By Anne McCarthy
Once upon a time, in the early aughts, podcasts—a portmanteau created from the words iPod and broadcasts—were a newfangled, mysterious medium developed to download online radio broadcasts to iPods.
Today, in 2023, there are over three million podcasts worldwide, according to ListenNotes. However, only 44 percent of those podcasts create more than three episodes. Yet there are still over 150,000 podcasts in the world releasing weekly episodes to loyal listeners. Popular podcasts focus on every imaginable topic, from the practical (finance, health, money, parenting) to the niche (true crime, espionage, Gilmore Girls).
So it makes perfect sense that books would take up a respectable amount of real estate on a podcast-topic pie chart. Some of the most popular books-related podcasts include Book Riot: The Podcast, Overdue, Debutiful, Well-Read Black Girl, Book Fight, NPR’s Book of the Day, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and Borrowed.
Publishers have podcasts, too. The Penguin Podcast from Penguin UK is a multi-award-winning podcast that features author interviews. The Little Brown School & Library Podcast highlights authors behind LB books, and Penguin Random House’s This Is the Author “goes behind the mic with authors who read their audiobooks.” Book Stew from Simon & Schuster helps readers discover their next book and “go beyond the page” to learn more about the book and its author.
What the Podcast Hosts Are Saying
Podcast hosts are enthusiastic about podcasting as a way to help books reach bigger audiences. Wudan Yan, a journalist and host of The Writers’ Co-op (an anti-hustle business podcast for freelance creatives), tells New York Book Forum, “Podcasts can be a great tool for authors to spread the word about their new book, largely because podcasts hit a different market from print and TV, for instance.”
Adam Vitcavage hosts the popular podcast Debutiful, which helps listeners discover debut authors. Debutiful has been named a Best Book Podcast by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Book Riot, Town & Country, and more. Founded in 2019, the podcast—along with Vitcavage—champions debut authors. The host previously worked as the director of events at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver.
Vitcavage tells New York Book Forum that his podcast exposes listeners and readers to a wide variety of debut authors—not just those who would be covered by outlets like The New York Times or those who major media outlets might overlook. He shares, “My goal with Debutiful is to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the publishing process and allow readers to sit in on a casual conversation that doesn’t have any motive like other interviews might need to have.”
His Debutiful interviews aren’t overly edited or striving to present a certain image of an author. “When you listen to an interview by me,” he says, “it’s mostly unedited and allows for the author to be the realest version of themself.” Vitcavage also notices that audiences engage attentively with podcasts. “The podcast version of Debutiful accounts for about forty percent of traffic, so people still want to read interviews and booklists, but the engagement I see from listeners is a lot more attentive.”
Craig Getting, cohost of Overdue (“a podcast about the books you’ve been meaning to read”) is the development director at Appel Farm Arts & Music Center, and he’s worked as a director and arts educator in Philly for over a decade. He tells New York Book Forum, “[Overdue is] about books that have been out in the world for a bit . . . and for every episode on a canonized work like Gulliver’s Travels, we try to program something like Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House or This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.”
Getting explains that the new releases fit the podcast’s bill, too. “These newer releases still fit our ‘been meaning to read’ criteria because the book or the author has achieved some sort of notoriety, or they’re tackling interesting material that we haven’t covered in other books.”
How Podcasts Enable an Author’s Authenticity to Shine
Thanks to the advent of social media, we’re living in a time when an individual can be their own PR manager, photo editor, and brand ambassador. Authors—and all people—have the opportunity, now more than ever, to shape the public’s perception of them through social media and to choose how they present themselves online.
But social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, X, and more are limited to images, bite-size videos, or small chunks of text. In contrast, podcasts allow for a deeper dive into any imaginable topic, including, for authors, the writing process, the book’s story, and their own personal story, too. Podcasts are a great way to promote an author’s work and brand, and they are, in some ways, superior to traditional media in terms of what they can offer.
Debutiful host Vitcavage explains, “Podcasts offer a chance for authors to express themselves fully and openly. I’ve done countless print interviews over the past decade, and I’ve noticed authors present differently when something is going to be transcribed and slightly edited.”
In short, authors can be more fully themselves when on a podcast. “Whatever you say is what the listener gets to hear on a podcast,” says Vitcavage. “Podcasts also reach a different audience than print media. I still think doing interviews in your local papers or magazines is important, but a twenty-minute conversation reaches people you never could expect.”
Podcasts Offer a Unique Marketing Advantage for Authors
Best-selling author James Clear speaks to Vitcavage’s observation about podcast episodes’ far-reaching and long-reaching impact. Clear has sold over fifteen million copies of his hit nonfiction book, Atomic Habits. Clear discusses the unique marketing advantage presented by podcasts in a podcast interview for The Tim Ferriss Show. He speaks with The 4-Hour Workweek author and podcast host Tim Ferriss. Clear describes how a one-hour podcast’s impact is substantial and potentially far-reaching, thanks to its replayability.
Clear affirms how podcasts actively foster collaboration by engaging listeners—over and over again. “When Atomic Habits came out,” he tells Ferriss, “I did a ton of interviews. Some of those interviews were on radio, and I don’t really do radio interviews anymore because as soon as I get done with that ten-minute segment or whatever it was, all the work that I put in[to] it vanishes. Nobody’s listening anymore; it’s off the air. Whereas a podcast, what we’re doing right now, is being recorded, and so people can continue to listen to it.”
For Getting, podcasts also offer a chance for listeners and readers to be a part of a collaborative process. He says, “It’s always so fun to get messages from listeners who want to help us prep for a certain author or who write in to provide additional context on a throwaway bit of research we mentioned. It makes the whole enterprise feel more collaborative and less like we’re just talking into a tin can.”
Getting understands the value of podcasts for advertisers, too, who are looking to pay for ad space on a book podcast. “The strength of the listener’s connection with the host[s] is also why you hear so much host-read advertising on podcasts,” he says. “Advertisers know that the message hits differently if it’s coming from the voice people hit ‘download’ for in the first place.”
Value for advertisers means value for the book-podcast ecosystem, so it’s a win-win.
Engaging Listeners in an Authentic Way
Clear tells Ferriss that, with podcasts, he can be in multiple places at once, repeatedly. Compared to a live radio interview or a live TV segment on a show like Today or Good Morning America, this is an even more efficient use of an author’s time and energy when it comes to spreading the word about their book and building their author brand. Clear explains to Ferriss, “I’ve done a bunch of podcasts for the book and there’s somebody somewhere listening to one of them right now. It’s almost like there are multiple versions of James out there, and they’re all continuing to work right now. That’s an example of the work that keeps working for you once it’s done.”
Stories like Clear’s underscore the power of the podcast and the long marketing shelf life of a podcast interview. He tells Ferriss, “If you can do one or two things a day that are going to keep working for you in the long run, man, you end up two or three or five years later and you just have this tidal wave of previous effort that is working for you.”
The Intimacy of the Podcast-Listening Experience
Overdue’s Craig Getting agrees that podcasts are special in this way, as Clear outlines. Podcasts are a medium typically consumed in an intimate way. Getting says, “People listen to podcasts in all sorts of different settings, many of them incredibly intimate: walking the dog, commuting to work, doing the dishes or laundry, sitting with a fussy baby at three a.m. (I speak from experience on this one). And most podcast listening is done on-demand, so it’s a little different from putting on NPR and just listening to what comes next.”
A medium that’s on-the-go and intimate leads to a strong connection between the host and the listener. “Podcasts get woven into folks’ daily routines,” explains Getting. “If authors do guest spots on conversational, host-driven podcasts, they should expect that the core listenership is really dialed into that host and their sensibilities,” he says. “So, if you click well with the host, chances are the listeners will click with you, too.”
Podcasts allow authors a unique advantage because of their intimacy, collaboration with listeners, community-fostering feel, replayability, and wide-reaching impact. From BookTok to podcasts, newsletters to BookTube, and Instagram giveaways to in-store signings, how books are marketed constantly evolves and innovates. The book-podcast ecosystem is a thriving part of the book marketing realm and helps books reach larger—and sometimes previously untapped—audiences who can be champions for old and new books alike.