Jason Hartman is joined on this episode by podcaster Stephen Eley. Starting back in the early days of podcasts, Steve’s interest in reading books aloud helped him decide to put together his first podcast venture, Escape Pod, begun in 2005 and which is now a very popular science fiction podcast magazine. The show provides audio short stories from various science fiction authors. Steve walks through the details that led to becoming a science fiction podcaster, including garnering the support of his wife, a process that a friend of his refers to as “SPU’s” – Spousal Permission Units. Out of the original podcast came Pseudopod, a horror fiction podcast, and PodCastle, which is a fantasy fiction podcast.
Steve describes the business model that has successfully supported the shows, while paying contributing authors for their stories. His podcasts are free to subscribers, supported by listener donations and sponsorships. Steve talks about licensing rights and the benefit of added exposure for up and coming authors and new books from seasoned authors. He shares how he initially worked his audience to build listenership. His listenership grew from 100 listeners for the first show to an audience in the mid-30,000s. The best method Steve found for growing the podcast has been engagement in communities that already care about this genre. He attended science fiction conventions, handing out business cards and networking with other writers and fans. Though he advertises on Audible.com, Steve feels word of mouth is still the best advertisement. Steve and Jason also discuss some of the biggest challenges, particularly overcoming personal perfectionism and maintaining support. Steve has since turned over the running of the podcasts to his dedicated staff, but wants the podcasts to continue because he feels it’s a matter of karma. His group is doing it for the community. “This fiction matters. This literature matters. In a world where things are changing so fast …we need to have active imaginations to learn to cope with this world,” Steve expresses, conveying the heart and soul that has gone into the creation and continuation of the programs. This sentiment has encouraged a large and loyal listening audience and a consistent flow of monetary support that allows the company to continue bringing the best listening experience to its followers.
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Jason Hartman: My pleasure to welcome Steve Eley to the show. He is the founder of escapepod.org and we are going to talk about his experience as a podcaster with I guess three different shows and hear how the growth has been, and just learn a little more about it. Steve, welcome how are you?
Steve: Thanks a lot Jason. I am great how are you?
Jason Hartman: Good, good. Are you coming to us today from Georgia?
Steve: Yes. I am based in Atlanta, so your Pacific time was not that bad for me.
Jason Hartman: Yeah and I think you are actually indicator if I am not mistaken right?
Steve: Thereabouts, yeah in Atlanta it just one big lob.
Jason Hartman: It”s big yeah. It sure is big. It”s really like four cities in one some of this — you know may be that”s one of the major cities.
Steve: I believe 19 counties in the metro area.
Jason Hartman: I have a real estate investment company and we do a lot of business in Atlanta that”s really one of my very favorite markets for investors right now so I am quite familiar with the cater stone mountain and all those areas as our investors have been buying in them. Yeah tell us a little bit so when we get on the subject of podcasting of course and that”s what this is about when did you start as a podcaster?
Steve: I started in early 2005 which I think makes me —
Jason Hartman: That is the olden days yeah.
Steve: Yeah makes me one of the grizzled old farts I think. Yeah I had heard about podcasting I think in some of the technical blogs that I had read in late 2004, and I think that there is a certain subset of people when you — they hear about podcasts they think oh wow that sounds like fun. I could talk to people and I kind of, that kind of hit that button in me, and at the time they were relatively few things out there I think that in the number of active podcasts was still it was probably in the hundreds, but only about half a dozen or so that were really being talked about much, and I was thinking what would it — what would I like to talk about and I thought about doing some sort of political commentary thing, but there already way more than enough of those and I wasn”t sure why my opinions were more wroth listening to than anybody else”s. I thought about doing a couple of other more imaginative like science fiction story line sorts of podcast, maybe the podcast from the point of view of a robot after they”ve taken over the earth or something weird like that. It sounded like a lot of energy to keep that consistent, and then I recalled back in the day I had thought about starting an audio book production company. I have really liked reading stories out loud. I first read into my wife, I would read them to friends sometimes, and I thought well I haven”t followed upon that business because marketing and distribution in audio books was obviously such a major pain and that is such a risky venture so I thought well why not do it for free if I just like reading the stuff why not produce some short stories and send them out. And at the time a couple of folks were already starting to podcast their own novels nobody was doing the short fiction yet so I thought well that”s a venture I could try, and the biggest challenge of it of course was pitching it up past my wife, my friend, Evo Terra, when he talks about podcasting, he talks about that SPUs, Spousal Permission Units.
Jason Hartman: And that”s great.
Steve: And so I —
Jason Hartman: So what — if I may ask though what, what”s your day job, or what was your day job at the time you started podcasting?
Steve: Software development.
Jason Hartman: Okay great.
Steve: Back at the time I was actually a grunt programmer for a major Fortune 500company and I eventually once I started this so once it kicking off it became over about the course of about a year, year and a half, the podcasting it wasn”t making any money, but I was realizing that I was putting more and more of my time and my active energy into it, and I started thinking about being up until 2:00 a.m. Wednesday nights and such I ended up making some career shifts specifically so I could keep the energy to do my podcast. Being in software that means you get some flexibility with being able to contract for folks and being able work from home or so I found a pretty good retainer gig. Actually working for the podcaster doing software development for him, and I was able to just rearrange things a little, and I think that for reasons utterly unrelated to podcasting that”s been a good move for me.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic and so you started with one show?
Steve: Yes. We stared with — we launched with Escape pod in 2005 which at the time was a general genre short fiction podcast. We did science fiction fantasy and horror. Overtime some folks really didn”t like having horror in the show to those that we — I like doing it, but not everybody wanted to be scared or depressed on their Monday morning drive to work, so splitting that out into separate podcast which we called pseudo podcast. A couple of years later we split up a fantasy fiction as well into a third podcast which we named PodCastle.
Jason Hartman: Okay so when you say you did science fiction etcetera what, what did you do? I mean were you reading other people”s material, reading, writing and reading original content or acting with other people. Tell us about the format?
Steve: We were a actually paying short fiction market. We always have been. When we started in 2005 it”s just like submitting stories to a magazine. We were essentially an audio magazine, and we were happy to buy reprints from other major science fiction magazines. Folks would have their stuff and print there, and then they could send it to us because the print magazines rarely bought audio rights. They rarely bought electronic rights except for being able to put things on their own site you know folks were happy to sell us the reprint rights. We also ran some original short fiction. When we launched we were paying $20 a story that was basically out my own pocket and sort of an experiment within about a year and a half or so we were able to increase that to $100 a story, and since then we”ve been experimenting with paying like the Science Fiction Writers of America prorates which is $0.03 to $0.05 a word.
Jason Hartman: Okay so I am not sure people listening understand exactly what you”re saying. You — you are buying fiction stories from other writers from people who write fiction and then you are turning them into audio you”re reading them?
Steve: Yes. We are — much like listening to an audio book.
Jason Hartman: Okay great and so is that just you reading or do you have multiple readers like one for each character or –?
Steve: We have volunteer readers. It”s generally not full podcast recordings. It is more of the audio book style of production where you have a single narrator doing all of the dialog, reading all of the pros. We have always had volunteer readers. I read the first two or three myself and while I was actively running the podcast I did do a lot of the stories. I just, I called editorial privileged the ones I felt like reading I got to read because it was fun for me.
Jason Hartman: So and how much are you paying just to over there again how much are you paying for the stories and where do you buy them and stuff like that?
Steve: Okay authors would submit them to us by e-mail we were listed in the market listings for genre writers, and we — initially I was reading all of the submissions myself in deciding what to buy. We eventually got some volunteers to help us with that the slush pile as its called, and pick out the ones that were most worth my looking over and making a purchase decision on, and we had a standard contract. We bought audio rights to the stories and the right to distribute it under a Creative Commons License so folks can give away our podcast episodes for free and that”s — it has worked out for everybody because the authors get more exposure. They get more publicity. Yeah we have since then eclipse the circulation figures of the print magazines, and that were now the largest dedicated short fiction market in science fiction.
Jason Hartman: Yeah audio is obviously a great, great media so you pay $0.03 to $0.04 per word to the writers then.
Steve: Yeah that has been the case.
Jason Hartman: Okay and when you pay them back what are you buying, are you buying all of the rights, are you only buying the audio rights?
Steve: Specifically audio rights and non-exclusive audio rights for that matter. We had cases where people have sold the story to us, and also had the same story produced on one of the podcasts with my non-exclusive audio rights and the right to distribute on the Creative Commons License.
Jason Hartman: Good okay and then sometimes you would pay a five — I think you mentioned like a $100 before or something like that?
Steve: Right and that”s still how are other two podcasts pseudo pod and podcast operate.
Jason Hartman: And then are these, so one of them is now just horror and the other, the first one is sci-fi right?
Steve: Correct and —
Jason Hartman: Okay and what”s the third –?
Steve: The third is what is considered fantasy fiction
Jason Hartman: Okay and what is fantasy fiction mean just define that?
Steve: Stories with magic, stories — the line between science fiction and fantasy can be fuzzy sometimes but usually science fiction tends to be speculative based on things that are possible things that theoretically could happen in the future, or if technology is extrapolated a certain way, and fantasy tends to be more about magic or things that are just truly impossible, things that could never happen.
Jason Hartman: Great. When you started podcasting with that very first show way back in the old days of 2005 which by the way is when started as well and it was a much more primitive field back then for sure.
Steve: Makes me feel old now.
Jason Hartman: Yeah well in dog year”s right in podcasting years we are old. So how did you do it you know I guess we had word prospect and I kind of remember. Did you had go on iTunes and distribute that way or what?
Steve: iTunes wasn”t doing it. Yeah iTunes it was couple of years before iTunes was doing podcasts so yeah I — but I did my homework about audio equipment. I made a few mistakes in the early episodes and just worked on getting things to a point where they were listenable, and yeah I was running a WordPress blog still running the free podcast on WordPress actually was some of the podcasting plug-ins that are out there, didn”t have those at the time either and just putting it out there, and getting on to some of the mailing lists, and a couple of the sites that were already springing up about podcasts and saying, hey here is this, please listen. And also a few of the major podcast that were out there Don and Jorou was a big one back then. There were a few others I would drop them a line, couple of them I actually send cookies too. I said here, listen to the broadcast, have some cookies.
Jason Hartman: Right, funny. So you really you really worked your audience that it sounds like right because you wanted them — did they have a show or they were talking about your show on their show or –?
Steve: That”s what I was hoping yes, and when I announced it on the Yahoo podcasters mailing list which was already there in 2005, you know I got the very first episode; I got a 100 I believe that first week which was fantastic. I was amazed that a 100 people actually heard about this and cared enough, and of course it started ramping up, and it started ramping up, and I think these days the last I checked because I am not actively producing it anymore. We were having in the range of the mid 30,000s for a downloads per episode.
Jason Hartman: Wow that”s nice, and is that for all three shows or just —?
Steve: That”s for Escape pod, PodCastle and Pseudo pod do less than that, but there are still some of top markets in their fields.
Jason Hartman: Great now have you been featured as an iTunes. Did iTunes pick you and feature you?
Steve: Yes number of times actually. It was when I got my Apple TV. It was one of the first things I noticed was I clicked in the podcast directory and I think it was like Pseudopod. The horror one came up under the new and noteworthy things, so hey there is my podcast on my TV screen. It was a lot of fun.
Jason Hartman: And so I am sure that made a huge, huge difference right?
Steve: Yeah iTunes is always been a good bump. It took a while before I became the 800 pound gorilla in the podcasting space these days its I always tell people that”s the one you need to make sure that you are listed in if you possibly can be, and everything else largely its word-of-mouth marketing. There are other podcast directories out there, but they seem to be largely frequented by other podcasters not so much by just pure podcast listeners. That”s generalizing, but I think that most of the publicity for podcasts if its not from the iTunes directory, its from folks googling on subjects of interest to them, or its from people talking to each other about these great podcast that are listening to.
Jason Hartman: One of the things I have always and I have noticed that with my shows they have always just grown very organically, but I have always wanted to push them along like I am thinking can I throw some money at this and have it grow faster you know and do that. Have you come across any ways outside of sending cookies to other show host which is good?
Steve: It”s kind of cost-effective at least. I am not sure it was —
Jason Hartman: Right to kind of grow your audiences and sort of push it or do you sort of go with the philosophy of it can”t really be pushed.
Steve: The thing that has always worked best for me yeah we — I did an experiment with Google ad keywords and some things like that that never really did much for us. I found that like throwing money directly at the problem doesn”t do a whole lot advertising to folks. It doesn”t do that much. What has really worked for me has been engagement in the communities that care about this stuff. I was already going to science fiction conventions just because I tillegg til dette har Norgesautomaten Jackpot 6000 noen funksjoner som gjor spilleautomaten mer underholdene og gir deg mulighet til a oke din gevinst betraktelig. it was matter of interest to me. We got a bunch of bookmarks printed up and I would go, I would become a guest at these conventions and speak at panels. I would network with other writers. Yeah actually buy, just simply the fact of buying stories from major named writers was huge for us because when our story comes out they tend to tell all of their readers. They could tell all of their fans that they I have got the story on Escape pod, go check it out, so folks would go into, and listen and if they like what they hear they will keep listening the next week and so just being engaged in the community, being engaged and just participating in the conversation that fans of these genres of fiction were already having has been what”s really worked for us.
Jason Hartman: What other tips can you give aspiring podcasters that want to start a show grow show?
Steve: The biggest obstacle had in the beginning was perfectionism. I really felt like that the very first one I did; I recorded that story about 10 times because I was never completely satisfied with my reading. I was never completely satisfied with the audio quality and I eventually got to a point where I realized that if I kept tuning this until I was completely happy with it I would never actually launch a podcast. I would just being my wheels so the advice I tend to give folks now is the rule of five get your first five episodes out there before you start to think about marketing your podcast before you start to think about really settling in or spending a lot more money on it than that there the basics you need to get started which is a much more than just a $30 USB headset and free recording software like Audacity. You don”t have to put a major investment into it. Make sure that you have the ability to actually commit to this more than one or two episodes. It”s going to take long enough to spread word-of-mouth and you get the marketing done. You can”t expect you are going to have a huge audience for your for first several episodes anyway so it”s a good time to experiment and confirm that you actually have something worth talking about and you have something worth talking about more than once and it”s fun for you. and once you”ve got that, then you can start putting it out you know into the world and you can start really focusing in on your own structure on your own message you got a better idea what you, what you”re doing after you”ve done it a little bit, just theorizing about it in your head. It”s almost impossible to get anything done and to have it just like spring out as an immediate success.
Jason Hartman: That”s how I feel I am a 20 overnight success in my businesses so but nobody sees that.
Steve: That makes a lot of sense yeah and that”s the — the best people are always the ones that make it look easy.
Jason Hartman: Right exactly. Every business looks easy for me outside including the business of podcasting but it is pretty easy really but I would agree with you that perfectionism is a big thing. There is a great quote I have always liked and can”t remember who said it. But it goes something like “my life seems to be one giant obstacle course with me is the chief obstacle” and you know overcoming oneself is really one of the big parts of life it”s one of the big challenges of life in overcoming maybe your own perfectionism your own procrastination like you said it right, just do it.
Steve: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
Jason Hartman: You know its good, and that”s a great thing you say about when you are — when you are new you won”t have too many people listening anyway so you know you can afford to make some mistakes in the beginning and then just get better as you go you know its on-the-job training.
Steve: Yeah everybody points at Apple these days. How many people talk about the Apple one?
Jason Hartman: Yeah right and —
Steve: The Apple two was dominant for 20 years, but the Apple one was an experiment that a few hundred people had.
Jason Hartman: Well, and the Lisa and the Newton and you know a whole bunch of products. They had lot of failures yeah no question about it. So and what”s the length of your typical episode time wise?
Steve: Since we are based around short stories its — its variable. I always have a couple of minute intro. Then we read the story itself which can vary anywhere from about 20 minutes to — we try to keep it under an hour most of the time. And then just about three or four minutes of commentary and outro as I all it at the end so I — when we set our length guidelines for authors submitting stories to us my original submission guidelines said, I was trying to base this around like the length of my own morning commute when I started breaking from home that was not a very good guideline anymore, but I want something that people can listen to get in the course of a typical drive, or in the course of a typical day. We don’t want things that are going on for hours and hours.
Jason Hartman: So Steve are you doing these shows as a hobby or is this a business for you?
Steve: It is a business. It”s sort of a strange business because I have never really had serious ambitions of making at my day job or trying to — I was actually afraid that if I started relying on it for my income that it would stop being fun for me, but we did actually incorporate as an S Corporation about a year after the podcast launched mostly so I could get the money that I was paying in the office out of my own personal checking account that was — it was making financing a little confusing to be taking donations from folks. We were donor supported from the very beginning and that was sort of my experiment that was my negotiation with my wife. She said well, where are you going to get stories? We will buy them from authors and how will you pay for that? We will ask people for money and I figured at $20 a week that we were paying initially I had spent that on Playstation games if I had doing now I don’t have time to play them anymore.
Jason Hartman: Right. And what do you call those Spousal Permission Units?
Steve: Yeah, and but — we actually got a $5 donation in our first week and that was well that”s proof of concept at least.
Jason Hartman: Right.
Steve: And actually was it — may be a month, month and a half before we were getting enough money in from folks, just him a few bucks here and there by PayPal that were able to keep it going and our donations increased to the point that we were able to raise our rates. We were able to split out these other podcasts. Now we are paying some of our editorial and our production staff and it”s still run as an S Corporation with the three podcasts since I am less actively involved now. I retired from the actual podcast production in 2010. I still own the company, but we are actually talking about reincorporating as a non-profit. I think that it actually makes a lot of sense since we are so donor supported. We are advertising as well, but it has had no point been though the bulk of our income.
Jason Hartman: What kind of advertising are you doing audible and that kind of stuff?
Steve: Yeah audible.com has been a big one for us.
Jason Hartman: GoToMeeting.
Steve: No yeah I have tried to stay away from lot of the tech products things just because I think that it”s not where our core audience is. Audible is sort of on message for fiction. We try to stay kind of focused. Yeah here and there occasionally we will help you publishers promote specific books that they are launching, things like that.
Jason Hartman: Great, good stuff so advertising donations any other monetization strategies?
Steve: We launched the side business to sell archive CDs of our work that you know just MP3 CDs, a lot of people were buying them as Christmas gifts for friends or family things like that which is been it was more work than we expected it to be, but it actually did bring in some decent income. And we actually opened that up to a few of the podcasters after a while too. It was really just I dropped some money on a CD duplicator that could also pint covers on CD so they were sort of picking it on-demand ourselves.
Jason Hartman: Right, right and so when you say you open that up to other podcasters you mean for them to sell the CDs for you?
Steve: Yeah — no from for them to sell their own podcast archives of via that”s at PodDisc.com.
Jason Hartman: Okay so you would basically be the producer of the CDs for they would provide audio content and then you would produce physical CDs and sell them.
Steve: Yeah we would print them and ship them out. And right now that business is in transition so anyone listening I can”t guarantee you can buy things from there right now because we are looking at, going at a small automated fulfillment for those.
Jason Hartman: Sure, okay good. And so I guess the last thing Steve is what are your plans for the shows, what”s your vision of them, are you going to keep plugging long, do you have a big monetization angle coming up, our you know anything you would — if you had your wish list what would it be?
Steve: Again I feel like we are sort of an odd case because we are one of the few podcasts that was at least technically profitable from almost the beginning. We”ve always been making some money and I credit that to the message that we put out at the end of the podcast which is that the money the folks donate to us it goes back to the authors we pay for our content, we pay for our stories which is why you get such good fiction from us. And so if you want to support this if you want and you can please consider clicking the link and then dropping us a few dollars. I especially after I sort of burned out at myself a little bit in 2010 when I was looking for other people to pass it off too, we have a very dedicated staff of folks, [unintelligible 0:24:11] is editing the podcast now and she”s doing an amazing job. We have been more and more going towards a non-profit sort of strategy. We want to keep making enough money to keep putting the stuff out, to keep paying the authors, we want to be able to pay our own staff the people putting in so much work a little better, but it”s we do pay them, but it”s not that much above volunteer sots of wages. We would like to be able to pay narrators. We would like to be able to keep this running as a viable sustainable business which there”s nothing stopping us from that now. It”s going great. But we think that just for a matter of karma we are doing this for the community. When I stop doing it was really important to me to pass it off because I really thought that this fiction matters. This literature matters in a world where things are changing so fast. You know science fiction is the literature of the imagination we need to have active imaginations to learn how to cope with this world. I cared enough about the reasons for this podcast, but wanted to keep it going. And I think that for anyone working on it, it hasn”t been really about the money that much which is to say that money is — money doesn”t matter but I think if anyone was really doing it for the money there are easier ways.
Jason Hartman: Right, right yeah. That”s very insightful though what you say about the world changing so fast and it requiring vivid creative imaginations, no question that”s very true, true. One thing I forgot to ask and may be this is the last thing. Just give your episode statistics how many episodes do you in each show approximately?
Steve: Let”s see. Actually I will have to check that myself right now because I have not looked —
Jason Hartman: Do you publish on a regular day?
Steve: Yeah we publish weekly all of them. And actually for five years I never missed an episode of Escape pod so we are actually okay Escape pod just put out episode 343 so its been running for 343 weeks. We also had a number of flash fiction episodes which are in the numbered ones. PodCastle episode 207, and Pseudopod is just put out episode 280 so all of our podcasts have done between 200 and 300 full-length episodes and some indeterminate number of smaller they would be like bonus pieces.
Jason Hartman: You call those flash fiction and you don”t give the number right?
Jason Hartman: Okay.
Steve: Yeah that flash fiction is generally stories that they might be like five to ten minutes long.
Jason Hartman: Okay so really quickies yeah great. Good stuff. Well, Steve thank you so much for sharing all this with the audience today. I appreciate it. It”s very giving to have podcasters on when there is really no monetary benefit. You are just sharing your experience to and help other podcasters and help the community so, very much appreciated and give out your website once again if you would.
Steve: Okay you can go to escapepod.org, and if you want to see the other podcasts, we actually have a landing page that escapeartists.net.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well, Steve Eley thanks so much for joining us today.
Steve: Thank you. It was fun.
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The Speaking of Wealth Team
Transcribed by: Renee’