The office door in Chris Hutchins´ modest Deerfield Beach apartment is closed to keep out Chester, a fat 11-year-old black tabby who´s inclined to meow unpredictably. Occasionally, a motorcycle roars or a fire truck bleats down Military Trail, the thoroughfare just outside. Traffic sounds are the bane of Hutchins´ existence. But ultimately, the real world can be edited out.
J.C., Hutchins´ pen name and alter ego, pipes a peppy greeting into a microphone hooked up to his Mac computer.
¨Hey, guys!¨ he begins, barefoot, dressed in a schleppy ensemble of yellow T-shirt meets khaki shorts. He´s talking to an online audience of more than 20,000 science-fiction enthusiasts (a number based on the downloads of individual audio files).
Podcasting has, of course, democratized the haute culture world, allowing amateurs to hit the airwaves, shipping their prose, ramblings, music, and movies into cyberspace. It´s all free for playback on personal computers and portable players like Apple´s iPod.
After a grueling year of shopping his first novel to agents, Hutchins opted to podcast.
There´s a list of a few dozen agents on a dry erase board on the wall above his Mac. Most of the names are marked by big red X´s, indicating rejection. Just one has a green smiley face next to it -- she´s the agent who requested a manuscript only to never respond again.
Hutchins, 32, isn´t sure why he´s left those names scrawled up there for two years. Maybe it keeps him humble as he sits near the pinnacle of the burgeoning podcast book world, with thousands listening to his 7th Son trilogy. Five years ago, Hutchins cast aside a budding journalism career to work on a novel. The idea for 7th Son had started germinating in Hutchins´ head in 2000. As a feature writer for the Palm Beach Post, he had gone to interview West Palm Beach-based comic book publisher Tim Mitchell, who convinced the cub reporter to create a comic book. It seemed like a good idea. Among his many internships, Hutchins had put in time at Wizard Magazine, which covers the comic book world. The average Joe might fantasize about meeting actors such as Angelina Jolie, Hutchins says, but for him, getting to know chubby comic creators was a dream come true. He´s a self-confessed closet geek. Of course, a real, honest-to-goodness supergeek would dive into animated debates about whether Batman could beat Superman in a no-holds-barred grappling match. Hutchins just likes to listen in.
In his spare time, Hutchins came up with a zombie comic tale. Then he dreamed up a superhero team of clones who shared the memory of a World War II veteran.
He ultimately discovered that the comic book format wasn´t for him, though it got him thinking in terms of stories. He decided to use written text for his next one. The clone concept stuck around, but Hutchins couldn´t decide why the genetic brethren would come together. Then -- like a thunderbolt -- it hit him. The men are searching for their progenitor, who has lost his sanity. ¨That idea sat in my head for about a year, like a one-man marching band,¨ Hutchins says, ¨and I felt like I had to write this story.¨
Meanwhile, his mojo was being wasted on the daily newspaper grind. He´d need all the energy he could muster to crank out the novel. So he quit the job.
Hutchins´ former editors at the Palm Beach Post don´t remember hearing about the book. ¨Write after work is what I would have told him,¨ says Dan Neal, special-sections editor for the paper´s features department. ¨That´s a pretty big gamble to leave a fat and happy job to write a book.¨
Writing 7th Son took more than two years, twice as long as Hutchins had anticipated.
Eleanor Brown, Hutchins´ live-in girlfriend and a middle school English teacher, read all 1,300 pages as it progressed. ¨She [Brown] was invaluable, especially in the beginning,¨ Hutchins says, remembering the insecurities that dogged him. ¨Is what I´m writing not crap? Somebody tell me I´m not crazy. There´s a part of your mind that says: You´re gonna be a star -- it´s brilliant -- your girlfriend tells you so.¨
Brown helped trim the tome to a slightly more palatable 1,000 pages. Still, it´s three times longer than most literary agents recommend that a first-time author undertake. Ultimately, Hutchins organized it into three parts.
After months of pitching agents, though, Hutchins came to the dispiriting conclusion that 7th Son would never get published. In early 2006, he decided to podcast his prose. ¨I thought he was giving his work away for free,¨ Brown says.
But Hutchins found a mentor in Evo Terra, coauthor of Podcasting for Dummies and a founder of Podiobooks.com, a website that distributes more than 100 podcast titles. ¨Most authors want to write words and fight with their editors,¨ Terra says via phone from his home state, Arizona. ¨They don´t want to deal with daunting back-end stuff like bandwidth. We say, forget all your options -- here´s what you need so people can listen to it.¨
Hutchins saw 7th Son as a thriller. But once his story hit the airwaves -- mostly in 30-minute spurts, like a radio series circa 1940 -- fans labeled it science fiction.
¨A lot of the books that are written every year, the reason they´re not published is because they suck,¨ Terra says. He feels strongly, though, that 7th Son will make it.
The book is a complex thriller. Hutchins can go overboard with descriptive detail, but he knows how to keep a story moving. He begins with the kidnapping of the Beta clones. They´re hoisted away to a secret government facility, where they discover that they´re carbon copies of a man named John Michael Smith, or John Alpha. There´s John, a college dropout who pours drinks at a Miami nightclub. Michael is a gay Marine. Jack is a geneticist. Father Thomas is a Catholic priest. Jonathan works for the United Nations. Dr. Mike is a criminal profiler. And Kilroy 2.0 is a mentally ill computer hacker.
Hutchins sees himself in all of them. ¨They´re all little facets,¨ he says. ¨It was my hope that the reader/listener would connect with those different facets too. A lot of my listeners are very tech-savvy, so Kilroy 2.0 is by far the favorite character -- they love him.¨
So far, he has recorded and released more than 50 installments, which can be found on www.jchutchins.net. The first episode of the third book goes live July 7. An ominous day. Get it? 07/07/07. Hutchins maintains a tight schedule. He´s behind the microphone most Sundays and downloading audio to the web on Tuesdays. He has a full-time job as a graphic designer. And he always answers fan mail, sometimes more than a dozen letters or e-mails a day. Not surprisingly, Hutchins often doesn´t get to bed before 2 o´clock in the morning. Brown describes herself as a ¨podcast widow.¨
¨He could be a jerk and ignore his fan e-mail and not respond to people individually, but he doesn´t,¨ Brown says from the couple´s open-plan kitchen. ¨He genuinely cares about people. He´s just constantly tending to his listeners, so it takes a lot of his time. But you know what? It makes him happy.¨
Brown suspects it will all pay off. ¨Honestly, if they released a printed version of 7th Son tomorrow, at least 15,000 of them would go out and buy it because they believe in it and they want to support him. And partly that´s because he´s nice.¨
His fan base covers many age groups, but on the whole, they´re educated people who aren´t satisfied with the usual television fare.
Robert Hulson, a Hutchins fan who lives in Pembroke Pines, stumbled onto 7th Son in March 2006 while looking for music to download. Before Hulson and his wife started a family three years ago, he was an avid reader. But with two toddler boys at home, it´s difficult for him to get his fiction fix from paperbacks. ¨My books are just sitting on the nightstand, not moving at all,¨ he says. ¨I´ve got three or four that have been there probably since my first son was born.¨
Audiobooks were a good compromise, especially since Hulson commutes 30 minutes in his car each way to an administrative job at the Broward County School Board. Now that he´s discovered podcasts, he downloads more than a dozen a day.
What hooked Hulson on 7th Son is the humor, he says. Hutchins´ radio-announcer voice also helped. ¨Chris has a good story and good delivery -- that´s part of why he´s on top of the podcast world,¨ Hulson says.
Hulson and Hutchins are now on a first-name basis. After listening to a dozen chapters of 7th Son, Hulson wrote a fan letter. Turns out the two live within miles of each other, so they got together for lunch. Meeting the man behind the podcast hasn´t dampened Hulson´s enjoyment of 7th Son. ¨It´s weird for me because I´ve sat across a table from him, and yet I still see other faces in my head when I listen to the story,¨ Hulson says.
Hutchins tries to give each character a distinctive voice. He toys with accents -- British, Southern, Brooklyn -- and even goes high-pitch for female dialogue. He turns beet-red just thinking about how silly he might sound.
But the voices help listeners keep track of the characters.
Some listeners are so psyched about 7th Son that they volunteer their time and talents to spread the word. Hutchins has dubbed 185 fans agents of his ¨Ministry of Propaganda¨ because their plugs infiltrate blogs, e-mail inboxes, and MySpace pages. The true fanatics are members of the ¨Beta Clone Army.¨ More than 40 have sent Hutchins pictures of themselves sporting T-shirts they purchased from the official 7th Son store at GeekLabel.com. There´s Robin riding the metro in Seoul, Andy Dudley hoisting a pint from a U.K. pub, and Jocelyn on a Hong Kong balcony.
Martin Parrot, a 49-year-old technology buff from Dallas, is an extreme example of a 7th Son cyber fan turned collaborator. After hearing his first 7th Son podcast, Parrot decided that very night to make a screensaver for the author. ¨The creative juices just started flowing,¨ Parrot says. ¨I decided to do a mock-up of the 7th Son logo as a thank you to J.C. for such an enjoyable podcast.¨
Hutchins encouraged Parrot to do more. After a segment in which the clones meet the machine that spawned them, Parrot began a three-dimensional model of the birthing room, dubbed ¨The Womb.¨ In that rendering, green globes are suspended in air, grasped tightly by metal claws.
He has since designed graphics of 12 rooms inside 7th Son´s hive-like government bunker, spending at least 40 hours on each model. Parrot estimates he´s dedicated the equivalent of 20 days, free of charge, to bring Hutchins´ visions to life. The two have never met.
Dozens of other listeners have drawn inspiration from 7th Son for artwork, screensavers, essays, and short fiction.
At dark moments, Hutchins can always find encouragement in the break his friend and fellow podcaster Scott Sigler caught this year: a three-book deal with Random House imprint Crown Publishers. The deal is reportedly worth $500,000 (Sigler declined to confirm those reports).
Sigler, 37, set out to write his first science-fiction novel 15 years ago, but like Hutchins, he fell flat on his face. ¨Both of us knew that if we could just get it out there, people would like it,¨ Sigler says by phone from San Francisco.
Listeners are generally excited not just about the content of the podcast books but also about getting to know the person behind it. Sigler remembers that his favorite writer, Stephen King, never responded to any of his three fan letters. But podcast fans feel like they´re part of the process, even offering tips on plot and characters. ¨These people [the fans] become evangelists for the printed work,¨ Sigler says, ¨and some even buy multiple copies.¨
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Sigler´s still in a mad dash to eke all the momentum he can out of podcasting before countless aspiring and established writers realize its marketing potential.
¨There´s a very narrow window of opportunity,¨ he says. ¨All the big publishers are going to try to flood this great little medium we´ve found and whore it out. We can sleep later.¨
Hutchins and Sigler joke that they´ll print T-shirts with their surnames on the front and on the back these words: ¨Sleep Is for Pussies.¨ ¨We´re joined at the hip in many ways, but he´s getting ready to take off,¨ Sigler predicts. ¨Within three to five years, he´s going to have a big book deal.¨ Literary agent Kristin Lindstrom hadn´t even heard of podcasting when an envelope with the first few chapters of 7th Son arrived at her house in Virginia in March. After reading a few pages, she was hooked on the story line. Hutchins had finally found an agent. ¨I think Chris has what it takes to make it,¨ Lindstrom says. ¨It´s his attitude -- he´s willing to try anything new.¨
Lindstrom has represented many people with fine books that never sell. ¨Everybody has a story,¨ Lindstrom says, ¨but not everybody gets to tell it.¨