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It’s like, you know, a book for your ears

Last week, Pushkin Industries, the audio publishing company founded by Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell, published what can be described as its first independently-produced audiobook. Called Hasta la Vista, America, it’s a short humor piece written by Kurt Andersen pegged to President Trump’s impending departure from the White House with the outgoing president being narrated by… well, Alec Baldwin.

So, Hasta la Vista, America isn’t really my cup of tea — neither is Baldwin, for that matter — but the broader story about the audiobook itself is interesting to me for the nature of its distribution. Pushkin is selling the audiobook for $0.99 directly to listeners using RSS feeds set up by Supporting Cast, the upstart podcast-hosting platform from Slate that’s working to build out direct revenue options for podcast creators. This distribution context renders Hasta la Vista, America as a noteworthy example of three things: It’s a self-published audiobook distributed over existing podcast architecture (meaning, consumers could listen to the audiobook in the same context as they would podcasts); an instance where the function of a podcast feed is recontextualized based on what’s delivered over the infrastructure; and a small experiment testing the waters of what a direct-to-consumer audiobooks alternative to Audible could look like.

Pushkin has a history of playing around with what it means to be an audio publisher. In addition to creating ad-supported podcasts, the company has also produced audiobooks through conventional channels, most recently collaborating with Audible to produce the Audible Original FAUCI by Michael Specter. But the team has also consistently expressed a deep interest in further blurring the lines between the two formats. “Part of our premise is that there’s not that much overlap between podcast listeners and audiobook listeners,” Weisberg told me last summer. “In a way, we want to mess it all up in the sense that we want to make podcasts that are more like audiobooks and audiobooks that are more like podcasts, and get the one who’s not listening to the other to cross over.”

There are probably other examples of RSS feeds being jury-rigged for audiobook distribution that date back to well before this moment, though I wasn’t able to unearth another similarly structured case in my own digging around over the long weekend. In any case, Hasta la Vista, America isn’t even Supporting Cast’s first case of supporting direct audiobooks sales. Slate had previously used the platform to facilitate direct RSS-delivered sales of the audio version of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, the latest book from Daniel Lavery (who is also a Dear Prudence columnist for Slate). That arrangement required some coordination between Slate and the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, and interestingly enough, listeners can still buy the audiobook over the Audible platform if they so wish.

Hasta la Vista, America won’t be available on Audible — that is, unless something changes moving forward — and Pushkin seems content in treating the project as a light step towards establishing a consumer-facing brand over the long term. When I spoke to Heather Fain, Pushkin’s Chief Marketing Officer, about the experiment last week, she emphasized that the company was simply interested in using the opportunity to try stuff out and discovering what’s possible when they’re able to keep listener data for themselves. (Something, of course, you can’t do when selling audiobooks through Audible.) They felt that the slight nature of Hasta la Vista, America, which clocks in at a mere forty-two minutes, lent itself well for this experiment, because it’s probably not of the kind of heft that would warrant Audible’s interest. “Could we have sold more copies if we had put this up through Audible, Apple Books, or Libro? The answer is going to probably be yes at the end of the day, but the long-term value of just understanding how this works is worth more at this point, I think,” said Fain.

As small and playful as the scope of this project might be, I couldn’t help but think you always run the risk of incurring a monopolistic entity’s wrath whenever you try to explore ways to subvert the monopolistic condition. Maybe the superstar status of Malcolm Gladwell provides enough cover to mitigate that risk, but still, it’s something that would worry me. Fain, of course, reiterates a diplomatic bigger picture when I posed the question. “We think about it as building the biggest pie possible,” she said. “Audible is so dominant in this market and they’re going to be really important for us in all scenarios, but what we hope is that we build a scenario where we work with a lot of partners while also building a space for ourselves where we can experiment.”

Fair enough. I guess if Audible gets to play around with podcasts, podcast publishers should get to play around in kind, too.

Speaking of audiobooks… NPR’s Planet Money produced an audiobook of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — performed by the staff — now that the novel is in the public domain and released that through the show’s RSS feed as an illustration of copyright law. Very on brand.