At Novel Marketing, we talk a lot about the benefits of podcasting. It’s easy to see how podcasting can help a nonfiction writer’s career, but fiction writers often wonder what to podcast about.
If you write fiction, one option is to podcast your story as a serialized podcast before your book releases. My brother is doing this right now with his book, Pilgrim’s Progress Reloaded.
It might seem counterintuitive. Authors ask me, “Why would people buy my book if they’ve already listened to the podcast of the novel?”
In response, I ask, “Why would I want to see the movie if I’ve already read the book?”
People who have already read the book are typically first in line to see the movie! It’s the same with podcasting.
But you don’t have to take my word for it.
For years, I have been telling you about legendary author Scott Sigler, who started his career by narrating his unabridged audiobooks and serializing them in weekly installments.
He became a #1 New York Times bestselling author and the creator of eighteen novels, six novellas, and dozens of short stories. He invented podcasting your novel and is an inaugural inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame.
How did Scott Sigler get started podcasting his novels?
Thomas: You were an unpublished author with a manuscript on your hard drive. What made you want to turn that into a podcast?
Scott: I had wanted to be a writer since I was in third grade, and I actually had several manuscripts on my hard drive. I’d been chasing the dream of becoming a full-time novelist for about 12 years, not counting my years in college getting a journalism degree.
At the time, I was working for a company called S & P Communications that did fabricated talk radio shows for Fortune 500 companies.
A company like Sun Microsystems, which had 20,000 employees, was like a small city. And in any small city, there are radio stations and newspapers. So S & P communications operated the radio station for these big Fortune 500 companies. That meant they had a ton of recording gear, and I was their marketing guy for two years.
In 2004 I learned about podcasting. I was an aspiring novelist, so I went looking for a novel to listen to on a podcast, but I couldn’t find one. After searching Google for a couple of days with different word combinations, I realized I couldn’t find novels on a podcast because there weren’t any.
That’s when I went whole hog. I went to work at 3:00 AM to use their gorgeous recording equipment, and I started recording my own audiobook. Everything was so new. RSS feeds were foreign to me at that time, and iTunes didn’t even have podcasts.
I started releasing episodes of my book Earth Core, and after five or six episodes, the audience started gathering. Mark Jeffrey was doing the same thing with his book The Pocket and the Pendant, and Tee Morris was recording Morevi. All three of our audiobooks wound up on a podcast called The Dragon Page, hosted by Evo Terra and Mike Meninge, which also grew the audience.
There were only a couple hundred podcasts in the world at that point, so we started getting big subscriptions. Jeffrey and Morris already had their books out, but I didn’t because I couldn’t get published.
My podcasts were hitting at the same time as the TV shows Lost and 24. So America was newly turned on to long-form serialized content instead of episodic content that you can watch out of order. Earth Core fit in with Lost and 24, and we started to gain a big audience.
I wound up getting this rabid fan base that waited every Sunday to hear my episode. They’d share it with their friends and say, “Check out this free unabridged audiobook. He’s not going to hold back the last episode. It’s great stuff.”
When we were done podcasting the novel, we published a print book. My next book was called Ancestor. When I finished podcasting that one, I had a print deal with a small Canadian imprint.
I realized I was doing a good job of getting people to spread the word. So, I decided to see if I could get everyone in my audience to buy the book on the same day.
I guested on many other podcasts and openly explained my strategy to those podcast audiences. On April 1st, 2007, those interviews went live and everybody started to buy my book Ancestor.
This all happened before the time of the ebook. Ancestor was an indie trade paperback with no marketing money behind it. But because so many people went to buy the book that day, it climbed the charts. It achieved:
- #1 in horror on Amazon
- #1 in sci-fi on Amazon
- #2 in fiction on Amazon, right behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Ancestor was a gigantic success.
How did you get your publishing deal?
The publishing people in New York were asking, “Who is this guy? How did he do that? We’ve never heard of him. He’s not in the trades or bookstores, so how is his book selling so well on Amazon?”
I had changed agents about six months prior, and my new agent, Byrd Leavell, had put my third book, Infected, in front of publishers who hadn’t seen it before. It was nuts. Ancestor went to number one, and within a week, publishers were in an auction for Infected.
We got the deal for Infected and sold the movie rights the next day. The day after that, Julian Pavia, an editor from Crown (a division of Random House), emailed and said, “We like things in trilogies. Does this happen to be a trilogy?”
I said, “Not really.”
So, Julian said, “Can you make it a trilogy?”
I asked for 15 minutes, wrote a paragraph for books two and three, and sent it to him. They also bought those two books, and it became a three-book deal. Then they had me buy back the rights to Earth Core and Ancestor so they could control the Scott Sigler brand.
I had been banging my head against the wall for 16 years, collecting 153 rejection letters, and attending writers conferences to meet editors, make connections, and get my book in front of people. Within two weeks, I had a five-book deal with Random House and had a movie optioned.
Thomas: Podcasting your novel made the difference. Your book and proposal didn’t change, but the magic sauce was your sales results on Amazon due to your podcast.
Scott: My Amazon sales were a huge part of it. I had been sending my book to publishers. They always said, “We like it, but we don’t know what shelf to put it on.” My book was horror but not vampire or supernatural, which were huge at the time. It’s a thriller, but it’s got sci-fi and military elements. Publishers didn’t know what to do with it.
At one point, I had 20,000 people listening every week, and when I told agents and editors, they just didn’t understand the numbers. They didn’t know what numbers on the internet meant. Some publishers weren’t even on the internet.
The ranking on Amazon translated into sales numbers publishers could understand. They didn’t know what I was doing. They had no idea what podcasting a novel was, but they knew something was going on, and they wanted to grab it.
Thomas: Crown Publishing bought the rights to books you had already read completely for free on your podcast. Giving your book away for free to build a huge fanbase is not necessarily a liability.
In fact, it made all the difference for you. It allowed you to demonstrate that 20,000 people were excited about the podcast of your novel and wanted to buy the paper version.
Scott: The paper book became more of a token. It was a Talisman. People who’d listened to all the episodes felt connected to me as an author and bought the book as soon as it was available.
Most of them bought the book to support me because I asked them to buy it. Listeners felt they’d already received their money’s worth from the free story.
Many people bought the book to have it on their shelves with their other favorite books.
Today, it’s different because audiobooks are the biggest revenue generator for publishers.
Some folks say that releasing audio that would compromise an audiobook deal, could be a bad thing. But I don’t agree with that at all.
Podcast fiction and ebooks are the minor leagues of the publishing world. If you publish an ebook and sell 500,000 copies, the big traditional publisher will not be mad. Instead, they’ll be glad to see proof that you have a market-tested product that resonates with readers.
Normally, they have absolutely no idea how a new author’s book will sell.
A podcast with a massive listenership or an ebook with a massive readership will draw the publishers. They’re going to spend a lot of money to produce a book, and if they know it already has resonance in the marketplace, they’re much more likely to pull the trigger and pick it up.
Thomas: There’s a court case where a couple of the big five publishers are trying to merge, and all the dirty laundry of the publishing industry is being aired.
Recently, they revealed that half of all traditionally published books sell less than 1,000 copies. That means that even with a big traditional publisher, you may not get many sales, and the publisher will lose money on your book.
If you can demonstrate that you have a fan base who will talk about the book, your publisher will take notice.
Has the serialized podcast strategy cannibalized your audiobook sales?
Scott: No. They are two different marketplaces. The podcast is for people who want to listen to me talk before or after the story on each episode.
People who simply want the audiobook can buy it on Audible.
We also pitch the podcast by saying, “It’s 40 free episodes you’ll get for the next 40 Sundays. If you want the whole thing immediately, you can buy it on Audible.”
The two complement each other.
You can record each episode, and when you’re done, you can put them together and have a file that’s almost ready to upload to Audible. Or you could reverse the process. You could record the whole book, upload it to Audible, and then release the chapters on a podcast weekly.
Audible is where the money is for most authors.
Thomas: I love how you use the cliffhanger at the end of each episode to subtly sell your audiobook. You explain that if listeners can’t wait until next Sunday’s podcast to find out what happens, they can get the audiobook on Audible immediately.
Why did you leave the traditional publishers and go indie?
Thomas: I noticed you’re no longer with a traditional publisher. Why did you go indie?
Scott: We decided to go indie largely because of our galactic football league series.
I offered it to all the sci-fi houses, and everybody passed on it. Even after I was selling books on the New York Times list with Contagious, they just weren’t interested.
This series was a passion play for me, so we published the first book of the series ourselves and learned a ton about the indie publishing process.
We made a hardcover, limited edition with color plates inside and did a full offset print run of 2,000 copies. It sold out almost immediately.
Then we released the paperback and the audiobook, which was what I’d recorded for the podcast. That was when Amazon’s audiobook publishing platform, ACX, came out with extremely competitive royalties that started at 40% or 50%. After every 1,000 units you sold, they’d bump your royalty up one percentage point.
I knew I would get 8%, at most, for every audiobook Random House published for me. Plus, it was nearly impossible to find out from Random House how much I had made on the audiobooks that sold in a quarter. It was a train wreck trying to reach people, and we sometimes waited two years to find out.
We put so much effort into marketing, but we had no idea if any of it worked. The only metric we had was our Amazon ranking.
We could see we’d be making five times what we would get from Random House.
We knew we’d sell a lot more copies with Random House but at a much lower royalty rate. On the other hand, we could sell fewer copies ourselves at a much higher royalty rate. But, in addition to that higher royalty, we also had a couple of books on Audible where the royalty rate kept climbing. One book was earning us a 90% royalty. (Amazon has since done away with that royalty structure).
We took every property we had and used ACX to put them on Audible. That was our main source of revenue, and because that continues, even though Audible now has a fixed 40% royalty.
At that time, we were easily getting our books into bookstores. If we continued to publish with Random House, we’d be giving up rights and the higher royalty in exchange for a couple of months of marketing done by the publisher…maybe.
In the process of working with the traditional publishers’ marketing departments, we learned that things fell through the cracks.
I’m an ex-marketing guy with a degree in marketing, and I’ve worked for small software companies doing marketing. To some extent, I know what I’m doing. I knew how to budget my limited time and money to create a marketing plan.
When we started to work with the big publishers, I’d let them know what marketing I could do, and they would list the marketing activities they would do. It was cool because it took some marketing pressure off my plate.
But after the book came out, we often learned they had not done what they said they would do.
After the book is out, it’s too late. You can’t bump up that first week’s sales.
Random House did have an exceptional editing process and packaging team. They could make a fantastic product and send me to cons and book tours. You can do some of that on your own but not like they can do it. We had to give that up to go indie, which was part of the compromise for retaining rights and royalties.
When we looked at the long-term revenue, going indie was the better choice.
How do you format your podcast episodes?
Thomas: There are many ways to format a podcast. Your podcast opens with announcements such as which conventions you plan to attend and book news.
I love that you start with a personal touch because it’s different than just listening to the audiobook. It also humanizes you.
Some podcasters can be too professional and may seem robotic or distant. Your personal remarks build a connection and help listeners feel like they know you. You’re not just a generic narrator reading a book. You’re Scott Sigler!
After announcements, you recap the previous episode.
Why do you recap when they could just listen to that last episode again?
Scott: Because sometimes people binge and download everything. Other times people listen to episode four and then life gets in the way. They might come back three months later to hear episode five, so they need a little review of the previous episode.
Recapping is also how I cue up the most important parts of the upcoming episode. The recap is like a memory trigger for the reader. They’re not confused when they get to that big “aha” moment in that episode.
We always open with a bombastic, over-the-top, theatrical theme song. Then I say, “This is Scott Siegler, and I’m a New York Times bestseller reading Nocturnal. Nocturnal is available in all formats at Amazon.com or go to ScottSiegler.com/nocturnal.” We try to keep all of that to 15 seconds.
Humanizing Chit Chat
Then we do what I call “the four minutes of fury” when we tell the audience everything we’re doing. We’re very open. I’ll say, “The next four minutes is just me blabbing. If you want to skip it, move to the four-minute mark, and you’ll get right into the story.”
Letting them know it’s only a limited amount of talking makes many listeners go ahead and listen to it. But when they don’t know how long it will be, they start hitting that skip button.
If I plan to tell a longer story about my time at Dragon Con, I’ll mention it at the beginning and tell them to stick around after the episode. After the story, I can talk for 15 minutes. If you meet Joe Rogan, you can add a whole hour of content at the end of your episode. People who want to hear more than just you podcasting your novel absolutely eat it up.
From day one, we were open with the audience about what we did and didn’t know how to do. That has worked for us. We never pretended to be super professional.
Many people try to present a book as far more successful than it is, but audiences love an underdog story.
If you’re an indie author, tell your audience about the bumps and bruises. Tell them you couldn’t write for a week because the baby got sick. You won’t get that kind of humanizing information from Stephen King or Ann Rice.
Fiction lovers adore a peek behind the curtain to see the wizard making all his stuff. They want to know a bit about how podcasting a novel and publishing a book works.
People are wired to respond to the human voice. When you read a story to people for an hour each week, they become fans. The human voice communicates emotion and intensity, and people connect.
People will still connect with you if you’re not a great narrator. Your confidence as a narrator will grow over time. If people feel like they know you, they’ll be your fan.
Pro Tip: Consistency
If you plan to podcast your novels, sit down and figure out how to do it consistently.
There are two schools of thought on podcast frequency.
I’ve been doing it nonstop for 16 years, and most of my audience has come from the fact that every Sunday, I’m there. No matter what’s going on in the listener’s life, they know Scott will tell them a story for 45 minutes. That schedule has worked well for me.
The environment may have changed, though. Shows like Serial and NPR drop a whole batch of episodes. Other shows run for a season with breaks in between.
That works pretty well, but I think those podcasts also lose listeners. The longer they go without publishing something, the more listeners they’ll lose.
I’m a big proponent of mapping it out. Talk with your spouse and let them know you plan to podcast every week for the next three years. That’s when you’ll start to see significant results, and the audience will bloom.
Thomas: I think a seasonal schedule can work because not everyone writes enough to generate 45 minutes of audio every week.
Pro Tip: Avoid the Binge Drop
The binge drop strategy is a big mistake though. With the binge-drop strategy, you release ten episodes or the whole book at once.
It doesn’t work because some podcast apps will only download the most recent episode. If you drop ten episodes at once, the app will only download the last chapter.
Listeners get confused, and you lose momentum.
With the weekly drop, your listeners can talk to each other all week without spoiling the next episode. Every week, there’s a new episode to get excited about.
Pro Tip: Cultivate Listener Relationships
Scott: The fan discussion was a huge part of my success early on.
We were podcasting audiobooks when Facebook was still in one campus dorm room. On our website, people could sign up, create a profile, and interact. We had 15,000 people and some of them were very active in the community.
Friendships formed in that community, and some of our superfans are still friends today.
In today’s context, you need to be responsive to people online. It’s not a second full-time job, but you must budget time to respond to people who comment.
Listeners hear your voice and get to know you as a human being. And, whether it’s accurate or not, they count you as a friend. You are there for them every week.
When someone tags you online saying they love your work, and you respond with “I’m glad you liked it!” you’ll get crazy super fans. People will love it.
We don’t spend as much time as we used to on social media, but for a while we tried to respond to everything to show that we were paying attention and listening. That’s how we made great relationships with readers.
Thomas: If you’re a full-time author, you’re more likely to have time for social media. If you have to choose between working on your book and doing social media, work on your book because that’s how you’ll improve your writing.
You don’t become famous by doing social media. You can become famous by writing an amazing book so your fans rave about your fiction. Social media is one of those luxuries for successful authors.
No one on social media will think, “That meme was so funny. Now I want to read your novel.”
Is social media effective for selling books?
Scott: I don’t think sharing memes sells books, but many authors get big numbers on Twitter, where meme sharing is common. Many people do it well.
We don’t share memes or discuss polarizing political topics. For some authors, those are marketing tactics, but in our community, we offer an escape from that.
I don’t know how effective social media is anymore. I do know that if you respond when people mention you on social media, your response cultivates the reader relationship.
Doing it all requires a lot of time. At one point, I was a full-time writer, a full-time marketer, and had a full-time day job. It was nuts. That was all I did, but I didn’t have kids either.
Thomas: Social media doesn’t work like it used to. Facebook has changed its algorithm to give you some juice for your interaction, but as soon as you send users to Amazon to buy your book or to listen to your podcast, your particular post will get suppressed unless you put money behind it.
The only thing that’s working on Facebook right now is advertising. You have to pay to reach your own audience. Some indie authors can profitably advertise on Facebook, but with the new Apple changes and privacy shifts, targeting the right people has gotten harder.
Scott: We’ve spent money on Facebook, but I agree.
Facebook is in the process of digging its own grave. I had 23,000 people who had opted into my Facebook page. They said, “Yes! I want to hear what this guy’s saying.” But when we post, we’re lucky to get 1% penetration. Facebook wants you to pay to reach the people who have opted in to hear from you.
Facebook would be viewed more favorably if they’d give people what they want to see.
Their advertising platform has become so complicated. We gave up on that a couple of years ago. We didn’t see the returns we wanted and couldn’t measure the returns we saw. It was complicated, and it took up a lot of time.
Thomas: That’s common. Many authors gave up a couple of years ago.
It still can work, but making it work has become much harder. You can often spend your time doing something else that’s far more effective. Social media can easily gobble up your book-writing time.
How does serializing your story affect your writing?
Thomas: When you write, do you think about the fact that your book will be a serialized podcast? Does that affect how you tell the story? Do you think about episode breaks or just write the story?
Scott: I just write the story the way it would be in a single volume. My engineer divides it up. Our rule of thumb is to end an episode at the first logical break after 20 minutes. We don’t stop in the middle of a scene. We wait for a chapter to end. If that makes it a 45-minute episode, it’s fine.
It doesn’t affect my style much anymore, but over the first ten years, podcasting drastically changed my writing style. I was literally recording in a closet in San Francisco, and I would write the story and then read it into the microphone.
As I was reading, I started to realize I was getting bored reading my own book in certain places. That discover taught me to cut long-winded descriptions or things that didn’t contribute to the story. My writing became much more succinct, like a spoken-word style.
For example, no one uses complete sentences in conversations with pals at a bar. When you’re texting, you’re having rapid-fire, bullet-point conversations, and everybody knows what everybody else is saying.
That has impacted my style a lot. In fact, my new editor hadn’t been around my work before. When I got the edits back, there were 9,000 corrections because she had applied traditional grammar to it, which is her job.
But now I’m old enough to have a very specific style that is directly informed by podcasting. Our company is Empty Set Entertainment, and we put out audiobooks. The audiobooks are just me, but our focal point is writing a book that’s meant to sell. We’ll have a top-notch narrator. We’ll sell audiobooks. My writing style feeds the narrative.
Thomas: A similar writing style transformation happened to C.S. Lewis.
Lewis was a professor, and his early books were very academic. Then the BBC asked him to do a series of radio programs that were released during the blitz.
Listeners would be hunkered in their London homes while being bombed by the Nazis, listening to C.S. Lewis.
After that, his writing shifted and became more conversational and approachable. He was popular before the radio programs, but he became insanely popular afterward because his writing became more approachable.
You don’t need an English degree to appreciate the Narnia books.
Podcasting your book forces you to read it out loud. Every writer has heard the advice to read their writing out loud, but when you’re recording a podcast, you’re doing it for real.
Listening to your own work helps you become more conversational. You’ll hear whether your style and voice are accomplishing your goals.
Scott: I became a much better writer by reading my books out loud.
Today, I’m working on the final draft of Shakedown. Before I finish a chapter, I have Microsoft Word read me the whole chapter.
I catch so many reading “speed bumps,” which is anything that reminds you that you’re reading.
I’ll hear a homophone in neighboring sentences or notice the same word too often. Repeated phrases and confusing quote attributions also stand out. You pick up much of that when you sit back and listen to it.
What advice do you have for authors who want to podcast their novels?
Build Your Brand Around Your Name
Scott: First, remember that you aren’t selling a book or a series. You’re selling yourself. All of your signage, branding, and imagery should be your author name. That’s what you are selling.
Begin with a Single Podcast Feed
Secondly, I would advise against making a series-specific podcast feed.
When I did Earth Core, it had a huge fan base. When I started Ancestor, I made a brand-new podcast feed for it, and most of that audience was gone. I had to get people who already liked my stuff to sign up for the new feed.
For your first five books, you should only have one single feed. Remember, it’s not the property that gets the branding. It’s you. Everything should come through YourAuthorName.com.
Over the years, things have changed for me. Now that I have 18 podcasted books, we’re using our back catalog content and releasing them as individual properties in the various podcasting feeds.
At one time, there were limits on how long a podcast feed could be. We had to go back and cut the old books from the feed to release a new book. Now, all of those old books are getting their own feeds.
If you’re starting out, remember that every minute and penny you spend marketing your author brand name will pay off.
James Patterson is a great model to look at. The titles of his books don’t even matter because readers became customers of James Patterson.
Thomas: Creating separate feeds would be like creating an email newsletter for one book and then having to start again with zero subscribers for your second book.
But giving old books their own feed is a great strategy. You’re exactly right in that people won’t scroll through a thousand episodes of old books.
Start Building an Email List
Scott: I would also strongly advise authors to have an email list.
Email is the one thing you can control throughout your career.
I had spent so much time building a big Facebook group that I could market to, and then the algorithm changed, and it all went away.
Several authors used Tumblr for their websites. They did very well and connected with their audience. But over time, their audience started to age out of using Tumblr. When Tumblr made some changes, its popularity dropped through the floor, and those Tumblr-focused authors lost all that momentum.
You get to keep your email list throughout your entire career.
What are your thoughts on authors who want to publish the first book they wrote?
A couple of years ago, I wrote The 10 Commandments of Novel Marketing. The one I get the most flack about is the ninth commandment: “Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.”
You, Scott Sigler, influenced the creation of that commandment. In your free video series So You Want to Write a Book you talk about, writing the first bad book and getting it out of your system.
Can you give a defense for that?
I’m sure listeners are in the midst of writing or finishing their novels. Writers are prone to think, “That turned out a lot better than I thought it would. My whole family likes it.”
I’m telling you right now, your first book is terrible.
If you don’t know how to write a book, I advise writers to write a bad book. When you write a bad book, and by the fifth chapter, nothing makes sense anymore, you will learn how to push through and finish.
You should not quit that book and start writing another one. If you do, you’ll have four half-finished books. Magic dust will not fall from the sky and help you finish those books.
Write and finish a bad book. If you don’t know what happens in chapter five, just beam in an alien with a gun, even if it does nothing. The only thing that matters is to keep writing. Write an 80,000-word book because that’s market length. Two key things happen when you finish it and put it away in a drawer.
First, you have trained yourself. A small part of your brain now realizes you have and will finish a book when you set out to do so. When you go to write the book you’ve always wanted to write, you can keep plowing forward because you already know you can do it.
Second, put the finished bad book away for six months.
Writers secretly think their bad book is pretty good, but you must put that book away. In six months, read it, and you’ll experience what your readers would have experienced.
I guarantee you that when you read your bad book six months later, you’ll be very happy you did not publish it.
Getting a job requires education or a degree. Writing that bad first book is your own personal college education on novel writing.
No matter what you’ve learned or what writing course you’ve taken, you are not good at this craft yet. Write a bad book first.
Any final encouragement?
Scott: If you want to be a full-time writer who gets engagement, you must keep doing it. It’s repetition.
Learn About Marketing
In today’s market, you must understand some forms of marketing because no one will do it for you. You can pay someone to do marketing for you, but it probably won’t be that great.
The days of being able to just write and let other people take over for you are gone.
Get your head around the fact that it’s a two-sided job of writing and marketing.
Connect with Scott Sigler.
Connect with Scott and listen to his podcast
- Website: ScottSigler.com
- Podcast: Scott Sigler Free Audiobooks (I highly recommend his Stonewolf Series)
- Free Video Series: So You Wanna Be a Writer
If you were looking for help starting a podcast, I’m creating a course to walk you through the process. Right now, the course is in beta, and it’s only available to the beta students of the Obscure No More course.
If you sign up for Obscure No More while it is still in the beta window, you will get access to the Author Podcast Academy. That course is in beta, and you’ll get each module as I create it. The next module I’ll add is on growing your podcast audience. When that is complete, I will officially release the Podcast Academy Course.
If you can’t wait, sign up for Obscure No More at the special beta pricing.
A young swordsman desperate to save his people turns to the only instructor he can find: the bitter champion of the Everlasting Dark. They know Light best…who first know the Dark.
You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.