three albatrosses

The Three Albatrosses Of Podcast Fiction by J.C. Hutchins

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.