Macmillan was an early podcast pioneer. Here’s what it’s up to next

Vice President of Podcasting Kathy Doyle explains how diversifying into different formats helps Macmillan sell more books.

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These days, nearly every mainstream media company has some kind of podcast operation, but the book publisher Macmillan invested in the medium before most media executives had even heard of podcasting.

In 2007, it launched Quick and Dirty Tips, a network focused on producing evergreen self-help podcasts covering grammar, finance, parenting, and other niches. It adapted this content across podcasts, website articles, books, and online courses; this allowed for revenue diversification in an era when most podcasts were still struggling to sell host-read ads.

Later, Macmillan expanded into narrative podcasts, developing one of the first fiction properties to be simultaneously adapted into a teleplay, novel, audio book, and live event series. 

This year, Macmillan is pushing the envelope even further, developing a multiple-format show that’s integrated with both Apple Maps and Apple Music. I interviewed Vice President of Podcasting Kathy Doyle about the project and how diversifying into different formats helps Macmillan sell more books. 

So you guys were not just very early to the podcast scene. You were really early in realizing that you could adapt your podcasts into multiple formats. For instance, with the Quick and Dirty Tips network, you convert every podcast episode into an article. What's the motivation behind that?

In short, value for readers and consumers around the world! We recognized when we started our first network, Quick and Dirty Tips, back in 2007 that we could leverage multiple formats to provide a more powerful experience. Listeners could hear the podcast, then if it was, say, a grammar lesson, turn to the website for the full transcript to gather more information and relevant links. If it was an episode on nutrition, we could direct listeners to the website for a recipe or a research study, or, of course since we're a book publisher, the link to buy or learn more about a related book. It's also an incredible way to cross promote products and build a stronger relationship with fans across both the listening environment and the web. 

Can you talk a little bit about the synergies this drives? Like I'm guessing that a lot of people who end up reading the article version of a podcast will then later convert into an actual podcast listener.

That's the hope, right? As you know, we aren't yet at a point where we can sync up the audience one-for-one so it's hard to tell who listens to the podcasts and visits the website. But we do our best to ensure both types of fans are well served and aware of the fact that there are multiple ways to access our massive archive of evergreen content. 

And then I'd imagine there are revenue diversification opportunities, right? You can sell programmatic ads against the articles, and then also I'm sure it's easier to drive a sale to a book from a web article than it is to sell it from a podcast.

That is true and, yes, it does enable us to diversify our revenue streams. In all cases, the user experience comes first. So we're mindful of how much ad serving we do, both on the podcast side and on the web. And we've also diversified further in recent years, extending even more into other areas where we find relevant fits for our content. 

How does the podcast-to-book pipeline work? Is it common for someone to start with a podcast and then later sign a Macmillan book deal?

We've done it both ways. We just launched a new podcast last week called Driving the Green Book, which is a podcast-first initiative. But the host and author Alvin Hall is now working on a book for our Flatiron imprint based on the series. Over the nearly 10 years I've been doing this, nearly 80% of the QDT hosts have had book deals with us that started with their podcast. But we've also done shows based on previously published books. We did a biography series last year, for example, based on the book Robin by New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff. It had been about 18 months since the book, a biography of Robin Williams, was published, and the podcast conducted fresh interviews and really dug deep into Robin's life and the personal stories Dave could tell based on his work. We've also launched podcasts that coincided with an author's book release -- Time to Parent was an example of that and Dr. Jeanne Safer's I Love You But I Hate Your Politics is another.

And then a few years later you got even more ambitious in diversifying your IP. Tell me about Steal the Stars and the different formats you used to distribute it.

We did. Steal the Stars was a collaboration with our Tor sci fi imprint here at Macmillan and the team at Gideon Media, led by Mac Rogers. This was a very ambitious, 14-member cast audio drama that was released first as a podcast that did very well. We then hired Nat Cassidy from the Gideon team to write a novelization for a trade paperback based on the podcast and we released it in audio-book format, too, with some bonus content from some live events we did, which was a really nice way to enhance the audio book and is a trend we're starting to see now on that front, with audio books taking on some elements of podcasts and enhancing straight narration with interesting elements like this.

So to recap, it was a tele-play podcast, a traditional print book, an audio book, and a series of live events. How did fans embrace it? Was there anything you noticed that was different from your traditionally published books in terms of how it gained an audience?

The Gideon team has a long history in New York theatre and Mac, in particular with podcasting -- he's a true pioneer and writer of The Message and Life After, two of the very original audio dramas. So their social following definitely helped a lot, and, of course, Tor's huge following and reputation in the genre was a huge advantage in terms of getting an audience. Plus, the series was amazing and still gets nice numbers today, even a couple of years after its initial release. Every once in a while, it shows up on a "10 Best Audio Dramas for your Next Road Trip" feature and we see increased listens. Much like QDT, it's a boon to have a series that is not only incredible work, but has a long tail as well.

We also did a lot of our own marketing and the usual cross promos, swaps, and publicity for the series. 

And this also had some nice diversification of revenue, right? I'm guessing you had podcast ads, print and audiobook sales, and then also event ticket sales.

We did, yes. 

You recently launched a new project that takes IP diversification even further. Tell me about that.

Yes - Driving the Green Book. Last year, we sent Alvin Hall along with activist and social justice trainer Janee Woods Weber on a Green Book inspired road trip -- 2,100 miles from Detroit to New Orleans. They collected deeply personal stories and historical perspectives on what it was like to travel while Black in America during segregation and Jim Crow laws, and, of course, drew some powerful parallels to what's happening in our country today. As we began to plan for the release of this important series, we began a conversation with Apple Podcasts about the series and realized we had stories that could be part of a bigger collaboration with their ecosystem. We developed a playlist with time-period specific songs and featuring musicians highlighted in the series with Apple Music. We were also part of the WWDC launch as a charter collaborator on a new feature with iOS 14 in Apple Maps called a curated Apple Maps Guide, which in our case takes listeners on a guided, visual journey through this road trip. It's an incredibly powerful complement to the podcast and each of these features links to the others for a deeply immersive experience. We're also working with Apple Books on an Author Recommends page, where Alvin will provide links to more reading on this important period in American history and Green Book reference material.

In what ways do you think the Apple Maps guide and the Apple Music playlists will help expand the audience for the podcast and book?

That's a good question. For starters, it's a first-of-its-kind collaboration with Apple so we're getting some great press and social traction about the series and its complementary experiences so we hope that will widen the audience. I have this vision, too, that once the book is out and we have this incredible, multi-sensory, multi-platform resource that documents these intimate, underreported stories in our history, we can work with educational institutions to make it part of curriculum across the country.

Which leads me to my next question: you've been pushing into online courses recently. How does that fit in with your larger content workflow?

Yes. We started with the Grammar Girl archives. They are available through English-learning platforms for the academic market through Macmillan Learning -- both the episodes and the word for word transcripts. For consumers, we've developed lots of webinars with Ragan Communications over the years -- grammar, productivity, even workplace health initiatives with our Nutrition Diva content. Our newest partnership is with LinkedIn and we're very proud of this work. Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, has developed a popular writing course for the LinkedIn Learning platform and is working on two more for next year. This is such a natural extension of our content and, of course, a way to reach new learners and fans.

So there's one major medium you don't seem to have pushed into: video. Would that be accurate to say? Do you have any ambitions to make a major video investment?

You found our weak spot! 🙂 You're right, we haven't done much with video, although we do have a limited collection on the QDT site and recognize that some of our QDT tips, like, for example, how to iron a cotton button down, which is in our household tip collection, make far better videos than podcast episodes. But for now, we're sticking primarily to the formats we're succeeding in. We're busy!

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.