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Insider September 23 — The hits matter

Plus, how Spotify’s audiobook experience stacks up

I am not having a chill Friday, but I hope you are. Let’s get into it: podcast Twitter has feelings about a certain magazine article, I have feelings about Spotify’s audiobook vertical, and everyone has feelings about the fact the CIA is making a podcast.

Who is to blame for the lack of hit podcasts?

I may regret saying anything about this because podcast Twitter is absolutely relentless, but I think some people may be taking Nick Quah’s article yesterday a little personally. My read on Nick’s piece was that now that the industry is so much bigger — more shows, more money, more corporate involvement — it is much more difficult to get companies to stray from the tried-and-true formulas of celebrity chat and adaptable true crime, which have become old hat. I do not think the point was that you (you!!) have failed to make the next hit podcast. “Talent isn’t the problem,” he writes. “The shifting incentive structure around it is.”

Then there is the issue of whether or not hits matter. In the grand scheme of humanity, no. In terms of how the industry evolves, yes. If the same kinds of shows chart over and over again, the podcast companies with money and marketing power are going to keep making those kinds of shows. And those companies seem to be more risk-averse than their development counterparts in TV, who have backed oddball shows-turned-hits like The Bear and Yellowjackets. That keeps money out of the hands of different kinds of creators who could potentially be pushing the medium forward. Podcast companies could decide to take risks, or one breakout show could beat the odds and change how they do business. But something has to give.

That is not to say that there haven’t been any breakouts at all. Normal Gossip and Dead Eyes come to mind, and I sincerely hope their success compels other podcast companies to back quirky shows of their own. But again — and I think this is really key to Nick’s argument — the burden is on companies with the money and influence to make a show a hit.

How is Spotify’s audiobook vertical so far?

Uh… clunky. I understand this is the first iteration of audiobooks on Spotify, which will no doubt become more sophisticated as time goes on. It is also perfectly fine for someone dipping their toes into audiobooks for the first time. But as a regular audiobook listener, I am going to need more from them if I am going to switch over from Audible.

I browsed on the app a bit and tested out two audiobook purchases (which I am expensing to Vox — thanks, guys): Bliss Montage, the new short-story collection from Ling Ma, and The Bright Ages, a medieval history I already have on Audible so I can directly compare the two. 

The browsing component was perfectly fine. When you go to the search tab, the audiobooks icon is right up at the top; you can’t miss it. Once in there, the categories are similar to what you might find in a book store: new releases, biographies, “buzzworthy” books (aka BookTok books), and even an “our picks” section, which has some really good stuff. According to Spotify’s head of audiobooks, Nir Zicherman, featured books have been manually picked, though personal algorithmic recommendations are forthcoming. I don’t actually mind having books picked by humans, but so it goes.

Where the experience becomes difficult is the actual shopping part: prices for books are not listed. That doesn’t matter when you are using a subscription service, but in an a la carte system, the prices matter. You only see the price once you select the book you want and get an email linking to the purchase page. Perhaps that has to do with in-app / off-app purchase rules (Spotify surely wants to avoid sending a 30 percent cut to Apple and Google), but it makes it very difficult to compare prices of titles — unless you click through a bunch of them to get a bunch of emails, which you won’t. Once you get the email, you click the link to a webpage where you can purchase the book. After the purchase, the books show up immediately in your library. It’s not the most elegant process.

I do have one particular bone to pick about the listening experience. The chapter tracks don’t have titles. That’s something I rely on when using Audible when navigating where I want to go, especially if I am switching between the print version and the audio version. It seems like such a simple (compulsory?) thing to include that I am pretty surprised those were not included. I took a look at Apple Books, too, and it’s somehow worse? It lists them as tracks instead of chapters. 

Anyway, it’s not there yet. I still think this has the potential to introduce millions of new users to audiobooks, and there is something to be said for having music, podcasts, and audiobooks in the same place. But Spotify has some kinks to work out before it can take on the industry standards.

Cumulus cuts distribution deal with YAP Media

Cumulus Podcast Network is bringing on some podcasts that are not conservative news shows. It has landed a distribution deal with Hala Taha’s YAP Media, a collection of (mostly) entrepreneurship and career podcasts. Taha’s own Young and Profiting is its biggest show, and the group also includes a daily Bible show and (you guessed it) a true-crime podcast. Cumulus will handle the marketing, monetization, and distribution for all current and upcoming shows.

The CIA made a podcast

Absolutely hate it.

All right, have a great weekend. I’ll be out Monday for Rosh Hashanah, so expect a Tuesday issue later than usual.