Brad Hill: Hi, and welcome to the podcast Business Lunch. I’m Brad Hill, and my guest today is Kathy Doyle. She’s the Vice President of content development at Macmillan Publishers. Macmillan is the only top five book publisher with its own podcast network, so this is going to be interesting. Kathy, thanks for joining me with this.
Kathy Doyle: Hello Brad, so good to see you, and thanks for having me.
BH: You’re welcome! You are the Vice President of Content Development at Macmillan Publishers, and you have experience with podcasting, inasmuch as you operated Macmillan’s Podcast Network before elevating to this larger role. Macmillan, if I have my facts straight, is the only one of the “Big 5” book publishers which has its own podcast network.
BH: Book publishing and podcast creation are two very different businesses. The product is different, consumer expectations are different, the way you make the thing is different, the technology is different, the money making is different. In your mind and in your experience, what are the big challenges of starting and operating a podcast network within a major publisher?
KD: I think we see it as both a challenge and a real opportunity. We’ve been podcasting for 15 years. It actually started back in 2006-2007 when an editor at Macmillan, John Sterling picked up the phone and called Mignon Fogaty, who’d been getting a little bit of buzz for the audio tips she was pushing out onto a public feed — well before podcasting became anywhere near mainstream! And they had a conversation on doing a book, and I feel very fortunate that at that time, Macmillan saw the opportunity to develop podcasts and create wonderful content and distribute it in an audio format, in a new and innovative way. Everybody who’s listening here today knows that it’s really challenging to create good podcasts and particularly podcasts like these that have such longevity. Mignon and the team at that time, this was back in 2006-2007, started to be approached by other subject matter experts. Mignon of course is Grammar Girl, a renowned expert in the fields of writing and grammar.
She has gone on to produce several books with us, most of which sell incredibly well still today. Very slowly, even before a podcast network was a thing, we started to add new verticals: Productivity, Nutrition, Fitness. Before you knew it they had a podcast network, which has grown to more than 370 million downloads today, expertly run now by Adam Cecil and Emily Miller and a small team of people on staff in New York, and yes, it has changed tremendously. Back in the day, it was a very difficult sell, and to make it a profitable business. These were short format shows. The network is called Quick and Dirty Tips, and it has stayed true to that mission all these years. They are short format shows that are monetized, all hosted by top-credentialed subject matter experts.
At one point in time, 80% of them — to your point about them being divergent businesses — 80% of them actually had book deals with us, and we continue to sign a book deals with them today. In fact, one of our Savvy Psychologists, Dr. Jade Wu, will be releasing a book on sleep sometime next year with our St. Martin’s Press imprint. So, it’s a separate business unit, but we can talk more about the ways in which we synergistically and strategically use that to Macmillan’s advantage.
BH: I’m interested in that. There does seem to be some back and forth where authors move into the podcast space (very conveniently) while staying within Macmillan — and the other way around too. Is one of those directional flows more common or prominent than the other?
KD: That’s a really good question. I think it absolutely works both ways. I’m super proud to say that Macmillan has brought on many podcasters with significant book deals. Our Flatiron imprint has the How Stuff Works podcast imprint with iHeart — the second book in that series drops in October. Our Celadon Imprint is releasing a book with Paul Holes who is a really well-known podcaster on the Exactly Right network. His show is Jensen and Holes, it’s a True Crime show. And it’s really popular. The book is called, Unmasked and it releases in April. It’s already getting a tremendous amount of buzz. So a lot of our deals are actually with podcast hosts. In fact, I’m really excited to mention the fact that in about three or four weeks from the time of this broadcast, we will have an announcement about a multi-book deal with a podcast network we all know and love. I wish I could tell you more, but…
BH: Me too! [chuckle]
KD: I’ll make sure you get first notice when that announcement comes out. So yeah, there’s a tremendous amount of synergy between our imprints and podcasters, and the way we now bring in book deals and evaluate podcasts. Podcast hosts who are looking to bring in a book deal to us.
BH: That is so interesting and at the same time, they are separate units. So the podcasting group lives within Macmillan with its own balance sheet and management structure and product development plans and things like that. Is that right?
KD: Yeah, we actually have two networks — one of them is “Quick and Dirty Tips.” In 2017, we started a second network called Macmillan Podcast, which really just gave us the opportunity to be more creative to explore podcasting and other genres and do stuff that’s longer in format. We did an audio drama with Mack Rogers and his team. We did a biography show with David Itzkoff, the cultural reporter from the New York Times who wrote the biography of Robin Williams. So we play to our strengths as book publishers by taking content from authors of all types from all genres and producing it in audio format.
We spend a lot of time leveraging our strengths in the podcasting industry to help authors who perhaps do not have a podcast with us but are interested in either guesting on a podcast or developing a podcast of their own. So, I think we give a level of author care that is unprecedented in some ways, because of our deep knowledge and our deep roots in that space.
BH: How does that conversation go? Let’s say you’ve got an author doing well with a Macmillan book, you reach out to that person and you introduce the idea of starting a podcast. Is there a lot of resistance? A lot of questions? How does it go?
KD: It can go many ways. Sometimes we are eager to introduce an author to an outside network where we feel there’s a really good fit for their podcast. Many times we will just provide guidance and consultation in helping to find the right network, the right production, or even just talking through and spitballing ideas. Every imprint has an incredible strong team of publicists, and they are experts at finding placement for our authors on like-minded shows to help promote books. And we also use our networks in ways that I think are really innovative to help promote the work of some of the world’s best authors. For example, we have a show called, Driving the Green Book, which we can talk a little bit more about later.
BH: Oh, we will!
KD: Good! That show was done by a former BBC journalist and educator Alvin Hall. There’s a new book that came out called, How Can We Win by Kimberly Jones, which is one of our Holt new releases. She gave this incredibly viral speech off the top of her head during the George Floyd protest period. And if you Google, you will see this powerful video — now there is a book that digs deeper into the discussion that she had, really, off the top of her head about economic disparities faced by black Americans today. So Holt did wonderful job working with her turning this into a book, I thought this is really an incredible book that would serve the listeners of Driving the Green Book very well, like-minded content. I reached out to Alvin Hall, the host of that show, and said, “I think dropping an audio excerpt of this book onto that feed might be a really nice experience for listeners.” Not only had Alvin already read the book, but he’s like, “When do you need me in the studio?” All the collaborating we do — it’s a really well-oiled machine and I think one that helps to serve readers and listeners well.
BH: I’m interested in how the money making works for the podcasters who are already Macmillan authors. When you bring them in and start producing a podcast, do they get some contract that resembles a book contract, or is it revenue share, or what does it?
KD: It’s a revenue share. I think we do a really good job with our ad operations. Initially, it was very difficult to monetize the short format back in 2007, 2008, when some of the agencies, were up and coming and starting to sell ads on behalf of podcasters. Most of the shows that were selling were much longer in format. So the team worked incredibly hard to develop a process that to this day really embraces the format. We always say — it’s not just about driving revenue. It’s about serving both the advertiser and the listener with a really high quality experience that can help drive that revenue. So when talking points come in from a sponsor, our team really takes the time to massage them, to make sure they sound genuine, and to work directly with the host. Sometimes we’ll even do calls with the sponsors and the agencies to just make sure we’re on track and we are going to meet that direct response quota — whatever that is! Even though no one will ever tell us what that is! [laughter]
Of course, in the early days, that’s all we got — direct response ads. And the only way you knew if you hit your number was if that sponsor came back! Still a very closely guarded secret today. You never get those numbers, but now we’re seeing a lot more branding campaigns for brand lift, which is really exciting. So, we monetize via sponsorship, is a long-winded way of answering your question. But there are other revenues too. Sometimes there’s licensing, or courses on LinkedIn, and of course, books. So, it’s a multi-pronged approach, primarily driven by sponsorship.
BH: I’m glad for this detailed explanation, thank you. And let’s stick with advertising a bit. How are the shows represented? Do you have your own sales force or is that outsourced?
KD: I like to say that, Erik Diehn, Mary Beth Roche and I sat in a room back in 2013 in the Flatiron Building, and we were the very first network, to my knowledge, to sign on with Midroll/Stitcher, and they remain our partner today.
BH: Oh, how interesting!
KD: Yes. And Erik Diehn has since moved on. Mary Beth Roche is still the president and publisher of Macmillan Audio. It was a big deal at the time. And Midroll remains a wonderful partner to this day.
BH: Okay. So they rep the ads, you get a mix of direct-to-consumer and brand lift advertisers, and this revenue gets shared with the authors according to some kind of contractual agreement. Have I got the basics right?
KD: You’ve got the basics right, yeah.
BH: Can you tell me the size of the staff for the whole podcast venture at Macmillan?
KD: Sure. There is a full-time staff of four, led by Adam Cecil and Emily Miller, and then there are three freelance audio producers, and then of course the team of hosts, which I think currently about nine or 10 weekly shows. At one point we had about 15 shows per week, so it’s a heavy workload.
BH: One of the most celebrated of your titles is Driving the Green Book. You mentioned it before, and I had it on my plan to ask you about this. Let’s dig into that one. First of all, explain to everyone, please, the rationale of the podcast.
KD: Driving the Green Book came to us through BBC journalist and educator Alvin Hall, who’s very prominently known as one of the leading authorities on The Green Book, which was a travel guide used during segregation, during the Jim Crow era, to help Black Americans get safe passage as they traveled the roads of the United States. Alvin had this idea for a podcast. We sent Alvin out on the road with a producer and with activist Janée Woods Weber. They took a 2,500-mile road trip from Detroit to New Orleans over a 10-day period and they interviewed activists, government officials, people who relied on The Green Book with their families back in the day. They stopped at places along the way that were documented in the guide. Many places were still in existence, many of the people who had been through that era were still there, so they came back with a powerful collection of American stories that — from our point of view — were under-reported. I vividly remember us all sitting in a conference room and listening to some of the raw tape when they got back from this trip, and it was incredibly powerful.
We knew, at that point, we had a tremendous responsibility to tell these stories and to document them for generations to come. That was the origin of the 10-part documentary series that launched in September of 2020. When we started to work on how we were going to get this out and promote it. We talked to Apple about a launch plan for it. Unbeknownst to us, they had been working on something called “Apple Map Guides.” These were visual experiences that you could have on Apple Maps, where you could take a virtual tour, through a road trip, using your phone or a browser on Safari. They put us under NDA — we couldn’t talk about it, but we very quietly worked with the collection of photos that the team had taken on the road, and some open source available photographs. We reached out to some of the family-owned businesses that were documented in Green Book and got photos from archives, and we put together this very visual, very beautiful travel guide an Apple Map Guide — to be a companion to the podcast.
So I love the fact that when this ultimately released in September of 2020, it was really a multi-platform experience, because we had the podcast, we had the Apple Map Guide, and then we also had Alvin work with the books team at Apple to create an “Author Recommends” page on Apple Books, so that anyone who listened to the podcast and wanted to dig deeper into the history had a recommended reading list to do so. Then the last pillar in all of that was Apple Music. We put together playlists of period-specific music. Also Alvin and Janée had a great playlist of music they listened to while they were on the road, so we did that too. It made for a really well-rounded experience that I think is becoming a little bit more commonplace today in the podcast space, ways to complement the audio with other elements.
BH: I’m not sure I would call it commonplace — I mean, this still seems breakthrough to me. And the production challenges seem remarkable to me. You’ve got two people on the road … and did they come back between episodes, or were they gone for 10 weeks? I’m always interested in the production logistics.
KD: They had a freelance producer with them. They were only out on the road for 10 days, so it was a very packed schedule with a tremendous amount of logistics involved. They started in Detroit, and they ended in New Orleans, which was a very typical route for a Green Book travel. It was 10 days. Emily Miller on our team helped coordinate what was a logistical nightmare — making sure that all the interviews were set up, and the hotels. The logistics were comprehensive.
BH: What a cool project. It’s been a while since it was launched. Is that still getting traction?
KD: Yes. It’s black history month, and I just noticed that it was featured on some of the platforms. So it still gets a lot of love. The show won the inaugural “Ambie” (award from The Podcast Academy) for best history podcast. A podcast with a mission, that was great. And at the end of 2021 even, it was still listed in a lot of “best of” lists. It still gets surfaced all the time. I think it has really long legs. These are under-reported American stories that deserve to be told and heard for generations to come. I anticipate it being around for a very long time.
BH: Good! Anything else you want to tell me about the future of podcasting at Macmillan?
KD: I just feel we are all very fortunate to work for a company that understands the value of content, in whatever format. I think we will continue to see the convergence of audio. You had Tom Webster on a couple of weeks ago, and he talked so much about this — the growing and emerging value of audio. I think we’ll continue to see creativity on the audiobook side. We’ll continue to see creativity on the podcasting side. The networks have a very long life ahead of them.
BH: Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished Kathy. And thanks so much for joining me today. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you.
KD: Thank you, it’s been a lot of fun, Brad.