By Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg 

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book opens with ominous sirens, planes droning overhead and a powerful explosion.

Unlike most audiobooks, which are offshoots of a traditional text manuscript, "The Bomber Mafia," was conceived first as an audio project. Only later, after there was a completed script, was it offered to a major publisher. The print and ebook versions, as well as the audiobook, go on sale April 27.

"The Bomber Mafia" is part of an effort by Pushkin Industries Inc., an audio company that Mr. Gladwell co-founded, to become a major provider of highly produced "original" audiobooks. Such projects sound more like podcasts than traditional audiobooks, since they often feature original scores, as well as archival and interview tape.

Industry giants including Bertelsmann SE's Penguin Random House and Amazon.com Inc.'s Audible also produce high-production original audiobooks with sound effects and a cast of multiple actors, representing significant competition for Pushkin.

As a writer, Mr. Gladwell has been a star on the pop-culture circuit for more than two decades, thanks to such bestsellers as "The Tipping Point, " "Blink" and "Outliers." His ability to look at popular subjects in fresh and unexpected ways has made him an arbiter of human behavior and social phenomena.

Mr. Gladwell later applied that approach to podcasting with "Revisionist History," a show launched in 2016 that looks to shed new light on past events. When the company that produced the podcast exited the medium, he launched Pushkin with former Slate Group Chairman and Editor in Chief Jacob Weisberg to keep "Revisionist History" going.

Today, the company has 12 podcasts, including Dr. Laurie Santos's "The Happiness Lab," which focuses on the science of well-being, and Dana Goodyear's "Lost Hills," a tale of true crime, which recently hit No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts. Ms. Goodyear, like Mr. Gladwell, is a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine.

In a move likely to raise Pushkin's profile, the company this week agreed to create an audio content subscription program called "PushNik" for a new podcast subscription service Apple Inc. is expected to launch next month. The offering will include ads-free versions of Pushkin's various podcasts as well as a weekly news roundup and other exclusive audio content.

Mr. Gladwell conceived the idea for "The Bomber Mafia" while recording the fifth season of "Revisionist History," several episodes of which are about the life of Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay and the World War II bombing campaign against Japan.

"We were looking for some audiotape of Curtis LeMay, and realized that there were archives at the Air Force with audiotape of literally every major military leader involved in the air wars over Europe and Japan," said Mr. Gladwell. "It was then I realized -- I could do a whole book on this story."

"The Bomber Mafia" will be Pushkin's fifth audiobook. The first title it published, "Fauci," came out about six months ago, and quickly rose to No. 1 on Audible's nonfiction bestseller list. The title includes exclusive conversations with infectious-diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci and his wife, Christine Grady, as well as key colleagues and peers, archival recordings and an original score.

The budget for some Pushkin audiobooks can top six figures, significantly higher than the estimated industry average of $10,000 to make a typical title.

"This is worlds apart from the traditional audiobook," Mr. Gladwell said, referring to a production in which an author or actor reads the book aloud in a recording studio. Paul Simon and comedian Steve Martin are among those working on future Pushkin projects.

Pushkin is competing against deep-pocketed rivals also investing in more ambitious works. Penguin Random House, the world's largest consumer book publisher, cast 12 actors in its first-ever original audiobook, a Star Wars prequel titled "Dooku: Jedi Lost." The 2019 title proved so popular that the publisher later issued it in print. Penguin Random House declined to say how much the audiobook cost to produce.

Penguin Random House, which produces more than 1,800 traditional audiobooks annually in the U.S., expects to release 10 original audiobooks in 2021.

Audible, which championed the traditional audiobook format, has already published thousands of original audiobooks from authors such as James Taylor and James Patterson, whose Audible Original "The Coldest Case: A Black Book Audio Drama" ranked No. 2 on Audible's fiction bestseller list earlier this month.

Rachel Ghiazza, Audible's head of U.S. content, said "Evil Eye," an original audiobook from playwright Madhuri Shekar, was later made into a movie now available on Prime Video, which like Audible is owned by Amazon. She said Audible's upcoming original audiobooks include "The Stand-In," a romantic comedy starring Phillipa Soo, who was part of the original cast of the musical "Hamilton."

Pushkin said every original audiobook is assembled by a team consisting of at least one writer, producer, researcher, sound engineer, editor, fact-checker and lawyer to provide a legal review. The higher production costs don't come from labor alone: Each book includes archival clips and music that often need to be licensed, and frequently includes an original score.

"We think with our eyes and feel with our ears," Mr. Gladwell said. "I wanted 'The Bomber Mafia' to let you experience the story in all its power and horror rather than just reading words on the page."

It's easy to get it wrong. A prepublication version of the Fauci audiobook featured sounds of black-footed ferrets to accompany a segment about their use in a flu-research experiment. Then the Pushkin team realized the ferrets used in that experiment were actually from a different species.

"At the last minute, we realized we needed ordinary, garden-variety ferrets," said Mr. Weisberg, Pushkin's chief executive and co-founder.

Pushkin even tracked down an actual recording of a Sopwith Camel, a plane that flew during World War I, for a portion of the audiobook in which Mr. Gladwell discusses how dangerous those planes were for pilots.

"There are people who know this stuff," Mr. Weisberg said. "You don't want to get that wrong."

Mr. Weisberg estimates Pushkin will have to sell between 40,000 and 50,000 copies of "The Bomber Mafia" to recoup the audiobook's production costs -- a relatively modest number for an author with Mr. Gladwell's following. An audio version of Mr. Gladwell's 2019 book "Talking to Strangers" has sold just north of 1 million copies, according to publisher Little, Brown & Co.

One challenge facing original audiobooks is that they don't benefit from the publicity that accompanies new print titles. When Stephen King publishes a new book, it's widely reviewed. Mr. Gladwell, though, says Pushkin is using its stable of podcast series to promote upcoming audiobooks to a built-in audience. "We're only beginning to understand what a powerful marketing tool podcasts are," he said.

Pushkin sells some of its audiobooks on its own website, including "The Bomber Mafia," which costs $14.99. Listeners can then access them via such podcast apps as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Overcast. That means podcast fans can access Pushkin's audiobooks on apps they're already using regularly, added Mr. Weisberg: "That's key for us."

Pushkin expects revenue to approach $20 million in 2021 -- including a meaningful contribution from audiobooks -- and expects to be profitable for the third consecutive year, Mr. Weisberg said. It helped that Pushkin launched with "Revisionist History," which was already a successful show.

During the pandemic, Pushkin nearly doubled its staff to 45, including some Mr. Weisberg said he has yet to meet in person. The company moved into new office space in New York's Union Square neighborhood only a week before a citywide lockdown limited travel. Mr. Weisberg, who is vaccinated against Covid-19, said he is often the only person in the office.

Pushkin raised $2.1 million in financing in early 2019, and subsequently raised another $10.5 million in March to fund further expansion, with a focus on audiobooks. "The book projects take a little longer to produce, and we needed more working capital," said Mr. Weisberg. "There hasn't been creative innovation in audiobooks the way that there has been in podcasting."

Pushkin's investors include the Emerson Collective, the investment vehicle for Laurene Powell Jobs; David Winter and David Millstone, co-CEOs of Standard Industries Inc., a private industrials company; and businesswoman Lili Lynton and her brother, Michael Lynton, chairman of Snap Inc.

"We were confident they would get traction from creators and from an audience," Ms. Lynton said in an interview. "Malcolm has a following, and Jacob knows how to run a creative business."

The audiobook market has been thriving. Downloaded audiobooks generated $675.6 million in publisher revenue in 2020, up 17% from a year earlier, according to the Association of American Publishers, a trade group. By means of comparison, total hardcover publisher revenues last year increased 13% while paperback revenue rose 5.6%.

Mr. Weisberg said that after they had a completed script for "The Bomber Mafia," he met with Mr. Gladwell's book publisher -- Little, Brown & Co., a unit of Lagardère SCA's Hachette Book Group -- in December to discuss whether they would be interested in a print and ebook edition. Many publishers are typically unwilling to acquire manuscripts without audiobook rights, but since "The Bomber Mafia" was originally conceived as an audiobook, Little, Brown struck a deal.

A recent study by Codex Group LLC, a book-audience research firm, found that 54% of Mr. Gladwell's fans who buy his books listen to audiobooks, higher than the 42% of overall book buyers who say they listen to audiobooks. Pushkin attributes that to Mr. Gladwell's podcast audience, built over the past five years.

Mr. Gladwell said his next book, which will be "about American policing, " will also be an original audiobook -- though that doesn't mean he plans to abandon the print-first model altogether.

"My goal is to do audiobooks first when the story is best told in audio, and print books first when the story lends itself to that format," he said. "The story should fit the form!"

Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at jeffrey.trachtenberg@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 23, 2021 12:34 ET (16:34 GMT)

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