On November 16, Pushkin Industries will release the original audiobook Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell and journalist Bruce Headlam, narrated by Simon, Gladwell, and Headlam. Drawn from the more than 30 hours of interviews the authors recorded with Simon and featuring a preview of new music, this audio biography marks the latest phase in Pushkin’s evolution in the audio production arena.
Gladwell cofounded Pushkin in 2018 with former Slate Group chairman and editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg. Pushkin’s flagship programming consisted of Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History—which he launched in 2016 with Panoply, a network
then under the Slate umbrella—and the music podcast Broken Record, cohosted by Gladwell, Headlam, and music producer Rick Rubin.
“Pushkin was Jacob Weisberg’s idea,” Gladwell said. The two had enjoyed working together on Revisionist History and wanted to continue. “Jacob had been running Panoply, and they were getting out of the podcast business,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s start our own company.’ Since Jacob is one of my best friends, it sounded like fun. Also, we were both in our mid-50s—a good time to shake things up!”
Since its 2018 launch, Pushkin has built a roster of more than 25 podcasts. The 2022 list includes Well-Read Black Girl with Glory Edim, which brings the popular book club dedicated to Black women writers to podcast form; Getting Even with Anita Hill, featuring Hill in conversation with the people who are fighting to make the U.S. more equitable; and What’s Your Problem with Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein, a weekly interview show where business leaders talk about the biggest problems they are tackling.
Though Gladwell’s and Weisberg’s enthusiasm for the podcast format was behind Pushkin’s genesis, both men were eager to explore beyond the boundaries of traditional audio and try new approaches. “Ever since I started doing my podcast, I fell in love with the kind of storytelling that can be done with audio,” Gladwell said. “When you hear voices and use sound and engage the ears of the listener, you can do all kinds of things that you can’t do with the printed word. You can bring characters to life. You can move people emotionally. Just hearing a character’s actual voice makes a world of difference.”
Pushkin entered the audiobook ring in 2019, when it produced the audio edition of Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, which was published in print and audio formats by Hachette. The audiobook version, which sold more than a million copies, includes reenactments of court transcripts, interviews Gladwell conducted, and archival audio.
In May 2020, Brendan Francis Newnam, who previously cohosted NPR’s culture show Dinner Party Download and produced a podcast with the Paris Review, joined Pushkin as v-p of special projects, which includes heading up the audiobook program. His first audiobook project was Fauci, the audio biography of Anthony Fauci, by New Yorker staff writer and author Michael Specter. The three-hour audio original expands Specter’s magazine reporting and combines new interviews and archival audio of Fauci, his wife, and his colleagues, as well as an original score. “We told his story in sound,” Newnam said, noting that Fauci became one of Audible’s top short series sellers in 2020.
Earlier this year, Pushkin released Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia, which Newnam said is the author’s “first foray into building an audiobook from whole cloth.” Gladwell became fascinated with recordings of WWII military leaders he found in the Air Force archives while working on episodes of Revisionist History and “started to build a book around it,” Newnam explained. “The audio was so compelling that Little, Brown decided to do a print version of the book. It was a simultaneous publication, but the audiobook was the engine for that project.”
In addition to other projects, Pushkin has a number of audiobooks planned for next year from Lake Bell, Adam Gopnik, Michael Lewis, Steve Martin, Michael Specter, and Florence Williams. The audio rights to Lewis’s Liar’s Poker (originally published by Random House Audio in 2007) reverted to the author, “and he brought them to us,” Newnam said. “We’re a company built around a community of writers. He knows we’ll do right by him and make it a special production.”
Newnam said the company is looking for projects that fit with Pushkin’s identity and are better told through sound.
In characterizing an ideal Pushkin project, Gladwell said, “We would like to think that Pushkin’s vibe is ‘nerdy enthusiasm.’ We are an ideas-based company. We like to entertain people and then have them realize, once they’ve finished, that they learned something interesting or had their beliefs challenged in a cool way.”
Gladwell believes Miracle and Wonder is a good example. “Simon is the smartest musician around,” he explained. “And we thought, ‘Why not sit down with him, talk and argue and listen to him, have him play some music, and then create an argument out of all we record?’ I wanted to be able to say to a 16-year-old—who had never heard of his music—here: listen to this. This will help you understand one of the great musical geniuses of my generation—and probably yours, too. That’s a very Pushkin-y goal.”
Newnam said Pushkin is looking to capitalize on the success of audiobooks. “We sell things directly [to consumers]and we’re platform agnostic and we’re available everywhere,” he explained. To expand, the company raised $10.5 million in venture capital funding earlier this year, and it expects to finish 2021 with sales close to $20 million.
Pushkin moved into new office space in New York City’s Union Square in early 2020, and its staff has grown to 58. About half a dozen staff members work out of an old house that Gladwell renovated in Hudson, N.Y., and there are satellite offices in Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as in London.
Growth is evident in other areas of Pushkin, as well. In late 2020, it entered into a coproduction and distribution agreement with IHeartMedia for podcasts. Be Antiracist with Ibram X. Kendi, released in May, is among their joint projects. June 2021 saw the debut of subscription program PushNik, since rebranded as Pushkin+, which launched along with the new Apple Podcasts Subscriptions platform. Within three months of its release, Pushkin+ was Apple’s #5 paid podcast offering, said Weisberg. And on November 10, the subscription service Scribd will make available three audiobook anthologies that will feature podcasts and original content from Gladwell, Lewis, and Hari Kunzru.
Reflecting on Pushkin’s trajectory so far, Newnam said, “In the podcast space we’re one of the best there is; in the audiobook space, we’re more disruptive. We’re interested in disrupting creatively what’s become the default of audiobooks. And business-wise we’re just interested in getting our books out everywhere.”