Two years ago, a trip home to Australia sparked an idea in Angela Ledgerwood's mind. The result: "Lit Up," a podcast about books and the literary world. It pairs book smarts with smart taste—three of the five finalists for the National Book Awards came on well before being shortlisted—and momentum is building. Ledgerwood talks about the difficult economics of the podcasting world and turning a passion project into a revenue stream.*
How did "Lit Up" start?
When I was an editor at Cosmo, I was lucky enough to be asked to go on a radio show called "Cocktails With Patrick." I did all the book and news coverage for them. I went once a week, and it became the thing I loved the most. I lived for Thursdays.
After I had been doing that for a while, I went to Australia where they have this amazing books show. It's a television show that's pretty low-fi, on the Australian version of PBS. A lot of the big writers don't come to Australia, so the show would get who they could. People love it. I wondered why there wasn't something like that in America.
In my dream, I wanted to start a similar TV show, but a friend in Los Angeles pointed out how difficult it was even for late-night shows to book talent. It's not like I would have Demi Moore producing me. Another friend suggested I do a podcast. Initially, I was going to do it myself on Sunday mornings and have it be "Hungover on Sunday Morning." A writer would come every week, and we'd talk about what they did the previous night. I still really love that idea.
I started telling everyone I met about the idea. A lot of writers don't do that, but I figured whatever, although there was a moment where I worried that I would be fired from Cosmo because I kept talking about this other thing I wanted to do. A friend of a friend connected me with a woman who liked books and talked about podcasts. That was all I knew. I ran out to meet her without looking up her name or where she worked. It was the one meeting where I really didn't prepare. It turned out that she worked at Embassy Row, which is owned by Sony, and had just left William Morris' literary department to develop female digital talent.
How long was the process from the trip to Australia until you started the podcast?
I went home for Christmas in 2013. I didn't end up quitting my job at Cosmo until November 2014. The idea was percolating that whole time. I knew I couldn't leave Cosmo without another way to support myself. The producers at Embassy Row were very honest about how hard it is to monetize podcasts, especially at first. They've had a very successful one with "Men in Blazers," which has a wide reach with soccer fans, but "Lit Up" probably wasn't going to make money right away. I got some work doing branding for a hotel group, so I was able to quit my Cosmo job, start the podcast, and also pay my rent.
Are you still doing the branding?
Oh yeah. That supports me.
Have you started to see revenue from the podcast?
I get paid a little bit to do it. But when we were developing it, the money that goes out has to be re-paid. We're doing it as professionally as we can, but we're conscious of needing to recoup what money we lay out before we all get paid.
Does Embassy Row help with the business side?
They sell it. Their model is about building an audience rather than taking on advertisers early on. They prefer to grow it and then see what opportunities come when it's hit a higher level. I know other podcasts have ads for the flower shop down the road and that's fine, but we want to really partner with someone who makes sense.
It feels like most people doing podcasts do it because they love to do it and they want to do it. They probably think that it may not make any money. I loved how honest Britton Schey [at Embassy Row] was. She asked if I could support myself [through other means], if I was happy to put in a lot of time, and if I'd go in with my eyes wide open. I did. I just want to talk to people about books.
Do you feel like you're getting to a point where it's sustainable financially?
Even though I quit my job in November, the podcasts didn't start airing until April. I was so impatient. We practiced a lot. Because the Sony hack happened, we lost interviews with some amazing people. It was a crazy month. But I think we're getting to a good place. We started a relationship with the Los Angeles Review of Books podcast where we shoutout to each other. A little West Coast-East Coast high five. Everyone [in the podcast world] does stuff like that, but it's nice to be in one of those networks. Canadian national radio picked up one of our shows. It feels like things are happening.
Last night we did our first book club live event at Soho House. We're going to do that once a month. Once a month on a Monday, I do something at the Ace Hotel in collaboration with Pen, which is this great DIY series. That's not all "Lit Up" per se, but it leads to it.
What constitutes success? You've come a long way, but you're still not making a huge amount from the podcast. In some ways, it's still a labor of love.
Living in New York is really expensive. My dream is to be able to do this full time, to be able to devote all my energy to it, to be able to write for the website every day. But right now, I can't do that. I guess the successful scenario is being able to be calm in this world. I'd love to be able to devote myself fully to work that inspires me 100 percent of the time and be able to live comfortably.
It's nice to have a balance of another thing. The branded stuff I do is something I can do well, but my name isn't on it. Everything now reflects us. Everything is a choice. Whether we buy organic oranges. Everything is so exhausting. It's lovely to have what you do be such a part of your life. That's why we do what we do. But it's also nice to have something you do that you're not so emotional about it.
I know from my life freelancing that there's a balance between making money by doing some type of branded content and then doing something that you really care about that doesn't pay well.
It's all a trade-off. Hopefully the passion project creeps up there, but maybe it doesn't. I don't know.
When I was at Cosmo, I did a story about the wage gap and I interviewed Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. I learned a lot. When I was negotiating for the branding work, I was really conscious about calling other people outside of my writer group. I called my friend who got an MBA at Harvard and is a consultant. What does she charge? What's her day rate? What's the language around asking for money? I spoke to a guy friend who is in advertising. I asked him if I was crazy to ask for how much I was. He said that I wasn't, that I should be asking for more because I was doing this, this, and this. That was eye-opening, especially coming from editorial where it's like "thank you thank you." It's not personal when you're talking about money. People can say no and then you can still talk to them.
Have you negotiated your podcast rates?
Not yet. We're going to do that soon, which will be interesting. But I really like [Embassy]. They are kind and really dynamic. They like what they do. They want to have success as well.
*UPDATE — November 17, 2015: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Emily Gould no longer works on the podcast.
How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.