Do podcasts sell books? Yes

Simon Owens
Nov 21 · 14 min read
Source: Pxhere (Creative Commons)

More than a decade ago, before most people even knew what a podcast was, Macmillan, one of the largest book publishers in the world, launched a podcast network. Called Quick and Dirty Tips, the network consisted of short, scripted podcasts that delivered evergreen, practical advice on a range of topics from grammar to money management.

In the years since, Macmillan has continued to invest in its podcast division, expanding into narrative shows and even teleplays. For this episode, I interviewed Kathy Doyle, vice president of podcasting, about where the company has seen the most success and how podcasting allowed it to diversify its revenue.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Simon Owens: Hey Kathy, thanks for joining us.

Kathy Doyle: Hello Simon. It’s great to be here again.

So you run Macmillan podcasts. Macmillan is one of the largest publishers in the world. How long has their podcast ecosystem been around?

We are actually comprised of two different podcast networks and we’ve been podcasting for about 11 years. Our first network, Quick and Dirty Tips, was our joint venture with Grammar Girl, aka Mignon Fogarty. We’ve actually surpassed 320 million lifetime downloads. So that’s a pretty good number. And that network is comprised mostly of evergreen nonfiction content, and I have to say it’s really exceeded our expectations in terms of having a long tail. That format just really works for us and it’s a phenomenal platform really for featuring nonfiction authors.

So a couple of years ago we started a second network. We were finding talent that didn’t quite fit the QDT model of being really short, quick, actionable information you can use in your everyday life. And that’s when we founded Macmillan podcasts, which to date has produced 16 original podcasts. And we have experimented in a variety of genres. We’ve done some fiction, true crime. We had a wonderful show about the political climate and relationships as they relate to parenting, all shows that we believe truly play very well into our strengths as a book publisher. We were a podcast network before a podcast network was even a thing.

I think it’s amazing that not only are you one of the only large publishers that has a robust podcast network, but you guys started way before what we can now consider to be the current podcast boom.

So to break it down, you had this Quick and Dirty Tips network. So those were short podcasts with evergreen content. You mentioned Grammar Girl. It’s one of your most popular podcasts where every single episode includes grammatical tips that people can learn. But then she also has a bestselling series that is published by Macmillan under the Grammar Girl banner. So they kind of act synergistically, correct?

Yeah. And we’ve actually done that with a lot of our hosts.

So how big is the network in terms of how many people approximately work for it?

So I have a team of eight supporting both networks. We have producers, marketing, ad ops, editorial, and then of course we have a couple of freelance audio production people for the QDT shows, and our hosts and authors.

So you guys have been traditionally monetized mainly through advertising, right? So you sell ads on the podcast side, but then you also publish the scripts as articles on the website where that gets a lot of traffic and then you can also sell programmatic display advertising on that, correct?

That is all correct. We have a really nice well rounded approach for the QDT model where we have live host read ads, and we can stitch in ads to our back catalog over time. We also, as you note, have a really robust website that we redesigned about a year and a half ago that includes really prominent podcast players throughout. What we were finding over the years was that the audiences for the podcast and the website were very distinct and oftentimes the podcast hosts do a great job of pushing people to the website for bonus content. But people on the website were not really seeing that there was a player front and center and that they had the option to listen to that content via audio, which is becoming such a popular format for consuming information. So we redesigned and really put the player up front and center, which has helped bring the two audiences together.

And because it’s evergreen content and it’s very practical content, you guys do really well with Google, right? Because I land on Grammar Girl articles all the time. Whenever I’m writing and I need to refresh my memory on some grammatical tip, I Google it, and usually one of the first things that comes up is a Grammar Girl article and a lot of your articles that appear on the site are like that where they’re aimed at answering someone’s question that they might be typing into Google.

Well that’s just it. The content is so incredibly well suited for those quick searches. You know, how do I get red wine out of a white marble table? When do I know if it’s the right grammar decision to use affect versus effect? They’re all really quick tips if you will. So they are very well suited to being in the snippets that you’ll see on Google and some of the other organic search engines. We have a content strategist who’s the editor of QDT. We work with our hosts on an almost daily basis to just ensure that we’re constantly balancing those two formats and trying to make the best possible decisions to yield the optimal results on both sides of that fence.

The Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts, they’re not like Q&A podcasts like what we’re doing here, they’re actually scripted. I wouldn’t also describe them as narrative podcasts. They’re not trying to tell one narrative arc story like a This American Life or a Radio Lab, or something like that. But as you mentioned, you guys are branching out into new things. You are moving into this narrative podcast category, and you’re kind of trying to synergistically work with some of your narrative nonfiction books to create podcast audio from that.

Oh, absolutely. Kristy, who’s here in the studio with me, is the producer of a new show called Knowing. It’s a biography show that we just introduced this week. It is with New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff, who wrote a wonderful book about Robin Williams called Robin. And together they have put together an eight episode series that really examines the life and death of Robin Williams and largely relies on the flow and the information from the book and does a great job of taking that content and putting it into a storytelling, narrative format.

But they’ve also interspersed it with some incredible new and fresh interviews. So it’s a great way to both promote the full book to update the story, which by now is a couple of years old. We’re fortunate to have Dave working with us on this. He was a guest on the Grammar Girl show this week talking about how to write a biography. So we’ve become sort of masterful at taking our resources and our assets and the team sits in and plots this stuff out and very strategically finds ways to surface authors on both networks and then provide really useful and relevant information on those various verticals.

So is the author of the book also the narrator of the podcast or is he just one of the people who are interviewed for the podcast?

He is a main theme throughout the podcast. He’s on every episode with Kristy.

And there’s going to be future seasons on other famous people?

That’s correct. This is season one. As you know, having been in this space for a while, audience development is becoming quite a challenge. So one of the things we’re trying to do is launch multiple seasons. I can’t say anything yet about the subject, but we’re working on seasons two and three.


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Ok, back to our scheduled programming…


Do you feel like conversations like this are happening more and more at Macmillan where a book is coming out and you’re thinking about it as maybe a piece of intellectual property that doesn’t have to fit into this one little wedge of a book, and how do we spin it off into a podcast or audiobook or a show for Netflix?

I would say that our team is not in this to exploit IP rights. We are in this to just provide consumers and listeners around the world with exceptional talent, great experiences, and just to really do what we do best, which is provide those kinds of services to people around the world.

The podcast division falls underneath the audiobook division, is that correct?

Yes.

So what is the potential there for collaborations for between podcasting and audiobooks? There was a project that you guys did a few years ago called Steal the Stars. Can you talk about how that appeared in multiple formats across different mediums?

Sure. We absolutely love the work we did on Steal the Stars. That was a model for an audio first initiative. We worked with a team called Gideon Media and their wonderful writer, Mac Rogers, whose name I’m sure you know from the podcast space. They developed a full audio production. It had a 14 member cast and we launched it in conjunction with our science fiction imprint as a podcast. So we took those assets in the script and one of Gideon’s team members adapted it for a book that we produced in all formats. So we also did some other interesting things. We did some sold-out live events after the season ended. We did a live event that was a prequel to the actual story of Steal the Stars and it sold out and it was super fun for rabid fans.

We took those audio assets and we use them as bonus content in the audiobook once the season was over. The nice thing about doing a production like that is that content is also evergreen and it really does continue to entertain listeners, and it gets put oftentimes on listicles for great audio dramas to listen to on your next car trip. So we continue to benefit from that. And that’s one of the shows too where we’re trying to rely on dynamic ad insertion to see if we can continue to drive some revenue for that show.

And that’s just really fascinating from all the different ways you can monetize it. So just based on my accounting, you could sell advertising on the podcast, then you took the entire podcast and packaged it together. You sell it as an audiobook, but then you also published a print book version of it. So you sell that and then you also produced live events so that you could sell tickets to that. So you could monetize it four different ways.

Yeah, absolutely. So it’s a lot of work, it takes a lot of planning and it takes great teamwork.

It’s probably something you couldn’t scale to doing like a hundred times a year or something like that.

Right. I don’t think anybody could do it a hundred times a year.

A company that’s really been in the news lately is it relates to podcast is Spotify. They’ve just acquired a bunch of companies and they keep on signing exclusive deals. What are you guys doing with Spotify?

So we have a really close relationship with Spotify as we do with all the major distributors. And I think we’ve worked really hard over the last decade to just be a great partner to all the platforms, Spotify, Apple, Stitcher, et cetera. I think, because of our longevity in the space and how competitive it is, we don’t look to a partner like Spotify to just see what they can do for us to boost our listens. I think we really think about it in terms of how we can be a great partner. How can we share our insights on the user experience and the backend dashboard where the data is available to us? And so we’ve been involved with all of our partners on all of those fronts. But in particular, Spotify, we partnered with them. I actually went on LinkedIn and found out who, in the early days, was starting to run podcasts at Spotify back in like 2013 and sent a cold email. And lo and behold, they were literally on the same block that we were at the time in the Flatiron District. So we scheduled a meeting and we were on the beta platform as soon as they launched it. We’ve done some really cool stuff together.

So obviously Spotify is really well known for its music playlists, but now it’s trying to do playlists where it kind of splices together music, but then it might be followed by a short podcast and then another song and then another short podcast. Are you guys participating in these playlists?

Well, it’s really interesting you should bring that up because one of the things we did with them before that iteration of playlists was we worked with our contacts there to kind of develop special curated collections of episodes. We didn’t really call them playlists, but we would actually set up a podcast feed doing what we do best, which is curating the archives from the Quick and Dirty Tips network to put together exclusive packages. We did one on an audio guide to happiness. We did one for their younger audience on life after college last spring. We did one on mindfulness and it was a great collaborative effort where they promoted these playlists and we promoted the playlist and it was a win win for everyone because we could also, you know, put in this one single collection a variety of our hosts together in ways that really made sense

I really think that played to our strengths too, as, as content curators. But you mentioned the fact that now Spotify has introduced these wonderful features, these playlists that allow users to develop sort of a mix of podcast episodes and music. And yes, we pounced on that immediately and we had a lot of fun. We collaborated as a team, got together with the hosts and we’ve put together a lot of really relevant playlists on topics like fitness. And of course we’ve got a bunch of grammar ones and we’ve shared them with Spotify. It’s a great way for us to surface content in a whole new way on that platform.

I saw news recently that some publishers are even specifically creating podcasts that are designed for those playlists. Like Gimlet Media has a show called Science Vs, which is like 30 minutes long and answers some kind of scientific question on each episode, and they distilled it down into 10 minute episodes specifically for the playlist. Have you guys been doing anything like that or are your podcasts already kind of designed at the right length for them?

Well, Simon, I’m a huge fan of Gimlet and I did read that article and my first thought was, gosh, we’ve been doing that for 10 years. Our format just really works for that. And you know there are commuting playlists, there are all kinds of ways where we’re seeing a surge in interest in short format content and we have a rich and deep archive of over 6,000 episodes and we’re working every angle we can to get it into listeners’ hands.

So I guess you’re bullish on Spotify and its expansion into podcasts and this being the new frontier for them.

Listen, we’re bullish on anyone’s expansion into podcasting. It’s a good thing for all of us.

So LinkedIn has this platform called LinkedIn learning. Online courses are becoming kind of a booming business. You guys have started to repackage some of your podcasts and put them as LinkedIn Learning courses. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah, I mean that’s really been one of the 2019 highlights for us. I think LinkedIn Learning approached us and ,building on the strength of the brand and the books that you referenced earlier and the Grammar Girl podcasts, they wanted to build a writing course and we really saw it as just another opportunity to all the points we’ve been talking about, various ways we can monetize, various ways we can reach new audiences. It was a way for us to do something new and they’re obviously a very big partner. They bring a lot to the table in terms of their strong video expertise in particular, and that’s really something that we don’t do that much in. So we also were very attracted to their huge membership.

A premium membership would mean that the course was effectively to some extent free for so many people. We just thought it was a terrific collaboration. So Mignon worked with them, and it really played to the strength of her core content, which is to focus on better writing. She’s been doing this for a very long time, so a lot of her episodes now can vary in scope and in format. I’ve been talking a lot about playing to our strengths, but in this course in particular, it was handled so perfectly, they handled all the production. It’s been performing really nicely to us and it just gives us this incredible opportunity to extend Grammar Girl to a new audience of learners. And Mignon just felt like it was a really interesting way for her to distill down the best of what she’s done in the podcast and everywhere else and just put it in one super accessible place. And of course, for me, my hope too is that that extends to people who take the course and they’re so enamored with her and the incredible content that she shares that we’re able to then translate that into more website users and podcast listeners. So it’s a win win for everyone.

So my final question is something that obviously a lot of people wonder about. Do podcasts sell books?

I mean, we certainly believe they do or we wouldn’t be doing this. It’s the same with book sales that it is with podcast listeners: you don’t own the customer and that’s a really big challenge if you’re a publisher. But we have seen great evidence that the podcast listeners are extremely engaged. I’ve used in the past the example of our Savvy Psychologist podcast. She’s a host of one of our more popular shows on the QDT side. We worked for a while to develop a newsletter to really build her platform out, got her blogging gigs on Psychology Today, Scientific American. All of that led to a surge in her popularity. And over time we worked with her to get a great book with St Martins Press on social anxiety. And what we saw there was — because we knew so many of the people who bought the book were podcast listeners — just a huge number of sales on the audio format. So we know it works.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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The Business of Content

The podcast about how publishers create, distribute, and monetize digital content.

Simon Owens

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Tech and media journalist. Email me: simonowens@gmail.com

The Business of Content

The podcast about how publishers create, distribute, and monetize digital content.