I have hosted The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life for over 10 years. This tenure does not make me a dinosaur of the medium, but I am a woolly mammoth, I suppose. I began the show two years after completing my MFA in fiction writing from New York University. That was the length of time I needed to miss the conversations about writing that helped define my MFA experience. In those two years, I finished my novel and yearned again for literary community – so I made my own with the podcast.
In the first year, I invited my local writer friends to join me on the mics. I also persuaded writers I didn’t know to speak to me at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (where I interviewed Tony Hoagland in his hotel room). I arranged to interview Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, and Bunny Yeager at Miami Book Fair, the largest book fair in the country. By asking nicely, I spoke with Ricky Moody, Cheryl Strayed, and David Sedaris remotely. In those early years, booking the show was constantly strenuous, but I was also the beneficiary of a lot of kindness. Not bad for a lowly podcast’s inaugural year.
Over the years, my show gained prestige, as did, I suspect, the viability of podcasting as a medium. As newspapers and television devoted less and less attention to serious writing and reading, podcasts proliferated. I built up working relationships with publicists from W. W. Norton, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Graywolf, University of Pittsburgh Press, and the University Press of Florida. Much of my energy for guest bookings goes into serving as my show’s gatekeeper. At any given time, a pile of at least two dozen books awaits my eye to see what books I love, what guests I will invite. In-house publicists from major publishing houses send me their catalogs and sometimes specific pitches for guests. The best publicists know what the flavor of my show is like – informal, literary, political, occasionally weird, funny, and hopefully fun – and pitch guests I could not have anticipated talking to but who I can’t wait to talk to. I am proud, however, that I still directly invite authors with their first books out, sometimes with very small presses.
The relative success of The Drunken Odyssey led to a chronic headache, though: publicists unaffiliated with a publishing house who don’t know enough about my show to be respectful of my time and who don’t read the guest bookings page on the website that would teach them about the spirit of the show. The impulse seems to be that podcasts are a void, and authors are a subject that can be safely flung into that media vacuum.
Getting such messages regularly feels depressing to me since writers are not well served by such publicists – I myself am a writer who is not that different from the authors who hope to be my guests or who hope to be someone’s – anyone’s – guest to talk about and promote their work. Writing is lonely enough without your published work withering on the vine.
In thinking of these writers, I’ve tried to discuss what I do and how I make my choices with wayward publicists. Some such publicists do try to learn to pitch guests who seem relevant to my show. But over 10 years, I’ve booked only one author through a publicity agency, and afterward, I had to ask the publicist to remove me from daily email blasts of guests of all varieties. (The publicist seemed aggravated by my request.)
Writers are better served making their own inquiries about appearing on podcasts. I and my fellow podcasters tend to like writers more than careless publicity agents.
Concerned on behalf of the writers who want to be on podcasts but don’t know how to achieve that, I’ve come up with the following advice and insights to help them reach that goal, gathered from my own experience and that of fellow podcasters and writers.
Don’t assume that a publicity agency can be more successful at booking podcast appearances than you.
Tom McAllister, co-host of the podcast Book Fight!, says of publicist pitches that come his way, “At least half of them, if not three-quarters or more, show absolutely no familiarity with the show and are clearly carpetbombing these PR pitches. We are simply never going to have a guest on, for example, to talk about their new pop psychology book and hit a predetermined list of talking points.” According to McAllister, some publicists address him as “Book Fight,” as if his first name is Book and his last name is Fight.
Michael Wheaton, host of the Autofocus podcast (which is affiliated with Autofocus literary magazine and press, which focuses on experimental autobiographical writing), says, “I have probably booked more guests representing themselves than guests represented by someone else. When I have worked with publicists, it was often because the request seemed more personal, or it was someone who seemed familiar with the show and had a good idea of the books most in my wheelhouse as a reader/interviewer. Or, honestly, because I was already familiar with the publicist or author’s existence.” In short, the publicist behaves in a way a thoughtful independent author would.
Sarah N. Fiske, host of the Queries, Qualms, and Quirks podcast, which focuses on an author’s journey to be represented by an agent and ultimately a published author, confirms that publicists often seem unaware of whether or not a client is even appropriate for a show. She writes, “Most of the publicist emails usually frame it as wanting to talk all about the book and the author’s work, which just tells me that the publicist didn’t bother to learn what Queries, Qualms, & Quirks is about.”
Fiction writer David James Poissant, author of the story collection The Heaven of Animals, helped to plan the publicity for his first novel, Lake Life. Even though he was working with Simon & Schuster’s publicity department, he reached out himself to the podcasts he hoped to appear on. He said, “I found that reaching out to a host and sharing my knowledge of their podcast and my enthusiasm for what they do yielded better results than a publicist’s mass email. The more personal my correspondence, the better. As with finding an agent or editor, the author’s ability to make a personal connection is key. I was most likely to land a podcast booking when I emailed the host, told them a little about myself in the first person (as opposed to throwing my bio at them), mentioned a favorite episode of their podcast and what I liked about that episode, and referenced any shared friends or acquaintances we might have.”
This advice about publicity firms is not absolute, and publicity firms do more than just try to book podcasts. Jonathan Small, host of the Write About Now podcast, offers this advice about hiring publicists: “Vet them first. Ask yourself, what are your goals, and can this person help me achieve them? A good publicist may have contacts that you don’t have. But they also may book you on a ton of shows that don’t really move the meter.” If your target audience doesn’t listen to a certain podcast, for example, you won’t sell many books after a guest appearance on that particular show.
I know there are ethical freelance publicists out there, and they certainly might be able to help. But in terms of booking podcasts, you probably don’t need anyone else’s help. Before you hire someone to do this for you, see how many podcasts you might be able to book on your own first, and then see what the publicist might be able to do for you beyond that.
Plan ahead and be patient.
If you personalize your pitch and prove your awareness of the specifics of the show, the host is likely to respond kindly, even if the response is no.
Yet podcasters deal with many constraints that non-podcasters might not be aware of. In my case, my day job as a teacher of writing occupies quite a lot of time, especially since I tend to teach more than a normal teaching load. (If I had reasonable expectations about how to use my time, I probably would not have become a podcaster.) I have my own writing to pay attention to. Plus, my health is less than stellar. And the work of podcasting entails many steps for each guest, some of them bureaucratic. There is a pipeline for authors whose work I am considering, a pipeline for authors I’ve agreed to interview, and a pipeline for already-recorded interviews that have yet to be edited and released. According to Book Fight!’s McAllister, “The biggest frustration so far has been more on the administrative end, trying to juggle so many different people’s schedules and our own lives.”
Autofocus’s Wheaton tells me, “We can get a very high volume of requests and that it’s not personal if I can’t accommodate one. I used to respond to every request, but lately, it has stopped feeling possible. To be clear, I’m grateful for people’s interest, but there could be a variety of reasons why I do or don’t take a request. I’m also currently booked out for three months, so I suppose it’s good to get requests pretty far in advance of when you’re looking for publicity.”
McAllister agrees: “I have to have people booked out for two-plus months so that we’re never scrambling last minute, which means sometimes a writer we love announces a book and wants to come on, and I have to say, ‘Hey, can you circle back on this in eight months?’”
If a podcast says yes, then the stress of your forthcoming appearance might settle down atop your brain in unpleasant ways. If you are invited, though, remember, the host wants to talk to you. Don’t listen to the show and decide that you cannot live up to the performance of other guests, since, ideally, this will not be a performance. The host doesn’t want your appearance to be interchangeable with others. The host wants to hear your stories and insights, whatever they are. If you are a highly intuitive writer – in other words, someone who doesn’t often think about the creative choices they make – then you’ll need to think more about those creative choices if that is what the host (such as me, for example) tends to discuss. But most importantly, try to act naturally. You don’t have to be a writer whose compositions are perfectly composed in first drafts. Your struggles are interesting. As Write About Now’s Small says, “Podcasters are storytellers. We want a good yarn.”
In this light, pitching yourself to appear on podcasts is both simple and complicated. If you are honest and truly like a show and know that your work should be appropriate for that show, podcasters are likely to reflect your own respectful and professional attitude back to you. We all love reading and writing. We are eager to share that with you.
John King is the author of the novel Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Gargoyle, Turnrow, Autofocus, Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, and others. Since 2012, he has been the host of The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life. thedrunkenodyssey.com