In 2019, we conducted a research project to find out how many of the USA Today bestselling authors had a podcast presence as hosts or guests. It was tedious work, but we found that 90% of USA Today bestselling authors had a podcast presence. They were either guests, hosts, or both.

Why is podcasting so popular with bestselling authors? I suspect it’s because people who listen to podcasts are the same kind of people who buy books. Unlike social media, which attracts many non-readers, podcasts tend to attract readers. The podcasting world is a reader-rich environment.

Podcasting is a great way to build your author platform and a great way to sell more books. As you grow in your writing career, you will interact more with podcasters. You may even become one yourself. 

The better you understand podcasting and podcasters, the more successful you will be as an author. So here’s a secret: More than anything else, podcasters want listeners. 

I interviewed David Hooper, the author of Big Podcast: How To Grow Your Podcast Audience and Build Listener Loyalty He hosts the Big Podcast, a show about how to get more listeners. David and I talked about how you can grow your podcast listenership. 

Even if you don’t have a podcast, his interview will help you understand podcasters better, which can lead to more bookings and more promotion on podcasts. 

How can a new podcaster get more listeners?

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: What can a new podcaster do to start getting more listeners? 

David Hooper: Before you release your first episode, take a personal inventory.

  • What do you bring to the table?
  • Who is your audience? 
  • What’s your message?
  • What’s your personality like? 
  • How do you want to be perceived?

When you begin a novel, you’re thinking about the same things. I encourage people to answer those questions before starting a novel or a podcast.

Thomas: If authors follow my advice, they’re already thinking about what kind of book their audience wants to read and pay for.

David: If you start a podcast, you could read Thomas’s blog posts, cross out “book,” and replace it with “podcast.” Thomas, you’re clear about who listens to your podcast. I imagine you learned more about your audience after you started podcasting, but you knew who you wanted to talk to from the beginning.

Thomas: Yes. Our podcast listenership grew out of our blog and email audiences. In the beginning, it grew from people who heard me speak at writers conferences around the country.

When you’re starting, you have to find your listeners by hand in real life. Your first listeners are often people you already know. If that sounds like it doesn’t scale, you’re right. But it’s not about scaling at the beginning. It’s about getting to know your listeners. 

We have recorded 300 episodes now, so our early episodes from 2013 were not very good. That’s true with every podcast. Even seasoned podcasters have improved over the years. When you begin, there is a bit of a mismatch. It takes time to find your voice and audience.

David: With books, you start with a first draft, and you continue to edit. You can go back and rewrite a book and publish a second edition. It’s a living-breathing document that should be changing. People change too. I’d encourage people to listen to your early episodes. You’ll see how Thomas’ podcast has grown and improved based on listener feedback.

Thomas: In a sense, you don’t want to promote too hard at the beginning. If you get everyone in your target audience to listen to your first episode, but it’s not very good, then all your target listeners have made a judgment you’ll have to overcome.

When Google first launched, they didn’t advertise. They knew they were improving every day. The longer it took someone to discover Google, the better search experience that person would have. When Google started, they had poor to fair service for two years. Being patient allowed them to build a better product that people eventually loved.

David: In my book Big Podcast, I tell people to launch with 25 episodes. And by “launch” I mean make a big announcement. Wait until you’ve released 25 episodes before you start telling a lot of people about your podcast. 

I get pushback on that suggestion because people who release one episode every two weeks think it will take too long. I encourage them to release every week or five days a week to get up to that 25 episode mark. Use those early episodes to figure out who you want to interview and what you’ll cover in your solo episodes. 

If you let people know about it too early, you’ll ruin that first impression.

I’d suggest the same plan of action for novelists. Some authors write their first novel, and they know it’s just OK. It would be easy to self-publish it because it’s complete. But those authors would be wiser to hold off on releasing the first book and put their effort into the second novel by applying what they’ve learned from the first book. They can rewrite the first book later. 

Once you’ve spent so much time on a project, it’s natural to want to release it into the world. But if you release too soon, it could be the kiss of death.

Thomas: It’s challenging because if you record 25 episodes without listener feedback, you might not find out that your topic is off until you record episode 26. 

David: You bring up a good point. I’m recommending a soft launch like restaurants do. If you open a street taco restaurant in Texas, you need the right recipe. You have to conduct taste tests and make sure the service is great. Then you invite your friends to give it a test run. They are your beta testers, just like you’d have beta readers for a book.

I’m not suggesting you take a year to release it, but I am saying you probably can’t start a good podcast in a weekend. It will take you a good three months. 

You need to learn if you’re good on the mic. You can’t just speak into a mic and then not edit it. 

The words in your books are well-crafted and edited. Those editing features aren’t necessarily built in with podcasting, so you have to bring them yourself. You need to edit your own podcast.

Thomas: That’s one difference between promoting books and podcasts. With a book, you do a lot of work to get it perfect for your 30-60 day launch window. A physical bookstore may send your perfect books back if they don’t sell. 

Many readers use bestsellers lists to discover new books, so you may aim to hit a bestseller list during your launch.

But in the podcast world, people aren’t looking through a list of popular podcasts to find a new podcast to listen to.

David: Not as much. It would be difficult for you to get your podcast placed on a big podcast chart. The book charts are so niched. You can be a category bestseller in a niche genre. 

The podcast charts are broadly categorized as Business, Entertainment, or Storytelling. When you enter those categories, you’ll be in the running with NPR.  

Thomas: A new book gets lots of sales during the launch, but people don’t usually buy additional copies once they own the book. A new book has the advantage of being new. No one has it yet. 

With a podcast, you build a listenership over time. It’s almost impossible for a brand-new podcast to challenge the big dogs at the top of the charts.

Joe Rogan started building his audience in 2005. If you want an audience like Joe Rogan’s, you’ll have to work for 15 years and record 1500 episodes. The best week of downloads for podcasters might be after five or ten years of consistently releasing episodes.

David: I’d argue that Rogan started when he was on Fear Factor and doing stand-up comedy. He was already somewhat well-known. People in the industry knew him.

That’s why I encourage people to assess what they bring to the table before they start. 

  • Do you have connections in the industry? 
  • Do you have the skillset?
  • Do people already know your books?
  • Are people asking for more content from you?

Take advantage of those things to help you get started. You can go to those people who are asking and create your podcast just for those people. They are your core listeners.

It will take some time, but you’ve probably already started somewhere with your book, social medial, and speaking engagements. 

Thomas: If you want to be encouraged in your podcast, listen to Joe Rogan’s early podcasts. Being a good public speaker in Hollywood doesn’t make you good on a microphone. It took Rogan a long time to sound good on a podcast.

David: It’s easy to look at a long-time podcaster like Thomas and say, “Podcasting sounds easy.” But you’ve learned some things after 300 episodes. 

I’d tell a new podcaster, “You need to edit your own podcast for at least your first 100 episodes.” You’ll find “ums” and “ahs” as well as vocal ticks and sayings you don’t realize you’re using, like “you know what I mean?” 

When you edit, you’ll find out how you really talk. It can be scary to listen to yourself, but you need to get comfortable listening to yourself so you can improve your speaking.

Thomas: I still do a content edit for my podcast episodes. I listen to every episode at least once. How can I expect someone else to listen to this show if I won’t listen to it myself? If I’m bored with my own show, something is wrong. I don’t want to create a boring show.

How do you break out of a download plateau and start growing again?

Thomas: What would you say to a podcaster with a consistent number of downloads, but she can’t get her listeners to share the show? How do you convert listeners into listener evangelists? 

David: You can encourage your listeners to share one episode with two people. 

I saw a street performer in Santa Monica on Venice Beach perform his limbo tricks. When he was done, he said, “I’m going to go around and collect money. I don’t want one dollar. I want two dollars.” 

I thought to myself, “That guy just doubled his money.”

If you’re asking your listeners to engage, tell them what you want. Don’t ask for too much. Don’t ask them to tell 20 friends. Ask them to tell two. You could be funny about it and say, “I know you have at least two friends. If those two friends are into this topic, do me a favor and tell those two friends.”

You might only get 5% of your listeners to respond. But you must be clear about what you want your audience to do. Let them know that your podcast doesn’t grow on its own. You need them to be involved in what you’re building. Let them be involved in your content.

Thomas: Yes. Incorporate listener voices. If one of your listeners hears their voice on your podcast, they’re far more likely to share it with friends and say, “Hey! I was on my favorite podcast today!”

David: A quick way to do that is to go to Google Voice and set up a voicemail account. Google Voice will let you download mp3s of that voicemail, and you can incorporate it into your podcast.

You may get some weird messages, so be prepared, but you also get social proof that real people listen and engage. You’ll make the conversation more interesting by bringing in different voices. You’re also inviting your biggest fans to build the content with you. That’s when they’ll start evangelizing for you.

Thomas: At the end of this show, I feature our Listener Help Line at 512-827-8377. It’s a Google Voice number, and when you leave a voicemail, Google Voice transcribes the text and sends me an email. I can tell whether the voicemail is a listener question or a car insurance salesperson. 

I download those mp3s to a file folder on my computer, and I get episode ideas from those voicemails. If you hear a listener ask a question, it’s probably because they’ve left a voicemail that I’ve downloaded.

I also use SpeakPipe on my website, which allows listeners to record a high-quality message. For some people, calling a phone number is technically easier.

David: I’m glad you mentioned that. I stole an idea from a Taylor Swift concert. There was a phone number on the screen, and you could text a photo or send a video of you and your friend getting hyped before the show, and they’d put it on the big screen while everyone was waiting for Taylor to come out.

If I’ve got a big crowd, I’m always looking for how I can get them engaged in my podcast immediately. The level of tech awareness varies. If I ask people to go to BigPodcast.com, they might not know how to do it on a smartphone. But everyone knows how to dial a phone number, even an older audience. 

If you want to try it out, text this number:

Big Podcast Phone Number: 615-488-4321

You’ll hear a voice message from me, and you’ll get a quick text. I won’t add you to a list, but you’ll be immediately subscribed to my podcast based on what kind of phone you’re using. It’s one way I can make technology easy.

Thomas: This is where it’s important to know your audience. If your audience is younger, they’re less likely to dial a phone number. Younger people think phone calls are for emergencies. I was limited to 200 minutes on my phone when I grew up, so I only used it for emergencies. 

Even though today I have unlimited minutes, psychologically, I’m not used to talking on my phone for something that’s not an emergency.

An older audience will remember talking on the phone with relatives and friends for fun, so they’re much more likely to be willing to dial a phone number.

Tailor your approach to your audience. Find out what works best for them and serve them by making it easy.

How do you promote to new audiences?

Thomas: One problem with word-of-mouth marketing is that people tend to live in bubbles. Unless you travel for work, you probably interact most with people in your geographic area. Even in the age of the internet, most of your Facebook friends live geographically close to you.

How do you break out of your acquaintance bubble and reach out to strangers?

David: Whether you’re promoting your books or your podcast, you can connect with tertiary audiences—people interested in your content from a different angle than your primary audience. Let me explain.

I have a syndicated show called Music Business Radio. My background is in the music business industry. Since 2005 I’ve interviewed musicians, rock stars, publicists, behind-the-scenes engineers, and marketing people. If you’re doing anything behind the mic or in front of it, you’re interviewing with me.

One time a novelist approached me with a mystery book called Murder on Music Row. It was a crime story set in the music industry. Guess who’s interested in that book? People who are in the music industry. 

This guy came on the show as a journalist with a fascinating book about rigging the billboard charts. I got to ask him how he researched the book, and we were able to cover many topics that other people would be afraid to talk about because it was “just fiction.” That was a completely new audience for him. The people in the music industry who loved that book knew other people in the music industry, and the word-of-mouth marketing spread. The interview went out to 60,000 people, which set off a snowball effect that continued for him for a long time. It’s still a well-respected book in the industry.

If you’re looking to get outside of your true-crime audience, you can reach out to the niches, like the music industry in Nashville, and connect with broadcasters and podcasters who talk about something related to your book. You can reach an entirely new audience with your podcast or your book.

If your book is about boating, or if you have a true-crime boating mystery, I’m sure the boating podcasters would love to talk to you about your book.

Thomas: If you have a podcast, you can also partner with other podcasters. History Podcasters do a great job cross-promoting with other podcasts. The median number of downloads for a new podcast is about 60 in almost every category except for History. The median number of downloads for history podcasts is 500 downloads per episode because the history podcasters are collaborating. 

When you listen to a history podcast, you’ll often hear another history podcaster introduce the episode. They trade introductions for each other. 

They also do cross-casts. When podcasters “cross-cast,” they record an interview together, but they each record their own intro and outro, They each edit the interview according to their podcast format. Then they release the same interview on their separate podcasts for their respective audiences.

David: I would call that syndication. Any time you can be on someone else’s network, feed, or station, you’ll benefit. You could do an intro, segment, or provide a piece of content they can use. It’s better for others to talk about you than for you to talk about yourself.

Thomas: As Peter Cook said, “The problem isn’t piracy. It’s obscurity.” If you’re willing to let people outside of your community share your content and hear your voice for free, your podcast will grow. Don’t think of it as people taking your content for free. Think of it as free promotion. Once your thinking shifts, you become more generous with your content and interviews. 

Guesting on a competing podcast will not hinder your own podcast. 

David: It’s better to get your content out any way possible. 

In the music business, Jennifer Lopez isn’t making the bulk of her money on the music she records because so many other people are paid to write and produce it. They’re making the royalties from air plays. She’s making money because she’s a celebrity with her own brand who can make a movie for $20 million. 

The same goes for bands like Danzig or the Ramones. They do live shows and sell t-shirts and merch. They’re not necessarily making money from their music. If you’re a content creator with merchandising and licensing, you can figure out a way to make money. You can do a lot with your podcast if you think like that.

How should a podcaster invest money in their podcast?

Thomas: If I gave you $1,000 to spend on your podcast, where would you spend it? 

David: If I had $1,000, I would buy a quality broadcast microphone like the ATR 2100v for $100 on Amazon. I would buy a mic processor like the DPX 286 to EQ your voice and make you sound podcast friendly. It will eliminate the sound of your breathing. I’d also buy the Scarlett 2i2 for your computer. 

I’d focus on the quality of the podcast. I have a book for $10.95 Big Podcast you could add to the tally. There is an audiobook version. If you bought all of that for about $500, then I’d spend the rest on software like Riverside.fmSquadcast, or some education. 

There are no shortcuts to podcasting or writing. There are best practices that help you save time, but in the end, it’s your connection with another human. There are no shortcuts to human connection. You have to listen and be open to change.

We can throw money at things to make an OK podcast fly for a little while, or we can create something great. Focus on your content and get a good recording. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth recording. And if it’s worth recording, it’s worth recording right. 

Thomas: The same goes for your book. Before you spend money advertising your book with Amazon or Facebook ads, you’re typically better off getting a new, quality cover. If sales are bad, it’s often because the cover is bad. It may be a pretty cover, but if it’s not selling the book, then it’s a bad cover. If the cover isn’t convincing people to buy, showing the cover to more people through ads won’t sell your book.

Good setup must come first.

I’ve recently started sponsoring other podcasts, like Dave Jackson’s School of Podcasting and Write from the Deep. I’m sponsoring mostly Author podcasts, and last month was our best month of downloads. 

Everyone listening to a podcast is already a podcast listener. When I reach out to sponsor a podcast, some of them have never had sponsors before. I can present the Novel Marketing podcast to their audience of podcast-listening authors.

If you decide to advertise on a podcast, don’t have the host read the same thing for every episode. Your ad should sound like helpful content, so it shouldn’t be the same thing every time. People binge podcasts. If they hear the same ad-read 20 times in a row, they’ll hate you instead of love you.

David: Right. You introduced this show right as we were starting this interview which is so smart. You’ve never done that exact intro before. So many people start with a piece they’ve recorded and tweaked, and then they come in with the interview on a lower quality mic, and listeners notice.

If you use the same recorded intro repeatedly, people will skip your intro. Even if you’re reading mostly the same thing live, your voice inflection will be new and different every time. 

You can give a podcast host bullet points and let them do their own thing when they read your ad. That way, it’s not so canned.

Thomas: That’s what I do. I want the host to contextualize the ad because they know their audience, and I don’t. If I demand they use certain wording, I’m assuming I have knowledge I don’t have.

You want the host to say the right web address, but other than that, give them freedom.

I like to do the intro live while the guest is listening so they can hear the promises I’m making to my audience about what they’ll get from the episode. Every episode opens with a sales pitch about why people should listen and what they’ll get. 

I find that more effective than letting the conversation go wherever it will and then painting a red dot where the arrow lands so I can record an intro around that. Some podcasts do that, but it doesn’t work for this show.

David: If you’re interviewing authors who don’t have much podcast experience, that live intro is so helpful for getting them in the mood and showing the energy. The alternative is having that ho-hum, pre-recording chit-chat about why you’re late and then jumping into a high-energy recording. It’s helpful to guide your guests and your listeners into the podcast.

What encouragement do you have for a podcaster discouraged about the number of downloads?

David: Don’t concentrate on downloads. Obviously, you want it to be heard, and you want to make an impact, but numbers aren’t people. Focus on the people. Downloads don’t automatically mean people are applying your message. I’d focus on impact. If you have the right fans, you can have a big impact. You don’t need big numbers. You just need to help the people you can. 

Thomas doesn’t have a top-ten podcast but look at his impact. He doesn’t have millions of listeners, but he still makes a big impact. It’s doable, and it’s doable for you.

Thomas: Picture the people in a room. If you have 60 downloads, remember, that’s the same as speaking to 60 people in a breakout session at a writers conference. If you’d be willing to fly to a conference to speak to 60 people, you can be willing to show up weekly for your podcast audience. 

David: Imagine that someone from that breakout session says, “I’m the acquisition guy for Amazon, and we’d like to option your book.” One person in your audience can do that. Serve the people who will do something with your information.

Learn more about David Hooper and Big Podcast.

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