VP of Podcasting at Macmillan Kathy Doyle shares an inside look
2019 marked a watershed moment for spoken-word audio. For the first time ever, more than 50% of the U.S. population reported listening to podcasts and 50% reported listening to audiobooks*. Macmillan has spent years developing a robust podcast network to build and then capture that interest in audio content. On their podcast network Macmillan Podcasts they feature podcasts hosted by their authors like Astro Poets, companion podcasts to books like The Girls: Find Sadie, or as completely unique content like Steal the Stars.
That’s why we asked Kathy Doyle, VP of Podcasting at Macmillan, to share her perspective on audio in publishing. She describes Macmillan’s podcasting content strategy – how they design podcasts to best support their authors as well as the collaborative process that brings those podcasts to life. She pulls back the curtain on how Macmillan works with distribution platforms, as well as how she and her team think about creating mutually beneficial advertising relationships.
Plus, whether indie publishers or self-published authors should get in the podcasting game, and what big changes in the industry she’s excited to see in 2020.
What is your history with audio and podcasting?
I joined Macmillan at the end of 2011. I was hired as the director of what was already a podcasting network at that time – called Quick and Dirty Tips. QDT had already been around for 3 or 4 years by the time I joined, but it was a dual platform. It had this major website, which it still has today, and it had a podcasting arm. I was hired to run the collective – the entire network. I have run websites almost my entire career. I started in digital at the Wall Street Journal back when the internet was emerging as a format and already had some familiarity with podcasting in 2011, so I was hired by Mary Beth Roche to take on the entire business unit as its director.
Tell about your role in developing audio strategy at Macmillan
I’m primarily responsible for the podcast networks. We now have two networks, [one of which is] QDT. From QDT we learned a lot about format and what we were finding was that we were trying to put authors of all types into that “quick and dirty” format of providing actionable, interesting information in 8 mins or less. We were finding that we had an opportunity because podcasting was starting to emerge as a bigger, bolder format for media consumption. We had the opportunity to start a second network, which we called Macmillan Podcasts. That really enabled us to strategically use authors of all types from some of the best imprints in the world – Henry Holt, St. Martin’s Press, Flatiron Books – and allow those authors to come onto the platform. We worked with them to develop various types of programming, which was not as contained as the QDT model. We’ve been able to do some fiction, some audio drama, we’ve done a lot of interview format. We’ve really expanded our capabilities from a strategic standpoint on the podcasting side.
What do you think about the relationship between podcasts and audiobooks? Are you both competing for the same ear time?
There’s definitely some crossover. APA came out with a study earlier this year that said 55% of people who had listened to an audiobook have also listened to podcasts. We’ve just seen an absolute explosion in audio as a form of consumption for media. It’s shifting paradigms. It’s really powerful. We don’t feel as though it’s competitive in nature at all. It’s strategic for us. We used to say that podcasts were audiobooks-lite — they were for someone who wanted to dabble in the format or hadn’t listened to spoken word audio before and this gave them a free and somewhat frictionless way to dabble in that media. But I think what we’re seeing is that people who want information via audio want all kinds of information via audio whether it’s short format or long format, book or podcast. Whether it’s because they’re driving or they’re exercising or making dinner, whatever it is, they can do other things while they’re consuming spoken word audio.
So you’re seeing this audio boom as a result of multi-tasking from the listener standpoint?
It can be. It’s not always. I mean, some people are very content to just listen and absorb the content the way they would if they were nose-deep in a book. I can just speak to the fact that we see a lot of research and hear from our listeners very specifically about how they listen to podcasts and audiobooks — what they’re doing at the time of consumption. I had an Uber driver in L.A. say something to me that I hear all the time, “I listen to podcasts to learn. I don’t always listen to podcasts when I’m in the gym. I want music to give me motivation, but when I’m doing housework or when I’m driving my Uber and I don’t have a patron in the car, I want to learn. And that’s when I turn to podcasting.” I hear that all the time.
Let’s turn to Macmillan podcasting specifically. Macmillan Podcasts are divided into two groups – Bold Voices and Addictive Stories. Tell me more about how you developed those two areas of focus.
It definitely happened organically. What happened was we found that we were being approached by editors, we were identifying talent on our own, and it just felt like the right way to start the process early on of developing a catalog — a podcast catalog — in ways that we could define categories.
The Bold Voices really are author-hosted shows where there’s someone with authority — who has something to say — typically nonfiction. All the QDT shows fall into that format to some extent. We have shows like I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics which is [hosted by] Jeanne Safer who wrote a book about how to navigate politically troubled times when you have a partner, a colleague, a family member who you don’t see eye to eye with.
The Addictive Stories, that’s the very elusive driveway moment we’re all looking for. [A driveway moment describes audio that keeps you in your car to listen, even after you’ve arrived at your destination.]
Those are stories that capture you emotionally and you don’t want to let go. So that’s Steal the Stars, our audio drama which we described as Arrival meets Ocean’s Eleven. It had everything – it had heist, it had romance, it had crime, it had all kinds of elements that comprised a very engaging, richly entertaining story that you wanted to binge. But That’s Another Story is our narrative book podcast hosted by Will Schwalbe who is an executive here and also a bestselling author. He talks to people in a very powerful way about a book that changed their life. He’s spoken to everyone from Jodi Foster to Min Jin Lee. he just had the hilarious macmillan author Gary Janetti.
How do you learn about your audience?
There’s a variety of things that we can do. Podcasting is a deeply engaged medium, so we get a lot of listener feedback. We have voice mailboxes set up for every show where people can call in and leave feedback or, in the case of some of the Bold Voices shows or QDT shows, leave a comment or question. We very carefully monitor ratings and reviews, we can learn a lot there. We’ve done some work with little focus groups where we bring people together and do listening parties to see what kind of reaction we get. We’ll get some from our ad broker; that helps give us demographic and other details about the listeners. The other thing we can do is on the backend of some of the distributor platforms, we can actually see things like what we call retention. If you have a 40 minute episode and you see that 60% or higher are dropping off after 20 minutes, [you can learn] about what listeners are staying tuned for, what adjustments we might need to make to the format or the approach to better serve the listening community. The platforms do not have the same consistent information from platform to platform but we sort of know what elements we want to look for.
What factors are you keeping in mind when developing a new podcast?
There’s still this perception that I think is shifting as competition increases and the industry learns more about podcasting, but there’s definitely this perception that it’s really easy to pull off a podcast. And it is incredibly difficult and challenging work. It takes a lot of different people in the mix. We look at talent holistically. We want to make sure that we’re making choices that serve our publishers, that serve our talent, that serve the listening community for our podcasts. It’s all of those things. We get together with potential talent, we talk about an arc or a creative approach to the show. Then, we’ll do a creative brief where we talk about who the audience is just like a book – what are the comps that are out there that we can use as comparisons for how the show might do or the kind of approach we might take? We talk about the creative process, we talk about the workflow and make sure everybody’s on the same page. We talk about the schedule, which is really important. We talk about the business arrangement, which is also really important. We sort of work all that through and then we might do a pilot or a trailer or talk to our distributors about relationships for the show. It’s a really elongated process. It doesn’t happen overnight and it’s very collaborative.
Who makes up the team that brings a podcast together?
One of the best things about working at Macmillan is how incredibly collaborative we are. Everyone from the marketers to the publicists to the editors, we’re all involved in the decision-making process. This is an organization that cares deeply about its authors and takes very good care of their authors. so we want to make sure that we’re making the best possible decisions both for our organization and for the talent.
We will work with the editor to develop the relationship with the author or the host. When we get ready to launch the podcast, we’ll work with the marketer and the publicist from the imprint to make sure we’re all in sync in terms of who we’re pitching to, what kind of work we’re going to do on the marketing side. And then we just make sure that the editors get to listen to stuff before it goes out. We stay in very close touch throughout the entire process. Most communication happens up front but it is a true collaborative effort from start to finish.
Are you proactively approaching talent?
It’s all over the place. We do spend some time identifying talent. We [also] work within our imprints to try and find talent who would make good podcast hosts or guests. On the QDT side we will often bring up an emerging talent who is starting to grow a platform. We will work with them to grow their podcast and then work to help them secure a book.
What makes for a good podcast host?
I think it has to be someone who listens to podcasts — someone who embraces and understands the medium and what the pros and cons of the medium are. I think it’s someone who has to be willing to work and not just sit in a studio and read a script that they just wrote. For us, it’s about the collaborative nature of podcasting, and making sure that everyone is in tune and in sync with the goals and the objectives that we work toward in terms of developing and launching a podcast.
[For new hosts] we will do some training. We had a conversation this morning about one of the QDT hosts who was interrupting a guest with “uh huh” and making auditory affirmations as you would in a normal conversation. In podcasting we tell our hosts, “Tell your guest up front that you won’t be acknowledging them because you might not be in the same room.” If it’s a Skype interview or done via the studio, they can’t always see the person they’re communicating with. So it feels very natural to want to say “uh huh” or “yes, I agree” but you’re interrupting the flow of your guest’s statement in a way that’s going to make it difficult for the producer to put it out there as great-quality content.
That’s just one kind of small example but I think people who aren’t used to working in an audio format definitely need to be trained and educated on what suits the format best in terms of developing and creating and releasing the best possible experience for the listener — the highest quality for the listener.
We have such incredible guests — a lot of them are authors also, sometimes they’re outside experts. [Hosts] get involved in these really deep, interesting, engaging conversations and they’re so excited about the content they’re getting they forget that they have to be mindful of the format and the experience.
What about distribution? Which platforms do you use, and what benefits do you see from distributing your podcasts on multiple platforms?
I would say one of the advantages we bring to the table is our longevity because we’ve been podcasting for over a decade, we have great relationships with the long-standing distributors like Stitchers, Apple Podcasts and the new players that have come into the space. We’ve worked hard to develop those relationships over time — Spotify, Pandora, iHeart. We have great relationships with all of those teams. We’re not one-off shows just looking to boost our downloads. We are looking to build sustainable, long-term relationships with these partners.
One of the distributors came in recently with some back-end features and functionality that they wanted to test. They wanted to get our opinion; how would we use this data and how would we use these features. So our team got together in a conference room and we went through it with them step by step and we provided them with feedback about how we would use those features. It’s a two way street. Every conversation we have with our partners, we always make an ask — we might be asking for something whether it’s a promotion or for them to entertain a pitch, but we will not get off that call or leave that meeting without saying “How can we better serve you as well?”
What about podcast advertising? How is advertising on the medium changing?
There are two different camps on the ad side. There are branded campaigns which are general awareness and brand lift, so there’s nothing specific the listener has to do except retain that information the next time they’re in the drug store and need to buy moisturizer. There’s also what we call direct response which is really what grew the industry. The Squarespaces and the Mailchimps — they built this space for many podcasters.
Direct response is really labor intensive on our end because we have to make sure the talking points are correct, we have to make sure the promo code works, we have to make sure the URL works. A lot of the times [a promo code will be] mailchimp.com/grammar. Well we have to make sure that page exists before we have our host record that ad and put it out in the feed because we’re protecting our listeners. We want to make sure the ads are as accurate and as compelling and as engaging as the rest of the content. It’s hard work to deliver an ad well and sound genuine.
We also have requirements. A lot of times we turn away from advertisers if our host can’t support their product in a way that is genuine and viable and will make for a good ad read. I hear a lot of hosts on other shows — you can tell they just have the ad points in front of them and they’re literally just reading them with no emphasis with no personal experience with no integrity. We strive to make sure that doesn’t happen. As a result we leave some money on the table. If you’re a big listener, you know.
Not everyone obviously has the capacity of Macmillan or a big publisher to develop such a robust audio strategy. Do you recommend that indie presses or indie authors get in the game of podcasting or audio content?
There’s a lot of debate in the industry right now. I was just on a panel at Digital Hollywood and this was one of the premises of the panel – Do you need a network? Networks bring a lot of great support. They bring resources, they bring manpower, they bring history and experience. All of that said, it’s very competitive.
But if you are someone who has a story to tell, who has an experience to share, who has an expertise that will benefit, I’m all for developing an independent podcast. There are incredible resources out there to teach you how to do just that and the cost point — there’s very little barrier to entry. You need to buy a microphone; you need to buy some software. People can do it independently and some of the best and longest-running podcasts out there started out this way. It’s not as easy as it used to be to make that success happen. But, it’s also a great way to train and to test yourself on the medium before you have a big team behind you. You can try things out on your own that you wouldn’t be able to do if you were a part of a distribution platform or a big network. And I’m really impressed with some of the companies and people in the industry who have come forward to develop incredible training resources for anyone who independently wants to start a podcast. It is doable.
So it sounds like what you’re saying with the indies is that not everyone needs a podcast, but if you feel strongly that you have a unique perspective that fits in audio, and you have the bandwidth, you should learn how to do this and do it right.
Write it down, develop a plan — a full-blown plan that includes what you’d cover in the first 5-6 episodes. A plan that covers the format of the episode, how long you want them to be, how many voices will there be? Will it be just you behind a microphone or will you be having guests? you really need to think through strategically. Treat each episode as if it’s a separate project. Intertwined, but a separate project. And figure out how you want to approach those episodes so that you’re developing a curated collection of your best work.
What new developments are you excited for in audio?
Some of the platforms are developing really interesting social sharing and other kinds of features. Spotify, for example, has developed customized playlists which can be done in a variety of different ways. You can actually integrate a playlist that has music and podcast episodes and then you can share it to your audience. That’s really powerful. We’ve been having a lot of fun with that. QDT has so much great New Year, New You content, so we’ll be developing a variety of playlists that will tackle that topic in ways that nobody else can.
The other thing that I’m watching closely is data attribution. You often hear podcasting referred to as the wild west, which it’s not anymore.That may have been true five years ago but now I think it’s really grown up a lot. Ensuring that we are all reporting our listens accurately is critically important because we all want to monetize with advertisers and they need to be able to trust the data they are getting from us. The Interactive Advisory Bureau has gotten involved. They have developed standards and compliance [for podcasting]. We are compliant on the platforms that we’re on, but not all podcasters and not all platforms are yet compliant with these standards. [We want to be sure] that 500k downloads on this platform is the same as 500k downloads on that platform. There were a lot of discrepancies in the data. So that’s all being resolved and I think 2020 will be a big year in terms of seeing that into fruition.
As people have shifted to the compliant standards, and as the hosting platforms that these podcasts reside on have made changes on their backend to bring those systems up to full compliance, people have seen shifts in their download numbers. Sometimes quite dramatic! Consistency across the board is key and I think we’ll see that by the end of 2020.
One of the challenges on the content side is that of the top 200 podcasts on the Apple platform, 32% are now hosted by major celebrities or influencers. That’s huge. And it makes it really hard for the rest of us. That trend will continue – big name celebrities getting into the space. I think we’re going to see continued consolidation of some of the content providers as it makes sense for businesses to evolve and join forces together. We just saw Wondery and NBC strike a joint partnership. A year or two years ago, [a big trend] was VC money entering the space. That’s what everyone was following really closely. Now I think that’s shifting a little bit towards other kinds of partnerships.
In terms of genres, there’s opportunity and room for YA content. That’s changing a little bit, but there’s still opportunity there. And travel.
What podcasts are you listening to?
I love Dolly Parton’s America. It’s a brilliant new podcast that’s been getting a lot of buzz. I’ve also been listening to a show called The City which is from Wondery. This season focuses on the city of Reno and some aging strip clubs that are causing some issues with the city. I’ve only listened to one episode but it’s really interesting and I will definitely be continuing. There’s another season of the Jet Propulsion Lab’s podcast. My son is in aerospace so I follow that closely. And I’ve just become addicted to the daily news shows. I listen to Up First from NPR and I listen to The Daily religiously. I find that especially because I have a long commute those are great ways to stay informed.
At least two distribution platforms now have daily drive playlists that they are curating for listeners based on their listening habits. A lot of our shows are falling into those categories as well. The recognition that podcasting can be used as a means of entertainment and information for your full commute end to end is really becoming reality.
Kathy Doyle is the Vice President of Podcasts for Macmillan Publishers. She runs the Macmillan Podcast Network, which produces popular podcasts with the organization’s bestselling authors and book imprints. Current podcasts range from sci-fi and true crime to literature and self-help. She also oversees one of Macmillan’s largest digital networks, Quick and Dirty Tips. QDT produces a dozen weekly award-winning audio podcasts hosted by subject matter experts on a wide range of topics. Podcasts include the long-running Grammar Girl and Savvy Psychologist. The network has a large web presence, too, which features content from the podcast hosts and a large variety of Macmillan authors.
*2019 Infinite Dial Study by Edison Research and Triton Digital
*Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.