September 21, 2006

A walk through a 'living book,' with novelist JC Hutchins

(Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.)

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When Florida-based science-fiction novelist JC Hutchins finished his first book in 2005, a dark techno-thriller about genetic engineering entitled 7th Son, like many first-time writers he found himself without a literary agent or publishing contract. So, like a growing amount of unpublished writers have been doing in recent years, Hutchins started releasing the book serially on the internet, although in his case through audio format rather than text (known as 'podiobooks' among enthusiasts, because of the chapters being released in a podcast-friendly format).

Now a year later, Hutchins finds himself on the cusp of releasing his second novel, with his first now a featured channel at iTunes and other popular services, and with over 10,000 diehard fans now eagerly awaiting the first installment. And with Hutchins so active in the grid himself, it seemed only natural to him to have a book release party in SL as well, which is coming up this Saturday evening, September 23rd. What's unique about this case, though, is that Hutchins found himself with powerful fans in SL, just waiting for him to show up; more specifically, both Pickle and Itazura Radio, the former the head of Podcast Island, the latter its lead architect.

It was them that made a radical suggestion to Hutchins -- that instead of the usual cocktail-party environment for his release, that they actually build a series of sets that are crucial to the first book, including the original secret government chamber where the main-character clones were first created. And not only that, but to even create special avatar versions of the main characters, ones that fans could put on and wear throughout the party. Hutchins of course loved the idea, and gave it the go-ahead; it was Itazura who ended up doing the painstaking work on the build itself.

I recently had a chance to talk with both Hutchins (known as JC Ripley in SL) and Itazura, concerning all the details of how this party came about, and to also get a sneak preview of the build a few days before the event. The transcript is below; I thank them both for the patience they showed with my stupid slow low-end computer.

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In The Grid: So first let me confess, that I don't know a lot about the book at this point, besides reading the synopsis and listening to the first chapter. There's an entire novel finished by now, and you're starting a second. You've been at this for awhile, haven't you?

JC Ripley: Yes indeed. I originally began writing the novel back in 2002, and found myself writing a very long story about human cloning, global conspiracies, and political intrigue. I finished writing and editing the book in early 2005, and finally decied to release it as a podcast. This was to hopefully generate interest in the work, and maybe build a fan base.

ITG: Had the book been published in paper format at that point?

JCR: No. I've been searching for an agent/publisher, and decided this media -- podcast -- might be a way to attract an audience.

ITG: Why that and not, say, electronic text? A serial blog or a PDF?

JCR: Good question. I've enjoyed several podiobooks over the past year, and I'm a big fan of audiobooks in general. I think that spoken word/audio has an intimacy and immediacy that a PDF release may not generate.

ITG: Did you have any experience at that point performing your work out loud?

JCR: None. Aside from doing the occasional funny voice [back in college], etc., I'm not a voice actor in any way.

ITG: Did you discover hidden frustrations, or parts of doing a long audiocast that you hadn't thought about?

JCR: Sure, several. I thought the technical aspect of releasing the book -- website, audio recording, etc -- would be the hardest part. It really hasn't been that way, however. Mostly, the challenge has been in editing my audio; I stumble over words liek crazy when reading. And promoting the work in the blogosphere and podosphere.

ITG: What audio software do you use?

JCR: GarageBand for the Mac.

ITG: Ah, so basically something that a whole lot of people already have on their computer. Nothing too fancy at all.

JCR: Not at all. In fact, the audio equipment I use is also very user-friendly and inexpensive. A $50 mic, a $50 mixer. Minimal investment.

ITG: So you've been doing this now somewhat over a year, and it seems that things have been going well. Your website mentions that over 9,000 people now download each episode.

JCR: That's rght. I began releasing Book One in March of this year, and recently crossed the 10,000 mark for weekly listeners. I'm amazed by that. It's extremely flattering to know so many people are digging the work.

ITG: What was the key to your early success? Was it good reviews by well-known writers, or more getting listed at good places like Google and iTunes?

JCR: A combinations of things, I think. I won't spend time clapping myself on the back, but I think the story is a good one. But networking within the podcasting community, my promotion of the work, has really made a difference. I've made myself available for podcast interviews, I do promotional partnerships with other 'casters, etc.

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ITG: Do you think something like this would've been possible in a non-fan-based genre? Did it being science-fiction help?

JCR: Interesting question. When I wrote 7th Son, I didn't set out to write an SF story; I was thinking more "techno-thriller." But as the novel was released in podcast form, others labeled the work SF. I ran with that, since it seemed to resonate with listeners. But the SF community is well-represented in the podoshpere, for sure, and I made a special effort to conatct SF podcasters and listeners.

ITG: I guess that's what I mean. Is it because so many techies are already on the web that a SF podbook does well? As opposed to, say, a tender coming-of-age story?

JCR: [Laughter] I think so! I think there's eventually going to be lots of room for lots of genres in podcast fiction. But you're right; I think the techies -- who love SF, typically -- are more ready to embrace podcasting, simply because they're savvy with this stuff. But as podcasting grows, that's when we'll see a shift in listeners, and what they'll want to hear/read/etc. It's very exciting.

ITG: So how then did your attention first get called to Second Life?

JCR: Mostly through the grapevine. Buzz on websites, buzz in the podcasting community. I have to credit Adam Curry -- who hosts a show called "The Daily Source Code" -- for my initial exposure.

ITG: And you started coming here yourself, I take it, before these plans for a book release party started getting made.

JCR: Oh yes, [although] I don't have much experience in SL, mostly due to a slow computer. I'm absolutely smitten with the world, what can be realized here.

ITG: At what point did the lightbulb go on and you said, "Oh...yeah...I could build replicas of scenes from the book here?" You're the very first writer I've heard of, frankly, who's thought of that.

JCR: Actually, I wasn't the person who came up with the idea for this event; I credit that to Gary [Pickle Radio in SL], the founder of Podcast Island.

ITG: He was an existing fan of your work?

JCR: Yes indeed -- an early advocate of my work in the podosphere. He was intrigued by the story and was certain to tell his friends and fellow podcasters. Very generous of him.

ITG: So is he the one you matched you up with Itazura here?

JCR: Bingo. I jumped at the chance -- I think this is an amazing opportunity to bring "science fiction" to life.

Itazura Radio: It was actually my idea to build these set pieces.

ITG: You were a fan of the book as well?

IR: I've been a fan of JC since about episode 6, I think; so when Gary told me about the event, I suggested it. I've been building on the island here for a while now. It was divine inspiration mostly at the time. Most of the major structures on the island are my handywork.

JCR: I was amazed that Itazura and Pickle thought so highly of the book to realize all of this. It's mind-blowing, from an author's perspective.

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ITG: So how long a build are we talking about? Because let's face it, it's huge; four rooms, lots of hallways, multiple stories, and with massive customized constructions in each.

IR: The build didn't actually take as long as some might think. I've gotten pretty quick out of sheer repetition, and [know] little tricks [for] manipulating the work. In all I think this [particular] room took about a day. But I was given a great idea to build from.

ITG: I'm curious as to the texturing process you went through, since so obviously you caught exactly what was in the author's mind. Where did they come from? It's not exactly off-the-shelf images we're looking at.

IR: Most of them are, actually; simple full-permission textures that I've picked up or made myself in a few instances, or stretched, flipped, folded, shrunk, to get the desired look and feel I want.

ITG: So did you get lucky, or is that the sheer volume of textures that now exist here let you be choosy?

IR: I think it's more of knowing how to take something ordinary and manipulate it in a way to get something you wouldn't normallly expect. The object-shapes themselves are much the same way.

ITG: So tell us a little more about the party on Saturday, JC. It's an official release for the second book and second audiocast series, right? As well a a chance for fans to hang out with you and other fans.

JCR: That's right. I know this is a first-ever [SL] launch party for a podcast novel, and it may be the first [SL] launch party for a novel, for that matter.

ITG: Is this the first chance for your fan community to gather? Or have you attended RL conventions before?

JCR: I attended a RL convention recently; but it was very large, and my involvement was minimal. This is truly an amazing place, and the first time I'll be able to interact direcly with fans of the novel. I've received well over 200 emails from listeners -- but this experience will be different, immediate.

ITG: So almost like a mini-convention here; just one night, and only for yourself. A chance for all your fans to come together in one space and socialize.

JCR: That's it, yes! I'm very excited to be a part of it, and flattered that Itazura's put so much time and effort into taking the images that were in my head, on the page, and making them as "real" as they can be.

IR: I love building this stuff. I've had a ball. Nothing thrills me more than having someone come in here and see what I made and just go, "Oh my God.... Oh my God.... Oh my God...." [laughter from group]

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ITG: So now that you've seen the space, could you see yourself getting even more involved with things here? Maybe a machinima trailer for the book, shot in this space? Or a miniature online roleplaying game, based on your storyline?

JCR: I think so, yes. Defiinitely! The potential here is truly limitless. You know, the RPG is something I've thought about....

IR: Does this mean I need to make more avatars? [laughter]

ITG: Would you let your fans take it to that level? Create their own stories within your universe? 3D real-time fanfic, so to speak?

JCR: Indeed I would. I've had a very interactive, copacetic relationship with my listeners. They've created the lion's share of the special content on my site -- wallpapers, screensavers, Mac widgets, etc -- and I love them for it. I say that I love my fans more than they love me!

ITG: So finally, let's talk a little about what's sometimes an uncomfortable subject for writers, which is monetization. Is there any way you know of to parlay all this into a way that helps you pay the bills?

JCR: Sure, and that's not an uncomfortable question for me. It's my hope that with the current and ever-growing fanbase of the podcast novel, that I can attract the attention of an agent or publisher, and head down the road for eventual "real" publication of the work. Bookstores, etc. That's where the monetization comes in. In the meantime, I'm giving the content away -- and making hundreds of friends in the process.

ITG: Do you think there's any way to exchange that money directly with your readers at the website? Or are digital literary projects always going to be for increasing an audience and coming to the attention of paper publishers?

JCR: Another great question. I've considered releasing an e-book version, or a "print on demand" version of the novel, via Lulu.com or a similar company. But I don't think traditional publishing companies are "there" yet, and perceive those as "illigitimate" venues and distribution methods. But I'll happily use the net as a marketing tool.

ITG: Are you in a position in RL where you could tour a lot if given a chance to do so? Are you attempting to make your living from writing right now?

JCR: That's the eventual goal, but currently not realizable. I'm a graphic designer in RL Florida who writes and podcasts in his spare time.

ITG: So SL seems then even an extra-good way for you to interact with your fans.

JCR: You got it! It's the closest thing I'll probably have to visual interaction with most of my listeners. At least for the short-term.

The "7th Son" release party is this Saturday evening, September 23rd. To visit, please first go to the main entrance of Podcast Island [Podcast Island 123/37/0]; there will be a teleport pad there to send you to the private skybox where the party is taking place.

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