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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Comments (3)
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  • Carol A says:

    This was the first com­ment I made when I found the site — why not write a book? There isn’t a lot about Byzan­tine his­to­ry out there and after lis­ten­ing to the pod­casts I have cer­tain­ly been look­ing for more infor­ma­tion! So I’ll be hang­ing out to order the book as soon as it hits the stores. Good luck to the man and I hope he sells mil­lions of books!

  • Leesa Barnes says:

    I’m hap­py to see that pod­cast­ers who are pod­cast­ing about non-pod­cast­ing top­ics are get­ting book deals.

    To date, I could only find evi­dence of pod­cast­ers who pod­cast about pod­cast­ing get­ting book deals. Jason Van Orden, who wrote the book Pro­mot­ing Your Pod­cast, got his book deal after the pub­lish­er heard his pod­cast. And I’m hap­py to report that my own book, Pod­cast­ing for Prof­it, came about after my pub­lish­er heard my pod­cast. So it’s awe­some that oth­ers are ink­ing book deals as a result of pod­cast­ing.

    Hmmm.…does this mean that shop­ping book pro­pos­als and work­ing with lit­er­ary agents will go the way of the dinosaur?

  • John says:

    Dan — I hope you’re plan­ning to ask for a com­mis­sion. If you got it digged, then you should get dug.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.