Breakthrough of the Podcast Authors

(By Scott Sigler)
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By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, April 13, 2008

As a regular listener of the podcast version of the nationally syndicated radio talk show "Don and Mike," I've been a little worried lately.

Just about every day since the locally produced show has been available as a free regular download on iTunes, it has kept me company on my two-hour commute to and from work. But Friday was host Don Geronimo's last day, and I don't know yet whether the rejiggered version of the show, which starts tomorrow, will hold my attention.

Fortunately, there are lots of other entertainment options out there in the podcast world. Lately, in an effort to come up with a Plan B for my commute time, I've been trying out some free, downloadable books provided at a site called

Never heard of it? I hadn't either, but some of the 196 titles available at the site aren't bad. The works here are mostly by authors who weren't able to get book deals for their manuscripts, but two writers have attracted such large online followings through the site that they've managed to land deals with major New York publishers.

Horror writer Scott Sigler, one of the pioneers in this area, began regularly posting readings of his first book in March 2005. "EarthCore," broken up into 45-minute chunks that he posted on a weekly basis, won an audience of 10,000 listeners. His second book, "Ancestor," did even better, scoring 30,000 subscribers. A small Canadian publisher signed on to release his third book in a small paperback run.

This month, Sigler's fourth book debuted in a hardcover release for the first time, from Crown Publishing Group, an imprint of Random House. Crown has printed an initial run of 100,000 copies of "Infected," Sigler's bloody tale about a parasite that turns its human hosts violently insane. That's a high figure for the book industry, where mostly unknown authors usually get an initial print run of only a few thousand.

"There's a big chip on our shoulders," Sigler said of his fellow authors in the podcast community. "We're sitting on these giant stacks of rejections, and we've got an attitude: 'We're going to show you it'll sell. We're going to show you we're right.' "

Crown publisher Tina Constable indicates that podcasts could become a source of new material for publication. "We are always looking for new outlets and fresh voices throughout the book acquisition process," she wrote in an e-mailed statement. "Podcasts are a perfect place to discover dynamic content and talent that comes with a built-in audience."

Sigler's editor says the company has been impressed that Sigler fans have requested promotional materials about the book to try to spread the word about the new hardcover edition of "Infected."

Without a publisher's PR team to get the word out, podcasting authors have had to dream up innovative ways to promote themselves to build their audiences.

Author J.C. Hutchins, for example, raised the profile for his podcasts by getting actors and directors to record short promotional clips that are incorporated into his weekly recordings. Famous zombie flick director George Romero, for example, recorded one such clip when Hutchins tracked him down at a fan convention. At Hutchins's Web site, a "minister of propaganda" routinely sends his readers on missions that vary from burning CDs and passing them along to printing out promotional postcards and slipping them onto shelves at the local bookstore.

To further build reader interest and loyalty, Hutchins recently opened up his fictional world to fans and invited them to add their own stories. In one of his books, there's a two-week nationwide blackout in the wake of a terrorist attack. This month, Hutchins invited readers to submit their own video or audio tales about what happens while power is out across the country. Some of the stories will be incorporated into a future podcast.

Hutchins describes starting his first recording as something of a desperate act. "I was convinced the thing was deader than disco," Hutchins said of his book, when he started podcasting the first book of his "7th Son" trilogy, a thriller about a group of clones.

The first book in the trilogy is scheduled for publication by St. Martin's Press next year.

"It proves that there are smarter ways to getting published than just sending a manuscript over the transom to a publisher," said Cory Doctorow, a sci-fi author who is also well known as an editor of the popular blog BoingBoing.

Doctorow's next book, which he said is about a group of young hackers who fight the Department of Homeland Security to reinstitute the Bill of Rights in the United States, is coming out later this month. Tor Teen books is publishing the dead-tree version, and it will also be available free online at his Web site. The book will be available as a free download in formats that will be easy to read on, say, the screen of a PDA.

As with podcasts, the idea is to win over potential converts with free content in the hopes that readers or listeners buy something down the road.

"The experience for me has been that e-books sell print books," Doctorow said. He said he knows many authors who have tried podcasting or publishing online, but none who discontinued the practice.

So far, it looks as if Sigler's and Hutchins's stories will have upbeat endings.

At last check, "Infected" was No. 2 on Amazon's list of best-selling horror novels, and film rights have already been sold. A sequel is in the works.

As for Hutchins, it will be a dream come true when his first book is published and available at bookstores next year.

"I don't know if I'll ever stop grinning," he said.

Me, I'm still hoping the new Mike O'Meara show rocks when it debuts on WJFK 106.7 tomorrow. But I like having a backup plan.

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