This studio produced several bestselling audiobooks. Here's how

The audiobook market is massive, with sales projected to hit $3.5 billion this year. What used to be a niche, expensive product is now one of the fastest growing mediums. In fact, The New York Times recently reported that audiobooks are one of the only book formats still growing in sales during the current pandemic-induced recession. 

But what does it take to launch a hit audiobook? How does the choice in narrator influence sales? And are book publishers worried about the market dominance of Amazon-owned Audible? These are all questions I put to Scott Dickey, the CEO of a company called Podium Audio.

Podium is an audiobook studio that specializes in signing deals with self-published authors. It was the studio that produced the audiobook version of The Martian, the book that was made into a hit film starring Matt Damon.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Why Podium decided to focus on independent, self-published authors

Podium was founded out of Ontario, Canada about seven years ago by two entrepreneurs named James Tonn and Greg Lawrence. “They'd both been in and around the audio business from a production perspective and saw that the market was wide open for supporting independent, self published authors. The tools really weren't in place to help these authors convert their great stories into audio by themselves, and James and Greg very wisely dove in to try to support these emerging storytellers convert their works into audio. They were fortunate enough to publish The Martian, which is still, to this day, one of the all time best-selling audiobooks, and that really put the company on the map. From there, they started to really drive a share of voice in science fiction and fantasy romance and mystery thrillers, the kind of genre fiction that was really exploding within self publishing.”

The company’s timing was perfect, since it was founded just as both the self-publishing and audiobook markets were simultaneously heating up. “Self publishing now is such an enormous part of the overall industry. If you look at the stats in the United States, self published authors represent 45% of all the ebook units sold and a lesser percentage of revenue, 28%, while the big five publishers only have 24% of units but obviously a much greater share of revenue. The amount of high quality self-published content and the emergence of these independent voices represents a huge market opportunity across all of publishing. It's much more expensive to produce an audiobook than it is an ebook, and so we take that risk and we front that cost and we also have the most talented narrators under contract.”

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How Podium chooses authors to work with

There are thousands of self-published novels published each week, and most of them are pretty low quality. Podium didn’t have the resources to sift through all this content by hand, and very early on it had to develop an effective way to surface books with the most potential. “We have a proprietary algorithm where we scrape results from Amazon, and within five to seven days, we can tell based on the trajectory, the ratings, the reviews, the genre, the style of the book, whether or not it has high potential to succeed in audio. And then we dive in and obviously do preliminary reads. We reach out to the author, talk to the author about where they're going with the storyline. In many cases in science fiction and fantasy it's serialized content. So we commit to that author that we're going to produce the entire series, not just the first book. From there, we develop a relationship and enter into an agreement with those authors and then we're off to the races.

How Podium works with signed authors

So let’s say Podium inks a deal with a new author. How does the company move forward with adapting the book for audio? “Sometimes the book requires some additional editing and proofing. We obviously spend a lot of time with the author around casting strategy and making sure that we have the right narrator, the right performer for the book. And then we enter into production.”

A lot of times, Podium enters the scene shortly after the author has published the first book in a longer series, and so for future books within that series Podium tries to launch the audiobook simultaneously with the ebook. “We try to move swiftly because in many cases we want to work with the author on the marketing and launch strategy of the ebook so we can maximize both sides of the equation, ebook and audiobook, even though we're not typically participating in the economics of the ebook.”

The success of an audiobook depends on a number of factors, the choice of voice actor being one of them. “We work with about 150 different narrators in our stable, but we have a core of about 20 that we have under longer term contracts where we're trying to ensure that we're in their schedule on a regular basis so that we can manage the production process really smoothly. We're fortunate enough during COVID to have a lot of these narrators working from their own home studios, so we've been able to avoid a lot of the disruption that's taken place in other mediums and production environments.” 

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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.