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Making yourself heard: how to create a books podcast that really stands out

Derek Owusu is a writer, podcaster, and mentor from Tottenham. He realised his passion for literature aged 23 while studying Exercise Science at University. Before then, he had never read a book cover-to-cover, his introduction to literature coming via a short story by D.H. Lawrence called ‘St Mawr’. Discovering literature was a revelation that came too late for his university path, so instead of switching course, he snuck into English literature lectures at The University of Manchester.

Any idea can be turned into a podcast. From talking about why Denzel Washington is the greatest actor alive, to discussing cows and diary produce for laughs. There are thousands of listeners tuning in each month to consume these niche podcasts, and a small fraction of these turn their attention to podcasts about books.

In 2016, Alex Reads, one of the co-hosts on the Mostly Lit Podcast, decided he wanted to create a podcast where the conversation about books mirrored conversations about music. He wanted no pretence of intelligence or literary snobbery, but clear, relaxed and honest conversation about a wide range of books and to ensure the discussions were influenced by pop culture and the regular lives of BAME readers.

I became a regular host on Mostly Lit four months after its launch, and now also work closely on The Penguin Podcast. Working on both, one, what some would call, a “corporate podcast”, and the other, a DIY pod, I’ve been able clearly see what works and what doesn’t, what makes a good podcast and what can cause stagnation.

The Penguin Podcast, produced by Somethin’ Else, was one of the first book podcasts on the scene and set itself apart with its amazing host, Richard E. Grant, and incredible line-up of guests. The structure was also innovative, asking guests to bring in items that have influenced their writing, giving authors the opportunity to discuss their books in a way they never have before. Now the hosts vary, but the structure remains and the podcast is a regular name in the iTunes top 100. Often, publishing podcasts are a straight interview with nothing to keep the conversation flowing or interesting. And hosts, more often than not, are members of staff with little experience who have been lumped with the job.

Mostly Lit has many things in common with The Penguin Podcast and other great book podcasts like Lit Friction. All are consistent with their content, never failing to upload expected episodes without an explanation. All think of their listeners/target audience when scheduling guests and putting together shows, and all understand that a podcast is a full-time project and not something that can be done on the side.

What I’ve taken from The Penguin Podcast and applied to my role on Mostly Lit is to be more rigorous with my planning?—?a great conversation about books can still be structured, there’s nothing wrong with regulating your rambling; to extend my prep time?—?plan for May in March; and to be audacious?—?this is the most important lesson I’ve learned. As a DIY book podcast just starting up, reaching out to big named authors or publishers can seem presumptuous, but if you don’t ask you don’t get. I’ve learnt to be confident in my approach, never forgetting that publishers need their readers, us, and that no author is too big for a chat about why Gatsby is a working class hero.

And what I hope to bring to The Penguin Podcast is an outsider’s perspective, a consumer’s input and a divergent way of thinking. I’ve only been part of the team for five months, but with the constant support of Hannah Telfer, Helena Sheffield and Richard Lennon, the next five seem set for exciting developments and personal growth.

Where to start

With over a hundred episodes of Mostly Lit and The Penguin Podcast, people tend to wonder where to start. Episode 1 can often seem unappealing, with many podcasts finding their stride well after their debut. So here are four episodes to start with that will help you get to know the hosts and structure of Mostly Lit and The Penguin Podcast:

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