How Zibby Owens Built A DIY Podcast Into A Book Empire
The woman behind Zibby Media reveals how she went from book world outsider to indie publisher in five short years.
When a friend suggested that Zibby Owens start a podcast in 2018, she balked at the idea. “I was like, ‘What’s a podcast, and why would I do that?’” Owens tells Bustle. But the essay collection she’d been trying to sell wasn’t getting any traction, so she figured she might as well try translating the idea to audio. “I Googled ‘easiest way to podcast from your phone,’ found an app, and literally talked into my phone sitting on my bed for the first episode,” says the mother of four. (She was equally inexperienced in social media: “I hadn’t even joined Facebook, so all of a sudden, 20 years after everyone else, I was like, ‘Hi, camp friends.’”) But something clicked when she started interviewing authors on air, and her audience — both for the podcast and her personal Instagram — steadily grew.
Just shy of five years later, the New York native has built not just a podcast juggernaut — Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has been downloaded more than 10 million times — but a business that touches nearly every aspect of the book world. Zibby Media organizes retreats, classes, and events, and runs an online magazine. In February, the company published its first book and opened a physical bookstore in Santa Monica, California, not far from Owens’ Pacific Palisades home. (She looked into spaces in New York, her home base, but “I wasn’t so sure New York really needed another bookstore,” she says.) She’s also achieved her longtime dream of publishing a book of her own, four times over. Moms don’t just have time to read books, it turns out; they have time to write them.
Zibby Media is a promising upstart in a beleaguered industry: While publishers bemoan lagging sales and beloved institutions like Bookforum shutter, Owens has found a way to reverse these trends. As a publicist told New York, “Zibby can move product.” In some ways, Zibby Media can be seen as a corollary to Catapult, the indie publishing house and literary community founded by Elizabeth Koch, daughter of Charles Koch. Like Catapult, Zibby Media is in part made possible by familial wealth: Owens’ father is Stephen A. Schwarzman, the billionaire chairman and CEO of Blackstone. But while the former recently shut down its classes and online magazine, Zibby Media is sprinting ahead. “This sounds ridiculous, but it’s almost like as I keep going, the next thing unrolls in front of me,” Owens says. “Then it seems so obvious that it’s what I have to do next.”
Below, Owens discusses her new bookstore, what she’s learned about running a business, and the advice she still needs to hear.
How would you describe the community that you’ve built? Who are the superfans who come to your retreats?
They are book lovers. They’re mostly women. They’re looking for community. They’re usually well-educated. The slightly older women seem to love me. They have time to read, and I feel like they’re looking for a sense of belonging and purpose, and maybe they’re retired or just not feeling fulfilled in their jobs [or are] empty-nesters. But [there are] also busy moms and younger single people who just love to read.
When you started Zibby Books, the publishing arm of your company, what did you imagine you could do differently as a publisher?
When talking to authors, I kept hearing [about] the same types of hurdles they had to overcome, and then I went through it myself. I had four books come out in a year and a half or so — two anthologies, my memoir, and a children’s book — and I worked with three different publishers on those books.
Authors [were] feeling like there was no way to stand out or get discovered. So how could I help with that? I thought, what if I established an author champion program, where authors have a bestselling author who will be posting about them and helping them and giving them guidance? What if there was a network of people all over the country talking to their [indie bookstores] about the books and posting about it? Now we have 850 ambassadors who are doing just that. I come from a marketing background, and I thought, well, wouldn’t it be neat if there was a brand sponsorship, [in which] we would help the brands and they would help us? I tried to systematically take [the process] apart and address each area.
For you, what does success look like when you publish a book? What are you hoping each book will achieve?
That is a great question because our first book just came out last Tuesday, and we just got our first round of numbers in. I was disappointed it didn’t hit the bestseller list, which is a crazy goal because that’s like needle in a haystack, but it’s a secret dream. But we had an incredibly successful launch, and we had fabulous launch events. Our author was so happy, Alisha Fernandez Miranda. We got her on CNN and Good Morning America and MSNBC and NPR, and it was a People magazine pick.
So I feel like this book is totally successful. It did sell a lot of copies, so that’s nice, but more than the number, [I’m focused on] the momentum of it, getting it out in the world, having people hear about it, and having readers respond to it.
I imagine this is your first time being a CEO. What have you learned about yourself and your management style?
Yeah, it’s been a slow build. Sometime during the pandemic, when I started building up a team, I shrank it down and built it up again. That’s when I really realized I was a CEO, and that I needed to actually shift my thinking and pay attention to that and become an intentional manager, and think things through, and not just ad hoc manage my one or two employees. My No. 1 thing is that I don’t believe in the corporate mentality. It’s very personal. So we work out of my apartment, and they know my kids really well, and they bring their boyfriends or husbands to events. Everybody spends time together outside of work, and we travel together.
It was really important to me [to hire] people I really like, who are nice people, and who get along. Sometimes we interview people who seem really awesome and smart, and they’d be amazing, but it’s just not going to be a fit with the team personality. So I’m really mindful of that in my hiring. People are like, “Did you clone yourself?” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, kind of, because I’m working with amazing, A+ people right now.”
What’s different about your bookstore?
The first is the positioning. Sometimes independent bookstores try to compete with Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and that’s just not what indies do best. Their core competency is not in inventory availability. They’re too small. I was considering having people wear shirts that say, like, “No, we probably don’t have that,” because we can only have 1,300 titles. If people want a book, they can get it from thin air in two seconds on their phone.
But what they can’t get online is the feeling of being in a bookstore, and the warmth and community of being surrounded by books, and being able to discover something new that might change their lives. This is what people say about my book club: “I would never have read this if it weren’t for Zibby’s Book Club.” I want that feeling in the bookstore, too.
So one of the things is how we’re offering books: We’re sorting them by emotion and topic, not by fiction, nonfiction. We have a whole vertical shelf on books that make you feel a certain way: books that make you tremble, books that make you laugh, books that make you cry. And then books by topic: books about identity, books for the foodie, books for the traveler.
I was reading a past interview, and you made it clear that Zibby Media is a business, and of course, it is, but because of your personal financial situation, I imagine you’re empowered to run it a bit differently. Are there risks you’re taking that you might otherwise have had to wait on?
I don’t feel like I’m taking risks. I have the ability to invest in this company and the infrastructure of it. So yes, obviously, if I wasn’t funding this personally, I would go out and raise the money to do it, but I don’t have to do that yet. I can’t keep launching giant new businesses all the time. It has to become its own self-sustaining business, and if at some point I need to raise money, then I’ll raise money.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
One thing I learned from going to business school is to make sure the underlying infrastructure of the business is set up properly, so you don’t have to rebuild the foundation later — whether that’s getting a patent or trademark early or setting up an LLC as soon as an idea comes to me.
What’s one thing you need advice on?
Oh, my gosh, everything. I’m always open for advice, seriously. I love feedback. I guess advice on how to find more time to sleep.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.