The Three Albatrosses Of Podcast Fiction

You're probably aware that I've retired from podcasting, and may have read my cautionary thoughts to New Media creators regarding the dangers of relentlessly providing Free content without considering its long-term effects. Here's another post for New Media creators -- podcast novelists, specifically. I'm blessed to say that I have observed the ascent of the podcast fiction movement for the past five years, and directly contributed to it for the past four. I do not know how much influence and impact I've had on this model and community, though I have greatly benefited from it in creative, emotional and monetary ways. Contrary to the misinterpretations of a few pundits, I have a deep love for, and belief in, the Free and podiobook models, and insist they have personal, professional and creative worth. It is because of this love and belief -- and the great admiration for you creators, many of whom are personal friends -- that I write this post. To love a thing requires to love it for its beauty, and promise … and potential pitfalls.

Based on my longtime observations, I see three great albatrosses affecting the podcast fiction author space, which most creators do not wish to acknowledge. Ignoring these issues will compromise the long-term viability of the model and community so many have worked so hard to create.

The First Albatross is the deification of influential and successful podiobook First Movers such as Scott Sigler, Seth Harwood, Mur Lafferty, myself and others.  Based on the blogo- and podosphere reactions of my recent retirement announcement alone, it became clear that -- to creators -- my role in this movement represented more than what I personally perceived it to be. There was hand-wringing about the Free model, meticulous dissections of my announcement, respectful acknowledgment of my (and our) accomplishments, surly rhetoric, and indifference. I kinda dug the indifference, as it illustrated how small and isolated the podcast fiction community isn't merely perceived to be, but is.

This idealization of First Movers -- who are, in the end, humans who happen to be great writers (with the exception of myself; I've always called myself a no-good hack) -- is dangerous territory, particularly when it hails from other creators. First Movers deserve this title because they blazed the trail, and greatly benefited by sensing and catering to an emerging need. Podcast fiction's First Movers helped create the models, methods and precedents that the present-day thriving podcast author community (more than 300 strong, by my reckoning) now enjoy.

The problem I've observed is that despite the explosive growth in the number of creators, there is little innovation in the model or method by newcomers. New creative or promotional precedents are not being set. Many of today's podiobooks authors precisely follow First Mover steps and innovations, outright ignoring the reality that once these innovations occur, they are less likely to be seen as "new and fresh" in the eyes of audiences when they are repeated. This means nearly all creators are following well-tred paths ... and in the process, contribute nothing new to the experience or our community.

With few exceptions (horror novelist James Melzer being one), there is much First Mover mimicry occurring in this space.

The Second Albatross feeds off the first: The podcast fiction space is in danger of becoming irrelevant. The fishbowl teems with Johnny-Come-Latelies who simply preach to the converted (if they preach at all) -- i.e., to the audience First Movers and a few savvy newcomers slaved to create. No meaningful attempt is made to engage fresh blood beyond this audience ... an audience that has likely stagnated in size, and may be shrinking.

Ultimately, this means the responsibility to continually evangelize the podiobooks model to new audiences -- and present author-powered innovations to the existing community -- often falls upon the shoulders of First Movers (who are decreasing in number). We're five years into the podiobooks model; all podnovelists should have audiences far larger than they presently have. I've wondered if there's been a meaningful, resonant increase in brand-new listeners since 2007.

This is the failing of creators who do not evangelize the cause. Read this, and then breathe it: You are ethically obligated to promote the living shit out of your work, and reach beyond the community's self-created comfortable confines to do so. From my hard-line perspective, anything less than an absolute commitment to your own success undermines the very reasons you got into this game.

The Third Albatross is The Publication Anomaly. Based on a half-decade of observation, it appears that podcasting one's novel doesn't much impress Big Publishing. A publishing insider I know has told me that the Glory Days of publishers eying the podspace for new talent are over. This may or may not be true, but the goal of publication -- and bestseller success -- has been mythologized by podcast novelists to such a myopic degree that it runs the risk of blinding new creators to the very reasons why a blessed Less-Than-10 Podnovelists have been picked up by Big Publishing in the first place: Hard Fucking Work.

No, I really mean it. Hard. Fucking. Work. It's a level of commitment that would downright intimidate you, were you to walk a mile in these authors' shoes. Which is probably why so few creators put forth Hard Fucking Work.

The Hard Fucking Work ethic is perfectly (and proudly) represented by my actions, and particularly by those of my friend Scott Sigler. He is our community's Alpha Dog, our brilliant trailblazer, a living gold standard to which we all aspire ... and he deserves that praise, and much more. I'd take a bullet for the man, I admire him so. His great success breeds hope for creators -- he has certainly inspired, and continues to inspire, me -- but this success (and to a lesser degree, the successes of other mainstream published podionovelists) also creates unreasonable expectations, particularly among newcomers:

"All I have to do is X, and I'll be a published New York Times bestseller."

I know this mindset truly exists, for I have seen and heard it in the emails and comments of podcast novelist newcomers. Click the Record button, and you're on your way to fame and riches.

This is fantastical masturbatory bullshit, and yet the relative mainstream success of a blessed Less-Than-10 Podnovelists is a siren's song for the lazy creator. "Record, post, tweet" is their sole road map to success, and by doing this and nothing more, they saturate the space with content that has no clear, messaged differentiation than all the other content.

I fear the fate of podiobook authors achieving mainstream success is sealed, and -- with a few blessed exceptions -- has been sealed since 2007. You've met the players; they were the ones in the game long before you. Unless there is genuine, concerted effort from newcomers and veterans to not simply emulate the successful tactics of First Movers, but absolutely outclass and dethrone them with killer stories and trailblazing beyond-the-fishbowl promotion, there will be no more Big Publishing deals happening in our space. And yet, this can absolutely happen, should creators be talented and savvy.

Does this mean the podcast fiction movement is dead? Get your head checked if that's your takeaway. In my eyes, the podcast fiction movement (much like podcasting itself) has matured, and this maturation begets a host of new challenges -- a primary one being that this model isn't "new" anymore, which must force creators to make meaningful and innovative contributions to evangelism, content and business models. It also presents incredible opportunities for newcomers and seasoned vets who are hungry to bust ass, shake the tree, and outperform the established conventions and emblematic authors who best represent this model.

This is not the time for you as a creator to say, "Me too." That is the path to mediocrity and obscurity. This is time for you to say, "What's next?"...

...and then do something about it.

--J.C.

Giving Your All, And Still Coming Up Short

This turd plopped into my inbox today:

I read the first 10 chapters of 7th Son online and ordered the book. I was under the impression that the online release was not the complete novel. When the book arrived from Amazon, I dug in, disappointed to find that the print novel was the same content as released online. Probably my oversight, but it seems a wasted purchase.

If we're defining "wasted purchase" as participating in the centuries-old practice of monetarily supporting the artists who create the content we consume, then yes -- the dude wasted every penny.

Free-flinging New Media creators, it's time we had a talk. Get your head around this. Nothing you do -- no matter how much time, effort and money you spend on creating pitch-perfect, delicious Free content -- will ever fully please your audience. They shall never be sated, mostly because people like us created precedents years ago that trained Free-fed audiences to be ravenous. They will consume until there is nothing left to consume, and they'll demand More.

(Even when you clearly explain that there will be no More, and why, they'll grouse about the inequity of your decision. I do not understand how, after receiving hundreds of hours of content for Free, a person can legitimately characterize my recent decision to leave podcasting as unreasonable or unfair.)

In today's case, my emailer wanted More content than what he could get for Free -- and he had Free access to the entire novel. There was no compelling reason for him to support my work simply for the sake of supporting it. There had to be More. Even when you give away the cow, people still bitch about the milk.

At least the dude bought a copy of my book. When you're in this Free racket, there's no accountability or obligation for fans to monetarily support your work. Of course, creators fully know these risks when they got into the Free game. There's no creative rape happening here, no victimization. Everyone involved is a consenting adult.

But back to More, and people wanting it. At first glance, this is an embarrassment of riches. What's wrong with people expecting more from creators -- especially creators who give away their content? It's Free, right? It's a weekly bite-sized confection for the ears, munch-munch-disposable, an easy delete from the hard drive. Yet ravenous fans fundamentally underestimate the time and effort that is required to create the content they consume. They can't help this. They undervalue creative work because they do not create; they consume. They're not initiated.

Time for a schooling. Did you know that a 30-minute episode of my podcast fiction requires more than 20 hours to write, edit, record, produce and post? Did you know even more hours are spent promoting that content? Presented in these terms, spending 20 hours busting ass for zero pay is crazy talk. New Media creators have only themselves to blame for this; we often bet the farm on ephemeral goals such as audience size, eventual mainstream publication, and bestseller lists -- and completely ignore the risks and tangible real-world costs of time, effort and money required to meaningfully play in this space.

Make no mistake: If you want to become a meaningful leader in this space -- and indeed, any space -- it ain't a hobby. It's a fucking lifestyle. (Which is why there are hundreds of podcast novelists, yet less than 10 who've actually secured those coveted New York publication deals.)

More, More, More. Audiences demand it -- and creators do too. There is a great misconception in the podcast creator community -- particularly in the podcast fiction space -- that creators must produce and release more content, and must do so consistently and immediately. The rationale: If they quit sprinting on this Free-fueled treadmill, they'll vanish into obscurity. Or in the less business-oriented vernacular so many New Media creators use: People won't like you anymore.

This is crazy-making bullshit.

Many of the novelists who consistently produce Free content often do so because they release "trunked" content -- meaning, content that's served time in a dusty drawer -- or because their financial circumstances permit them to be full-time content creators. (Or both.) These creators are rare. The rest of us heap those creative responsibilities upon the commitments of a 40-plus-hour work week and family obligations.  Unchecked, this can lead to a disconnect between being faithful to yourself as a creator, and running the risk of becoming a cafeteria slop-slinger. It is very difficult to effectively scale when you're a one-person show.

Further, life on this treadmill can confuse short-term creative validation with long-term career goals. It also nearly always prioritizes praise over profits. Grinning at the emails from happy Free-fed fans is delightful ... until the rent's due. If your ambition is to merrily swim in the overcrowded Free fishbowl and nothing more, keep producing More for Free. If you aim to make a living wage with your words, you must be far more strategic in how you spend your creative time, and how you distribute your creative content -- and for fuck's sake, do something about getting published, or getting paid. Anything less is crowdsourced masturbation.

Also understand that unless you are a truly great writer, running the Free rat-race in an effort to desperately feed your audience will eventually compromise the quality of your work. Sure, you're entertaining your peeps, but you're cranking out shit. Don't crank out shit.

And don't give away any more than you wish to give. You are not a hostage to your audience. The only thing you owe your audience is quality Free content released on a schedule that is dictated by your terms. If those terms transform into hanging up your Free hat and moving on to other important aspects of your career, you can do that. I did, and I assure you, life goes on.

With few exceptions, creators cannot sustainably dedicate their creative lives to performing heroic tasks for Free to please strangers. This can quickly lead to consensual enslavement, not artistic empowerment. That's no way to live.

And sometimes, as in the case of the email I received today, you cannot give any more than you already have. This is because you've freely provided everything there is. There is no More.

--J.C.