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Ariel and Amrita coming to you with another joint issue today. It’s a jam-packed Tuesday, with Spotify debuting its biggest audiobook development yet, an exclusive interview with the writer of the Audible Original Six Sermons, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries laying off a third of its staff.
Spotify gets serious about audiobooks
At a company event this afternoon, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek announced that Spotify subscribers in the UK, Australia, and, in the winter, the US will be able to stream 15 hours of premium audiobooks each month. It’s a big leap from Spotify’s initial a la carte audiobook model and has the potential to introduce millions of new listeners to the medium.
“I believe this will bring a whole new generation of listeners to audiobooks,” Ek said.
This iteration of Spotify’s audiobook business has been two years in the making. The company first announced its acquisition of audiobook distributor Findaway in November 2021, then introduced audiobook purchasing to the app last September. The purchasing experience was not good, though, and Spotify was happy to admit it: the company faced challenges in navigating Apple and Google’s in-app purchasing rules, which meant you can’t actually buy a book on most platforms.
This new model, based on subscription and listening hours, gets around the Apple issue and takes a pretty different approach from Audible, the industry’s biggest player. Audible, which is owned by Amazon, allows users to access audiobooks using a credit system (the standard $14.95 per month tier gives users one credit per month, with each audiobook costing one credit). On Spotify, users can try out as many audiobooks as they want from a set library, which includes 150,000 titles from all the major publishers, but caps the included listening at 15 hours. Users can then purchase an additional 10 hours of listening for $10.99.
Spotify’s approach has some advantages and disadvantages compared to Audible’s. On one hand, the browsability is a real plus, especially for listeners who are trying out audiobooks for the first time. That makes sense, given Ek’s previous assertion that audiobooks could be a $70 billion opportunity if only more people would listen to them. But the value based on book length could be a drawback for a certain kind of audiobook listener. Longer novels are not going to fit into 15 hours (for example, The Fellowship of the Ring is 19 hours), let alone hulking biographies and histories (the Napoleon Bonaparte biography in my Audible library is 32 hours — yes, Napoleon is my Roman Empire). Then again, you could probably squeeze in two Sally Rooney novels for the price of one. At least, assuming those titles are available.
The other thing to note is that library access through the premium subscription is not as comprehensive as Audible’s. Standard Audible subscribers can access any audiobook available on the platform, whereas the Spotify library available under the new plan includes 70 percent of bestsellers, according to Spotify spokesperson Grey Munford. That’s nothing to sniff at, but that also means a good chunk of top titles will be excluded. I have not been able to view the library yet, but I would imagine that 30 percent includes some of the super-premium titles. Those, however, would still be available for purchase using the a la carte system.
Which does actually make sense as a pricing structure for Spotify! It can entice users to try out audiobooks risk-free and get more money out of the heavy users. And if we can trust some leaked code references to Spotify’s forthcoming HiFi tier (or “Supremium” — hate it), users may get access to 30 hours of audiobook listening per month. Almost a whole Napoleon biography!
Asa Merritt of Six Sermons on the need to shake up fiction podcasts
Sometimes, the death of a loved one can force us to grow before we’re ready. Asa Merritt, the writer and creator of the Audible Original Six Sermons, has learned this lesson firsthand. After Merritt’s friend Caz died by suicide in 2017, the former NPR journalist chose to tackle his grief by throwing himself into work. He wanted to engage with his friend’s death somehow and explore themes like mental illness and suicide ideation. The end result was not a piece of journalism or a This American Life-style personal account of his friend’s death. Instead, Merritt took an unconventional route and drafted a 300-something-page script for a fiction podcast set in his home state of Ohio.
Six Sermons follows the story of Alexis, a young pastor who is forced to step up to the plate after the lead pastor of a tight-knit church dies by suicide. The script caught the attention of Everything Everywhere All at Once Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu, who plays Alexis, and Tony winner Bill Irwin, who voices the role of the late pastor. The three-and-a-half-hour podcast, which launched on Audible on August 24th, attempts to solve the mystery of why a beloved religious leader would take his own life.
Before turning to the page, Merritt did some research by embedding with a Lutheran community in Ohio. As an audio storyteller, he was drawn to many of the sonic elements of the church environment — particularly sermons and their joint role as a form of instruction and palliative. I spoke to Merritt to learn more about Six Sermons as well as to hear his thoughts about the audio fiction medium and his reflections on the industry as a whole.
Can you talk about the process of coming up with the idea for Six Sermons, as well as pitching it to Audible and kind of getting it into fruition?
I had a dear friend who died by suicide, and I wanted to engage with that somehow. I had always, in the back of my mind, thought an audio drama would be a really exciting project. My original background is in playwriting before I was doing journalism, so [the idea] was kind of percolating.
I did a freelance gig for a seminary, where I was cutting sort of a highlight reel from this workshop that the seminary put on that was actually about preaching. There are still living ministers from the Civil Rights Movement, and [the workshop] was for young ministers. It was basically like, “This is how you make a good sermon. This is where you put the metaphor.” The really brass tacks. I’m just having to listen to this a zillion times, and I thought, “This is such rich audio. This is what I want to write about.” And from there, the world of the church emerged quickly. Engaging with really rigorous texts like the Bible and thinking about existential questions. And church is such a sonic landscape from a professional view.
I had a degree of success doing nonfiction podcasting, so that kind of culminated in a 30 for 30 project that I did down in Mexico. It was a 30 for 30 podcast episode about lucha libre, which ultimately we finished, but ESPN decided not to release it.
Because of the people at 30 for 30, I was able to get the right intros to get a pitch deck in front of Audible. It wasn’t a beautiful deck. It was like two to four pages — I can’t remember. It was, like, very short, and it was just kind of a really simple, “This is the story of these characters, and this is how it goes.” And [Audible] was very excited about it from the jump. So that started the process.
You can read the rest of my interview with Merritt in this Thursday’s Insider edition of Hot Pod.
You embedded in the Lutheran community to do research for this. What did you discover? What were some of their perspectives regarding suicide and the complicated morals around that?
This really gets into the finer points of theology. Different sects of Christianity see suicide really differently. It definitely comes as a surprise to a lot of people that the Bible doesn’t condemn suicide. That idea was kind of promulgated by Christian writers like Saint Augustine. But in the Lutheran community, and what they call the mainline Protestants, which includes Presbyterians, Methodists, the Church of Christ, Episcopalian, right… there’s sort of like this theological slice of Christianity where suicide is not a sin.
So you started writing this five years ago. Keeping in mind fiction podcasts and how much the medium has grown since then — what were you keeping in mind as you were writing this? You started off as a playwright — was that kind of your approach to writing this?
Front and center for me was always formal considerations and thinking about how people are used to listening. How are we trained to consume this media? There’s a real conscientiousness on my part to try to meet people halfway — because most people don’t know what an audio drama is. You try to describe it, like, well, it’s like a podcast. It’s this, and it’s that.
I think what’s been holding back the form [of fiction podcasts] in many ways is that there’s a lot of TV writers and a lot of screenwriters. Everyone is just writing down a movie. And it’s like, lo and behold, we don’t know how to listen to a movie. I think that quite simply doesn’t work. And secondly, we haven’t been trained as audience members to certainly engage with the story in this way.
So my approach was always driven by the form. I was like, “Okay, what are some elements of the story that are going to sound really good and are going to be able to engage listeners?” A great sermon sounds incredible — you know, prayers; the show has a bunch of prayers. I leaned into prayer as a way to hear Pastor Alexis’ doubts and fears in a way that we can’t really get in other mediums. What are the things that we can do [in audio dramas] that no one else can get? You can’t get it in a movie. You can’t get it in a novel the way we can get here. I included a narrator figure, you know, who’s also a character, but I wanted to give someone those signposts. We don’t want obvious exposition. That’s not artful; that’s inelegant. And at the same time, we don’t want to leave people behind.
Pushkin Industries is laying off 17 staffers and shaking up its leadership
Facing a hostile economic environment for narrative podcasts, Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries is cutting a third of its staff and switching up its leadership. According to Bloomberg, the studio that is known for seasonal and limited series like Revisionist History and The Dream is aiming for profitability after years of growth.
Gladwell will be stepping down as president and become editorial director, co-founder Jacob Weisberg will step down as CEO and take the title of executive chair, and Transmitter founder Gretta Cohn, who sold her studio to Pushkin last year, will become the new president.
As the big tech and media companies that used to fund podcasting with abandon shift to more profitable chat shows, Pushkin is in a tough spot. Its high-production, intellectual content has garnered a loyal fanbase but, aside from its flagship show, is maybe more niche than what the market allows for right now. This is the third layoff the studio has experienced this year.
Correction October 4th, 5:20PM ET: A previous version of this article said that last week’s staff cuts at Pushkin Industries were the second round of layoffs this year. They are actually the third.