To Free or not to Free, that is the Question.

One of the writers that a great many in the podcast novel world look up to is J.C. Hutchins, both because of the quality of his work and because he made the dream of many into a reality- he got a book deal from his podcasted novel. He was one of the guys who literally set up the holy grail of new media novelists, and used the new media to get his work and his name out there into the general public. As a result of what was partially his work, there are now hundreds of novels being podcast out there, and a few more since have also gained book deals as he did.

However, J.C. recently hung up the microphone on the podcast novel gig when he more or less came to the conclusion that while the legions of fans would happily follow him everywhere, they would for the most part only do so while he was offering free content. When his book went to the publisher and hit the shelves, record numbers of online fans didn’t translate into record sales, and the publisher decided not to continue because of the simple reality that his previously podcast novel wasn’t selling.

Now J.C. seems to be turning slowly from the prophet of Podcast Novels into someone who is bitter and resentful about the whole experience. Not that I blame him, he put his soul into it, and was cheered on by the crowds, only to have those same crowds abandon him when he actually asked them to support him in a meaningful way. Not even to give donations, but just buy the book they’d loved and own a copy of it instead of listening for free online. That must have been really painful for him, probably akin to hitting a brick wall at 200kph, and I imagine he’s going to take a long time to recover. Not that his “fandom” is helping, for some of them are even attacking the poor guy for turning off the tap! He can’t win!

In a lot of ways, I think he’s a victim of the Tragedy of the Commons- it’s not that the people didn’t want to support him, but the motivation wasn’t strong for them to buy the end product (they had it already for free) and each of them thought the others would buy it, so they saved their money. And, I think he’s also right in blaming both the sense of entitlement for free content that many internet users seem to have these days and the fickle nature of online consumers who will happily support content creators as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

However, I do think there’s also the issue of what a creator wants to get out of these “free” productions.

Like most things, it’s all about what your goals are. If your goal is to simply entertain people and maybe gain fun and experience, then producing content for free online is fine. If, however, you’re doing it to gain an audience or reputation that will carry you into something that will make money down the line, then I think you require a very different strategy. Putting it all out there, and then expecting people to continue to turn around and pay for it is a recipe for disappointment, even in the internet age. The better strategy is to do what any good drug dealer does- give the audience a hit, get them addicted, and then make them pay if they want more. (Of course, that strategy does have it’s problems, because if your drug isn’t addictive enough, then it will likely fail.)

In J.C.’s case, he might have been better served by releasing the first third of the story, and then putting the rest up for sale on Amazon in book form. The problem is, there wasn’t a Lulu.com when he started doing this, and he was a pioneer at finding out what worked and what didn’t. The canary in the coal mine, as it were. He didn’t have that kind of choice, and was hoping to use the podcast to attract buzz from a mainstream media publisher.

Of course, something to consider is- it worked. Despite 7th Son not selling, and despite his legions of fans having failed him in his darkest hour, J.C. podcasting his book did get it published, and not only that, it made him a name. Even if all his future books will be published and sold normally, the key point is, they will be published because he’s no longer a faceless manuscript sitting in the slush pile. J.C. is now lightyears ahead of tens of thousands of other authors in a highly competitive market, and has a very good chance of being a successful (paid) author in the future.

So, while J.C. might be somewhat bitter about the whole experience, I hope he considers that despite all the hard work, there really was a payoff- a big one. One I bet a lot of other struggling writers wish they had.

2 thoughts on “To Free or not to Free, that is the Question.

  1. Dear Rob,

    I appreciate your timely and thoughtful contribution to the ongoing conversation about my recent decision to retire from podcasting, but believe some of your interpretations of my recent blog posts fundamentally misrepresent the messages I’ve made clear attempts to convey.

    At various moments in your post, you characterize my recent tone as being “bitter and resentful,” and insinuate that that my audience of abandoning me, “having failed him at his darkest hour.” You also claim that I concluded that my audience would support me only “while he was offering free content.”

    These interpretations are misguided, or outright false. In the posts you cite, I accept full responsibility for any perceived failure of 7th Son’s sales — sales that I do not, in fact, perceive as lackluster; they simply did not meet my publisher’s expectations — and never once blame my audience, as you suggest. Further, I clearly and constructively explained why I was retiring from podcasting: I am committing myself to dedicating my creative resources in more strategic and financially rewarding ways. There is nothing bitter or resentful about this conclusion.

    As I stated in the retirement post you cite, my goal is precisely to “write my ass off, to tell stories that can be sold in many media, so I can continue to entertain you, and achieve my career goals.” Entertaining my audience, whom I have always treated with great respect (and did so in the post you cite) and achieving my career goals can peacefully co-exist — and indeed co-exist for any published author. As I mentioned in that post, the time I spend producing and releasing Free content pulls me away from creating content I can sell. I find no fault in this business-driven decision, and thankfully, nearly all of the fans you seem keen to characterize as ungrateful freeloaders agree with me, and support my decision.

    You characterize my second post, “Giving Your All and Still Coming Up Short,” as a screed against “a sense of entitlement for free content that many internet users seem to have these days.” While my post did provide a tangible example of this phenomenon, the post (which was clearly directed at New Media creators) went on to assert a creator’s rights, and warn authors to remain faithful to themselves and career goals, and to resist the temptation to relentlessly provide free content if they do not wish to do so. This post represents authorial empowerment and strategic creative thinking, not the rantings of an embittered depressive.

    I have not written my recent blog posts out of anger or resentment, Rob. I write them in an effort to provide constructive, seasoned, experience-based insights and advice to a creator community that needs to hear it. By sharing my own professional challenges and five years’ worth of observations on the podcast novel space and Free model, I hope to outline the great and continued potential of the model I helped pioneer, and educate creators on the dangers facing novelists in this maturing space.

    Your comments in this post misrepresent that clear intent, and misrepresent the deep appreciation and admiration I have always had for my audience.

  2. I have to admit to being one of those guilty of listening to, and loving, J.C.’s trilogy but not buying a copy. To be honest, I missed the news that it had come out. Why? Because I’d unsubscribed from his feed when he started putting out content that didn’t interest me. Hour-long plus interviews with people I rarely had any interest in? It’s well known that most people will listen to a shorter podcast over a longer one. With no sign of any new stories coming.

    Compare with Scott Sigler. Still putting out content, not all of it I listen to, but there are still new stories. More than happy to stay subscribed. And I’ve bought all of his books.

    For me, the difference is the prospect of more stories to come.

    I’m sorry to hear J.C. has given up on us, but I can’t blame him.

Let me know what you think!