam! The best links always on top, not buried on page 32 or 47 of the results. (Short-form information is also presented with the links, so if it’s just a factoid you’re looking for, you’ll generally get it.) It’s really pretty extraordinary — and a big leap beyond the machine-powered search engines. It’s all information you can trust 100%. Sorry to sound like a commercial, but Mahalo is really an awesome idea (and it wasn’t mine, I’m sorry to say 🙂 it was the idea of Jason Calacanis, our CEO and personal friend of mine) and it’s sorely needed: the Net is getting more polluted every day — and that’s why I signed up.

But Mahalo is an internet start-up. And it is intense, with very long hours. Which doesn’t leave a lot of time or ‘psychic energy’ for writing. I come home drained a lot. You’ll notice there is no Max Quick 3 yet. True, I am doing Max Quick 2 as a podiobook now, but I’ve got that down to a science — only takes me 2 hours per episode now, it used to take me 8. And it is kind of ‘rote’ — I just have to do a performance of something I wrote awhile ago, edit it, release it. Very different from finding the proper ‘head space’ for writing a Max Quick book.

At some point that will be finished with the podiobook, and I’ll slowly begin work on MQ3 (I do have an outline). I’m guessing by October I’ll break ground on it.

But I’ve done several internet startups of my own before, as you note. I knew what I was signing up for with Mahalo. And so far, it’s been one of the best startup experiences I’ve had.

FPP:  What writing projects would you like to pursue after Max Quick?

MJ:  I have no idea. The Max Quick universe is large enough to encompass just about any story I want to tell — sort of like Star Trek or Gate.  At least, for me it is.  Every time I toy with an idea outside of the Max Quick universe, I end up integrating it. In ‘Two Travelers’, the Casey storyline was a separate book — until I realized it was perfect for the Casey story that had been eluding me. Likewise, I had an idea I called ‘Bondsman’ that was to be a series parallel to Max Quick and end on the same book — until I realize it was perfect for the Max storyline in book 3.

So when I figure this out, it’ll be as much a surprise to me as it is to you.

FPP:  Based on your experience, what advice would you give new writers today?

MJ:  Take advantage of the new distribution mediums! Own your own future! Get it out on Lulu.com, the Kindle (why not?), iPhone, PDF, podiobooks.com — whatever. You’re problem is not that you’re not rich. Your problem is nobody has ever heard of you before. It’s a privilege that someone else will take the time to read your stuff.

Also, the definition of what a book actually *is* … is pretty fluid now. It’s more like software. For example, what is out right now for ‘Pocket’ I consider ‘Pocket 1.0’. I may do a ‘Pocket 2.0’ with expanded scenes, new scenes, etc. I may double the length of it — like an extended edition DVD. There’s a lot of things I wanted to do with the journey across America that I could not get to and remain under 100,000 words. Now that there are so many fans of the book, I feel I have permission to expand it. There’s no reason not to.

I may release the first six chapters for free in the iPhone App Store (in fact I probably will) like a sampler game level.

The point is: we are no longer in a world where you publish it and it is set in stone for eternity. You can keep upgrading it. You have to be careful so you don’t destroy the illusion of continuity — you can’t be completely fluid to the point of silliness (for example, in the newer ‘Star Wars’, Lucas has Greedo fire at Han Solo first — and miss at point blank range! — that is silliness, don’t change your stuff THAT much).

Finally, your early audience can help you write your book. Readers have found consistency errors in earlier version of Pocket that I’ve since corrected. They are basically beta testers. Take their feedback, fix your book, re-release it. Scott Sigler, JC Hutchins (7th Son) Matthew Wayne Selznick (Brave Men Run) have commented on this at length. The audience can help you write. Take advantage of that. Again, books are more like software now.

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J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins

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?

7th Son fan content

7th Son fan content

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?

7th Son Obsidian

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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rouletteBlog to book stories are becoming more commonplace.  We have chronicled a number of such examples, and you can find a virtual library of blog to book stories on Blooking Central.  Some of these were serendipitous, but more and more writers, especially new authors, are being more intentional about converting their blogs into a printed title.   There is more than one way to execute a blog to book strategy.  Here is my attempt at a blook typology:

  • indie blook – This is the type of blook where an author independently publishes and markets a title based on their blog.  Low cost self publishing and inexpensive Internet marketing techniques are making this an attractive option for new authors who are not shy about self promotion.
  • traditional blook – This is the form of blook that you read about in the newspapers.  A publisher discovers a high traffic blog and offers the blog owner a book deal.  Tjhe rationale is that the blog has an established audience and a topic in line with the publisher’s market focus.
  • podiobook – This is more of an audio blook.  Here the author serialize his or her book into podcasts and uses a blog for audience feedback and book marketing.  It is especially effective for fiction writers.  Two of the best know podiobook authors are Scott Sigler and JC Hutchins. 
  • crowdsourced blook – This is a rare blook, but every author’s dream come true.  Here, the blog is so popular that a community emerges and contributes content which eventually winds up being part of the publishing or marketing strategy for a title.  In other words – build a community that helps you generates content and then publish it.  The best known example is Frank Warren’s Post Secret.
  • reverse blook – In this scenario, an author blogs the content from an existing book to build an audience for the current or a new edition.  This may be a good way to revitalize a book whose sales are fading.

attack of the BLOGWe believe that these – and other – blog to book strategies will replace the traditional (and mostly ineffective) approach to getting a book published which involves submitting a manuscript to agents or publishers in hopes of getting it read and eventually published.  Publishing is a risky business.  Of the many risks, the first and biggest is signing an unkown author who may or may not be able to attract an audience for their title.  An author who has a blog with an established audience is an attractive proposition.  Publishers can assess the quality and appeal of the writing.  The popularity of blog posts can be measured and ranked.  We can see how the audience reacts to the content long before it is edited into book form.   In the case of a popular blog, the audience can be larger than the circulation of many magazines or newspapers 

Blooks are not just a publishing sideshow – interesting examples of pluck and luck.  They represent the future of publishing in a world of consumer generated media.

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storytelling around a campfireHumanity never tires of hearing a good story.  In ancient times, stories were told around a roaring campfire.  The oral tradition evolved and continues even after the written word had become the dominant way to retain cultural knowledge.   Radio and now podcasts are its modern incarnation. 

The  podcast novel is finding its place in the bibliosphere as a way for indie authors to build an audience when publishers won’t bite.  Some authors have achieved remarkable success telling their stories in the “podiobooks” format.   JC Hutchins is one example.  He has built a highly active Internet community around his work without ever publishing in print form.  He has finally relented and decided to publish one of his novels, 7th Son: Descent, which goes to print iin 2009

iPod podcastSo what is a podiobook?  A podiobook(or podcast novel) is a term coined by Evo Terra to describe serialized audio books which are made available in podcast format.   Innovative authors are evolving podcast novels by adding more production values.  In some sense, it may follow the creative arc of old time radio drama.  Some of these enhancements include:

  • Guest voices on a podcast
  • Sound effects
  • Music to heighten the emotional impact
  • Building community with the podcast audience by posting listener feedback on a blog associated with the podcast

All of these add emotional impact and help the reader better imagine the story.  Creating a podcast movel takes  work, however.  A lot more work than, say, creating and writing a blog.  Some of the considerations you will need to make include:

  • Format – i.e. whether single or multiple voices, other production values, how long each episode should be, etc.
  • Recording equipment and editing software – the tools you use will depend on the requirements of your podcast as well as your comfort level with technology; don’t underestimate the learning curve
  • Time investment – episodes can easily take upwards of 8 hours to fully produce and distribute; longer if you’re adding voices, sound effects and music
  • Costs for hosting, storage and throughput
  • Tracking downloads and getting / responding to feedback from your audience

There are many good references to help you get started.  One of the best I’ve found is Podcasting Bible by Steve Mack and Mark Ratcliffe.  The authors provide a comprehensive overview of the subject and take you through the four stages of a podcast:

  • Planning,
  • Recording and editing
  • Encoding
  • Distribution

One of the things you’ll need to be especially aware of – success has its costs.  Generally, podcast distribution services charge for storage and throughput.  Throughput can be expensive if thousands of fans start downloading your serialized story podcasts.  Be sure to check the terms of your podcast hosting service or distribution network and calculate what a popular podcast might wind up costing you.

Even if you’re writing a work of non-fiction, you can use a podcast to promote your book.  Patrice Anne-Rutledge published an article in Writers Weekly on promoting books with podcasts.  The article is a comprehensive collection of tips and resources that budding podcast authors will find very useful. 

father reading to childrenAs a yonng child, one of my fondest memories was being in school and having the teacher read a story to me and my classmates at the end of the day.  Podcast stories, when done well, let me recaptre that experience.  Podcast novels and poidobooks are just the latest step in the great oral tradition of storytelling.

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Blook Looks

by Cheryl Hagedorn

Cheryl Hagedorn authors Blooking Central, which examines
published books to discover what makes for a blookable blog.

Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s first blook, Gypsy Teacher: Dixon Donnelly @ Sea, is a collection of posts to her blog which was kept during the summer of 2002. Here’s how the author describes her work:

Kathleen Dixon DonnellyI took 12 Florida college students to London for two weeks as part of a study abroad program, and then was privileged to teach for 65 days on Semester at Sea, operated by the Institute for Shipboard Education. 

As a volunteer for the WLRN-FM Radio Reading Service in Miami, available to the visually impaired in South Florida through a special receiver, I offered to do weekly reports chronicling our voyage at this interesting time in European history.

The scripts for the 14 tapes, including interviews with students and others on board, are presented here.

Up until now in looking at blooks, I’ve blown past the internet sites that mention podcasts. But Donnelly’s comment about the Radio Reading Service set me to wondering about the possibility of blooking recorded material.  Other than interviews or conversations, which may or may not be interesting to read on paper at a later date, I’m guessing that many podcasts are scripted.  Which means that there could be a file (some of us still write in longhand on paper … trust me on this!) which could be used to construct a dead tree version of a series of podcasts.  The same rules would apply when transforming blog content:

  • Cluster posts/scripts by topic
  • Write transitional material between them
  • Provide a decent introduction and conclusion

In wandering around, I discovered that there are many sites stories that are delivered as podcasts (see Digital Podcast). Which only makes sense.  But what potential is there for non-fiction?   Who do you listen to whose opinion or perspective you would want captured in print so that you could return to it again and again?  Maybe even constructing rebuttals or making notes in the margin? It also occurs to me that taking the time to listen is somewhat limited whereas you can tuck a book into your pocket and read wherever, whenever.  Okay, so I’m technologically-challenged and maybe downloading and then listening whenever, wherever is also possible! But with reading you can really focus and reread — no rewind/replay 🙂

I’ve seen some audio transcripts that, frankly, weren’t worth the effort to transcribe. But it sure gives one pause to think that the same material worked up for a print presentation might actually fly!  Since I’m not a listener I wrote to GoingLikeSixty to see if he listened to anyone on a regular basis that I could cite as an example. He responded, “The only ‘podcast’ I don’t miss is actually a vlog — the best — Wallstrip.  I’ve tried to listen to podcasts but find them poorly produced, poorly written, and always way too long.”

Well, that gives one pause, doesn’t it?  Production isn’t a concern with blogs unless you’re talking about presentation.  But the criticism about being poorly written applies to both blogs and podcasts. And many blog posts are often too short, rather than too long, to make for blookability.

So where are we on this? Are there websites/blogs with podcasts that you know have been blooked or could/should be blooked?

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Scott SiglerNew authors have always faced the challenge of getting past the book publishing gatekeepers – agents and acquistion editors.  Scott Sigler found a new way into the castle.  Scott’s work revolves around modern science’s dichotomy of simultaneously producing good and evil.  It has been described as a “steel-tipped boot on your throat, speed-metal fiction.”

Snubbed by publishers for years, Scott turned the traditional book publishing model on its head when he released EarthCore as the world’s first “podcast-only” novel.  Scott recorded EarthCore in 2005 in 22 episodes (roughly 45 minutes each) that subscribers downloaded.  He picked up 10,000 subscribers along the way.  His next podcast novel, Ancestor, drew 30,000 listeners and saw 700,000 episodes downloaded by fans. In combination with Scott’s other two podcast novels, Infection and The Rookie, his fans have downloaded over 3 million episodes of his fiction.

Ancestor bookcoverScott’s innovative use of technology puts him at the forefront of modern-day publishing.  He has been covered in the Washington Post, BusinessWeek, CNet, The Book Standard and the nationally syndicated radio show The Dragon Page.  He is a Michigan native, and lives in San Francisco with his wife Jody and their two dogs, Mookie and Emma.

We recently asked Scott about his experience with the podcast novel and the world of traditional book publishing.

FPP:  What gave you the idea to do EarthCore as a podcast novel initially?

Scott:  I discovered podcasting in February 2005. I immediately started looking for podcast novels, because the technology reminded me of radio plays of the 40s and 50s – serialized audio fiction. When I couldn’t find any novels, I realized it was because no one had done it yet. EARTHCORE was set to be published in 2002 by AOL/TimeWarner, but they scrapped the imprint a month or so before my book was printed. So I had a finished novel, edited by a major publishing house, just sitting there – I learned how to podcast and got the thing up as fast as I could, knowing there would be benefit to first-mover status.

FPP:  What were some of the logistical difficulties you had to overcome in recording and distributing the episodes?

Scott:  I knew nothing about recording, blogging, RSS, XML, etc. I had to figure it all out and figure it out fast.

FPP:  What is the process you go through in creating each episode?

Scott:  The novels are finished before I begin. I create a new episode from a template that already includes intros and outros. I record, stopping and going back when I screw something up. That way when I record the final word, I’m done with the spoken part. I then add sound effects and make sure I didn’t miss anything. Each character gets his or her own recording track, so I can run EQ separately for each. Then I rip down the MP3, post it with Podshow’s system, get the link, then post it into my WordPress blog.

Podshow’s system doesn’t do all the unique things I need for a podcast novel, so I use a WordPress blog and link to the Podshow files.

FPP:  Are there any limitations that podcasting a novel forces on you as an author?  Is there any challenge switching between writing mode and podcasting mode?

Scott:  It’s the same thing, and two completely different things. The story is where it’s at. The story doesn’t change. If you don’t have a great story, don’t even bother. The podcasting challenges are acting it out, and making sure it’s riveting to the audience. Don’t phone in the performance, strong acting with passion and energy is key – if you don’t care about the audio, why would your fans?

FPP:  How would you characterize your listening audience? Are there any differences between those who listen vs. those who read the book?

Scott:  My Junkies are the best audience on the planet, for any kind of entertainment, anywhere. They are rabid fans. They are my friends. My reading audience also likes my stuff, likes it a lot, but there is a significant connection between me and the listening audience. To my print readers, there is the story. To my podcast listeners, there is the story, then there is the author, and they get to know both very well.

FPP:  Were print publishers tracking your podcast downloads before you contacted them or was that something you had to make them aware of as you marketed your work?

Scott:  Print publishers don’t get this at all. I mean, AT ALL. This is all a mystery to them. Dragon Moon Press is a small publisher that completely understands. Crown Publishing is a major publisher, and what they understand is that I have rabid fans and I can hit Top-10 on Amazon selling an indie book with zero advertising, zero promotional support and zero media support.

Crown is smart enough to know they don’t need to understand every last nuance, they just need to know something works.

FPP:  Do you think the availability of podcasts has a positive, negative or neutral impact on sales of the print version of your books? Why?

Scott:  Positive, positive, positive. It’s free exposure and advertsing. Some people listen and still buy print. Some people listen and buy the book for people they know who like print. Some people listen and don’t buy, but they send a link to dozens of friends, and the process repeats itself. If you can try my fiction for free, wherever you like, whenever you like, and you’re deciding between my book and one that makes you go to the bookstore and shell out $24.95 just to give it a shot, which are you going to choose? I’m grabbing mental marketshare like there is no tomorrow. The podcast exposes me to thousands of people, where if I’m just on a bookshelf between KING and KOONTZ, I can’t possibly compete.

FPP:  Is there anything you would change about the way you did your earlier podcasts?

Scott:  Not really. Everything I do now I learned from those endeavors.

FPP:  Will you continue using podcasts as a way to connect with your audience for your future titles?

Scott:  I will always podcast. Crown is behind this 100%. I wouldn’t be anywhere without the Junkies, and I will continue to provide them high-grade stories as long as I live. Even after that, because I want to have a story “in the can” that people can listen to after I die. Just to fuck with their heads a little bit more.

FPP:  Do you see more authors using podcasts as a way to get the attention of publishers?

Scott:  I would say wait to see how INFECTED sells on April 1, 2008 If it’s a hit, if it charts in the New York Times Bestseller list, then the model is forever proven.

FPP:   Looking back  on your own experience, what advice would you give them?

Scott:  Use examples of people who have used podcasting to sell books. At the end of the day, publishers spend a load of money to produce, distribute and market books. If you can prove to them that you have an existing audience, they are more likely to take a chance on you.

author readingFor many authors who are trying to promote their book, budget and time are always pressing issues.  Especially when it comes to book tours.  The traditional book tour is time consuming and expensive.  The author wants to tour, meet fans and sign books., but the cosst and logistics are prohibitive.  The compromise: a press release, maybe a book review or two, some catalog listings, a few radio phone interviews and passive distribution.  Book signings and author readings are usually limited to the author’s locale.

Skype and other voice over IP phone services could lift the financial obstacle to book tours.  Skype, for instance, has introduced its Skypecast service.  Up to 100 people can join a Skypecast.  The online meeting can be a free form discussion or a presentation with Q&A following.  The best news is, it’s free to Skype users.  Authors can share various types of web content with listeners, including video – e.g. their book video posted on YouTube.  There is a technical hurdle, though it is relatively small.  Each Skypecast participant needs to download, install and configure Skype on theier PC or laptop.   This can take 10-15 minutes depending on the user’s Internet connection speed. 

Authors can promote their event in the Skypecast directory or their website with a link to the Skypecast.  Third party software providers have tools available that will let you record your Skypecast.  This allows it to be turned into a podcast that you can then post on your author site or blog. 

book signingThis type of “authorcast” would add the dimension of immediate interactivity which virtual blog tours currently lack.  Hearing the author read an excerpt can be a powerful motivation for listeners to purchase the book.  There is still that pesky issue of the book signing.   Maybe that problem will be solved when we books are made out of e-paper and authors can do personalized signings remotely (see “The Conversation in the Book“). 

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