I wanted to talk about something kind of unique today… something I just learned about (and am still learning about) myself: the world of online audio books– better known as podiobooks. It’s very different than screenwriting, but as conventional media merges with the internet, podiobooks are shaping up to be a powerful new form of digital entertainment. These aren’t just audiobooks available on the internet… they’re an artform unto themselves, and producers writing and making them are doing some extraordinary things. Many not only tell great stories, they incorporate music, sound effects, etc. And the best part is… anyone can do it. Virtually anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and an ounce of imagination can write, produce, and distribute their own podiobook– for free.
To learn more about this weird new world, I sat down with writer/producer Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff– author of podiobooks Shadow Falls and Badlands, host of podcast Pacific Coast Hellway (which Playboy called “the world’s most offensively enlightened podcast”), and Director of Content Development for Podshow and Editor-in-Chief of Podshow Press.
Mark, You’ve had great success in the world of online audio books. But a lot of people have never even heard of online audio books. I mean, sure—we all know you can download My Sister’s Keeper from iTunes… but your audio books are something different. Explain to me: what is an online audio book? How does it work? …And how did you get into writing and producing them?
Mark: The podcast novel, podiobook, podcast audiobook is a story generally delivered in a serialized fashion over the course of many episodes in the form of standard mp3 files, which you can subscribe to in iTunes, Google Reader, or your RSS feed catcher of choice. This way when new episodes are released they can be automatically downloaded to be listened to at your convenience. Think of it like audio TiVo, which is appropriate since the podcast novel is very much akin to television. And much in the way that compelling television series like “The Sopranos” or “Lost” will draw you in and then make you yearn for the next episode from week to week, podcast novels deliver the thrills and chills in doses large enough to turn listeners into addicts.
I had been podcasting since mid-2005 and managed to turn it into a lucrative full-time career fairly quickly after I was hired by Podshow, an international media company started by Ron Bloom and ex-MTV VJ Adam Curry. One of the first shows I created for them was “Shadow Falls” which was produced as an all-out audio drama. Full voice cast, cinematic score and sound design, very lush. Big budget. We had a lot of success with it but it took, no lie, about 120 hours of my time to write, produce and edit each episode since in addition to writing I was doing all the post production myself. There was a guy named Scott Sigler who was podcasting his then-unpublished novel “Earthcore” as a serialized audiobook which he alone narrated and was killing in terms of audience size. People were eating up the idea of the serialized novel and when I started listening to it, I got totally hooked. We did six episodes of the first season of “Shadow Falls” and I think “Earthcore” had like 40 episodes so it really hit me that narrated audiobooks could potentially be a much more satisfying way, as a creator, to tell stories in new media.
I had written a screenplay called “Number One with a Bullet” or N1B which was this big summer action movie style story that I had optioned 3 separate times and had gone on a big roller coaster ride with several different producers and directors who were all trying to get it made. One day it occurred to me that if I ever sold the script I’d also be selling the copyright to the story and it’s characters and I figured if I turned it into a novel, it would be an intellectual property that would be more difficult to be legally separated from. As an experiment in November 2006, I decided to adapt it and podcast it and almost immediately, it exploded and was doing a huge number of downloads before I’d even gotten halfway through it. Ron and Adam very much wanted me to do another season of Shadow Falls and I agreed but told them only if I could do it as an audiobook, so in February of 2007 I launched a “Shadow Falls “audiobook prequel called “Badlands” while I was doing N1B at the same time. Since then I’ve gone on to podcast my my college murder thriller “The Doomsday Club”, a serial killer thriller “Diary of a Madman”, and because I know a lot of my listeners have kids, I just launched an all-ages action, adventure podcast novel “Transistor Rodeo” while I formulate my next twisted, bloody suspense novel for grown ups.
Wait, isn’t it against a writer’s best interests to give away their work for free like this?
At first I thought that giving away books like this was suicide, but then Sigler went onto get a publishing deal with an indie house. His loyal audience bought his book “Ancestor“, the same book they’d been listening to, in droves, and propelled him to #7 overall on Amazon on April 1 of last year. Number 7!. He was only barely behind 2 different versions of “Harry Potter” and 2 versions of “The Secret”. This display of the reach of the audience eventually helped land Scott a five book deal with Crown. In addition, another very talented writer, J.C. Hutchins, writer of the mega-popular “7th Son” series hooked up a major deal to release the trilogy with St. Martin’s Press.
Now, in this day and age, writers are getting noticed through podcasting and finding monetization for their brand through print sales and sponsorships. When record companies sign bands they look at how many fans that band has, how many MySpace friends, how strongly they can market their brand on the internet. The world of publishing is finally just now starting to realize how well this translates to their business as well.
Talk to me about your own writing process when it comes to online books. From the moment you get an idea to the moment your first installment hits the web… what do you do? How do you proceed?
With “Badlands” I gave myself a month to gather my thoughts and write the first 3 chapters before launch but because I’m usually producing several different shows at once, I fell behind and would literally finish writing a chapter of Badlands and then record it that same day in order to keep on my episode-a-week schedule. Plus, I almost never outline so it was a bit of a scary ride there not knowing exactly what was going to happen until I sat down to write. Scary but exhilarating at the same time. With N1B, I had this completed script but realized half way through that I didn’t like the original ending anymore so I added a ton of new material on the fly. My latest horror thriller “Diary of a Madman” came about very quickly and I began podcasting it about two weeks after the concept hit me and was also penning it from week to week with only a thumbnail sketch
of the complete arc in mind. With new media, the ability to get your work out there into distribution channels is immediate, so its easy to be presenting your work to an audience in no time.
I try to approach each book with the television series model in mind. Each book is potentially a “season” with its own multi-episodic story arcs within the larger arc of the story, within a much bigger world view of the franchise. This makes it a lot easier to go into the process without an outline because I find the characters always change organically throughout the book. I may know exactly how the season ends but seldom do my initial ideas of how that journey happens stay the same. I’m constantly thinking about it, making little notes that I pray I can find when it comes time every morning to actually write. My process is total chaos, which works for me because of my previous experience as a writer and how strong a believer I am in adhering to the foundation of story structure. I don’t reccomend at all writing any book without an outline if you’ve never done it before.
How is writing an online audio book different from simply writing a novel?
Honestly, it’s the same thing. Writing a podcast novel is no different from writing a novel other than the savvy podiobook creators know how to keep the story moving in order to keep the audience glued to their earbuds.
If you approach it like you were writing a TV series, each episode has its own arc within the larger arc and may answer one ongoing question but then ask two more and end on the kind of cliffhanger that leaves your audience gleefully cursing your name for making them wait until the next episode comes out. You can write a podcast novel like any novel, and a lot of podcast authors who have developed strong followings are doing just that. Think of it as finally getting the chance to be your own showrunner. At the end of the day, no matter how you approach it, as long as you create a compelling story with sufficient drama and conflict, the audience will respond and stay with you until the very last word.
One of the biggest strengths of the internet is its interactivity. Do online novels have interactive components? Can readers/listeners interact with the author? How about characters? Can the audience affect the characters or the course of the story?
Ab-so-lutely. Audience feedback is not only welcome but essential. Given the way I write from week to week, chapter to chapter, often by the seat of my pants, I may even have someone send me an e-mail pointing out some little thing that I hadn’t thought of that I will then weave into the book. Sometimes you’ll get some great fans who will write to you a lot and then when you go and name a small character after them, it blows their minds, which is cool, too. In general what you aspire to is to create a community around yourself as a creator and around each of your books. Sigler’s fans call themselves “Junkies”. I started calling my N1B fans “Bulletheads” and they wear that badge with honor. I think the reason the fanbase is so rabid and loyal is because they do feel like they are closer to the creator than with any other form of media. I’ll do special commentary, either at the end of episodes or in special stand-alone companion episodes and read their e-mails or play their voicemails. I want my audience to be as much a part of the process as they choose. I know of one podcast novel, “The Aurora Hunter” which concludes each episode with a “Choose you own adventure” ending where the audience is asked to vote which path the story will take in the next chapter. As far as I know it’s the only one I know of doing that, at the moment.
For some, the podcast of the book is the final product, but my little secret is that I use the podcast as a method of development and discovery for each story. I always end up changing things between when the podcast ends and the print version comes out, polishing stuff, adding extra material and also taking into account any possible audience suggestions or corrections, which also of course gives the fans another reason to want to check out the print version of a story they’ve already heard. I love my audience and I love it when they write to me or call my toll-free comment line. The social rewards you get from doing podcast audiobooks are tremendous.
If someone reading this piece wanted to write and publish their own online audio book, what are the three best pieces of creative advice you would offer them? (I.e. writing advice—not business/marketing advice).
Structure. Structure. Structure: Okay, that’s really only one but proper story structure is the foundation upon which satisfying drama is based upon.
Know your theme: If your story has lots of great action and conflict but no overall theme then all you’re providing is stimulation that will grow weary over time. Let me know what your story is about in the general realm of human existence. If you don’t know what “theme” is in terms of storytelling then learn it before you write. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run.
Listen: Go and listen to what I’m doing. Go and listen to what other great writers who are tearing up this medium are doing. Don’t listen to Steve Buschemi reading Elmore Leonard to learn what’s happening in new media. You have no excuse not to listen because nearly all the podcast novels are free and, like any form of media, many are very good. Every podcast author has a slightly different approach. Some do character voices, some don’t. Some use music, some don’t. Each one presents an extension of their own creativity. Just know that each of these authors make their work the product of strong desire to present a great story and draw an audience in. If the aim of your writing is to fulfill some kind of therapeutic release of your inner ramblings, you may not find an audience and may end up just talking to yourself, if you’re not already.
Even if you don’t know how to record/edit your own audio or you’re not comfortable doing it in your own voice, don’t fret. There’s a good chance you might already know someone who is. There are a great many podcasters out there who you could potentially partner with to turn your written word into an audiobook. Leave a message on the Podshow Press messageboard or at Podiobooks.com. I can’t stress enough that there have never been more opportunites for writers than there are now. Stop sitting around and wishing you had people who cared about your work because now you can do something about it. For once, the writer is in complete control of finding his or her audience.
What are the best websites for publishing online audio books?
Podiobooks.com is a phenomenal site & community for podcast audiobooks that has been around for more than a couple of years. It’s run by a writer named Evo Terra (co-author of “Podcasting for Dummies“), who is extremely passionate about this art form and possibly its biggest advocate.
Because we see massive growth potential in the immediate future, at Podshow, we’ve launched our print publication division, Podshow Press (www.podshowpress.com) and just put up our beta site where you can find some of the audiobooks on our network. After the phenomenal success of Scott Sigler and J.C. Hutchins we realized there was this exploding audience out there that wanted to own the print version of their favorite podcast novels. Our intention at PSP is to take the best audiobooks that are hosted exclusively on the Podshow Network and bring them to print as a way for authors to monetize their work.
And the follow-up question… if someone read
ing this wants to write and publish their own online audio book, what are the three best pieces of marketing advice you’d give them? How would you suggest they promote their book and find an audience?
One thing holds true in marketing anything in entertainment: know your audience. If you write science fiction or horror, look for where fans of that kind of work hang out and find ways to join the conversation. Go to messageboards, online groups, etc, and actively take part. Same holds true for finding current authors working in the same genres. Join their online communities and if you ask nicely, those authors will most likely help you promote your book to their fans. Then, create a great promo and send it around to podcasters. Podcasters have audiences who obviously understand the mechanism of new media and most love to play promos in order to help other podcasters out. The audience for podcast audiobooks is rabid and always looking for new ways to get their fix.
Second, and it goes without saying. If you do not have a website for yourself, and/or your book(s), then you need one. In entertainment, your brand needs to be present on the internet in this day and age or you will have a very difficult time in succeeding. It also helps greatly if you are able to build your web presence into one that can be easily found if some potential fan searches for keywords relevant to your product.
Third, and I realize this is completely self-aggrandizing but I’ve covered a lot of this in much more detail in one of my podcasts, Word Sushi (wordsushi.com). It’s a video podcast where I talk about writing with a slant towards taking advantage of this golden age of creativity that new media has created. I shot a multi-part series on how to approach promoting your book during my last trip to Hawaii so even if you don’t care what I’m saying, you can still look at the pretty background and the waves crashing on the beach.
The world of online audio books is exploding. Who are some of the big authors out there right now, and where could audiences find their material?
There are some real up and comers like Seth Harwood and Mike Bennett you can find there as well. Plus we’ll be publishing a whole slew of upcoming authors at Podshow Press starting later this year so keep an eye on Podshowpress.com for details and how, as a prospective author, you can help yourself be considered by us.
Also “Number One with a Bullet” comes out in print on Feb 24th with all that bonus material I mentioned and you can find it at any Amazon store worldwide. For details about that or any of my other books and shows check my website at Wordsushi.com.
Any last thoughts?
I’ve worked in entertainment nearly my whole adult life. Writing and producing my own podcast novels is the single most fun and satisfying thing I’ve ever done professionally, without a single doubt. Serialization works. After all, it’s what helped make Dickens a star.
For a taste of what podiobooks sound like, check out these links to: