Brian McClellan: Five Things I Learned Starting The Page Break Podcast


Back at the end of June, 2021, I finally fulfilled a years-long ambition to start a podcast with the first episode of Page Break. I’m not sure why. I write epic fantasy novels for a living (you might know my Powder Mage epic fantasy novels), and I’m good at that and when you have such a coveted gig it can be ill-advised to direct your attention elsewhere. But I did it anyways because so many of us creative professionals love to work on multiple disciplines.

So Page Break was born: a series of casual conversations between two creative professionals that rambled through the often-ignored aspects of their lives and careers. I didn’t really know whether people would listen, or if I would have the time and energy to produce more than a few episodes. To be frank, it was something I knew I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t try, but I didn’t think it would succeed.

Well, my recording with our gracious host Chuck Wendig came out a couple days ago and is episode #32. I’ve had conversations with actors, youtubers, authors, and comedians. People like Joe Abercrombie, Fonda Lee, Mark Hulmes, Robin Hobb, and Daniel Greene have taken the time to sit down with little old me for casual chats about life, creativity, business, hobbies, career, and more. It’s been pretty dang cool and I don’t seem to be stopping.

[ed — I loved doing this podcast and I hope you’ll give a listen]

So sit back, relax, and let me tell you about five things I learned while recording Page Break.

Everything is easier with a little help from your friends

Page Break exists because of my friends. It started simply enough with me bemoaning that I wanted to start a podcast but was intimidated by trying to record both sides of a zoom call. A buddy simply mentioned that Zencastr was a really good option for this and BOOM: I’ve got a program to use. The same thing happened when I asked the musically talented James L Sutter how I would go about commissioning an intro riff and, without being asked, he delivered a series of possible compositions the very next day!

I worked through my worries one at a time. I asked twitter about audio engineer costs and Tom Bishop messaged me privately offering his services for an affordable price. Several of my friends offered to help me with test-interviews so I could get used to talking to someone for an audience. Charlie N. Holmberg’s ended up being episode 5. Many of my author friends were just a text message away for subsequent guest spots.

Now, I caveat this point with the full understanding that I’m in a privileged position: with a decade-long career as an epic fantasy author, I’ve made lots of friends with diverse and useful talents and I know a handful of famous writers. It definitely gave me a head start. But it’s important to remember that your friends are there for you and they may have some good ideas or be willing to help you record a test episode.

Listeners are more forgiving than you’d think

I wanted to make a podcast for three years before I finally got around to recording for Page Break, and during that time the biggest block for me was worrying about quality. I thought I needed the very best physical hardware to record in-person conversations with mics, portable mixers, headphones – the whole shebang. I couldn’t record via zoom or phone because I wouldn’t be able to control anything on their end. Overall, I was convinced that no one would listen unless I had crisp, studio-quality sound.

Turns out that’s not exactly true. People like crisp, studio-quality sound but what they want is to listen to interesting conversations, cool stories, or fascinating facts. You still need a baseline sound quality of course—no one wants to hear bursts of static or sit through long pauses or one person talking louder than the other. But if it’s a good show, listeners are willing to forgive a guest having a low-quality microphone, or a bit of street noise on one end of the line. The content is what matters most.

Success is relative, especially when it comes to making a profit

Over the last eight months or so I’ve learned that podcasting has a very weird measure of success. If you have over a hundred regular listeners, you’ve done quite a good job. After all, that’s a hundred people who tune in to listen to you every episode! That’s pretty awesome if you envision them all sitting in a room together. Unfortunately if you want to break even on your time and costs, those hundred people are worth just a few pennies in ad revenue.

I’ll break down where I currently sit with Page Break. My costs for a month (four weeks) of episodes include about $500 for hosting, editing, graphics, and other misc expenses for things I have no skills or interest in doing myself. Roughly twelve hours of my attention goes into prep and recording. I do consider this part of my free time, so I try not to think too hard about how much writing I could get done with those hours.

So what do I get out of it in a very straight-forward business sense? The podcast currently receives roughly 1000-1600 listens a week depending on the guest. Not too shabby, right? Want to know my revenue? $71 from Patreon and $72 from Acast ads. That’s less than a third of my cash costs, and after 32 episodes of building an audience. Ouch. Good thing I’m doing this for fun!

It’s all about the slow burn

Now that I’ve laid out the start costs of limited success, I should say that I’m doing this for what I hope will be a long term listenership. My first five episodes each received less than 300 listens their opening weeks. As mentioned above, I’ve managed to raise that by a significant margin!

The rule of thumb I’ve heard is that a podcast needs a good two years of regular production to really find and keep their audience. At the moment I’m in the lucky position where I can eat the financial costs and I’m enjoying it enough to eat the time costs. I mentioned “hope” above, and that’s because hanging on to this kind of thing requires quite a lot of it. I hope that listeners will subscribe to my Patreon. I hope that Acast sends my feed more ad revenue. I hope that new listeners will be interested in my books. Which leads me neatly to my next point…

For a creative professional, diversifying can have hard-to-quantify benefits

One of the greatest challenges for any creative professional is keeping themselves in the public consciousness when there is so much noise competing for the attention of readers, watchers, and listeners. When my next novel comes out, IN THE SHADOW OF LIGHTNING, it’ll have been two and a half years since I put out an epic fantasy. Will readers remember who I am? Will they have long since muted my twitter or unsubscribed from my newsletter because those aren’t the things they really care about (my books).

Do you know how much that freaks me out?

Page Break is a small but interesting solution to that. It’s a place for listeners to hear from me and my industry friends every week. I can bring in people like creative director Lauren Panepinto to yak about the Powder Mage covers, or director Joseph Mallozzi to discuss the technical aspects of a Powder Mage TV show. Or I can skip my own work entirely and talk to a revered author like RA Salvatore about his most famous characters and infamous books.

In short, Page Break reminds the listeners that I exist—that my books exist—and that I’m still writing. Hopefully it brings in new readers for my books and introduces my existing readers to the works of people I find interesting. There’s that tricky word again: hope. How many careers exist solely on that?


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