After trundling from Zoom call to Google Hangout, spending time hunchback-of-Notre-Dame-esque over laptops and computers, in between trying to work, teach, parent, study and live at home, it is no surprise that many people who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home during this pandemic do not want to spend the rest of their day looking at screens.
Many of these people are turning and returning to podcasts, and this is evidenced by the record listenership numbers and the exponential growth Acast—more than 215 million global monthly listens across all podcast platforms—and the podcasting industry as a whole has seen over the past few weeks. Peaks in growth are also being seen on weekends, which was unheard of before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Apple Podcasts, one of the platforms Acast distributes to and works with, recently hosted its millionth podcast. What is surprising, however, is how and when people are listening. Many more people are listening to podcasts throughout the day and more people are listening via laptops and home devices. Listens through Alexa devices increased 26% in March, compared to February, and Chromecast devices listens are up 35%. And what they are listening to is fascinating.
Audio can no longer be seen as an afterthought.
The publishing industry is seeing growth in the audiobook business, and although publishers are unable to track listener behaviour and re-target listeners in the same way that we are able to in podcasting, what this growth does show is that audio can no longer be seen as an afterthought, or an ancillary part of a publishing programme or book marketing and PR campaign.
Few things that were true at the start of 2020 are true now. Amid the calamity and uncertainty, there remains a huge amount of synergy between the podcasting industry and the publishing industry, and we can learn from one another, particularly in terms of how we can adapt our content, and audience growth strategies. After all, authors often make the best podcasters.
I work at Acast, the world’s largest podcast company, where I help to develop, launch and promote podcasts, and grow audiences, from content behemoths like the BBC to independent shows like “Dear Joan and Jerica”, series like “Reality Check with Amber, Anna and Yewande”; as well as ongoing podcasts such as “Feel Better, Live More”, hosted by Dr Rangan Chatterjee. As a former senior marketing manager in publishing, and now as a content development manager and an independent podcast producer, I believe that podcasts don’t just enable us to escape the world we find ourselves in, they help us to find a way to live in and, I would argue, through it. This is one of the many parallels I think there are between the podcasting and publishing industries. Content in book, podcast, audiobook and e-book format is needed more than ever.
The podcasters I work with have responded in extraordinary ways, creating more podcasts—informed by listener behaviour and the times we find ourselves in—that provide real value to listeners. Last week I helped launch a pioneering podcast, “Talking Politics: History of Ideas” by Cambridge academic David Runciman. The aim of the podcast was to help provide a free world-class education to all, and it was inspired by a set of books out of print. The podcast reached 250,000 listens in just one week and was catapulted to the top of the podcast chart. To help with further marketing and engagement with the audience, the “Talking Politics” team created a reading list, including links to Waterstones through which listeners could buy additional material. I also worked with Stylist to launch its first podcast, a fantastic magazine-style show called “Working From Home with Stylist”, as it pivots to a digital subscription-based model.
Slay In Your Lane, the post-Lean-In publishing phenomenon, released its eagerly awaited pop-culture, topical news and personal development podcast with Acast a couple of weeks ago, and it has already garnered one of the fastest-growing and most inclusive audiences I have ever seen. Last week I worked with gal-dem, one of the UK’s most creative and culturally relevant publishers, to launch its first podcast, “Growing up with gal-dem”, an inspiring and intimate series of about identity, informed by the book it published last year with Walker. I tweeted about the gal-dem podcast on the launch day and received 30,000 impressions from that Tweet. Like the Slay In Your Lane podcast, audiences are undoubtedly desperate for podcasts like gal-dem’s; it has seen extraordinary growth over the past six days.
It’s worth noting that both podcasts were created by authors as a way to extend their platforms, not by their books’ publishers. I think it would be interesting to see publishers taking inspiration from these examples to see how it’s possible to create and develop a podcast that doesn’t just rely on having authors interviewed. Publishers who don’t have a podcast could probably consider launching one that focuses on interviews with authors, as their first foray into podcasting. However podcast strategies need to be broadened out from just focusing on authors being interviewed if they are to resonate with audiences in impactful ways.
“Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” is another fantastic example of a lateral approach that the publishing industry could learn from. It is one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world for readers; the hosts read one chapter of Harry Potter weekly, through the lens of a theme and an epistemological practice, bring mindfulness and meaning-making to the Millennial and Gen Z audience. This podcast has since launched a new series tapping into YA and women’s fiction audiences, building on its penchant and expertise speaking to book lovers.
One of the podcasts I work on outside of Acast, “Caught Off Guard”, is an incredible number-one business and personal development podcast hosted by author, YouTuber and entrepreneur Patricia Bright. This podcast has also seen record listenership off-season, as more and more people turn to this sort of content at a time where many people need inspiration, motivation and resilience. Publishers who publish perennial bestsellers in the business, personal development and self-help space could be benefiting from the interest in the rise in this kind of content by finding ways to repurpose their content so that it’s relevant for podcast audiences.
Podcasts can and should be used as marketing and PR opportunities for authors, books, e-books, and audiobooks. With more and more people listening to podcasts, marketing direct to podcast listeners through sponsorship, advertising and branded content is an effective way to drive engagement and, crucially, sales. Some podcasts can also be seen as editorial inspiration for commissioning editors and a discovery tool for finding new authors.
There is also a real opportunity for publishers, booksellers, social media book “influencers”, agents and authors to think about their audio identities—what their content and brands sound like to podcast audiences and in the podcast landscape—and understand how audio-first audiences can be built. Could podcasts be used to test the appetite for a book idea in the same way the TV and film industries have used podcasts? I certainly think some ideas could be piloted before they are acquired, or indeed used as a way to build an audience before a book is published. HarperCollins’ release of Acast podcaster Adam Buxton’s audiobook (already number one in Biographies, and third overall in the Audible chart) ahead of the publication of his physical book is a great example of experimentation in an age of crisis.
Authors such as Emma Gannon and Elizabeth Day have developed formats that have nailed how to create a podcast and audience ahead of a book publication. One of the most fascinating examples of a newer podcast doing so in a new way has come from American V C Arlan Hamilton, author of It’s About Damn Time (Penguin, May). She used her extraordinary podcast “Your First Million” to document the publishing process almost in audio diary form, engaging with her audience, other authors and other podcasts—like “Techish”, my favourite UK tech podcast.
Again, publishers were not involved in creating these podcasts, but I hope to see more of them engage with podcasting for their authors intentionally, particularly in the fiction and kids’ space. When done in a considered way, the impact this can have is undeniable. George The Poet, a podcast pioneer and prolific writer, created a critically acclaimed podcast that swept the board at the 2019 British Podcast Awards; its format blurs the lines ingeniously between fiction and non-fiction, music and poetry, and pushes the boundaries around the texture of voice. His blueprint is one we can all learn from, particularly at a time when we need to think creatively about content.
At a time when many publishers don’t have direct links to audiences and aren’t able to analyse in real-time how they are engaging with audiobooks, e-books or physical books, podcasting is a great opportunity for them to solve this problem. Discoverability is key, but so is retainability, which podcasting affords. Listening behaviour can be analysed and podcasting can provide the opportunity to promote books, in whatever format readers want them in. Listeners can also be updated about new books through podcasts feeds at any moment, and direct links with audiences can be forged.
Moreover podcasts, if launched and grown successfully, can provide an additional revenue stream for publishers, authors and booksellers through the advertising, sponsorship, branded content and members/premium content—as many podcasters and non-book publishers who choose to monetise themselves know.
Podcasting gives both brand authors like Brené Brown (whose new podcast has been riding high in the podcast charts) and début authors the opportunity to reach new audiences and ultimately get people reading or listening to their books. I’m currently in the process of judging this year’s British Podcast Awards, and by the end of the year I would love to see submissions from book publishers, authors and everyone in the trade in between: experts in voice and storytelling, and connecting with audiences.
Clarissa Pabi is a content and marketing expert, a content development manager at Acast, and the executive producer and producer of the “Caught Off Guard” podcast. She also sits on the advisory board for the Cheltenham Literature Festival and Creative Access. Follow her on Twitter (@clarissapabi) for Tweets about podcasts, books, innovation and intersectionality.