Publisher’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 (iTunes — Feed — Site). 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 Digg.com, 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 (iTunes — Feed — Web 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 (iTunes — Feed — Site).