What’s behind the explosion in fiction podcasts?

Alasdair Stuart. SOURCE: Tattooed Mummy

Welcome to Night Vale. The Message. Steal the Stars. Homecoming. The Bright Sessions. All are fiction podcasts that have seen downloads in the millions. Some have been optioned for television or film adaptation. All were launched in just the last few years.

For much of the early to mid 20th century, millions of listeners tuned in each week to listen to radio dramas and fiction broadcasts in genres ranging from adventure (Superman) to science fiction (War of the Worlds) to crime noir (Dragnet).

But by the early 60s, due to the rise of television, the radio drama faded in popularity, and most were canceled by the end of 1962. Though some broadcasters continued to dabble in the medium, most people today have grown up without having listened to a single radio play.

Podcasting, however, has led to a resurgence in this kind of audio fiction, and a whole new generation of fans are tuning in to new episodes, attending live events, and ordering merchandise online.

Why are we seeing this resurgence in what was thought to be a bygone medium? To answer this, I interviewed Alasdair Stuart, the owner of Escape Artists Inc, which produces a number of popular fiction podcasts in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.

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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Simon Owens: Hey Alasdair, thanks for joining us.

Alasdair Stuart: Thanks for having me on.

You run a company that produces two separate podcasts. Can you tell me a little about what that company is?

The company is called Escape Artists, and we’ve been active for 14 years. I’ve run and owned it for four of those. We actually produce four shows. Each one has the same format: an introduction by the host, a complete short story in a different genre, and an outro by a host. Each one is put out weekly. Escape Pod does science fiction. PseudoPod does horror. Podcastle does fantasy. And Cast of Wonders does YA.

And you say you’ve been doing this for 14 years. So almost since the very beginning of the invention of podcasts?

Absolutely. One of our co-editors on Escape Pod, Mur Lafferty, is a member of the podcasting hall of fame. She was one of the first people to do it. We like to joke in the company about how podcasting, certainly in the genre fiction field, is kind of like a gold rush town that’s gone up around the saloon that is Escape Artists. We were there slightly before the industry was, which is always a slightly strange position to be in.

How did you guys see that this nascent medium back then was going to turn into something? How did something like this form where you thought, ‘Oh, we should start narrating fiction through podcasts’?

Basically, the way I understand it, the person who set the company up had a really boring commute, and there were other podcasts that were just starting to come up in the fiction scene at that point. They wanted something good to listen to on the commute, so they started reaching out and finding these science fiction stories and putting in a piece of music and intro. A Paypal link just in case someone wanted to send in a buck or two. And it was massively successful, instantly.

I’ve worked for the company for a decade. I’ve owned it for four years. I came onboard with PseudoPod a year after it launched, and it was like riding a rocketship. Each one of these episodes got a lot of attention, and the format of the show, just because it’s designed to fit into people’s commutes, is about accessible as it’s possible to be.

You specialize in short fiction, which is different from a lot of other fiction podcasts, which focus on serial fiction. My knowledge is somewhat limited, but based on what I know, but the short fiction market used to be, 50 years ago, a market where someone could make a full-time living. There were lots of thriving short fiction magazines in the pulp space, whereas now there’s very little. It’s interesting that when you were launching this, the market for short fiction wasn’t that large, but in terms of audio short fiction, it seems to be very large.

It’s now an industry of two separate halves. Now what you find in print is there’s been this explosion of short fiction anthology magazines. Places like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, have been doing really great stuff in the short fiction field for a long time now. And they came up through the increasingly permissive environment that we got in on the ground floor of. It’s all very weird. As you can tell from my accent, I’m British, which means I’m pathologically incapable of taking credit for anything. I will apologize to people when they bump into me. But Escape Artists did play a really large role in turning short genre fiction around as a viable industry and medium.

We’ve had everyone from publishers and agents to authors all tell us that over the years. What you find now is that in the audio field, that’s kind of evolved a little bit. You’ll see full-cast shows that are audio dramas, which are designed to fit in the same kind of space as the work that we do. The expansion in the field over the 14 years we’ve been active has never really stopped. It’s just changed direction and scope.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the process works for you in terms of how you work with authors, how you find the short fiction, how you produce it, narrate it?

We are in the position at the moment where we pay pro rates across all four shows, as designated by the SFWA. Six cents a word. This means that when we’re open to submissions, our electronic doors get kicked in. We have rotating submission periods for each one of the shows. We get around 300 and 500 submissions per reader period.

What happens is that those submissions come into a set address, and we use a system called Submittable, which is kind of the industry default. The New York Times uses it, other magazines uses. The slush reading is the unsung of heroism of this field. We have anywhere between eight and 15 people reading stories for this show. They’ll read something, and if it doesn’t work, the story will get rejected at that stage.

We work especially hard, especially in fields like YA, in making sure these aren’t just form rejections. Most of all our stories are personalized. They provide feedback and direction. We get a lot of ‘thank you’ emails, which is a weird thing to say. But if we turn a story down but give an author feedback, about five times out of seven, they’ll come back and say thank you, this is really helpful. And about three times out of seven they’ll resubmit it. And chances are, that second time that story will go through.

If the story goes through the slushing level, editorial will take a look at it and determine whether they want to buy it. And if they buy, they’ll schedule it.

In terms of actually choosing the story, are you trying to determine what will be a good narrated audio story? Or is it more like just whether this is a good short story? What’s the criteria?

Honestly it’s both. Something that has 125 character is going to be a hard sell for us across 35 minutes and a single voice narrator. We’re playing around with that. We’re doing more multiple voice narrations at the moment, and it’s actually working really well for us.

But something that’s small in scope, has a very personal viewpoint, and gets the job done in under 8,000 words, is normally pretty much the default. That sounds restrictive, but it’s really not. There’s an awful amount of room to maneuver in all four genres we work with inside that kind of criteria, and we get some amazing work sent through.

We also work with estates an awful lot. That’s a very complicated process because estates are justifiably very cautious about letting the works they look after out into the world. Often we’ll negotiate with an estate for up to year to record a story.

When you say ‘estate,’ you mean a classic piece of fiction from an author who’s dead. You’re working with the people who own the rights.

Absolutely. I can give you an example of that. It’s an episode that’s no longer in our archives. There’s a Robert Heinlein story called “All You Zombies,” which we bought on a limited contract. I think it was episode 200 on Escape Pod. It went great, it was a brilliant story. And then we were asked to take it down. End of the contract, we did. The story was pulled, and then three months later the movie version of it starring Ethan Hawke was released. The Heinlein estate was obviously moving their trademarks around. ‘This can happen for this long, but then we need it back so this can happen.’ And that’s the process we’re always an external part of, which is why estate negotiation can take quite a long time. But it’s always worth it.

What’s the process after a story has been chosen? How do you narrate and produce it?

We have a narrator database of between 150 and 200 narrators. This is one of the advantages of having done this for over a decade. You know people who are very good at it. And a lot of the time we’ll have a narrator that will be a really good fit. So we’ll farm it out to them, and if they agree, we’ll give them a deadline. And then it will go on the schedule and we’ll produce the episode.

More and more what we’re experimenting with is trying to find as authentic a voice as possible for these stories. Again, this is one of the areas where Cast of Wonders is leading the charge. Because YA is engaging so strongly with LGBTQ fields at the moment, we’ve been working hard to make sure that, if a story is about, for example, a Samoan character, we get someone who’s Samoan to narrate it.

It’s a very difficult subject to talk about because it’s both very simple and very hard. We always work very hard to find the very best voice for each story, and there’s been a few instances where we’ve actually had to bench a story for a few months because the company motto is ‘one story told well,’ and sometimes you have to wait for the right narrator to come along to make that happen.

I listened to one of your episodes, and it seems like it’s straightforward narration with multiple characters, but there were some slight sound effects. Like when there was a computerized voice, you did an auto-tune sound effect. What’s the balance there in terms of straight narration versus getting into audio play territory?

Real ballpark, basically once you get above five protagonists, that’s the point where you need to start thinking about doing it as a full cast story. We’ve done a few of those. But we tend to, because we’re not quite equipped to do them, certainly not full time, we tend to save those for big number episodes or special occasions. Anything below that, a lot of the time one narrator does it. If it’s a double header with two characters in a room talking, two people will do it.

It’s really a process that needs constant tuning. We’ve been experimenting with that and the soundbite idea for a while now to give the show an all-encompassing sound.

Let’s zoom out a little bit and talk about the fiction scene and podcasts. Just in the last few years, it’s really come into its own. You’ve had GE’s The Message. Tor just did a very ambitious project called Steal the Stars. Some of these things are getting optioned for film and television. Gimlet just had a fiction podcast optioned by Amazon. What do you make of this? Are we seeing a maturation point where nonfiction podcasts dominated for so long, but this is a recent phenomenon? Or am I just behind the times and there’s been this thriving fiction scene the entire time?

I think the simplest answer I can give is ‘yes.’ It’s a really complicated time to be in the field, especially for a company that’s been around so long, because there’s an embarrassment of riches at the moment. Folks like Aaron Mahnke, and the Amazon version of Lore is, if anything, even better than the podcast. That’s been really cool to see. Homecoming is the Gimlet show that’s either just finished filming or is about to start. That was an incredibly well put together story. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that translates.

That’s fantastic. The issue we’re wrestling with at the moment is that the popular conception of podcasting and audio drama is that it has 100 percent crossover, and that’s not the case. Genre fiction, the stuff that we do, isn’t strictly audio drama. Stuff like Homecoming is. It’s as inspiring as it sometimes is frustrating to see work that’s just to the right of what we do get picked up and carried all the way to the end of the line in a tenth of the time that we’ve been doing it.

It’s a very much ongoing conversation we’re having within the company. We love these folks, and in a lot of cases, these are people we work with — three of the cast in Steal the Stars are good friends of mine. And that show was amazing. It’s always kind of challenging to keep the company focused and moving and keep looking at this kind of stuff as inspiring, as it is, instead of being a downer, which it can be if it catches you at a low confidence day. This is a fantastic time to be within the industry, but it’s also a demanding one.

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You mentioned that a lot of these are genre fiction. I haven’t noticed a lot of literary fiction. Is it true that genre fiction seems to do better in podcast form? Why is that?

That’s kind of a weird question. In England where I am, for close to five decades, the weirdest national radio station on the planet, Radio 4, has been turning out weekly audio drama, and almost all of it has been parked in the literary fiction field. I have a master’s degree in literature, I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but if you’re looking for middle aged college professor sad stories in audio form, that stuff is definitely out there. But genre fiction has an advantage, and it’s that it’s more fundamentally escapist. Certainly over the last few years escapism is something popular culture has really raised quite fiercely.

Going back to how we’re tailored to fit within a commute, you’ll find that all of these shows are. Average length of a genre fiction podcast is 35 to 40 minutes. It’s designed to take you somewhere better while you’re doing something boring. I think that’s an advantage that literary fiction, as fantastic as it undoubtedly is, will struggle to match.

You mention that you were frustrated by how some of these other fiction podcasts have rocketed ahead of you. The one theme seems to be that they’re serialized. What’s the difference in consumption for serialized fiction versus what you guys do, which is more shortform fiction. Is there a difference in terms of the listening and marketing?

Undoubtedly. Like I said, I listen to all these shows and they do fantastic work. I think you hit the nail on the head. The reason why they’re so popular is that serialized stories have an awful lot of narrative drive. And just looking under the hood, that streamlines the process tremendously. Some of our invisible heroes and heroines within the company are those who deal with contracts and accounting. We are paying up to 12 different people a month for four episodes. Different narrators, different narrators, etc…

Back when I worked in comics, there was a maxim of always make sure you’re someone’s first. Because that way the series is as accessible as possible. I think that’s one of Escape Artist’s biggest strengths: every episode can be a first and you won’t miss anything. We have over 2,000 episodes now, and that’s lots of ways in. But the disadvantage is that we miss out on the rolling narrative and the fan engagement that comes with it.

One thing I’ve been following has been the rise of audiobooks. It’s the fastest-growing sector within the book market. Obviously you can’t turn on a podcast without hearing an ad for audible.com. Can you talk a little bit about that? Steal the Stars and a couple other podcasts have taken their shows and repackaged them as audiobooks. And Audible has launched its own podcast network. From a business perspective, have you experimented with turning your episodes into audiobook anthologies? What’s going on there?

This is kind of under the hood stuff, but we are having ongoing conversations with Bandcamp. One of the really cool things about our back catalog is that you can come in anywhere. We’ve got really exciting plans about curated anthologies. You can come in across all of our shows and go here are all 30 werewolf stories we’ve done, here’s an anthology of them. Here’s all the stuff we’ve been published by this person, that’s an anthology.

And there are lots of places we can go outside of that. So we’re looking to curate collections, we’re looking to collaborate with people as well. It’s just the choice we always have with this stuff is it can be done quickly or it can be done right. We’re choosing to do it right. So it’s taking a little while, but it’s a field we’re definitely engaging in.

So would actually selling access to content be a viable option?

It’s one of the interesting things. This will always be the case, you can always access the content for free. You’ll have to dig through pages and pages of back catalogs for podcatchers, but it’s there. At the moment, what we’re looking at is not so much asking people to pay for the content, but asking people to pay for the curation and the added value that comes with it, because the different perspectives we can offer by bringing in guest authors or guest hosts, or having collections of stories assembled in a different way, there’s lots of potential there, and it’s something I’m actually excited about.

I want to turn to talking about monetization in general. Seems like you’re paying everyone a decent amount of money in terms of hiring narrators and buying fiction. What are the monetization options for a fiction podcast? With nonfiction, we’re all aware of the direct to consumer ads, the Caspers and Blue Aprons of the world. What are the ways you’re approaching monetization?

I can tell you one of the ways we’re not, for a start. We work very hard to make sure any ads we take are of interest to our audience. We work on the assumption that everyone probably has enough socks and mattresses and quite likes going to the post office. We made a conscious of not chasing that kind of particular money, but going to genre and field specific stuff.

We have conversations ongoing with some people that will hopefully bear some fruit in that regard. In terms of monetization, this really ties back into Bandcamp. The biggest asset we have is that back catalog and things we can do with it. And this is a big part of my day job this year, how can we get Bandcamp up and going. This is going to sound so hokey, but it genuinely is a community. Genre podcasting is about five people wide, and if you don’t know someone, you’ll know someone who knows them. We’ve reached out a few times to help people, and we’ve been helped in return. I’m starting to get an understanding of the topography and how these things work, that there are a handful of services that most shows use and have had success with.

I’ve had conversations with a few people in the last week at YouTube. The idea of putting an audio podcast on YouTube and potentially opening to monetization that way is something we’ve been trying to make work for a while now. And we’ve gotten a lead on something which would, if it works, enable us to post an episode, and then it would automatically post to YouTube without having to go back into it. I mentioned this to another podcaster over the weekend and they got huge excited eyes and went please tell me if that works and please send me a link.

Bandcamp is the priority at the moment. We’re also encouraging our listeners to politely but constantly ask Spotify to let us in there. The bouncers on the Spotify door are very discerning about what podcasts they let in, and we don’t have the right tie-on yet, but we’re working on that.

So really monetization for me goes hand in hand with visibility. We’re working very hard in raising the visibility of the shows, which in turn ties into the frustration with what I described earlier, where it sometimes feels like the town that’s built up around us and has kind of forgotten that we’re there. My thinking is that the more visible we become, the more likely that more visitors come to us, which in turn will mean the more likely that they’ll donate. We’re entirely donation funded at present. And then we can run out monetization on top of that.

Are you using a platform like Patreon? Or is it more Paypal, give what you can?

We’ve been on Paypal for the start. We rolled out on Patreon about a year ago. That’s gone very very well for us. And the thing that we’ve found massively heartening is those two audiences are not 100 percent identical. We’re getting pretty solid growth through the Patreon of people who have never donated to us before. Which is great, because we’re minimizing donor drop-off. The folks who have donated for years are sticking around. But at the same time, we’re getting new people in through a new market. Which is also why we’re looking at Drip as that starts to roll out formally. And why we’re also looking at the various other markets we discussed.

Are you guys able to cover your costs with donations?

Yep. We pay pro rates across the board. We pay narrators. We pay editorial staff. That all comes through donations.

You mentioned Bandcamp, what is that?

Bandcamp is really cool. It’s basically a self-assembly record label. Thousands of indie artists use it. You put an album up there, and they have fulfillment companies that will build merchandise for you as well. And you can set the price you want to sell it form. People will come in and buy the mp3s and away you go. It’s a perfect framework for us because there’s very little to no upfront cost, and it gives us the ability to do the thing we have to be willing to do, which is to reassemble that back catalog in countless, equally meaningful ways, as well as find ways to plug merchandising into that. So we’re really excited to see where that goes.

And they’re really cool folks too. We’ve had some conversations with the people at Bandcamp, and they’re really enthusiastic about having us aboard.

The last question I have is about the IP play. We talked a little bit about how Gimlet and some of the other networks have been able to sell rights to Hollywood. I profiled a company called Serial Box a few months back. They’ve been getting their serials republished with major book publishers and they have major talks with Hollywood. What’s the opportunity there? Is that an option for more independent networks like you guys?

Yes and no. It’s much more complicated for us, because we’re dealing with a different author each week. But we’ve had it happen few times. There have been three or four PseudoPod episodes in the last few years which I know have been optioned. A fellow podcaster who’s also a screenwriter, his day job for the last few months has been writing the screenplay a studio had optioned the rights to having heard it on our show.

But it sounds like you’re not getting a piece of that. You’re not structuring your contracts to where you guys can play a role in that IP sale.

The opportunity is there, but it hasn’t come up yet, and it hasn’t come up for a really curious reason. We actually publish two different kinds of stories. We publish reprints, which is what we originally started off doing. Inevitably in those situations the copyright are held elsewhere. And all the stories that have been optioned for adaptation have, unfortunately, been reprints. And so far, no originals have been optioned. But my hope is that eventually all this will tie together, and as we get more visibility and give more people avenues into the back catalog, folks will find these originals, realize what they can do with them, and pick them up. It’s curious. My role running the company is very much making sure all these very disparate concepts are all moving in the same direction, and hopefully all coming to a specific point.

It can often feel like what I do is quite vague, but it’s all conceptually very specific. And actually talking to you has helped articulate that quite a lot. We’re trying to drive to this point where everything raises our visibility and raises our income, and everyone comes away happier.

Can you give me a sense of how large the audience is for what you guys do?

Yeah, tens of thousands. We have hundreds of thousands of downloads every year, and tens of thousands every month.

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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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