The Digital Tipping Point: The Wild Ride from Podcast to Book Deal

12byzantine.jpgPub­lish­er’s Week­ly announced last week that Lars Brown­worth, a New York high school teacher, will pub­lish with Crown (a Ran­dom House divi­sion) a new book that cov­ers “1,200 years of Byzan­tine his­to­ry, exam­in­ing the culture’s for­got­ten role in pre­serv­ing clas­si­cal thought, con­nect­ing East and West, and build­ing mod­ern West­ern soci­ety.” It’s expect­ed to hit the book­stores in ear­ly 2009.

There’s lots to say about this deal, but we want­ed to delve a lit­tle into the back­sto­ry, and par­tic­u­lar­ly how an unex­pect­ed chain of events, all built into Web 2.0, made this deal pos­si­ble. (And, yes, we’ll also touch briefly on where Open Cul­ture fits into the pic­ture.)

The sto­ry begins in March 2005, back when Brown­worth start­ed dis­trib­ut­ing on iTunes an edu­ca­tion­al pod­cast called 12 Byzan­tine Rulers: The His­to­ry of the Byzan­tine Empire (iTunesFeedSite). Released in install­ments, the pod­casts gave users the rare abil­i­ty to down­load a com­plete aca­d­e­m­ic course to their MP3 play­er, any­time, any­where, for free. Brown­worth was a pio­neer, and by late 2006, peo­ple start­ed tak­ing notice. In Decem­ber, Wired men­tioned 12 Byzan­tine Rulers in a short web fea­ture, which net­ted the pod­cast a small uptick in down­loads. Then, days lat­er, our fledg­ling blog fol­lowed up with a short piece The Hottest Course on iTunes (and the Future of Dig­i­tal Edu­ca­tion). From there, things got inter­est­ing. Our post got almost imme­di­ate­ly picked up on, a mas­sive­ly pop­u­lar web­site, and its users cat­a­pult­ed the sto­ry to Dig­g’s home­page. Down­loads of Brown­worth’s pod­casts surged; the pow­er of Web 2.0 was kick­ing in. Brown­worth spec­u­lat­ed dur­ing an inter­view last week that the “Digg effect” wide­ly broad­ened the expo­sure of his pod­cast, and, soon enough, The New York Times was knock­ing on his door. By late Jan­u­ary, the pil­lar of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism pub­lished a flat­ter­ing fea­ture: His­to­ry Teacher Becomes Pod­cast Celebri­ty. Then, it all start­ed again. Pod­cast down­loads spiked high­er, far exceed­ing the pre­vi­ous wave from Digg. More arti­cles and an NPR inter­view fol­lowed. Next came the book agents’ calls. … That’s, in short, how we got to last week’s announce­ment.

Brown­worth’s sto­ry, although unusu­al, is part of a grow­ing trend. Book pub­lish­ers seem increas­ing­ly will­ing to let the wis­dom of crowds iden­ti­fy pod­casts that trans­late into mar­ketable books, and then let the pod­casts stim­u­late book sales. This year, Mignon Fog­a­r­ty notably inked deals to release spin­off books and audio­books of her pop­u­lar Gram­mar Girl pod­cast (iTunesFeedWeb Site). And giv­en that 12 Byzan­tine Rulers has been down­loaded 735,000 times just this year, Brown­worth and his new pub­lish­er felt right­ly jus­ti­fied in tak­ing a sim­i­lar approach.

We’ll grad­u­al­ly find out whether this devel­op­ing mod­el pro­vides a way for inno­v­a­tive pod­cast­ers to mon­e­tize their suc­cess­ful con­tent. In the mean­time, Lars is giv­ing it all a good go. He recent­ly gave up his New York teach­ing job, relo­cat­ed to North Car­oli­na (where his broth­er Anders pro­vides tech­nol­o­gy and busi­ness sup­port), and is now ded­i­cat­ing him­self full-time to pod­cast­ing and writ­ing. It’s a big change, but a change worth mak­ing. “Web 2.0 has enabled me,” Brown­worth says, “to do things that I nev­er would have been able to do oth­er­wise. It’s a bit hum­bling to find myself on the ground floor of a rev­o­lu­tion, but this move is undoubt­ed­ly the most excit­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty I’ve ever had.”

We’re pleased to have played even a bit part in Brown­worth’s suc­cess. Keep an eye out for his book and, until then, give his pod­cast a good lis­ten: 12 Byzan­tine Rulers: The His­to­ry of the Byzan­tine Empire (iTunesFeedSite).

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A Blogging Scholarship

An orga­ni­za­tion called Col­lege Schol­ar­ships is offer­ing a $10,000 schol­ar­ship this year for a col­lege stu­dent who blogs about “unique and inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion about you and/or things you are pas­sion­ate about.” We’re not shilling for a nom­i­na­tion here, but per­haps you know an aspir­ing blog­ger some­where who could use the extra cash.

This con­test rais­es an inter­est­ing ques­tion: are there any col­lege stu­dents out there who sup­port their edu­ca­tion through blog­ging? It’s not a far stretch from work­ing part-time (or full-time) to help pay the bills, but blog­ging seems like an unlike­ly way to earn enough mon­ey to buy books, let alone pay tuition.

The Return of Dr. Strangelove?

strangelove2.jpgThe Stan­ley Kubrick clas­sic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb cen­ters around a Sovi­et dooms­day device. If Rus­sia is attacked by nuclear weapons, the device will set off count­less nuclear bombs auto­mat­i­cal­ly, there­by ren­der­ing the Earth unin­hab­it­able. It was dark humor when Peter Sell­ers brought it to life on the sil­ver screen…but what if it’s real?

That’s just what a new book from the U.K. is argu­ing. Dooms­day Men by P. D. Smith pro­vides evi­dence that a Russ­ian dooms­day sys­tem called “Perimetr” went oper­a­tional in the mid-1980s, and still is. As Ron Rosen­baum points out in Slate, this is par­tic­u­lar­ly upset­ting news since Vladimir Putin recent­ly announced that Russ­ian nuclear bombers would recom­mence “strate­gic flights”–potentially armed with nukes. The prospect of war between the U.S. and Rus­sia might seem remote, but the return to nuclear pos­tur­ing is not a good sign for human­i­ty. Rosen­baum once inter­viewed some of the Min­ute­man com­man­ders who con­trol our own nuclear arse­nal and his arti­cle makes a great read:

“This dooms­day appa­ra­tus, which became oper­a­tional in 1984, dur­ing the height of the Rea­gan-era nuclear ten­sions, is an amaz­ing feat of cre­ative engi­neer­ing.” Accord­ing to Blair, if Perimetr sens­es a nuclear explo­sion in Russ­ian ter­ri­to­ry and then receives no com­mu­ni­ca­tion from Moscow, it will assume the inca­pac­i­ty of human lead­er­ship in Moscow or else­where, and will then grant a sin­gle human being deep with­in the Kosvin­sky moun­tains the author­i­ty and capa­bil­i­ty to launch the entire Sovi­et nuclear arse­nal.

Oth­er con­tent worth explor­ing:

New eBook Initiatives from Amazon and Google

bookreader2.jpgIn case you missed it, The New York Times pub­lished a piece yes­ter­day pre­view­ing two new efforts to bring elec­tron­ic books to the mass mar­ket. In Octo­ber, will roll out the Kin­dle (check out leaked pic­tures here), an ebook read­er, priced some­where between $400 to $500, that will wire­less­ly con­nect to an e‑book store on Amazon’s site, from which read­ers can down­load books in elec­tron­ic for­mat. (Think iTunes for ebooks.) Mean­while, Google will start “charg­ing users for full online access to the dig­i­tal copies of some books in its data­base” and share rev­enue with pub­lish­ers. The whole idea here is to dis­rupt the $35 bil­lion book mar­ket in much the same way that the Apple has dis­lo­cat­ed the music mar­ket with the iPod. But whether con­sumers will see dig­i­tal books as hav­ing com­pa­ra­ble advan­tages to the iPod remains TBD, and the doubters are cer­tain­ly out there. Read more here. And, in the mean­time, if you want a lot of free audio­books, check out our Audio­book Pod­cast Col­lec­tion.

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America’s Bloggiest Cities and Neighborhoods

Steven Berlin John­son, of Every­thing Bad Is Good For You fame, has been at work recent­ly crunch­ing num­bers to come up with Amer­i­ca’s most blog-tas­tic locales. The results may sur­prise you–based on “place­blogs,” Boston leads the cities chart and Clin­ton Hill, Brook­lyn tops neigh­bor­hoods.

One aspect of Web 2.0 that seems to be just tak­ing off now is geo­t­ag­ging. Yes, we have Google Earth and the ancien regime of Mapquest. But more and more peo­ple are upload­ing geo­t­agged pho­tos, blog posts, et cetera, mak­ing all sorts of new projects pos­si­ble from the 9/11 Archive to How long before geo­t­ag­ging becomes as ubiq­ui­tous as blog­ging is today?

New Springsteen Album: Free Download of Lead Single

Quick fyi: Bruce Spring­steen’s next album, Mag­ic, will be released on Octo­ber 2. To whet appetites, the lead sin­gle, “Radio Nowhere,” has been released. You can down­load the mp3 here. (PC users, right click ‘save tar­get as’; Mac users, con­trol and click, then Down­load Linked File.) To watch the free music video of the sin­gle, just click here and scroll down. Final­ly, here are the new­ly announced dates for Spring­steen’s upcom­ing tour.

A Bungled Beauty Pageant and Our Reason for Being

By now, mil­lions of web users have watched Miss Teen South Car­oli­na explain in mor­ti­fy­ing fash­ion (see below) why many Amer­i­cans can’t find the Unit­ed States on a map. And, in their own unin­tend­ed way, her com­ments effec­tive­ly answered the ques­tion posed to her. Edu­ca­tion sim­ply isn’t what it should be in Amer­i­ca. And that holds true for many oth­er nations.

All of this sets the stage for explain­ing Open Cul­ture’s rea­son for being. Put sim­ply, we try to put peo­ple, no mat­ter what their age or where they live, in a posi­tion to con­tin­ue learn­ing and improv­ing them­selves. With the help of our pod­cast col­lec­tions, you can now start learn­ing over 25 for­eign lan­guages, lis­ten to over 100 audio­books, includ­ing clas­sic works in lit­er­a­ture, poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy, and take over 75 com­plete cours­es from some of the world’s lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties (MIT, Stan­ford, UC Berke­ley, Oxford, etc.). Our pod­cast library includes many more edu­ca­tion­al resources as well, and the best part is that they’re com­plete­ly free. Hours of free edu­ca­tion are at your dis­pos­al when­ev­er you want it. To ben­e­fit, you sim­ply need the desire and the will, and the abil­i­ty to use pod­casts. (If you don’t know how, sim­ply read our Pod­cast Primer. We’ll get you up to speed.) We hope that you prof­it from these pod­cast col­lec­tions and our dai­ly posts (sub­scribe to our feed), and, if they can ben­e­fit a friend, please let them know about us at

P.S. For those who want to bone up on geog­ra­phy, check out Geog­ra­phy of World Cul­tures on iTunes. This infor­ma­tive course was taught by Mar­tin Lewis at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty.

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MP3 Search Engine: Find Audio in a Snap

Here’s a handy tool that many of our read­ers will appre­ci­ate. Skreemr allows you to search the web for audio con­tent of your choice. It works like your typ­i­cal search engine. Type “Mozart” and this is what you get. For tips on how to search most effec­tive­ly, click here. If you’re run­ning Fire­fox, you should con­sid­er installing the Fire­fox SkreemR search plu­g­in. Source: Life­hack­er

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.