How book publisher Macmillan built a thriving podcast network
By Simon Owens
In November 2006, Mignon Fogarty’s phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, but rather than letting it go to voicemail, as many of us do with unknown callers, she picked up. On the other end of the line was John Sterling, the president and publisher of Henry Holt, an imprint of Macmillan. He’d seen a recent item in the Wall Street Journal about Grammar Girl, a hit podcast Fogarty had launched a few months prior that was already receiving nearly a hundred thousand downloads per episode. “He originally called me to talk about doing a book deal,” she told me. But she had already set her sights much higher.
Fogarty had come up with the idea for the Grammar Girl podcast while working as a science and technical writer. She’d noticed that her clients kept making the same grammatical mistakes over and over again, and she thought a short, to-the-point podcast that addressed a grammatical rule in each episode would resonate. This wasn’t her first foray into podcasting; she’d hosted a science show that, despite being featured on iTunes, failed to draw enough traffic to be a viable business. Grammar Girl, on the other hand, was an instant hit. It rocketed to the top of the iTunes charts, and she soon found herself with a legion of fans. Before long she’d go on to appear on Oprah and write a New York Times best seller.
From almost the very beginning, however, Fogarty knew she wanted to do much more than just host a hit podcast. “I had worked in Silicon Valley,” she said. “I had worked at startups. I knew that this could be more than just one podcast and that it could be the foundation for a whole network.” Podcasting as a medium, remember, was only a few years old at this point. The Serial phenomenon was still years away and, while podcast networks certainly existed in 2006, nobody was getting rich off them. She started with people she knew. Adam Lowe, the former cohost for her science podcast, debuted the Modern Manners Guy podcast. “So suddenly we had two shows and we’re a network,” she said. “I started to look for other people to keep expanding the network. Money Girl was my neighbor who was really good at money. The Mighty Mommy was a friend who had her own podcast that I met through podcasting meetups and who I thought was a great mom.”
There was a consistent theme with all the podcasts in the network: they featured domain experts who gave practical, evergreen advice. You wouldn’t hear an hour-long roundtable on movies or interviews with newsmakers. Instead, most of the content created for the network was short, to-the-point, and still relevant years after its release. Even back then, Fogarty knew that podcasting had a discovery problem wherein the only way to come across a new podcast was to hear about it on one you already listened to. “That was the one really important reason of why I set up the network the way that I did,” she said. “If I owned the shows, I could require people to promote each other. As the owner, I could say, ‘OK , Modern Manners Guy, at the end of your show this week you’re going to promote Money Girl, and I could just make it happen.” Securing ads back then was rare, but she could offer them a huge audience on a medium where large audiences were hard to come by.
So by the time Macmillan’s John Sterling came calling, Fogarty already had six podcasts in her network, and she knew she’d need help if she wanted to continue growing it. In addition to writing and hosting her own podcast, she was also handling all the behind-the-scenes roles for the entire network: managing the website, editing shows, and taking care of all the administrative work. “It quickly became overwhelming, which is why I was looking for a partner.”
As it happened, Macmillan was already primed for something like this. “John had the foresight to understand very quickly that this could be more than just a book deal,” said Kathy Doyle, the current director of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, which is what the partnership between Fogarty and Macmillan came to be called. “Macmillan is always looking for opportunities in digital, and they saw this as an opportunity to not just work with Mignon on books, but also take what had started to be a burgeoning network of subject matter experts and really take that and build it out into a meaningful business.”
By 2007, Macmillan and Fogarty had inked a partnership agreement, and the publisher immediately set about rebranding the network and building a website. It hired audio producers for all the shows, while Fogarty continued to manage the hosts and edit scripts. The network added new shows periodically, and its audience scaled drastically.
Because all episodes focus on evergreen how-to topics and the transcripts are published as articles, the website sees a tremendous amount of traffic from Google searches (as a writer, I often turn to Google for grammar-related questions, and more often than not I land on a Grammar Girl article). “There’s a tremendous opportunity for someone who comes through to us on Google or some other search engine to say, ‘Hey, not only is there a true subject matter expert behind the scenes curating this amazing collection of content on the topic you’re interested in, but guess what? There’s a free weekly podcast that can accompany that request,’” said Doyle. Each article has the correlating podcast episode embedded within it, and each episode has calls to action to not only subscribe to it, but to other shows in the network as well.
For those first few years, Fogarty had continued to play a major role running the daily operations of the network, but as her book writing career took off, she knew she’d have to relinquish more of her control so that she could focus on her own brand. In 2009, the site hired an editor to oversee the direction of all the shows, allowing Fogarty to spend her increasingly limited time thinking about the big picture strategy.
In 2012, the network hired Doyle as its director. Her career building digital products spans back decades and includes working on the Wall Street Journal’s website when it first launched. “Macmillan took a chance on me when they brought me on because I didn’t really have a traditional publishing background,” she said. Part of her role as director of the network involves leveraging her expertise in digital product building to help with the substantial task of expanding the synergistic relationship between the podcast network and Macmillan’s book publishing business.
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Unlike most podcast networks, which rely almost entirely on host-read ads, Quick and Dirty Tips has a much more diversified approach to revenue generation. Yes, it does engage in host-read advertising (which it generates from Midroll, a podcast ad broker), but it also sells programmatic display advertising through its well-trafficked website. What makes it truly unique, however, is how it leverages its podcast audiences to sell books. “Macmillan looked at it as an amazing opportunity to leverage the assets of its book content and also to secure and build the audience for new talent,” said Doyle.
There are two ways Macmillan goes about this. The first is by providing a broadcast outlet for its already-existing talent. Unknown History, a podcast it launched this year, is hosted by Giles Milton, an author for Macmillan’s Picador imprint. In some cases, he’s able to adapt content he’s already written in his books for the podcast. Macmillan authors are also sometimes guests on already-existing Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts when their writing is relevant.
Quick and Dirty Tips also recruits new talent and, after building up that person’s brand and following, signs a book contract with them. That’s what happened with Ellen Hendriksen. She’s a clinical psychologist who, up until about a year ago, was running her own lab. In 2012, she left a postdoc at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital for a faculty position at Stanford. “The move from Massachusetts to California broke up my routine,” she said. “It gave me permission to try something new.” At that point, her writing had only been published in academic journals. “I liked being technical, but it wasn’t scratching the itch I had for popular writing. One time I looked up all the papers in my CV just to see how many people were reading it. My most-cited paper had been cited by maybe 100 people.”
Hendriksen had become a fan of the Grammar Girl podcast while looking up grammatical rules for her own writing. Eventually, she clicked around the Quick and Dirty Tips website and noticed it didn’t have a mental health person. “I literally cold emailed the editor and said, ‘Hey, do you need somebody to do psychology and mental health?’” she recalled. “And it was just perfect timing because she wrote back and said they’ve been getting requests for that.” To audition for the part, Hendriksen sent the network 10 sample articles, which performed well on the website.
Hendriksen soon learned the network wanted to launch a podcast, called the Savvy Psychologist, with her as the host, and she immediately wondered if she was in over her head. “I wanted to be a writer, and then I was like, wait a minute, suddenly I have to be this performer.” The network assigned her a producer and gave her pretty much free rein over what to cover. She writes a first draft of each script and sends it over to Quick and Dirty Tips editor Alyssa Martino, who gives notes and sends it back to her. She then records the episode and shares the file with her producer. “The producers are just magicians,” she said. “I always marvel that I send these recordings that have pauses, mistakes, and my cat meowing in the background, and [producer Steve Riekeberg] can just turn it into this beautiful recording that sounds seamless and professional.”
By this point, the Quick and Dirty Tips network was adept at marketing new shows. It formed syndication partnerships with media outlets like Scientific American and Business Insider. It plugged the show on its other podcasts. It leveraged its relationships with the people at iTunes, and the show was later listed on iTunes as one of the best new podcasts of 2014. Within a year, Hendriksen had gone from being virtually unknown to having a relatively popular personal brand. It was the perfect timing to give her a book deal.
“I thought hard about whether I should try to get an agent and shop the book around,” Hendriksen said. “But Macmillan has invested in me. They’ve put two-plus years into this podcast. I like the people there. A book contract is certainly financial, but it connects you to a team, and I couldn’t imagine a better team, so I decided to go with Macmillan.” She’s currently writing the book, which will focus on the topic of social anxiety, with a December 1 deadline. To edit the book, Macmillan paired her with Martino and executive editor Jennifer Weis.
Fogarty said that the synergies between Macmillan’s publishing arm and the Quick and Dirty Tips network are what differentiate it from other podcast networks. “It’s important to diversify your revenue if you want to build a strong business,” she said. “So having our own products, books, is an important part of making it a stable business so we can weather the ups and downs of the ad market.”
Though it isn’t always the case, books written by the podcast hosts are often branded with the Quick and Dirty Tips logo on the cover. I find it reminiscent of other branded reference series like Sparknotes and the For Dummies guides. On the Quick and Dirty Tips store, I counted nine podcast hosts that have published at least one book with Macmillan.
Every week we see new stories about the current gold rush in podcasting. Podcast networks are securing venture capital funding. Brand advertisers are finally wading in. A president has sat down for a podcast interview and his probable successor launched her own show. And yet the Quick and Dirty Tips network, despite generating over 2 million downloads per month, has had scant mention in all this press. “We’re different from Gimlet and Earwolf in that we’re not as well funded,” said Fogarty. “We didn’t go out and get VC funding and set ourselves up on that treadmill of having to answer to investors. We’re not running a revenue deficit and aiming for fantastical growth. We’re looking to build a solid business that will continue to exist for decades.” And if you’re looking to build a podcast network with that kind of longevity, it doesn’t hurt to partner with Macmillan, a company founded 173 years ago — in 1843. That’s a level of commitment no VC firm in the world can match.