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Jeff Umbro: A Deep Dive into the Convergence of Audiobooks and Podcasts

This guest column is by Jeff Umbro, CEO of The Podglomerate, and was first published in his weekly newsletter for LinkedIn called Podcast Perspective. The Podglomerate produces, distributes, and monetizes podcasts. You can learn more and connect at www.thepodglomerate.com.


This column will focus entirely on the book podcast ecosystem, which is something I’ve been interested in since day one. Honestly, book podcasts weirdly factor into a lot of industry-first stories and trends, so it’s always been fascinating and we’re going to kind of throw out the typical format of the newsletter. Rather, I’m going to list a bunch of organizations that are working within the book or audiobook space and explain them to the best of my ability. If I’m being honest, I’m not really sure how well I’ll do since the information is spread far and wide and pretty hard to find. I’m sure I’ll come back to this topic many times moving forward.

Because of this, I also brought in Molly Barton, the CEO of an exciting audiobook-adjacent company called Serial Box, to explain her experience in this world, which is impressive.

But first…

Podcasting News & Views

The New York Times bought Serial Productions

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I’m not going to extrapolate too much on this, as you can read the story from the NYTHotPod, or the press release. In short, the NYT has just agreed to purchase Serial Productions, the company behind “Serial” and “S-Town”. News of the deal was reported back in January and again in March, but officially transpired yesterday. In addition, the NYT will enter into a strategic partnership with “This American Life,” which means that the Times will help to market the show and sell ads on the show’s behalf. The deal is reported at $25 million, but no official numbers have been offered at this time. It sounds like this will allow Serial Productions more resources to pursue the top notch reported shows they typically focus on while still maintaining their editorial independence. In the short term both parties expect nothing to change, but over time there may be more opportunities for deeper collaborations. I encourage you all to read Nick Quah’s breakdown in HotPod for more.

Back to the books

Prior to launching the Podglomerate, I spent my days working on publicity campaigns for authors and publishers across the book industry. For a number of reasons, I ultimately created an interview podcast with authors. We would speak to them about their careers, and then ask them to tell us about one story they’ve always struggled to tell. This was my first independent project in the podcast space (and I loved it), and though it was still a fairly new format for most of the authors and publishers we worked with, there was a certain amount of enthusiasm that came with each pitch. Even back then, it was known that certain podcast interviews could really move the needle for book sales, and there was a kind of mystique that existed in the space.

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Now compare that to the audiobook industry, which during the same period of time was a mostly ignored segment of publishing. Before iPhones, most audiobooks were published as box sets of CDs. They were clunky, expensive, and most bookstores wouldn’t carry more than a handful of bestsellers for fear of being stuck with the inventory. On top of that, these were expensive to produce and distribute, so publishers weren’t able to put a lot of resources into audiobooks unless they knew they would sell. Digital solutions changed this by allowing platforms like Audible to simplify the sale and distribution of audiobooks, which in turn made the audio rights of books more valuable. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s more or less the same thing that happened with ebook rights during the proliferation of convenient tech.

When you combine the two trends – a new industry that’s thriving based on a mostly ad-supported model and an old industry that has suddenly discovered a new and lucrative revenue stream – you get a pretty interesting landscape. Below I’ve broken down some of the audiobook and audio book adjacent content I find most interesting. Just keep in mind that this is hardly exhaustive, and can probably be categorized in a lot of different ways.

The Audiobook Publishers

Audible was founded in 1997 as an audiobook delivery mechanism – their first device, the internet ready audio player, is now in the Smithsonian – and was acquired by Amazon in 2008. There’s a great history of this from Rocketship.fm’s previous season on product failures, but our conversation actually begins later in 2016, when Audible launched their ‘Channels’ section of the Audible app. At the time, this was their big push to move beyond audiobooks and into news, podcasts, and more. The Channels section included audio versions of news stories from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal (well before Audm, which was part of the 2017 Y Combinator cohort, by the way), as well as audio from theater productions, comedy albums, and you guessed it – podcasts. All of this was available for $14.95 per month, and included a credit for an audiobook with each monthly payment, or $4.95 a month to access Channels without the audiobook component (well before Luminary, by the way, but after several other pay models like Earwolf’s Howl or Gimlet’s membership tier), and was eventually bundled into an Amazon Prime membership with no additional fees.

One of the selling points of Audible Channels, in addition to the aforementioned audio content, was a lot of original podcasts from top-tier talent like Ron Johnson and Esther Perel. Several of these shows were exclusive to Audible’s Channels, and several more were offered on other platforms like Apple Podcasts in addition to Channels. BUT, and there’s always a but, after 2 years of pushing this content strategy Audible decided to shift its focus more towards a new theater initiative, and towards more book-focused content. I should note that there was also a shakeup on the executive team, allegedly due to some harassment claims. For the last few years, Audible has continued releasing what amounts to a number of hybrid audiobook / podcast productions, leading up to the last few months when the company had seemed to find more of a mission statement when it came to podcasts.

The company hired Brad Schwartz in June to run their content operations, and he was presumably leading the charge in releasing their Nail Gaiman Sandman audiobook operation as well as a new slate of all star original programming, though I’m sure most of this work was done before his arrival. Last month, Schwartz and Audible parted ways amidst a former harassment claim against the man from his former employer. Deceive me once, its their fault, but twice…

On a side note, last year Audible announced its intention of publishing captions of audiobooks on its platform and was sued by a coalition of 7 publishers. Audible settled with the publishers in January of this year in a case that looks remarkably similar to an Apple Books antitrust case about price fixing in 2013.

The audiobook infrastructure is much larger than just Audible. There are other distribution services such as Libro.fm (focused on local bookstores), Blackstone Library (focused on libraries), Findaway (retailers and libraries), and of course Google Audiobooks and Apple Books, as well as audiobook publishers like Recorded BooksPodium Audio, and most of the bigger publishers themselves.

Molly Barton will mention this later in her interview, but “according to the APA [American Publishing Association], 2019 marked the eighth year of double-digit [audiobook] industry revenue growth, and US audiobook revenue hit $1.2b. One in five US adults listened to an audiobook in 2019. And for the third year in a row, more than 50% of audiobook listeners say they are making “new” time to listen to audiobooks and consuming more books.”

So, in short, it’s not just the podcast industry that’s having a moment.

The Book Publishers

After decades of consolidation, the American book publishing industry is mainly made up of 5 major publishing houses, which include Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. All five organizations are made up of dozens of smaller publishers known as imprints, and all five organizations will typically produce audiobooks from their authors, which as we’ve previously discussed has become more and more lucrative.

In recent years, seeing the growth in the podcast space, a handful of publishers have been trying their hands at using the industry to drive growth and sales. Some notable examples include Macmillan audio partnering with Mignon Fogarty’s Quick and Dirty Tips Network (QDT). After a successful partnership to help launch a QDT book with the publisher, the team decided to expand their offerings into a full fledged podcast network that now boasts 10+ shows. Macmillan audio has also recently also created a new network called the Macmillan Podcast Network, meant to be a marketing tool for their authors and books, and Tor Labs, a more genre specific version of the same thing.

Another notable example would be Penguin Random House, who for the moment seems to be focusing on specific marketing initiatives as opposed to building out a whole network of shows. See, for example, Julie: The Unwinding of the Miracle, which was a collaboration between Penguin Random House and Pineapple Street Media to promote a memoir called The Unwinding of the Miracle, also published by Random House. The publisher has also been experimenting with some more timely examples, such as Books Connect Us, a quarantine reading companion, and The Adaptables, which discusses book to screen adaptations.

There are countless examples of publishers, authors, marketers, and agents launching book and publishing-adjacent podcasts, and I imagine it’s something we’ll continue to see.

The Podcast Players

When it comes to podcasts specifically about books, well, there are a lot. Apple Podcasts has an entire category devoted to the subject, and theres a lot of nuance. You have author interview shows, literary criticism, shows about the publishing industry, book marketing techniques, listicles in audio form, samples from audiobooks, narrative journalism set up to become a book later on, or taken from a book in the first place. For example, the top 3 podcasts in the Apple Podcasts book category as of this writing include Terry Gross’s Fresh Air, a storytelling show called Myths and Legends, and the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, where authors read their stories on mic.

In terms of non-publisher institutions that are trying to corner the market in this realm, we have two big players, which I define as a podcast network specifically related to books.

Lit Hub Radio is a new initiative from the literary nonprofit website Literary Hub. It’s essentially a collection of existing book podcasts (including several from the Podglomerate). Having everything centralized allows for a one stop shop for publishers or book-centric advertisers to purchase ad space on a collection of like minded shows as opposed to one-off, and allows for the shows to benefit from pooled resources in production and distribution.

Book Riot is a second book-specific media outlet that operates a podcast network, and is very similar to Lit Hub Radio. The main difference being that each show is focused around a specific genre in publishing (For Real – Nonfiction, Hey YA – YA, Read or Dead – Mystery, SFF Yeah – Scifi and fantasy etc) and are hosted by contributors to the site. The idea of shared marketing, resources, and ad sales remains the same, but the subject matter and centralized talent behind the shows allows for Book Riot to push listeners back to their editorial content.

The in-between

As if the audiobook and podcast world weren’t tangled enough, there’s a whole other realm of audio on demand that doesn’t easily fit into either category. I won’t spend too much time digging into these companies, as this newsletter is already way too long and I want you all to read about Serial Box, but I do think a couple of these entities are worth mentioning.

Enter Audm, the company the New York Times purchased in March of this year. The idea here is fairly simple (and we covered it in March), but Audm turns written content from a number of publishing partners into audio productions that folks can listen to on web-based properties or through a subscription based app. The NYT presumably purchased the company in order to make its own content more accessible, and to help promote their other audio services (see the whole Serial thing above).

Enter also Apple News+, which we covered in May and July. In short, it’s probably too soon to see where this is going, but in theory we’re looking at a landscape where Apple News provides audio versions of popular stories on their platform, and also recycles that content into podcast and other offerings to help build the Apple-centric community of devices and platforms.

I should also mention the interesting collaborations being done between Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries and the audiobook space, which you can read about here.

Finally, enter Serial Box, a company that I’ve worked closely with in various capacities over the last few years. Rather than spoil the fun, I’ll leave the interview with CEO Molly Barton in full below (after a short podcast spotlight).

Podcast Spotlight

I was going to skip this, but I feel like I need to share some of my favorite shows here after spending so much time explaining the landscape. For the sake of fairness, I won’t mention Storybound again, but you should listen.

  • The History of Literature is one of my all time favorite book podcasts (and admittedly has recently joined the Podglomerate). Host Jacke Wilson covers the history of the literary world by focusing on the authors and books that have changed the world, often by speaking with academics, authors, or enthusiasts about the books that have impacted them. I love this show because it sheds light on authors I love, and many more I’ve never heard of.
  • Annotated was a limited run series from Book Riot last year, and digs into issues facing the publishing world like the Nobel Prize crisis of 2018 (they didn’t award one) or the famous argument behind the Oxford comma, and does so through an extremely interesting narrative show. I highly recommend.
  • Bookable (also a Podglomerate client) is a show where writer Amanda Stern interviews authors (famous and otherwise) about their new books, but does so in a way I haven’t really heard before. The sound design enhances the experience, and I’ve walked away with more than a few new book purchases after listening.
  • The Paris Review Podcast collects audio recordings from the magazine’s archives of very famous writers reading their works.

This Week: An Interview with Molly Barton, Founder and CEO of Serial Box

Serial Box is an app that publishes serialized fiction in ebook and audiobook bundles, written by teams of writers (kind of like a TV writers room). Each week, users receive a notification for a new episode or season of a series they’ve been following. The company has been around for a few years, and has partnerships with Marvel, Orphan Black, the BBC, and more.

Even better, Serial Box’s CEO Molly Barton is a veteran of the publishing industry, helping to pave the way for new initiatives in ebook and audiobooks, and generally is one of the smartest people I’ve talked to about the matter. Below is a lightly editor for clarity interview I conducted over email this past week.

Jeff Umbro: Tell me about your background in publishing and how Serial Box came to be. 

Molly Barton: I started out as an editor of fiction but shifted quickly into a role more focused on digital and audio and expanding the scope of the business.

As I spent more and more time with ebooks, trying to make them unique and compelling, I became convinced that book publishers were missing the elegant point of digital and audio delivery. I felt strongly that the rise of TV and the nascent podcast listenership were signs that session-based entertainment worked extremely well for contemporary life – it felt easy to commit to a half hour podcast or a 40 min TV episode. But books were starting to feel more daunting and infinishable. On top of that, I kept showing up at dinners with literary agents who spent the entire evening talking about TV. The synchronized unfolding of the story held people in its grip—it fed a need for sharing the experience with others, finding common ground, discussing the nuances of the story and where it might go. Are you up to episode 3? Can you believe that character died so early in the story? Solitary consumption of a book at your own pace simply doesn’t create these easy entry points to the conversation.

This led me to experiment with serial delivery of novels while I was still in my corporate role at Penguin Random House. We worked with a few writers who wrote novels to be distributed in ebook form two chapters at a time, week by week, and then we bound up the whole thing into a conventional book and ebook. In the experiment we ran, we were able to 4-5x the sales of authors just by presenting readers with a more approachable length and price point. During this period of time I was living with a friend who has a hearing impairment. We watched The Wire together with closed captioning on the whole time so she wouldn’t miss bits of dialogue. I was hooked – reading the captions while hearing the actors was so much richer for me as a highly visual, word-driven person.

This personal experience and the results of my serial experiment prompted me to co-found Serial Box to create and deliver serial stories (often written by teams of writers like TV) that you can read and listen to in one platform.

JU: Did you have a lot of experience in audiobooks prior to Serial Box?

MB: I worked closely with the audiobook publisher/producer in a number of ways. I advocated for the format with colleagues —it was very much viewed as an ancillary right and the imprints usually ‘forgot’ to promote it when they were promoting a given title. We optimized audio production budgets and reforecast sales estimates in order to justify producing more titles and a broader range of titles so it was just ‘airport bestsellers’ — in 2007 only about 20% of a given imprint’s list was produced for audio in-house. Relatively early in my time at Penguin, we moved to a position on audio rights where we would not acquire a book if the agent would not grant us audiobook rights. Same with ebook. I negotiated for these rights with hundreds of agents. A couple of years before I left, we finally built lovely audio studios.

JU: Can you give us some ‘at a glance’ numbers on the audiobook industry these days? Has it grown in recent years?

MB: There’s so much heat and interest in the podcast space that the tremendous growth of audiobooks is lesser known. According to the APA, 2019 marked the eighth year of double-digit industry revenue growth, and US audiobook revenue hit $1.2b. One in five US adults listened to an audiobook in 2019. And for the third year in a row, more than 50% of audiobook listeners say they are making “new” time to listen to audiobooks and consuming more books.

JU: Do you feel that growth can be explained by the larger adoption of audio through podcasts, cell phone and smart speaker proliferation?

MB: Every element of audio is growing — headphones, smart speakers, recorded music, even vinyl. Smartphone usage and integration with in-car audio systems is probably the biggest driver of audio growth, alongside wireless headphones and smart speakers.

JU: How do you feel Serial Box fits into this ecosystem?

MB: Serial Box developed a unique format inspired by audiobooks but much closer to ‘fiction podcasts’ in terms of sound design and story structure. Our Originals and Exclusives typically have a serial (i.e. scripted TV) story structure and feature a much richer sound experience than is present in a typical audiobook — our series have original music, a soundscape and sound effects throughout, and narration that is more natural or colloquial than audiobooks. Listeners and readers pay for access to a given title, rather than an ad-supported model which has proved challenging for scripted podcasts. Our team has also worked on radio dramas and fiction podcasts, though the bulk of our original work are audio series as described above.

Less than 5% of podcasts are fiction whereas audiobook sales have typically been 70% fiction. Many people working in podcasting come out of radio, whereas our team has been working closely with fiction writers, narrative game writers, and film/tv writers for decades.

JU: Are there other audiobook or audiobook adjacent companies doing interesting work in the space?

MB: GraphicAudio which was acquired recently by Recorded Books has produced audiobooks that are closer to Serial Box’s immersive audio experience than your typical audiobook. I loved Passenger List by John Dryden last year, and recently enjoyed The Left Right Game by Q Code. I was also keenly interested in Pushkin’s production of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent audiobook — both the production and the promotion of it is exceptional and sales definitely reflect that!

JU: What do you think of the NYT acquisition of Audm and Apple News Plus entering the spoken word space?

MB: The New York Times has made some really interesting acquisitions in recent years – Wirecutter was brilliant and Audm makes a lot of sense. I remember talking with the Audm founder right when the company was getting going and they were tackling high quality narration of premium magazine content and journalism at a time when most magazines did not have that capacity in house. Demand for high quality audio production capacity is so extreme right now, you see acquisitions like this one that reflect that.

I’m excited that Apple News Plus is entering spoken word – I’ve been talking with folks there about this for a couple of years now and they’ve been wanting to introduce it for some time. Also excited about the audio Tweets – all of this content should be as accessible and flexible as possible so people with different learning styles, varying abilities, and simply different preferences for device, context, etc can “read” as they so choose.

You can find Molly on Twitter and LinkedIn, and I encourage you to check out a Serial or two at Serial Box.

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Jeff Umbro

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