Writers: Down, But Not Out

J.C. Hutchins.

I have full confidence I don’t need to tell you who he is, but in case you don’t know, I already told you way back when.

Yesterday, The Hutch took to the Interwebs and wrote what was a genuinely stirring, moving piece about how his publisher, St. Martins, has declined to publish the continuation of Hutchins’ 7th Son trilogy.

You can read that post right here. I recommend it. If only because it’s homework for the things I’m about to discuss.

[EDIT: You can also read Eloquent Eddy Webb’s response to that over yonder. Do that.]

I don’t claim to be an expert on publishing. I don’t claim to be an expert on marketing. I certainly don’t know J.C. Hutchins’ heart, though I’ve heard he’s a truly nice and geniuine dude, so I can’t speak to his mindset outside what you find in the post he wrote.

I do think his post presents some… lessons? Talking points? Question marks? Exclamation points? Fuck. I dunno.

Let’s get into it.

Well, Fuck Me In The Ass With A Dildo Named “Disappointment”

My initial response to the Hutch’s post — outside of a groundswell of sympathy for the dude — was, “Uh-oh.” Here’s a guy with what appears to be a ready-to-roll army of supporters, right? He’s got a deeply engaged audience. They are his street team. His efforts at mobilizing that audience appeared to be going quite well. He ran contests. He tweeted like a man on fire. He — and I didn’t realize this explicitly — put a ton of his own money into getting word about his book out there. Early looks at the book sales seemed good.

And yet, here we are, months later, and the publisher isn’t picking up the series.

Hard not to feel disheartened, right? Hard not to feel like… man, no matter how much I push, this baby just ain’t coming out of the uterus. That baby’s entrenched. He’s putting up Ikea shelves. You might as well just get used to carrying the weight around, maybe.

I mean, let’s look at it. Reality check, writers. You get a book published. It goes into a bookstore, where All The Other Books live. People have as much chance of finding your book on the shelves as they do, say, the Arc of the Covenant in that evil warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (We won’t go into Crystal Skull. It’s just not worth it.) Okay, sure, the book also goes to Amazon. There, I’d say the chances might be even less — you browse a bookstore, fingers drifting along book spines, seeing titles, authors, colors, covers. Amazon? You don’t browse Amazon. Not the same way. Sure, your book is there. It’s a bit or a byte on a whole beach of bits and bytes.

Publishers don’t spend marketing dollars like they did in the past on books.

So, it’s on you.

Hutch knew that. He marketed his ass off. You damn sure can’t say, “Well, he could’ve done more.” More what? You can only throw so much of yourself at something.

So, Maybe It’s Not About “More”

Please believe me: I am not knocking the Hutch’s efforts. Again, I’m no expert. I’m just yammering. I’m just spitballing. It goes like this, though: he put his everything into it, and his everything wasn’t enough. That means the answer isn’t necessarily “everything.” It’s “something.” More specifically, the right something.

I’m not making a case for his book, but I am making a case for yours. What this means is, when you have a book — or some other creative storytelling product — the answer may not be, “Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” The answer may not be, “Cut out your own heart onto the altar of progress and possibility.”

The answer may instead be, “Find one right thing to do.” Or, “Find the five best things.” Things appropriate to your story. Things appropriate to your audience.

I know. I’m speaking in abstracts. I can’t speak to specifics. Not yet. This isn’t fully formed. Again: I’m just talking over here. What it means is that we as creators don’t have a Proven Plan. Right? You can’t just march in there and knock ’em all down in a hail of bullets. You need one bullet. You need the right bullet for the right gun. You need the right strategy for the right story.

Quality over quantity. Right? Maybe? Is that the way?

Ye Of Little Faith

Upon reading his post, my gestalt trembled a little. It bucked like my guts do anytime I eat a pile of really hot hot-wings. Anytime a good writer doesn’t make it up the ladder, you feel sick inside. World’s gone topsy-turvy.

But you have to find your moorings.

It’s very easy to lose faith. You read his post, you see that his own faith has potentially been shaken (again, I don’t know his heart, I’m just reading into his post). But it’ll come back. He’s just been dealt a mighty punch to the throat. He’s trying to catch a breath.

I suspect he will. If you follow him on Twitter, you can tell he’s got enough energy for ten men (and one crack-addicted minotaur). He’s a nice dude, a smart guy, and a talent to watch. He’ll find his feet. The post he writes a couple days after that kind of news is going to look a lot different than the post he writes six months from now.

But this isn’t about him.

It’s about you and me.

It’s going to be tempting to feel disillusioned. That’s okay. A little disillusionment is good. Reality isn’t nice, but it’s necessary.

We all need to feel its sting so we can adjust our expectations.

It’s easy, though, to go too far. To pass the zero mile marker labeled “Reality” and come out the other side, as far from “Illusion” as posible.

All the way to straight-up “Cynicism.”

Don’t go into the light, but don’t go into the darkness, either. You might hear a lot of voices that say, “so-and-so model is broken,” or, “transmedia is not the future,” or “free doesn’t work.” Worse, you might suspect darker notions are creeping around your margins: “If he can’t do it, neither can you. You don’t have his audience.”

Well, fuck all that.

These strategies didn’t work for him on this one project. That’s it. No, that doesn’t mean you go back to the well and try the same thing again and again, banging your head against the wall, right? Hell, maybe it does. It does if you believe in that particular strategy for this particular book. Just because This Thing doesn’t work over there doesn’t mean This Thing can’t work over here. Make sense? Further, one “failure” does not constitute a pattern of failure. Others appear to have had some success. It might mean mixing up the methods a little bit. It might mean a modification to the approach. It might mean getting help from someone. I dunno. I’m simply suggesting that there are uncertain processes at work, and you can’t base your hopes on those uncertain processes, but you also can’t base your fears on them, either.

You can’t be afraid of failure.

Shit, if you were, you wouldn’t be a writer, out there trying to thread that needle.

You can’t say free doesn’t work. Because free can work. It just doesn’t work all the time. Nothing works every time. That’s my point. No magic strategy. You have to find what’s right for you. Something like this, they’ll suddenly balk at “free” like it’s poison in the water. Ask the Penny Arcade guys how free failed them. Or how free failed Homestar Runner. Answer: it didn’t. Free succeeded. Because that’s what worked for them.

You can’t say new media doesn’t work. This isn’t an attack on new media. Heck, 7th Son is an old media approach. Sure, it came about because of new media, but where it ended up was a print book on bookshelves utilizing the old model. (To be fair, it’s also not an example of the old way doesn’t work, because — well. Just ask Dan Brown, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling. The old way can work just fine, thanks.)

You can’t say he didn’t do it, so neither can I. Even at its most fundamental level, if 100 people jump off a building, we’re all going to land differently. Ninety of us might splat. Ten percent might land in that dumpster filled with pillows and cake.

Consider, too, that we don’t have all the facts.

With the 7th Son situation, we don’t have a metric for success or lack-of-success. Hutch hasn’t shared the numbers. (Maybe he will, though?) Did he get a small advance and the book just didn’t sell? Did he get a large advance and it sold well but not well enough cover expenses? Was the book technically a success but not enough for the publisher to feel that this series was the horse it wanted to back? I don’t know. He obviously retains a good relationship with the publisher (and the upswing is that they will surely look at any new work he sends their way).

If anything, what this should tell you is that you need to find The Way to do That Thing You Want To Do. You may say, “Man, this is a book like housewives and teen girls across America are going to eat up, because it involves sparkly vampires battling Vatican assassins who are trying to take over a School of Wizards,” and so you hit the trail walked so many times before. You may say, “This book doesn’t have a mainstream audience, but I think I can build up my own micro-audience with this book — and if I do it right, and I do it myself, I might be able to carve out a living.”

That’s on you. Figure it out. And keep plugging away.

*pant, pant, pant*

I’ve gone on long, and this post is rambly and winded. What I’m saying to you is, keep on keeping on. Hutch will. You should, too. Find the strategy that works for you. Don’t throw everything at the wall. Don’t go broke. But don’t be afraid of risk, as Eddy Webb states in his post. Yes, it’s going to be a challenge. Of course it’s going to be hard, and the odds are way the fuck against you. You don’t like it? Don’t be a writer. Or a filmmaker. Or a creative type of any stripe.

One failure is not the end.

Hey, the first airplane didn’t fly, did it?

I’ve written… six novels before I got an agent for the last. I didn’t stop after the first. I learned lessons and I moved on, and I kept doing what I do. It’s not like the book sold yet. If it doesn’t, I won’t quit. Will you?

You always fall on your face first. That’s how it is.

Don’t let the voices within, or the voices without, tell you any differently.


  • Maybe if Hutch hooked up with Hitch, he could find him a new venue…and love.

    Nah. I imagine it totally sucks to get the first book published, then dropped. Like gasping across the finish line of a marathon only to be kicked in the balls by the towel girl.

    I’ve been there with rejection, but on a greatly lesser scale, so it’s a lesser disappointment. He got a big’un. It reads like this is all part of the coping process (Anger, Denial) and I hope that when he lands at acceptance it will be with renewed vim and vigor.


    • Oh, and I don’t call attention to it (because, well, it’s already written down), but Hutch gives the best lesson of all in his post:

      “When folks ask me for writerly advice, I usually reply with two words: Writers write. What I rarely say, but absolutely believe, is that writers should be paid for what they write. It’s time for me to write.”

      Amen to that. The writer writes. The writer gets paid.

      — c.

  • Scott Sigler is an author I’ve recently come to know. I’ve DM’ed him a couple of times on Twitter (after he astonishingly tweeted me first with a “hey, how are you, nice to tweet you, what makes you follow me” sort of deal). I’d been pointed to his books on Podiobooks.com where he offers them for free (working my way through Infected, then plan on tackling his other works) and because I enjoy an actual in-my-hands book far more than a PDF or an audio reading, I plan on picking them up.

    Tangent: My thoughts on PDFs over paper-and-glue books might change when I obtain a tablet of some sort.

    I would not have been introduced to this author without alternate publishing, and I would have been missing out on someone I think is one hell of a storyteller and, judging from the few Twitter messages I’ve received from him, a friendly and nice guy as well.

    I’m not sure where the rest of this comment is going, really, so I’ll shut up now.

    • @Maggie:

      Sigler’s a very nice guy from my limited experience, and I think a friend of Hutchins’, as well.

      I also believe that Sigler is a success story in this space — I don’t know numbers, I don’t know the reality, but I’ve always gotten the impression he’s successful not just at writing great books, but at actually making a living at it. I might be wrong there? But Sigler is a nice guy. I think he auto-DMs anybody who follows him with, “How do you know me?”

      I prefer paper-and-glue books. A tablet may really change that. I think the tablet is where we’re going to see a transmedia novel shine. In that space, you can hop into different types of media (audio, video, interactive map, game, dictionary, Skype call, etc) without ever putting the device down.

      I also recommend Seth Harwood.

      — c.

  • February 26, 2010 at 8:04 AM // Reply

    One problem that definitely exists is that there are a bajillion writers out there…huge book stores…and no marketing. It feels like that if I don’t already know the author of the book I may want to read, I’ll never know about it. Books that I read these days come, normally, from word of mouth. Anything else that may interest me are stuffed away underneath the Ark.

    Things that have helped are online forums and blogs. It helps to have a community of like-minded people to tell me what I may enjoy reading. There’s so much crap among the gems, though. It seems to me that a lot of writers have abandoned their love in order to pump out commercially acceptable stuff just so they can get on the shelves. It’s like they’ve all become little Roger Cormens…pumping out crap just so that they can eat. It’s been far and few between that I’m finding things I like.

    Itunes and Kindle are helping too, now. I hope this e-book reader trend sticks. I think it’s finally a way for readers to get information on new things and a great way for the industry to cost effectively promote winners. I think I see it expanding to the point where authors can start to pay extra (I know that’s a horrible concept) to have their works promoted through these services. Maybe in a future blog you can explain to me the author/publisher relationship. It seems to me, from a reader’s aspect, that publishers don’t do a lot for authors these days. I’m not sure how that whole thing works.

    Anyway…I’m a lost reader paddling through a sea of pulp. Writing, writing, everywhere…and not a word read.

  • I realize he likely tweets everyone who follows him, but it was still a nice, personal touch, and one that made me more certain to give his works a chance. I followed Diane Duane around the same time, and she didn’t DM me. 🙂 (I probably would have shit myself if she had.)

    I remember where the rest of my thoughts were going now…

    Is it at all possible that it could have something to do with market oversaturation? I have another friend I met online who I’ve kept in touch with over the years. He’s a published author, though his books are all sold in PDF format. His market is very, very niche though (gay fantasy) so while he’s not guaranteed to make a small fortune in it, he also doesn’t have the same amount of competition he would if he was writing mainstream.

  • Since I read what happened with Hutch yesterday, I’ve been going through a little internal conflict over it all. I want that guy to succeed – holy crap, who here doesn’t? Every little bit I’ve read by him is amazing, and the guy is super nice. I want the way he is blazing to set a new path, and I want him to have the recognition of being one of the pioneers on that path – with the riches that should follow.

    I don’t know that it will though. I think the path is very valid, and I do think this is something of a set back, but all of us in this pot need to figure out a new way of attacking this beast.. in effect, rally behind what happened with Hutch and use that to more furiously attack our dreams. I do not, in anyway, think Hutch is over and out. I also think what has happened can be the very fuel some fence sitters need to launch into this scary new world where publishing isn’t as direct as it once was.

    I don’t know, maybe none of this makes any sense. I just know that in all conflicts, sometimes you get setbacks. The published dropping the sequels was Hutch’s personal setback, not mine – it doesn’t affect me beyond maybe not being able to read them. But this guy, whom I’ve never met or talked to, feels like a comrade in arms (only further along in his journey). I can take what happened to him, internalize it, and make it part of what motivates me to seek every avenue of advertising, publishing, and media I can find.

    Again, I may just be going crazy.

  • The Hutch is an inspiration. If nothing else, he shows that a writer not only needs to write, but also know the audience of what they’re writing.

    I feel awful for him. But I’m glad he’s not letting it get him down and his pen continues to jot.

  • Good to know that we’re on the same wavelength on this.

    I have faith in Hutch. I know that new media approaches can work. But I am appropriately cautious of the real risks involved, especially after this.

  • @Scionical Also, if you look at it as selling one novel instead of a trilogy, Hutch DID succeed — all of his hard work got him a book, and they’re still interested in him as a writer. Just not for 7th Son. So even this “failure” is far more success than many could ask for.

    • @Eddy —

      Exactly that. The guy’s on the map. He’s obviously gained interest from people who did *not * come to him from the “podiobooks” realm (i.e. me — I’m an old crotchmuffin who can’t get behind listening to books, I need to have them in my hand or on a screen). They’re interested in him as a writer.

      This is a game of inches. Inches forward, inches back. The thing is, try to get more inches forward — try to have a little momentum and some net gain. I think he did that. I think we can all strive for similar.

      I’ll say more later. Right now, I have some Plot Goblins that need killin’.

      — c.

      • (ooh, one more comment, because I can’t resist; they’re so delicious, like little cookies)

        I’m also interested to see if, when he takes the sequels into the “self-publishing” realm, he he finds a greater degree of personal success, both in general satisfaction and in dollar value. I bet he does. I know I’ll pay the man.

        — c.

        • [this comment crossposted from Eddy Webb’s LJ post] http://eddyfate.livejournal.com/843362.html?thread=7661410#t7661410

          There’s always the line, and it’s important to walk it. Free isn’t bad; and me writing stories and practicing my fiction and controlling the location and the audience and the output is mostly an investment of time, not money. If it builds audience, it might be worth it.

          Free can also be monetized quite nicely. Merch is a good monetization model. Apps. Software. Transmedia elements. Plus, in certain cases, branding or strategic partnerships might play into it.

          The model I question is, “I release this free, then I sell the same thing and hope to make money off of those 1:1 sales.”

          I don’t know that such a thing works.

          Better, perhaps to instead “Release Thing X for free, and let it move traffic to Thing Y, which is the thing I’m selling.”

          Or, “Release Thing X for free, and then monetize additional content or merchandise around Thing X. If people like my sci-fi novel about Moon Gophers, they may very well buy a funny Moon Gopher t-shirt.”

          — c.

  • So, as an aspiring writer with an interest in… well, in the sorts of things Hutchins write, this gave me pause. I mean, yeah, thrillers and transmedia and free content to market pay content? That, in very broad terms, maps out what I’ve got cooking for 2010.

    But I’d be a damn liar if I said I only have started this phase of my life to make money. Sure, like Sally Struthers told us years ago, we all want to make more money. But I make a pretty good living in my day job and I enjoy what I do in my “night job,” so to speak. If I can end up creating even that micro-audience, then the project will succeed according to the admittedly low bar I want to clear.

    In the meantime, as somebody who primarily reads and “consumes content” (God I hate those two words), I feel like we (writers, readers, industry) haven’t figured out the best way to push stuff out and get attention. That’s easier than it used to be, sure, but we don’t know the real answer yet. We need it, though, for everybody involved.

  • I do new media sausage making for a living (ghost blogging, social media management, blahblah — I try to keep it some distance from my general online self). While there is money moving around based on free stuff, the creator is generally the last person to get that money, and the least suited to receive it.

    Generally speaking, monetizing portable content is something that uses crowd sourcing with some propaganda on the side based on what outliers can get out of it. You make a little money, but really the guy aggregating you and everyone like you makes worthwhile money.

    Outliers like Cory Doctorow are easy to point at as evidence that it can work, but there are reasons these guys are outliers. A significant chunk of that “it factor” is not reproducible. In Cory’s case, he had an extraordinary level of freedom to make connections to set up his career. This isn’t to discount his talent and work, but it shook hands with these preconditions in a way that you can’t do for yourself. Other successful outliers include guys who were successful in the old model and knew how to get grandfathered to the top of the queue. All respect to them for doing what they did — it wasn’t easy — but it doesn’t follow that their plans are right for everyone.

    And frankly, the idea that there’s a blueprint that doesn’t require preconditions beyond talent drives exploitation from above and below. From below, you have a growing contingent of people who won’t buy anything, and won’t do anything that ultimately monetizes the content. From above, you have corporations like Google who will make money of of quality and crap alike in big enough chunks, but to maintain that stream they need to make content as cheap and easy to acquire as possible. (In discussions I’m amazed at how many look at Google as a charity — it ain’t.) So far from being revolutionary, new media models seem to work reliably for the apparatus around the creator, but not so much for the creator.

    Here we have a situation where we have a talented guy who obviously has the mix of ability and discipline where if it really were about a bare formula that can be reproduced, he would probably reproduce it. He didn’t. That means something’s gotta change, and it will require something more than finding the right twist to apply to our own situations. It means we’ll probably need to change the status quo from something we sympathize with (free! social!) and we’re trained to think of as inevitable (partly by people who profit from the concept taking root in a way the individual creative cannot) by direct education and activism, and possibly by developing the base technologies at the grassroots instead of just being clients of technologies served to use by the crowd-o-crap, bit-o-cream corporate free content exploitation model. I think this *will* happen and in that future model there will be lots of opportunities — but I don’t know what it is.

    • @Malcolm:

      In my opinion, you’re spot on about a lot of things. Talent isn’t enough. Talent, drive and discipline only get you so far. They’re necessary components, but not the only components. Relationships, for instance, matter. If you don’t have relationships, you don’t have much. A lot of this success gets built off of relationships.

      Further, I like the idea that creators could be partly responsible for being the foundation of technologies instead of the clients of technology — though, I don’t know how realistic that is, either. Some level of partnership with tech creators (those relationships, poking their head in) is a component there.

      All that being said, while your comment regards creators and new media, you could just as easily take “new media” out of that discussion. Creators partaking in the old way suffer the same slings and arrows. Successful artists and writers — truly, truly successful ones — are outliers. The creators in the old models remains the last person to get the money. Old models work more for the apparatus than the creator just as new models do. (Makes sense when you think about it. The new models, frankly, are just the old models given new skin. At least, at present.)

      So, I agree that talent cannot be the only precondition. But I also don’t want to deviate towards cynicism and suggest that those who are successful are only successful either because they were graciously advantaged by external forces (or that they were so fringe that they must be discounted).

      — c.

  • “I’m also interested to see if, when he takes the sequels into the “self-publishing” realm, he he finds a greater degree of personal success, both in general satisfaction and in dollar value. I bet he does. I know I’ll pay the man.
    – c.”

    That’s precisely why I didn’t feel *that* disheartened about the issue. It seems to me that what he’s trying to sell here simply doesn’t really belong to the realm of traditional publishing. But we won’t know unless he manages to put these sequels out for himself.

  • I wonder if part of the issue is that trilogies just aren’t it anymore. Maybe publishers these days are more interested in doing single book experiments, and committing to sequels only if the experiment works. Heck, who has time to read trilogies these days?

  • I think it’s more that an advantage has the potential to go hand in hand with your objectives if you do the work to exploit it. There is still effort taking place by the guy with the advantage (other than talent and good work). They worked. Yet . . . you can’t do that work. You have to do something else. Discovering the resources you specifically have instead of the general ones available to everyone is important, I think, and probably go unidentified by many. (Hell, I’m still kicking myself for a wrong move I made in 2002, for example.)

    And while it’s true that in many ways the power relations are no different than the old gatekeeper model, I still think it’s worth point out because:

    1) People forget this a lot. There really is a sense that blogging into the void and maybe making a few friends will get you where you want to be as long as you’re good . . . but it won’t.

    2) To me it really does feel like new media devalues creative effort in a genuinely new way, and that this top/bottom pressure is part of that and a genuine problem.

    Let me clear that I’m not poo-poohing the entire project of free stuff or transmedia stuff at all. But there’s a teachable moment here. Previously, it’s been easy to say that these problems are Big Content’s fault, or the guy is doing it wrong, etc. etc. (not saying you’re saying this, but I read it every time a musician says “Shit, I’m actually losing money guys,” and gets a UR DOIN IT WRONG from the assembled Internets) But this is a situation where full faith in doing it differently and real effort to back it up didn’t work. I think it’s time to engage this a bit more vigorously, is all.


  • But maybe I’m reading into things, and it wasn’t intended to be a trilogy. Don’t know where I got the idea. My point being, though: authors should perhaps think in terms of one-shot books (with possible sequels in mind), rather than dreaming of launching the next new series and massive IP. If it happens, great, but always plan to move on to the next idea when the first one doesn’t stick.

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