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Guest column: “Is your podcast a book?”

Editor’s Note. Hey, everyone! Nick here.

I’m jumping into your inbox one extra time this week to experiment with something a little different: a column swap with another newsletter writer, just to toss some spice in the mix. Thought you might find it useful, or at the very least simply interesting.

The newsletter in Agents and Books, and it’s written by Kate McKean, a vice president and literary agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Agents and Books is a super fun read, full of dishy insider insight into the book publishing world, which, as you may or may not have grokked, is often strange and opaque and packed with arcane norms and customs.

Anyway, Kate has a column this week about podcast-to-book crossovers, of which she’s shepherded a couple, and I’m running it here, lightly edited. Meanwhile, Kate’s going to run my column about the new breed of politician podcasts this week on her newsletter, tying up the swap.

Cool? Alright, I’ll cede the floor.

Hi new readers!

I’m so excited to be here on Hot Pod talking about how I, a media professional focused on putting ink on dead trees, look to make podcasts into books. I’m a literary agent, and for those of you who don’t know, that means I try to get book deals for authors. It’s my job — and all of traditional book publishing’s job — to look at things and ask, “Is that a book?”

Many things are not books. Gifs, popular as they are, make for bad books, even eBooks. Lots of popular blogs and Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts make for bad books because the content only makes sense for a two-second scroll, not five or nine hours’ worth of reading. Two podcast hosts might have incredible chemistry and lots o’ laughs, but a transcription of their banter isn’t necessarily a good book, no matter how well-edited.

Many great podcasts, however, are built around a strong thesis and/or narrative arc… and guess what? So are books! As an agent, that’s what I’m looking for. There are other things, sure, and yes, we’ll talk numbers in a minute, but when I’m looking to podcasts for new authors with potentially good ideas for books, that’s what I’m looking for. What’s the story? What fact or theory are they trying to prove? What story is being told here that isn’t being told anywhere else?

That’s how I found the second book I ever sold from a podcast, Nefertiti Austin’s MOTHERHOOD SO WHITE. Nefertiti was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, One Bad Mother — which I also sold a book for — where she came on to talk about how completely unrepresented women of color are in parenting stories, both in general and specifically within in adoption narratives as well. HUGE alarm bells went off in my head when I heard that episode. “Now THAT is a thesis,” I thought. Parenting is an established area of book publishing, Nefertiti was well published in magazines, and she clearly knew what she was talking about. Also, to top it all off, book publishing has a huge diversity problem, so not only is Austin’s story important and valid and captivating — it’s badly NEEDED. I reached out to the hosts of One Bad Mother, Biz Ellis and Theresa Thorn (who are also my clients), and they put me in touch. Then Nefertiti and I sold her book to Sourcebooks, and she eventually ended up with a segment on the Today Show. That’s one way, I, as an agent, use podcasts to find clients and help get them book deals.

But that’s not the same thing as turning a podcast, maybe your podcast, into a book. That’s what I was able to do with Biz and Theresa with One Bad Mother. I found them through a recommendation Helen Zaltzman made somewhere — I don’t even know where — around the time my husband and I were starting our family. I listened to every episode of One Bad Mother like it was a crash course in parenting… which might have been a bad idea because it’s a humor podcast about parenting, not an advice show! But I was looking for real stories and camaraderie and support and that’s what that podcast and whole community provide for me then and now.

They have a catch phrase, one among many: You’re doing a great job. Is the kid wearing some kind of shoe on their feet? You’re doing a great job. Was the screaming to a minimum today? You’re doing a great job. So much of the messaging in parenting media is YOU ARE NOT DOING THIS ONE THING AND THEREFORE YOU ARE HORRIBLE. And that is not their messaging! It feels great to hear! When my daughter was born, it really helped me put things in perspective. I AM doing a great job. Parenting is a long game. An extra half hour of screen time (this was pre-covid ahahahhahahahahhah) is not going to rot her brain. Almost all of us, almost all the time, are doing a great job.

And that was the book. I wanted to give readers, parents, the gift of support and encouragement I got from the podcast, so we came up with YOU’RE DOING A GREAT JOB!: 101 Ways You’re Winning at Parenting, the perfect thing to give a new parent (or an “old” one lol) as a baby shower gift or Mother’s or Father’s Day present, that says not only what it says on the cover, but also, “Hey, I see you.” It was not a treatise on the definitive way to parent, because that’s not the authors’ or the podcast’s aim. It’s a funny gift book for parents by two hilarious podcasters. And I’m super proud of the work they did.

When I sold both of those books, there was certainly talk of ~~numbers~~ with regards to the podcast. Mostly downloads and other various social media follower counts and such. I don’t recall what the download numbers we cited in the proposal were, and also I wouldn’t tell you them here, but they weren’t 100 downloads and they weren’t 100 million. There is not a specific number publishers are looking for that says, “Yep, you get a book deal now!” There isn’t a number on any platform that equals that. It’s not just the number that matters to publishers.

If you are a podcast maker who also wants to be an author, and your book relates to your podcast, agents and publishers will look at the whole picture of your author platform when they consider your book proposal. First, your book has to be about something people want to read in book form, i.e. not a podcast episode or a magazine article. Next, you have to be the right person to write that book. Maybe it’s your memoir and then yes, you are the right person for that book. But if your podcast is about WWII and you want to write a book about diets, I’m afraid neither of those things are necessarily going to help you. And you have to show you have enough of an audience already that you can bring to your book. That’s where the podcast numbers come in.

I asked my husband, Josh Landon, co-host of the BEST English Premier League Fantasy Football podcast, Always Cheating, to, uhhhh, basically explain how podcasts numbers have gotten better since the last time I checked. What he showed me from their dashboard is much more detailed than what we had when I sold the One Bad Mother book, even just a few years ago. In the proposal we said, “LOOK AT ALL THESE DOWNLOADS!” And publishers said “VERY IMPRESSIVE” and none of us on the books side actually knew what we were talking about back in like 2016. It’s different now. Publishers are much more savvy about downloads and unique listeners in the same way we, i.e. publishing, eventually got savvy about hits (lol) vs. uniques in blog traffic numbers back in the ye’ olde blog-to-book days of 2008-2010.

What does that mean for you, today? Well, you should understand your own numbers and listenership so you can help contextualize it for us publishing people, but also, you must remember that numbers aren’t everything. Publishing still likes a good idea.



You can subscribe to Kate’s newsletter, Agents and Books, here, and you can find her on Twitter here.