The Birth of the New Books Network

By Dr Marshall Poe

As I’m sure all readers of this forum know, podcasting is now a “thing.” Pretty much everyone knows what a podcast is. Millions of people listen to podcasts. Money—from legacy media companies and venture capital firms—is pouring in. It seems that everyone has a podcast or wants to have one. I was talking to an ad sales guy the other day and he said to me “Wow. Your timing with the New Books Network was just great.”

Not really. When I started the New Books Network (NBN) 12 years ago podcasting was not a “thing.” It got some press because it was new and curious, not because it was going to “disrupt” legacy media. Podcasters were geeks and the people who listened to podcasts were geeky. I was one of them. There was no money in it, nor was there any inkling that there might be. We—the early podcasters—did what we did because we saw an opportunity to do something we liked to do for the benefit of humankind: talk to people about things we thought other people might find interesting.

The NBN is a textbook “passion project.” I went to graduate school in history because I liked to talk to people about books; I did not go to graduate school to write books and I was a little shocked (call me naïve) when my advisors asked me to do so. I did it, several times, and became a history professor.

But there was something about the book-writing thing that always bothered. I, and many professors like myself, wrote books—some really interesting and a few even important—but almost nobody read them. Heck, nobody even knew about them. I didn’t get it. Weren’t books supposed to go out into the world to enlighten people and make said world a better place? Wasn’t one of the duties of a professor “service,” and didn’t “service” include public education? What was the use of all this well-funded (and often publicly-funded) research if it never got to anyone?

So I started to experiment with ways to take the ideas trapped—and I use that word advisedly—in academic books and free it so that the public might benefit. I did a lot of things, like try to make short movies about monographs. Needless to say, that didn’t work. Neither did anything else I tried.

Until I launched something called “New Books in History” in 2007. A guy (Andrew Keen, as it happened) had interviewed me in 2006 about an article I wrote in a magazine. I figured Andrew was going to call me up, record the call, and then publish the interview as text on his blog. Blogs were all the rage then.

Nope. He said he was going to publish the audio. That got my attention. I remember the moment very clearly. Immediately upon hanging up I thought “I wonder if anyone would listen to historians talk about their books?”

I decide to find out. I told people what I was going to do. They said, “Nobody will listen to that.” But I did it anyway because nobody can tell me anything (ask my mom). I learned how to record audio remotely; as it turns out it wasn’t hard. I learned to edit said audio and make it into something like a radio show; again, not terribly hard. I learned how to make webpages; that was really hard at the time (“Put the <div> tag here, and then…”). And I learned how to distribute the audio; Apple’s iTunes to the rescue!

So what happened? People listened, a lot of them. Because I had written a book called The History of Communications I knew why. People do not really like to read. It takes years to learn to do it, is pretty hard to do, and takes up all of your attention. Now I hear you saying, “But I love to read.” And I’m sure you do. But you are weird, in a statistical sense. I sympathize, because so am I. Hear this: the average American reads one book a year and for 15 minutes a day. And, for those of you statistically inclined, those averages are not “meaningful”: The distribution is strongly bimodal. A few people read a ton and most don’t read at all.

Why is that? Consider this. We were born with listening organs. They are called “ears.” They are easy and fun to use. We were not born with reading organs; our eyes and brains were not naturally selected to decode little symbols all arranged in rows. To get our eyes and brains to accomplish this remarkable feat takes years of training. And, for most, it never becomes easy and fun.

People naturally like to listen to other people talk. But to what? Well, the world is a big place. It’s divided into a lot of little groups. Different little groups are interested in different things. Alas, the legacy media could not cater to the interests of all these little groups. Maybe you’re interested in building plastic models. I was and am; I build them with my son. I’d love to tune into “The Plastic Modelling Hour” on NPR. But such a thing could not exist in the legacy media. The audience isn’t large enough to bear the expense of broadcasting—that’s the key term here—such “content.” So no expensive radio shows for plastic modeler, alas.

Podcasting changed all that because podcasters like me could narrowcast at very low cost to smallish interest-groups. You will not be surprised to learn that there is a podcast devoted to plastic model building. In fact, there are several of them.

Podcasting, I discovered, was made for the world of books or, rather, the topics they represent. When people read a book, they are not interested in the book per se; they are interested in the topic of the book. There are, as I said, lots of smallish interest-groups interested in a lot of narrowish topics and, happily, books tend to cluster—topically speaking—around the narrowish interests of these groups. Psychology books for people interested in psychology, Islamic studies books for people interested in Islam, anthropology books for people interested in anthropology.

It didn’t take me long after I started New Books in History to figure out that the NBH model would work for any narrowish interest for which books were written. So the New Books Network was born. I contacted professors I knew in, say, African American Studies and said “Hey, how about I make you the Terry Gross of AfroAm Studies? You do the interviews and I’ll do everything else. You’ll be the talent and I’ll be the producer.” An attractive proposition, it turned out. So we went from one host on one “channel” to about 250 hosts—all volunteers, God bless them—on about 100 “channels” in a few short years. I began by publishing one interview a month; now we publish 25 a week. We cover more books than any book review by about ten miles. We’ve published 6,500 of them to date. And all for very, very little money. I run the NBN out of my bedroom.

The best part: We reach hundreds of thousands of people all over the world with serious, expertly-delivered, decidedly non-fake news about books they never would have heard of without us. We may be saving democracy! Well, maybe not, but we do free the ideas trapped in academic books. That’s something. As a bonus, we also help the public-spirted, hard-working people who produce these books—authors and university presses. When people listen to an NBN interview, they sometimes buy the book about which it, the interview, is about. That’s cash to the authors and presses, cash they can use to produce more books that we can cover so we can continue fighting fake news and saving democracy. If you’d like to help, contact me. I’ll make you the Terry Gross of….

Sometimes people say that the NBN is an “academic podcast.” But the NBN is not an academic podcast, at least the way I think of it. We don’t do “scholarly communications.” The proper medium for that, IMHO, is text, which is pretty much unbeatable if you want to make really fine points about really narrow topics and discuss those points with other people who know everything about them. Pushkin wrote a famous “novel in verse.” It would be hard to imagine a “monograph in audio.”

The NBN is a public education project, full stop. We try to educate the public about the stuff in serious books written by serious people, mostly “experts.” That’s all we do. And because it’s “public”–as in “meant for everyone”—we must use a medium that the “public” likes. That medium, in our case, is audio. We try to meet “the people” where they are, not where someone thinks they should be. And where they are is listening to podcasts.

I don’t know, therefore, what the future of “academic podcasting” is, though I think that’s an important question. I do know what the future of the NBN is, though, and it’s to continue our mission—public education—with all our strength. The fact that podcasting is now a “thing” helps us do that. It may bring in revenue that will enable us to grow and accomplish our mission even more effectively. Honestly, I’d like to get the NBN out of my bedroom. But even if I don’t, we—me and the generous 250—will continue the fight against fake news and the rest. It’s the right thing to do, and we are all grateful to do it.


Marshall Poe is the founder and editor-in-chief of the New Books Network (NBN). He began his career as a Russian historian and taught for years at Harvard University and the University of Iowa. He also wrote a number of books that almost nobody read. He then left academia to work as a writer/editor at The Atlantic magazine in Washington, DC
where he became particularly interested in the Internet. Since 2011, he’s been working full time on the NBN and related Internet projects. He can be reached at marshallpoe@gmail.com.