What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns: Part 1

Seth Harwood is the kind of Internet techno-whiz that fuddy-duddy types like me are scared of.

He’s so knowledgeable about podcasting, video-posting, eBook-pricing, iPhone-apping and what is now called (nostalgically by everyone but me) “the Amazon Rush” that I wanted to run the other way.

Then I read his fiction and became a Seth Harwood fan. Then I watched his video and became a Seth Harwood student.

You can see why Seth is in the vanguard of a new writers’ movement by taking a look at the instructive interim video he made some months ago (see it below on my very own blog! and thank you, Seth, for permission).

Here we learn that no matter how many rejections slips you’ve received or how unknown you are as a new writer, you can create that elusive “platform” that mainstream publishers (so cowardly!) insist authors must bring to the table. And you can build an audience that grows into the tens of thousands.

The first step, says Seth, is to make a podcast of your manuscript (before it’s ever published) and give it away. “Think of a podcast as a free, serialized audiobook,” he says.

With a minimum of equipment, a little music and a lotta passion (plus some blankets absorbing echo-chamber sounds in your closet), you can produce a quality narration that equals anything on, and again, you do this long before your manuscript comes out in any kind of print version.

Seth did this one chapter at a time with his detective novel, “Jack Wakes Up,” which he followed by two other “Jack” books in the series. He placed each chapter as a freebie podcast on iTunes, thus tapping into an engaged audience that loves to hear edgy stuff and Tweet about it like mad.

What I appreciate most about Seth’s video is his ability to make sophisticated, low-cost technology look easy and his love for the open source movement, that learn-it/do-it/share-it approach to advancing new ideas that benefits everybody on the Internet.

Especially Seth. When you see the numbers that built up during Seth’s do-it-yourself career you’ll see why individual writers today have a lot more power acting as their own independent contractors than as supplicants to a dismissive and sluggish (and arrogant) system. The question we’ll consider in Part II is, how can authors make these numbers work for every title?

Seth’s Story

Seth HarwoodSeth started out like many unknown writers. He piled up so many rejection slips and unanswered submissions that finally he said to heck with it and decided to go directly to his audience.

A fan of audiobooks, Seth believed what Steve Jobs (reportedly) said — that nobody reads anymore, but a lot of people listen — to books on CDs and iPods in autos, in waiting rooms, on the jogging trail, in bed. Seth figured people would love a good Raymond Chandleresque yarn with a fresh twist, narrated by his very own self and so full of sly humor and eccentric characters that listeners wouldn’t care if they got stuck on the freeway or waiting for the dentist.

So Seth set up his podcast equipment and began narrating a chapter every week, which he offered for free on his own website ( and also listed as a free serialization on iTunes.

He used the introduction and the sign-off of each segment to plug his other fiction (beautifully written short stories, very sweet and tender, but more later on this, too), his discussions on Facebook and Twitter and his offer of free PDFs of each chapter (and later of the entire manuscript).

You may think that’s a lot of giveaways (Random House sure did later), but Seth saw it as great publicity, and boy, was he right. The podcast was downloaded to about 30,000 people and the PDF of the entire book over 80,000 times.

Along the way, Seth was trying to alert literary agents to this kind of high-voltage interest in “Jack Wakes Up,” but basically the mainstream didn’t understand what he was saying. So what if 30,000 wastrels download your novel for free, Seth was told. That’s what everybody says. When somebody actually buys the book, let us know.

The Amazon Rush

Enter Breakneck Books (now part of Variance), a small New Hampshire publisher of action and science fiction novels that published a small POD (print-on-demand) print run of “Jack Wakes Up.” Little did Breakneck know what Seth had up his sleeve.

Since the protagonist of the novel is named Jack Palms, Seth asked his supporters not to buy Breakneck’s edition until Palm Sunday, when he was certain the title would be listed on Amazon. And on that day, he wanted everybody to buy the book only from Amazon, hoping that the impact of a concentrated rush of sales would send the book’s ranking through the roof. Indeed it did: the book started out among the lowest of rankings (in the hundreds of thousands) and, as Seth’s followers feverishly bought the book from Amazon, the ranking soared past that of best-sellers and famous authors, finally tapping out at an astonishing 45 overall in the Books category and number one in Crime and Mystery.

Seth used this historic rise-out-nowhere to interest a literary agent, who submitted the book to mainstream houses (with a this-guy-is-hot proposal), and the next year, “Jack Wakes Up” was published as an original paperback with a sensational cover from Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Random HouseJack Wakes Up

So. Great story, right? Seth’s with a mainstream publisher now and all is well, yes?

Oh, dear. See you next time for Part II.

P.S. By now enough authors and small publishers have attempted the Amazon Rush that it’s old hat to the mainstream book industry, so if you’re an unknown author, the word is, don’t bother. In a way, I’m sorry to hear it. If ever there were a means of demonstrating audience interest (and the dreaded notion of “platform loyalty,” ick), that was it. Of course authors are creative enough to find new ways to move books into the mainstream, so I shouldn’t worry. But again, I’m the old fuddy duddy. I hate to see authors turning themselves into self-styled barkers! Here they are, the center of the book industry, having to hoodwink publishers just to get attention! Well, pardon. More in Part II.