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Podcasting and the Book Publishing Industry, circa 2018: A Triptych

Audiobook-first, book-adjacent, podcast-first.

Part One: Audiobook-First. Something peculiar this way comes… from Newark, New Jersey. Back in June, the New York Times reported on a curious development that’s happening at Audible, one that sees the biggest audiobook company in the world investing in audiobook-first products as part of an effort to, as the Times article puts it, “meet growing consumer demand, and also to generate stories that are designed to be listened to rather than read.” In other words, they’re commissioning audiobooks without the hefty book part.

One major expression of this new strategy comes in the form of a multi-year contract with Michael Lewis, the popular nonfiction author of Moneyball and The Big Short fame, which will see Lewis producing four “audio original stories” for Audible. The first of these works, titled The Coming Storm and narrated by Lewis himself, will be published through the Audible platform on July 31.

Relatedly, Lewis is also working on a podcast project with Slate, which is currently scheduled for an early 2019 release.

Audible has long been a horizontal curiosity for the podcast industry, given its hiring of former NPR programming VP Eric Nuzum in mid-2015 and subsequent rollout of the Audible Originals and “Channels” strategy in mid-2016, which saw the company releasing products that some, like myself, perceived as comparable to and competitive with the kinds of products you’d get from the podcast ecosystem.

This signing of authors like Michael Lewis to audiobook-first deals appears to be a ramping up of an alternate original programming strategy, one that sees Audible leaning more heavily into the preexisting nature of its core relationships with the book publishing industry and the book buying audience. It might also be a consequence of a reshuffle at the executive decision-making level: in late 2017, the Hollywood Reporter broke news that chief content officer Andrew Gaies and chief revenue officer Will Lopes unexpectedly stepped down resigned from their posts. (Later reporting noted that the resignations happened in the midst of a harassment probe.) The ripple effects of that sudden shift in leadership is probably only hitting us now, and in this form. I’ll be tracking the extent to this new product line overlaps with or, indeed, ends up superseding what’s been happening with the Channels stuff.

All of this matters, of course, because all of it is related. I believe the way to think about this is to see all audio content providers — from the conventional podcasts of the open ecosystem to everything on Audible to whatever Anchor will become to Headspace plus whatever subscription-first audio platforms come over the horizon to the entire digital music ecosystem — as fighting from the same cochlear real estate. A few weekends ago, I fell behind on podcast listening due to falling into an utter binge-rabbit hole of the audiobook version of John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, and I daresay I haven’t been able to catch up to my listen list since.

Part Two: Book-Adjacent. So that was a story about a big book publishing entity investing in strictly digital products. Next, we have a story about a book publishing entity investing in a strategy that hits both audio and book publishing in tandem.

I’ve written previously about the experiments happening over at Macmillan, where its new Tor Labs imprint had developed a fiction podcast — called Steal the Stars, written by The Message’s Mac Rogers — that was published through the company’s podcast network and was also simultaneously novelized for traditional distribution. I thought it was a really smart idea, noting that it scratches at the idea that different platforms simply serve different consumer slices that may never really overlap. This style of multi-platform execution expands Steal the Stars across a wider surface area and further deepens its ability to financially benefit from a single core creative enterprise. That’s the working theory, anyway.

Anyway, Macmillan is coming back for more in this mode of production. The publisher is developing a six-part fiction podcast called The Girls based off an upcoming young adult novel: Courtney Summer’s Sadie — which is, interestingly enough, described to be “Serial-inspired” young adult thriller, at least according to Bustle. I’m told that the podcast is being designed to stand alone, but that those who consume both the podcast and the book will be treated to different perspectives within the same story-line. Expanded universe, Rashomon-kind of stuff, I suppose.

I asked Kathy Doyle, VP of Podcasting at Macmillan, for some specific detail on how the publisher has viewed the performance of Steal the Stars and other experiments within the company that tie the fates of podcasts and books. She wrote back:

We’re definitely leveraging what we learned with Steal the Stars as we produce for The Girls. In fact, Steal the Stars celebrates its one-year anniversary on Aug. 1 and we’re gearing up for another round of marketing and promotion for the series, which continues to get interest from national media, advertisers, and listeners — that’s the beauty of an evergreen audio drama. The series, to date, has had nearly 1.4 million listens and we’re continuing back-list sales efforts for the Steal the Stars books.

Another strong example of our book-podcast synergy is with our Savvy Psychologist podcast, one of the biggest on our QDT network. We released a book, How to Be Yourself, about social anxiety in March authored by that host, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, and it went into a second printing. When we review sales data, we see that 50% of sales are for the audio edition, when we might typically see a figure of about 10% for a trade book.

The Girls is set to launch on August 1, with the trailer dropping tomorrow. The novel, Sadie, is scheduled to drop on September 2.

For technical context: Steal the Stars was hosted on Megaphone, while Savvy Psychologist is on Libsyn.

Part Three: Podcast-First. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Ellen Gamerman has a great overview up on the podcast-to-book adaptation trend that’s been picking up lately alongside the podcast-to-film-and-television trend. Aside from listing out several notable projects that are making the jump, there’s a bit in Gamerman’s piece that provides a nice expression of the risk-ratio factor that I believe is a big part of why we’ve been seeing podcasts heating up as a resource for adaptations:

While some books have sparked bidding wars between publishers, the titles don’t tend to carry the high stakes of a Hollywood venture. “If you have 100,000 people listening to a podcast — which is a very modest-sized podcast — and half of them buy the book, the publisher would be thrilled,” said Anthony Mattero, a book agent at Creative Artists Agency, though he added that publishers also measure sales against the price of the manuscript.

But the article also offers a peek into a shadow looming over this trend. It’s highlighted in this quote:

With niche podcasts on everything from witches to monster trucks, more publishers are seeing opportunity. “The market for weirdness is untapped,” said Kate Napolitano, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The question: with more resources, attention — and, perhaps most importantly, stakes — flowing into the podcast ecosystem, will its capacity for weirdness be preserved?

The possible campaign on the horizon: Keep Podcasts Weird.

Related: “How ‘The Adventure Zone’ Went From ‘D&D’ Podcast to Graphic Novel.” (The Hollywood Reporter)