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Transcript for: Malcolm Gladwell on the Future of Audiobooks

Listen to the episode on Behind the Mic with AudioFile Magazine.

Michele Cobb: Welcome to a special edition of Behind the Mic from AudioFile Magazine. I'm Michele Cobb, Publisher of AudioFile, and I'm joined by a special guest today. As an audiobook and podcast fan, I've been keeping a close eye on how the two mediums differ in business model and construction and what's happening as the spaces that make audio available are carrying both products.

I figured there was no better person to discuss what's happening than Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is the host of the podcast "Revisionist History" and the author of seven New York Times bestsellers including THE BOMBER MAFIA, TALKING TO STRANGERS, DAVID AND GOLIATH, OUTLIERS, BLINK, and THE TIPPING POINT. He is the co-founder and president of Pushkin Industries, an audiobook and podcast production company.

I've been listening to his books for years, and I'm enjoying the evolution his work is taking. Let's hear a bit from MIRACLE AND WONDER, one of the recent works from Pushkin by Malcolm Gladwell, Bruce Headlam, and Paul Simon, read by Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Simon. I think this perfectly illustrates how Malcolm is bringing what he's learned from the podcast world to the world of audiobooks.

[Clip from Miracle and Wonder audiobook]

That was Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Simon on MIRACLE AND WONDER. Now let's hear from Gladwell himself.


Michelle Cobb: Hi Malcolm! You are obviously an author that narrates your own books, and I'm curious what your experience in the booth has been like. Does it influence your writing to record your own titles?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, it does with the most recent ones I've done which were books written with the audiobook in mind. So, the entire time I was writing TALKING TO STRANGERS, I was thinking about what the audio experience was going to be like. I was going to use the tape from interviews I was going to, which archival tape I was going to use, because we you know we do these, we'd like to call them 5 star audiobooks that are you know, immersive and enhanced and then with BOMBER MAFIA, BOMBER MAFIA really began as a podcast and was turned into a book. When you go in the other direction, and you start with the audio in mind and then move toward the print, I think the writing really does change. I think you are, your writing is necessarily more conversational. You spend a lot more time on character and emotion and those kinds of things. But you tend to do a little bit less of the things that print is good at which is you know print is good for like, complicated analytical kind of stuff. Hard to do that when you're talking. So it does change, I think it does change the shape of books.

MC: Have you had any challenges when you were actually recording your own words you know, the desire to change them, or something that you've struggled with as you read?

MG: Well, we do at Pushkin, everything that we record, we do table reads beforehand, so I've already read it through sometimes more than once. Sometimes we do two rounds of table reads. So, we've rehearsed. And in each of those rehearsals, you know there's an incredible amount of rewriting that goes on between rehearsals. I think you learn more from reading something out loud than you do from reading a draft. This notion of how something strikes the ear. It's much easier to tell, for example, whether a certain thought or moment or scene has gone on for too long. That's hard to tell in print because you read so quickly you maybe don't notice it or something, in audio you really, when you're doing a rehearsal and you have you know a section where you're talking about x and you're like oh my god I could have done that in half the time. So it tends to, in a really good way I think it, ah improves your concision as a writer.

MC: Now that's unusual to actually have a practice or a table read for an audiobook. Most narrators are sort of going in having read the book with their eyes but not really practiced it aloud. What made you go in that direction to have those table reads.

MG: Well, it's because it comes out of the podcast world, where the table reads are with something that is necessarily an early draft. And now you know I do this now with, I'm working on a book right now and I did a live reading of the first three or four chapters a couple months ago. Because I've learned that these live table reads are just so incredibly useful in helping you understand what you're doing. Useful, not just for the audiobook but also for the print book like just hearing it. It's just so. So we did um, for the book I'm working on now we you know, 40 people I don't know forget how many was we all gathered in a theater and we did a kind of performance we had somebody playing the cello and we had you know drinks and my producers sat on a little table and they played the tape and I read the parts that needed to be read and the guy playing the cello did little interstitial moments and then we had a discussion about you know from people listening to what I was doing and they gave all kinds of suggestions. It was all very explicitly, you know, was it work in progress. So I was like, tell me everything, I don't have you know, you criticize it all you want this is not, this is not the final thing.

MC: That's really interesting. I mean your company Pushkin which you mentioned focused on podcasts originally but has moved into what is more of a traditional audiobook and it sounds like you're really using audio as part of the writing process. What encouraged you to move in the direction of adding audiobooks to what Pushkin was doing.

MG: Well, you know, the distinction between a podcast and an audiobook is slight.

MC: Yes.

MG: Once you're doing one you might as well, you could easily turn material that was in a podcast into a book, and the second thing was we were just so struck by, most audiobooks you know if it's just simply someone reading the printed word in a booth, it struck us that was a wasted opportunity. There's so much more if you're going to do audio, why not produce it as elaborately as you produce a podcast, or a narrative podcast, so we just thought there was an incredible opportunity there for us to do something better.

MC: Well, it's fascinating and I'm curious, I work at the intersection of audiobooks and podcasts and I'm really interested in what you would define as the difference between the two mediums.

MG: Well, you pay for one, you don't pay for the other. It might be, you know they have different platforms. I mean I think the differences are largely technical, I don't think the listener‑ and they matter to insiders. Do they matter to listeners? When I listened way back when to Serial like everyone else, was the experience qualitatively different for me than if I was simply listening to an audiobook? I mean and just, aside from the fact that there were Mailchimp ads,

MC: Right!

MG: No, it is exactly the same. You know, I think it's useful to think of them as, they're on this exact same continuum. They are audio narrative experiences. I mean, I don't think it's terribly useful to kind of think of them as separate.

MC: Agreed. So, how do podcasts such as Revisionist History add to the way that you're reaching audiences. Obviously, you've added this layer of live performance, but do you find that you're reaching a different audience with the audiobook and the podcast at all, or are you really seeing it just in the business model as a distinction?

MG: Hard to say. So, I wish I had a better, I mean that's a question for the data scientists. So I don't have a definitive answer as to what extent the podcast audience differs from the book audience. I know that they do differ, I don't know how much they differ. I don't know what the Venn Diagram looks like. My suspicion is the podcast audience is younger.

MC: Mhm.

MG: Do I have any evidence for that? No, I don't. Um, my suspicion is that the podcast audience is more international. Do I have any evidence for that? No, I don't. But I think they're probably listening for the same reasons so that you know from a kind of Psychographic standpoint, I suspect that they're similar. But again, I have no idea I mean that’s, you'd have to do a whole lot of very expensive market research I think to get a good answer to that question.

MC: Yes, well, both industries do a bunch of market research and I think what we found certainly in audiobooks is that podcasting has helped lower the age of audiobook listeners because there is so much of that that back and forth. But, as you say, much for research scientists to come across. So, what kind of predictions do you have for the future of audiobooks and podcasts as we're starting to see they're really available in the same places these days.

MG: Well I imagine you know that the distinction between them will continue to erode. Would I be willing, increasingly willing to pay for ad free versions of my favorite podcasts? The answer is sure. So, once I'm willing to do that, then what is the distinction between the podcast I'm paying for and the audiobook I'm paying for? I don't know anymore. There's more variety in the podcast universe, obviously. When someone has a different guest on every week and interviews them, we call that a podcast we don't, we'll never call that a book I don't think. I also think to me the really interesting thing as well is the live element. Where we're moving with this, I suspect is that there's going to be a third leg to the stool which is, but the performance that, you know, the idea of going to a theater and hearing somebody do several chapters of a book, perform it for you with all manner of accompanying this that and the other, that I think is going to become increasingly accepted as a kind of thing you might do on a Friday night. I've never understood why musicians have this thing about touring as well as you know, the record that you buy but in other forms of creative content we don't have this richly developed live form. And I think there’s probably going to be a lot more of that.

MC: I think that's interesting, especially after we have been away from each other for so long to want to come back and see and hear different things in a live venue, I think that has a real appeal.

MG: Yeah, no I agree with you.

MC: So I'm curious, as you put together, I listened to the Paul Simon piece and, how did you develop that into the audiobook experience? Were you originally thinking of it as more of an interview podcast or did it just leap directly into what you did which was sold more as an audiobook than a podcast?

MG: No we never thought of it as a podcast. We were always going to do a book, an audiobook with that. What we didn't know is that the form, is the form that the book would take. So, there was one way to do that which was to sit down with him for 40 hours and pick out the 6 hours of interview that works the best to just run that conversation with Paul Simon. There's another way to do it which is take the conversations and then, do an effectively a kind of biography where I analyze and dissect and distill the best of the conversation and turn it into a narrative. What we ended up doing was something in the middle. There's chunks of us talking. But there's also bits of me arguing you know of me writing in, doing a kind of essay on various aspects of his career combined with all of this archival material. So it's a kind of, it was a hybrid in the end, and I think that was what we kind of figured out was the right way to present our case.

MC: It was very enjoyable and certainly hearing the music and the conversations with people that were involved with him I thought really enhanced it. So thank you. Now, you listen to audiobooks obviously and podcasts and I'm curious, you know as a listener, what matters to you the most in that experience?

MG: Well I've lost patience with the traditional audiobook of just the person reading. I just think, you know, why are you doing this. This could be so much more interesting if you just put a little more time and effort into it. What matters to me is that someone's put some effort into the story they're telling. That they make use of the audio medium. In other words, if all you're doing is a spoken version of a printed book. You're not really making use of the audio medium. Right? The whole point of audio is you have all these other things at your disposal. You have theme music, you have archival tape you have—why are you reading a quote from someone? Why can't I hear the person say that quote in their own voice? Like there's all these sort of things you can do in audio that we haven't been doing and that at Pushkin we feel very strongly people should be doing.

MC: Well I think you're doing it successfully so congratulations on that.

MG: Thank you.

MC: Anything you would like to say to our listeners that is a surprise for you about doing all of these audio experiences and creating your own company that moves audio into a more interactive medium?

MG: It's important to stress what a radically different process doing audiobooks the way we do them is from the traditional. I mean, I remember when I was doing my old audiobooks. For my you know, BLINK and TIPPING POINT and OUTLIERS. You just sit in a sound booth for four days and that's it you're done, it's over. Ours take months and the budgets could be 10 or 20 times greater. I mean they're not $10,000 they could be $200,000 or more, $300,000. So like engineers, producers, editors, musicians, I mean research I mean like the kind of team that's put together to make them is quite extraordinary. It's like making a movie. So like that, understanding that what a world of difference there is between your parents' audiobook and your audiobook is I think crucial. It's like it's a wholly different art form when it's done the way we're doing it. You know, I think the sooner we can convince the world that, or tell them, we don’t have to convince them, we have to tell the world that man this thing just got, this thing you thought was just somebody droning on is actually, can be way more exciting. That's our opportunity.

MC: Thank you so much Malcolm for sharing your views on the changing landscape of audiobooks and illustrating really how Pushkin is leading that charge.

You've been listening to a special bonus edition of Behind the Mic with author, narrator, and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell. You can find reviews for his books on AudioFile Magazine's website. Go check them out and then follow Behind the Mic and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts because it helps people find us and we appreciate it.

This episode of Behind the Mic is sponsored by the audiobook editions of The Sweet Magnolia series by Cheryl Woods. With the new season available to watch now on Netflix now is the time to listen to the entire audiobook series all brought to you by Dreamscape Media. For more information about Sweet Magnolias visit

Behind the Mic is produced by Jessica Lockhart. The music is William Ross Chernov's Nomads Four Ways and I have been your guest host today, Michele Cobb. Thanks for listening.


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