Today marks the 6th anniversary of What Should I Read Next. We launched Episode #1, called Books that inspire crying jags and sleepless nights (in the best sense), on January 12, 2016, with guest Jamie Golden.
Six years later, much remains the same. The core format is unchanged: every week a guest tells me three books they love, one book they don’t, and what they’ve been reading lately—and based on what our conversation reveals about their reading life, I recommend three books they enjoy reading next. (Read the show’s origin story, including how I came up with this format, here.)
And yet the show has evolved over the years. I’ve loosened up a lot, and the format reveals this flexibility. Now instead of keeping the show to a tight, loves-hates-and-recs only format, we have room to explore interesting topics that pertain to the reading life each week. We have a great team who makes the show sound amazing week after week.
But the biggest change is probably in me. Six years in, I mostly feel like I actually know what I’m doing these days. (Ha!) And, most importantly, I know that instead of looking to others to show me the “right” way to podcast, I can, with my team’s help, allow this show to become what it needs to be.
I’ve learned SO MUCH along the way; here are a few highlights from six years of podcasting.
What I’ve learned in 6 years of podcasting
Aside from the silly-yet-serious bits like socks make great pop filters (necessary because it turns out I pop my p’s), and books make great microphone stands, and when I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to say next I tend to talk really slow which is really hard to edit, and to always, ALWAYS run backup audio because paranoia has served us well in that regard …
1. Pick a topic you could talk about until the end of time.
When I began quietly talking about starting a podcast 7 or 8 years ago, a lot of people wanted to tell me what I “should” podcast about. Most people thought I should launch a podcast called “The Modern Mrs Darcy Show” where I talked about the same stuff I blogged about. I love this blog, and at the same time, I had zero interesting in doing that. Zip, nada, none.
Instead, I wanted my podcast to follow a tightly constrained format that could nevertheless feel fresh and new each week, one with a supportive structure that allowed endless freedom for exploration.
And I wanted to talk about books, something I knew I’d never grow tired of, and about which there’d always be something new to say.
2. Everyone gets nervous, but you’re the expert on your own reading life.
What Should I Read Next is not like other podcasts. The majority of our guests are “regular readers,” as our listeners have come to call them. Most will never be on another podcast, because that’s not what they do.
We feature a wide variety of readers who can reflect your own reading life back to you, people who sound like—who sometimes actually are—your sister or neighbor, grandma or nephew, your dentist or nanny, your child’s teacher or your own, your therapist or local business owner.
Maybe that’s why most of our guests confess to being nervous when we sit down to record. They’ve never podcasted before; it’s not their job!
At this point I usually tell an embarrassing story or tell them how much Daisy dislikes being shut out of my home podcast studio for recording. I’ll ask about their pets, plans for later that day, favorite Taylor Swift songs. I typically confess to being nervous, too, which is 100% true: because of the way our show works, I typically sit down having NO IDEA what books I’m going to recommend at the end of the episode, and that’s not easy!
But I also tell them a foundational truth our show is built upon: everyone is the expert on their own reading life. No one else is equipped to talk books for the next hour in exactly the way they are. We’re going to have fun together, and they are going to sound GREAT.
And you know what? That’s always how it goes.
3. Hard writing makes for easy reading.
I couldn’t resist using that quote, from one of my favorite (and much-mentioned on WSIRN) Wallace Stegner novels, Crossing to Safety. Stegner’s character is talking about writing novels, but there’s an apt parallel for podcasting.
It takes an unbelievable number of hours from our team to create a finished What Should I Read Next episode that clocks in under one hour. Our listeners know that we’re not making a sophisticated audio production like Radiolab, but a conversation about books. It doesn’t sound like it takes twenty or thirty (!!) hours to make a single episode, but it sure does. (And I’m not even counting my reading time!)
We put in all that work—communicating with guests, preparing for conversations, editing the audio, scripting our show notes—because we know that all that hard work makes for easy, enjoyable, effortless listening.
4. There is such a thing as being overprepared, and it does not make for a good episode.
Ours is not—should not be—a scripted show; the best episodes sound like free-flowing conversations. Careful preparation sounds like it should be a good thing! Alas, that is not necessarily the case.
Occasionally I’ll need to coach a guest to back away from their notes so they can talk to me from the heart. It makes a huge difference in how the episode sounds in your ears. (Easy listening, remember?)
Another frequent note I give guests is to skip the plot when they’re talking about their favorite books. We don’t want to know what happens, we want to know what the book’s about—two very different things. And most importantly, we want to know what your reading experience was like.
How did the book make you feel? Tell us about that.
5. The best books come out of left field.
In talking to hundreds of guests on the podcast about what they love and what they don’t, it’s been interesting to notice the patterns of people’s reading lives. I have a thousand insights I could share, but the most striking is probably this: even for readers who have very specific taste, their best-of-a-lifetime reading experiences are often notably dissimilar to what they typically enjoy reading.
If you hear me helping readers find more of what they love while also urging them to take a chance on something new, this is why.
6. The perfect recommendation will always come later—and that’s okay.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ll finished a recording with a guest, step away from my mic, go make myself some lunch, and THEN AND ONLY THEN does the perfect book recommendation occur to me. Wait, on second thought, I CAN tell you: it happens nearly every week!
I used to stress about this, but I don’t anymore, and here’s why: there’s always going to be another episode, another conversation about books, another opportunity to share the right title with the right reader. I’ve learned I can email the guest this “bonus” selection, or even record a bonus episode for our Patreon supporters.
A great book never goes to waste.
Readers, thank you for making this a wonderful six years of podcasting. I’m looking forward to what comes next.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments section: what episodes have you particularly enjoyed, what book have you discovered, what have you learned about your own reading life from What Should I Read Next? We’d love to hear all about it!
P.S. If you’ve never listened, this week’s episode is a great place to jump in: Episode 314, Your reading life is in good hands. The same goes for last week’s episode: Episode 313: Books that stand the test of time.