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Podcasts and Publishing: Friends, Rivals, or Something Else?
If you have yet to dive into the world of podcasting, you might mistakenly believe that the medium is still happening mostly on the fringes. Once you start listening to podcasts, though—or interacting with people who do—it becomes clear how much this format matters. There are people who listen to podcasts in lieu of music and audiobooks. There are people who juggle podcasts like they juggle TV shows, planning out their listening based on when their favorite shows drop new episodes every week. Research has shown that the average podcast fan listens to seven different shows per week. More than a quarter of all Americans listen to podcasts every month.
Part of the popularity of podcasts has to do with their price: free. Conceived from the beginning as the heir apparent to radio broadcasts, podcasts offer a zero-risk proposition for consumers. Audiobooks cost money. Print books cost money. Netflix costs money. But the vast majority of podcasts can still be enjoyed for free from start to finish. And while there are ads, they are usually built into the podcast and read by the hosts of the shows. They don’t stampede through your experience and wreck the vibe like the ads on the free version of Spotify, or the commercials on any non-premium TV channel.
Another part of the popularity of podcasts is the variety. Podcasting is a remarkably flexible format. There are podcasts about news and politics, podcasts about music, and podcasts about science. There are sports podcasts and comedy podcasts and technology podcasts. It’s a format where listeners are willing to invest themselves in investigative true crime journalism (phenoms like Serial and The Teacher’s Pet), but where they’ll also follow a pair of comedians as they joke through a veteran rock band’s entire discography (U Talkin’ U2 To Me?).
In some ways, publishing should probably be afraid of podcasting. As the publishing industry continues to lean more and more on audiobooks, podcasts are starting to look like the direct competition. After all, it’s easier to listen to a podcast in small doses than a book. Audiobooks require more focus, to pick up every plot detail and enjoy the beauty of the written language. Podcasts are more like traditional radio, which has only survived this long because it’s so well-suited for commutes. Plus, if listeners want narrative fiction, they can find it in podcast form. One recent example is Wolverine: The Long Night, a show crafted in partnership between Marvel and podcast/radio company Stitcher that takes the most iconic X-Man through a completely original story.
Publishers, though, would do best to view podcasting as an opportunity, not a threat. As Alan Rowe wrote in a recent Forbes article, audiobooks and podcasts tend to have a natural overlap in target audiences. Both groups like to consume audio content, both groups like being able to access that content from anywhere on their phones or mobile devices, and both groups are constantly looking for new content that piques their interest. Wolverine: The Long Night is a good example of a company taking an idea that could have been a novel or an audiobook and presenting it as a serialized, episodic podcast.
For publishers, there are numerous opportunities to be mined from the podcast craze. The first is the idea of adaptation or extension. Historically, the book industry has had both the privilege and the disadvantage of being the format from which everything is adapted. So many movies and TV shows spring from the pages of novels. While the relationship does go the other way sometimes—novelizations, movie tie-in editions, books about the production or history of movies or TV shows—there’s little doubt that Hollywood has made more money off publishing industry ideas than vice versa. With podcasts, though, book publishers stand to reap big dividends. The massive viral popularity of Serial, for instance, tipped publishers off to the resurgence of the true crime nonfiction genre. It also yielded several buzzy books—such as Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial and Confessions of a Serial Alibi—the former of which became a New York Times bestseller and landed on numerous “best of the year” lists in 2016.
Among publishers, Macmillan has been quick (and smart) to embrace podcasts early. Macmillan has its own podcast network, with shows that range from narrative fiction (Steal the Stars) to podcasts about books (But That’s Another Story), all the way to topics that aren’t related to publishing in any way (I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics). Macmillan also owns and operates the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network, a popular and long-running franchise that the publisher has leveraged into a series of books.
For independent publishers, there is plenty of opportunity in podcasts. Producing audiobooks is expensive, but podcasts require little more than charismatic hosts, interesting guests, and decent recording equipment. Indies could launch podcasts providing publishing tips, sharing interviews with their authors, and much more. Macmillan has proven that a publisher can operate a podcast network with shows that don’t necessarily relate to publishing. Making a similar jump to being content creators could help independent publishers diversify and succeed in an increasingly challenging marketplace.
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Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org