A good rule of thumb for any self-promoting author (or any creative trying to cut through the noise) is to lean into your natural skill set. For example, I like to talk. I like to talk a lot. I go from zero to pontificating within moments. I like talking so much I talk to myself—to a disturbing degree.
So, naturally, I started a podcast (The No Pants Cocktail Hour) a couple of years ago because it gave me an excuse to talk to myself as much as I wanted. The fact that podcasts seemed to suddenly be everywhere didn’t hurt, either. This brings us to another good promo rule of thumb: Put your promotional energies where your potential audience is. This means, in this case, if people are listening to author podcasts (and they are) you should at least seriously consider starting one of your own.
Podcasts are great for promoting your writing career for a few simple, but powerful, reasons. One, creating and distributing a podcast doesn’t have to be difficult, complex, or expensive—you can definitely create one using some basic tools and for very little or even zero money. Two, podcasts are a great way to connect with not only existing readers but potential readers because people who are interested in the same subject or genre will gravitate towards your content. And three, podcasts represent an opportunity to be creative and have some fun.
That doesn’t mean you can just hit record on your phone and get started, though. There are a few things to consider before you dive into the chatty world of podcasts—starting with what in heck you’re going to talk about.
Deciding what your podcast is going to be about starts with one overarching question: Are you promoting a book, or are you promoting yourself?
There’s no wrong answer. If you have a book you’re trying to get out there, choosing a subject that’s related to your book is a good choice (don’t make your podcast literally about your book, though, unless your book has a fascinating origin story that will take many hours of breathless storytelling to get through). On the other hand, if you’re looking to promote yourself as a writer of many books (and perhaps other things) you’ll want to pull back and choose a more general approach that aligns with your author brand.
The best strategy is always whatever serves your brand best. If you’re going to be writing about the same subject repeatedly—if you’re a subject matter expert creating nonfiction, for example, or writing in a specific genre like historical fiction set in a very narrow time period, a podcast focused on one subject may make sense. If you anticipate publishing in many genres or just want the freedom to pivot at will, a more generalist approach that is more about you and your overall brand might work better.
One last thing to consider here is your own level of expertise and interest. A podcast is a commitment, and it’s also a hungry content machine. Pick something you know something about, a subject that will translate into a lot of hours of audio. You don’t want to get to episode four and discover you’ve said everything you have to say on the subject.
There’s no hard number here, but keep in mind that most people won’t listen to a single person speaking for longer than an hour. On the other end, anything less than half an hour might seem like insufficient content for some folks. That being said, if your podcast is going to feature lots of guests and panelists (see below) you can get away with longer episodes because the conversation will have more input. And on the other end, you can certainly design your podcast to be more bite-sized—say, ten or fifteen-minute episodes—but the key word there is designed. There has to be a reason your episodes are so slim.
Many podcasts incorporate guest interviews into their format, but not all do. Opening your podcast to guests can expand the subjects you can cover and add energy to your episodes, but interviews ratchet up the complexity in terms of both technology (as we’ll see later) and planning. The more people you involve in your podcast the more complex scheduling becomes, so before defaulting to a format with interviews and guests, make sure you’ve got the bandwidth to handle that. After all, one canceled interview can have a domino effect on the rest of your episodes.
Of course, there’s no rule that says you can’t change your mind, so if you’re not sure about guests you can put off the decision. Just remember that if you do decide to add guests later you’ll have to make arrangements and changes to make the addition work. And it’s totally fine if you decide you don’t want or need guests—interviewing people is just one possible way to provide content to your listeners, albeit a popular one.
Every podcast has a format and you need to think about yours. Different formats have different advantages and disadvantages; what you’re comfortable with is a crucial factor to consider. Generally speaking, there are a few basic formats you can model your podcast on:
You might include interviews in any podcast format, but some podcasts are all about them. Consider a classic like Marc Maron’s WTF podcast—it’s pretty much an interview show. The advantage of an interview podcast is that you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting—your interview subjects will (hopefully) bring interesting content with them, and your podcast will be more conversational.
Some folks are uncomfortable with collaborators, or simply want to call all the shots. The upside here is not just complete control—it’s also extremely simple from a technical, scheduling, and planning perspective because you’re the only person who has to sign off on anything. On the other hand, it’s easy to get rambly and there’s no one there to help if you’re simply not being particularly interesting—and keeping up a one-sided conversation can be exhausting. An example of a great solo podcast is Lore by Aaron Mahnke, which explores dark, weird history.
If you have a partner—or several—you share the burden of keeping up a stream of interesting talk, and can also split research and other duties. Having two or more people on a podcast means different people can take the lead, and on days when you’re not feeling very inspired someone else might provide the fireworks.
A variation on the multi-hander is a panel show, where a host (or hosts) and a different group of people interact in each episode. The constantly-shifting group of opinions and personalities can keep things fresh, but also create challenges in terms of coordinating everyone’s schedule and sourcing enough guests. A great example of a panel podcast is the delightful** Doug Loves Movies**, which—you guessed it—has a group discussion about films.
Podcasts are ideally suited to a documentary style, which takes a deep, scripted dive into a single subject. While true crime podcasts are the most frequent examples in this format, you can actually choose just about any subject—The New York Times’ Rabbit Hole podcast with Kevin Roose, for example, explores YouTube’s influence on our online lives. A documentary podcast could be a solo project, or involve multiple people, depending on your passion for the subject—and how much time you have to devote to the project.
Podcasts that tell stories, either nonfiction (like the all-time classic This American Life) or fiction (like the fantastic Welcome to Nightvale) are very popular. They work well as solo productions but can also be elaborate, with sound production and multiple voice actors. If you’re a writer it might be the ideal fit, just be sure you’ve got enough material to contribute.
For anyone just getting their feet wet in the podcast universe, formats that don’t require other people or ambitious sound engineering are probably best—if you can come up with a format and subject that can be done with just you and a microphone, you can have a podcast out in the world in a very short time, and it’ll be easy to keep producing episodes consistently. Once you have some experience producing a podcast, you can always get more ambitious with the next one.
Many podcasts enhance the experience by providing written notes and other materials to their listeners. These could include links to anything referenced in the episode, a reading list for deeper dives, a playlist on Spotify, or literally anything else that isn’t easy to convey via audio. This is not an absolute requirement, but keep in mind that many podcast fans expect to see these sorts of materials—and they can definitely add new dimensions to the listening experience.
Of course, the difference between a crazy person talking to themselves and a podcast is the hardware and software—so what do you need?
One of the great things about podcasts is that you could literally start one right now by pulling out your phone, tapping the Voice Recorder app, and talking. Boom.
And you could do that, although it might not sound too great. For one thing, your phone’s microphone isn’t going to produce great sound, and it’ll capture every background sound and every smack of your lips (yuck). Plus, without editing you’ll be amazed to discover how much you ramble, how often you say the words uh, ah, and you know, and how frequently you repeat things you said five minutes earlier. Plus, you won’t have music or sound effects or anything else fun on there.
Whether you’re recording on your phone or your desktop computer, you’ll need a few basic pieces of hardware to get decent sound.
There are a lot of microphones designed to plug into your phone or desktop computer. Frankly, simply choosing to use an external microphone rather than the built-in mic on your phone or laptop will improve the situation, but choosing a decent model will make an even better difference.
One of the most popular microphones for beginner podcasters is the Blue Yeti. This connects via USB and offers great sound for a reasonable price—but there are also cheaper alternatives like ZaxSound’s SF-666 pro, which comes with a simple tripod stand and the ability to connect with just about any device, all for about $12. The ZaxSound may not be the greatest microphone in the world, but it is still a big step up from the built-in mics on your devices and will get you started.
It should be noted that some podcasters advise against condenser microphones like these. This is not because they’re bad microphones, but because they’re sensitive and generally designed to be used in studios where there is no external noise. In your bedroom or a coffee shop, they will pick up every noise in the background. Some trial and error will help reduce these problems, but it’s something to consider. The alternatives are known as dynamic microphones and can avoid some of these challenges. The Samson Q2U is a great example, a terrific starting dynamic mic for a modest price.
Depending on what format you’ve chosen, there are several kinds of microphones to consider.
- Lavalier or lapel mics clip onto your shirt or jacket and are ideal for guests, especially if you don’t have any kind of dedicated studio setup.
- Shotgun mics are long and narrow and only pick up sound in the direction they’re pointed at, making them useful if your podcast takes you outdoors on a regular basis—but you have to be careful about keeping them pointed at what you’re recording.
Listening to your recorded voice is always kind of trippy. We never sound the way we think we do, and we make some absolutely gross noises with our mouths that are easily ignored in real life, but picked up in perfect, glorious horror by microphones. One of the most common and irritating of these noises is a “plosive,” the hard pop you make when you say words that begin with some consonants. It’s impossible to avoid them, so your best bet is to use a pop filter. This is just a screen or foam barrier that softens your plosives so they don’t show up on the recording—they’re not terribly expensive, and you can even make your own from stuff you have lying around. Using one will change your podcasting life.
If your podcast is going to be just you talking into a microphone, you can get away with just recording directly into your phone or computer. Editing will be straightforward since you won’t have to worry about multiple audio streams beyond a little music or some sound effects. But if you’re going to be more complex in your approach, having software that handles a lot of voices will spare your sanity.
You can pay for software like Hindenburg Journalist, which is designed for use by, you guessed it, journalists. For roughly $100 it offers all the audio tools a podcast could need. Zencastr is a free option that is designed to record several people as well. Anchor is another free option that actually takes care of every aspect of the podcast, including recording, so it’s worth a look if you’re on a low budget. There are tons of options (podcasting is popular right now, if you hadn’t noticed) so do some research and pick tools in your budget with the features you’ll need for your format.
Once you’ve recorded yourself and any guests or collaborators for your podcast, you’re going to need to edit the audio. No matter how careful and scripted you are, editing is going to be necessary for a number of things: One, to cut out moments where you ramble and momentarily lose the thread; two, to edit out all (or at least most of) the “ahhs” and “ums” and other placeholder sounds you make; three, to manage background noise; four, to (possibly) add music and other post-production elements; and five, to render a final file in an appropriate format for uploading and distribution.
Your editing can be super simple and concentrate only on those first two concerns, or it can be really ambitious—that’s up to you. Audacity is a free audio editor you can download and use immediately. It’s powerful and flexible, but some people may find it overwhelming, since it’s designed to be a semi-professional music editing platform, which means there’s a lot of stuff podcasters won’t need or use.
For the lazy among us, one final suggestion is Auphonic. Auphonic doesn’t actually record your audio, but it will automatically clean it up for you and create a transcription. There’s a limited free version so you can give it a try. If your podcast is going to be pretty simple in terms of audio, this might save you hours of work.
So: You sat down and talked to yourself for an hour, cut that audio down to forty-five strong minutes, and you’re ready to rock. Now what? Sure, you can just upload it to your personal site and send out links via social media—that will work. But that approach limits discovery and will become time-consuming when you add in all the ancillary material a podcast benefits from.
Ideally, you want your podcast to be available everywhere in order to maximize how many people are exposed to it. The best way to do that is to identify a podcast hosting service. These websites allow you to upload all of your assets to a single location, organize everything nicely, and package it out for inclusion on services like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Player.Fm. As with everything else in life, you have a lot of choices here. Here are just a few to focus on.
Buzzsprout is consistently rated the best overall podcast host these days. It’s very simple to get set up and very simple to use. There’s a completely free plan—you don’t even need to hand over credit card information to get started—but the downside is that your episodes are deleted every three months, so paying the $12/
Libsyn is one of the oldest and most popular podcast hosts. It doesn’t have a free option, but its bottom-tier plan costs just $5 a month for 50MB of storage. Since it’s storage-based and not length, you can experiment with lower bitrates on your podcasts to see how low you can go in order to get as many minutes as possible. And since Libsyn is unlimited bandwidth, if your podcast gets “discovered” you won’t have to scrape up cash to keep it streaming. The interface is a bit dated and clunky, but it’s still a solid service.
Anchor is a completely free podcast host offering unlimited bandwidth and storage. It doesn’t have as wide a distribution footprint as other services but hits the big guys, and it’s relatively feature-rich. The big downsides are that it’s now owned by Spotify, and there’s a suspicion that it won’t remain free forever, and it isn’t going to scale well if your podcast takes off and starts getting a ton of play. In both of those scenarios you might find yourself migrating, which is a pain. Still, for a first-time podcast free can’t be beat, and Anchor offers the basics that you’ll need.
If you’ve ever listened to a podcast—or even if you’re only peripherally aware that they exist—you’ve probably noticed that they always have some art associated with them. Yes, they’re an audio experience, but people search for them on the Internet, and the Internet is a visual platform by and large. At minimum, you’ll need to create a logo for your podcast and two pieces of cover art for each episode. You could go with one piece of art that gets used everywhere, but that makes it difficult for listeners to figure out if you’ve got new episodes on offer—and misses out on an opportunity to intrigue newcomers with your awesome art.
For example, here’s the logo from my own podcast:
Nothing earth-shattering there, but there are a couple of simple rules to follow. First, make your logo and cover art pieces something that will catch the eye even it’s pretty small—graphical and simple is best. Then, follow these basic size guidelines: Keep your art/
This artwork doesn’t have to be super complicated. If you have some experience manipulating digital visuals, you can download something like GiMP (or use Photoshop if you have it, of course), which is overkill if all you’re doing is creating simple podcast art. You can create a free account over at Canva, choose the Podcast Cover template, and whip up something really cool in a few moments—all for free. Places like Pexels and Unsplash are great sources for totally free images to throw in there, too.
Sure, you’re going to promote your podcast on your social media, but there are two great ways to grow your audience that aren’t obvious. They’re not obvious because there are folks out there who want podcast content … without listening to podcasts.
First, you can and should put your podcast on video platforms like Youtube. You can either film yourself while making the podcast and just upload that, or, if that seems like a lot of stress and complexity (especially if you have to edit your podcasts heavily to make them seem sane and rational) you can create a video with a static image (your logo, perhaps) and the podcast audio. This opens up your potential audience to folks who don’t troll podcast directories but do check out video content.
Second, you should provide a transcription of your podcast episodes. Otter provides a fantastic transcription service for less than $10 a month (there is a free tier, but you can’t upload files to it). There are free transcription services out there, but they tend to be pretty poor in terms of accuracy, or very limited in terms of how many minutes you can upload. In a pinch, if you have an Android phone, you can use Google’s Live Transcribe, which will transcribe any audio playing. It’s not perfect, but it is free.
Neither of these steps is required—some podcasts don’t bother with either option. But taking the time to get on video platforms and offering transcripts will make it easier for people to get into your podcast—and that’s the goal, right? Unless just having an excuse to talk to yourself is the goal, which I understand. I’m not saying that’s why I do a podcast … but I understand.
Now you’re ready to conceptualize launch a new podcast, which means you have to brace yourself for the true challenge: Hearing your own voice on a recording. Brace yourself. Like Olivia Rodrigo says, it’s brutal out here.
- How to Start an Author Podcast
- How to Start a Podcast: A Step-by-Step Guide for Authors
- Here Are the Best Podcast Hosting Sites (Free Trials Too)
- Podcasts: The Indie Author’s Secret Weapon
- How to Design Stunning Podcast Cover Art That Stands out in Itunes
- Best Podcast Equipment (for Beginners & PROS) 2021