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A Publisher Tries Podcasts As A Gateway To Audiobooks

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 24, 2017 9:25 am

Podcasts — everyone seems to have one. And more and more people are listening to them. At the same time, sales for audiobooks are growing faster than any other segment of the publishing industry.That got me wondering: Are podcasts helping to drive listeners to audiobooks? The answer, as it turns out, is more circular than that.

Pretty much everyone agrees that convenience is the biggest draw with audiobooks — you can listen to a book while doing other things. And once audiobooks became available digitally, they really took off as people downloaded them onto smart phones and headed out for a run or a long commute

Macmillan Audio, a division of one of the big five New York-based publishing houses, got into podcasting a decade ago, says president and publisher Mary Beth Roche. "It looked like an interesting new way of reaching consumers, at a time when we were experimenting with a lot of different digital ideas."

Macmillan teamed up with Mignon Fogarty, who'd created her own Grammar Girl podcast and then started a network around it. Together, they built the Quick and Dirty Tips network, or QDT for short, featuring experts on everything from grammar to personal finance.

Roche says the QDT podcasts "were all a very particular type — short format, tip oriented, actionable, helpful advice on a variety of subjects." Now, Macmillan Audio wants to expand into a different format, the long-form narrative. And to do that, it's tapped subsidiary Tor Books, which specializes in fantasy, horror and science fiction, genres Jen Gunnels describes as "good, gooey, wonderful, fannish, delightful, geeky wondrousness."

Gunnels, an editor at Tor, says genre fans are not only avid readers, but also early adapters, willing and open to experiments with new technology — the perfect audience for Tor's new podcasting project, which reverses the traditional route for publishing a book. Gunnels says print is usually the primary format in publishing, "and we thought well, what's to say we couldn't make audio the primary format? And we kind of went from there, building it from the ground up."

Starting in August, Tor will release a 14-part podcast of an original audio drama called Steal the Stars, by Mac Rogers. It's a love story set at a secret military base where an alien and its spacecraft are under guard. Once all 14 episodes of the podcast have aired, Macmillan will release it as an audiobook. It has also commissioned a novelization of the play,which will be released as a paperback and an e-book. Mary Beth Roche says it's an interesting experiment, because podcasts can be a gateway to audiobooks.

"For people who are just getting used to spoken word entertainment, it's an interesting entry point," she says. "It's not too much of a commitment. It's not as scary as, say, oh I'm going to download this 30-hour audiobook." She adds that the popular podcast Serial is a good example of how this works. "A lot people came to that, they heard about it, they were enjoying it, and thought what else can I listen to? "

But there's another way that Serial and other popular podcasts drive listeners to audiobooks: Advertising. Audible, the Amazon-owned behemoth of the audiobook world, frequently advertises on some of the best known podcasts. And Audible isn't only the largest retailer of audiobooks — it also produces original audio content.

The company believes it has made long form listening a habit for millions of people and that, in turn, has helped the podcast boom. Andy Gaies, Audible's chief content officer, says there is a synergy between podcasts and audiobooks that benefits both.

"I love the fact that more people are listening," Gaies says, "And whatever path people take to experience spoken word content for the first time is fantastic."

And there may be one overriding reason why both podcasts and audiobooks are doing so well — people just like listening to stories.

Editor Rose Friedman and web producer Petra Mayer contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Podcasts - everyone seems to have one. And more and more people are listening to them. At the same time, sales for audiobooks are growing faster than any other segment of the publishing industry. And that got NPR's Lynn Neary wondering if podcasts might be helping to drive listeners to audiobooks. She discovered the answer is not that clear-cut.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Macmillan Audio, a division of one of the big five New York-based publishing houses, got into podcasting a decade ago, says president and publisher Mary Beth Roche.

MARY BETH ROCHE: It looked like an interesting new way of reaching consumers at a time when we were experimenting with a lot of different digital ideas.

NEARY: Macmillan teamed up with Mignon Fogarty, who had started her own podcast network beginning with her own podcast, "Grammar Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "GRAMMAR GIRL")

MIGNON FOGARTY: Some of the most dangerous words you can throw around are always and never. They almost beg people to ask, really, never?

NEARY: Roche says Macmillan helped Fogarty build the Quick and Dirty Tips network, QDT for short.

ROCHE: It was an opportunity to build a network of podcasts that were all a very particular type - short format, tip-oriented, actionable, helpful advice on a variety of subjects.

NEARY: But now Macmillan Audio wants to expand into a different format - the long-form narrative. And to do that, it has turned to Tor Books, which specializes in genre fiction.

JEN GUNNELS: Fantasy, horror and science fiction...

NEARY: (Laughter).

GUNNELS: ...All the good, gooey, wonderful, fannish, delightful, geeky wondrousness.

NEARY: Jen Gunnels is an editor at Tor Books, which has just launched a new podcasting project. It reverses the traditional route for publishing a book.

GUNNELS: Most publishing, text, print is the primary edition format. And we thought, well, what's to say we couldn't make audio the primary format? And we kind of went from there, building it from the ground up.

NEARY: Starting in August, Tor will release a 14-part podcast of an original audio drama called "Steal The Stars" by Mac Rogers. It's a love story set at a secret military base where an alien and its spacecraft are under guard. This clip from a demo tape gives a hint of what's to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Have you been contacted about moss, the harp, object E or any ongoing operations at Quill Marine by anyone unaffiliated with Quill Marine?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Please remain still and silent until I tell you otherwise.

NEARY: Once all 14 episodes of the podcast have aired, Macmillan will release an audiobook and also a novelization of the play in paperback and e-book form. Mary Beth Roche says Macmillan Audio is interested in experimenting with podcasts because they're a gateway to audiobooks.

ROCHE: For people who are just getting used to spoken-word entertainment, it's an interesting entry point. It's not too much of a commitment. It's not as scary as, say, oh, I'm going to download this 30-hour audiobook.

NEARY: Roche points to the popular podcast "Serial" as an example.

ROCHE: A lot of people came to that. They heard about it. They were enjoying it and thought, what else can I listen to?

NEARY: But there's another way that "Serial" and other popular podcasts drive listeners to audiobooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for "Serial" comes from Audible.

NEARY: Audible, the Amazon-owned behemoth of the audiobook world, both sells audiobooks and produces original audio content.

ANDY GAIES: I love the fact that more people are listening.

NEARY: Andy Gaies is Audible's chief content officer. Audible believes it has made long-form listening a habit for millions of people and that has helped the podcast boom. Gaies says there is a synergy between podcasts and audiobooks, and it benefits both.

GAIES: The more people with headphones in listening to the spoken word means that the investment that Audible has made in content, in customer service, in technology and the large amount of money we spend raising awareness is succeeding. And whatever path people take to experience spoken-word content for the first time is fantastic.

NEARY: And there may be one overriding reason why both podcasts and audiobooks are doing so well. People just like listening to stories. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.