What makes a great books podcast? The Honest Authors share their advice

What makes a great books podcast? The Honest Authors share their advice

There are dozens of book podcasts out there - but those aimed at aspiring authors are less common, and almost entirely skewed towards the self-publishing market. One notable exception is the Honest Authors podcast, created last year by authors Holly Seddon (Try Not To Breathe, Don't Close Your Eyes, Love Will Tear Us Apart) and Gillian McAllister (Everything But The Truth, Anything You Do Say, No Further Questions). Aiming to highlight everything you’ve ever wanted to know about being a author but were too afraid to ask, Honest Authors claims to be "the only podcast recorded by bestselling, traditionally-published commercial authors being transparent about this brilliant, terrifying life."

A year and a half in, with 26 episodes under their belt, we asked the pair about fighting for attention, finding your niche and keeping your audio content fresh.

Gillian McAllister and Holly Seddon

What was the gap in the market for yet another books podcast?

The podcast was born out of a gap in our own knowledge! We were both debuts and there was a huge amount we simply didn’t know. We would chat for hours on WhatsApp about publication schedules and blurbs, blog tours and retailers and it struck us that there must be heaps of new and wannabe authors in a similar boat.

When we uploaded our first tentative episode and shared it, the response was instant. And interestingly, it’s not just listened to by debut authors. We’re both publishing our third novels at the moment and can attest that our own questions about this process just keep coming! It’s an extremely interesting life to lead: professional creatives, published, in the public eye. There’s so much to say.

How has the podcast evolved since it began (in terms of tech, topics and process)?

For the first series, we edited each episode ourselves. Painstakingly cropping out every “um” and swear word. We stopped cutting out the swearing after a few episodes, figuring everyone listening could handle the odd f-word. But even leaving in the effing and Jeffing it took a long time and the quality wasn’t as high as we felt the numbers of listeners we’d reached deserved. We now have a freelance podcast editor who does a much better job. We’ve also added a jingle...

The second series is more structured. We still go off on wild tangents and get the giggles, but we have a better grasp on how to make an episode compelling, interesting and entertaining. We give updates about our own writing and publishing experiences and discuss topics about the publishing industry. We also answer questions from listeners - which can be sent in anonymously. Then we often have an interview most episodes. Guests have included Sarah Pinborough, Fiona Cummins and Will Dean. We try to mix it up between new and established authors.

We know listeners love to hear about authors’ journeys to publication to this is always a key part of the interview. We’d have loved to hear these when we were crossing our fingers on submission a few years ago. Everyone’s is always different.

What do you think are the greatest challenges authors face in a rapidly changing world?

Competing for eyeballs during this boom of truly excellent TV content. TV (especially content on streaming services without the constraints of ad breaks and weekly schedules) is getting better and better at telling stories in unique ways. Ten years ago, everybody in the park was reading a novel on a sunny day. These days, they’re on their phones.

Publishing requires such high concept hooks these days - especially in the packed thriller genre - and coming up with fresh concepts, new takes, while keeping the writing strong on a book-a-year schedule requires toughness. Ultimately, it’s a job, and it requires work, work, work.

Growing a readership when you’ve already used the helpful ‘debut’ tag is tough, too.

How do you see podcasts developing over the next couple of years?

Holly: I think we’ll see a boom in original drama podcasts from fresh voices looking for new ways to reach an audience. Personally, this is something I’m looking to do when I have a little more time.

Also, as mainstream news becomes more centralised and homogeneous, podcasts will increasingly offer a route to expert and in-depth analysis for those thirsty for more knowledge. Not just on current affairs but entertainment too. For an example, I look to the excellent Dissect podcast, musical theory which focuses on a different album each series. It’s fascinating, entertaining and robustly researched - and it has grown a huge following.

Gilly: I do agree. I think the world we live in currently is very peer-to-peer where it used to be bureaucratic. Now we have Uber, Air BnB and Twitter for news. I only see that trend to continue: teenagers now watch YouTube for their television and listen to podcasts for their radio. It’ll be harder, of course, to stand out in a world where everyone’s a broadcaster.

Are you considering the impact of smart speakers and voice search?

At this stage, we’re still feeling our way and focusing on getting the most interesting guests and nailing the structure, length and content of our episodes. We have one eye on voice search and smart speakers - currently you can’t simply ask Siri or Alexa to play the Honest Authors Podcast, for example - but it’s a little way down the priorities list.

Advice to an author or publisher wanting to start their own podcast?

  • Get a good pair of headphones and record wearing them! The sound quality has improved a lot since we got a podcast editor and his first piece of advice was to wear headphones.
  • Set a realistic schedule and stick to it.
  • Record with someone you genuinely like. You have to have good chemistry and trust, or you and your listeners will find it a drag.
  • If you can afford an editor, do get one. The editing process was where we always stalled because we have to prioritise writing. Now we have an editor we simply record and send.

What other book podcasts would you recommend?

The Bestseller Experiment; The Riff Raff; What Page Are You On?; Two Crime Writer and a Microphone; The Worried Writer and Manic Rambling Spiral.