Lauren Shippen's Journey from Indie Podcaster to Multimedia Star
The Bright Sessions creator shares her thoughts on how to approach an adaptation.
In the world of fiction podcasts, there’s one name almost every fan will know: Lauren Shippen. A 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Media Luminary, Shippen is known best for her fiction podcast The Bright Sessions, the story of a therapist who treats “atypicals,” people with superhuman abilities. The Bright Sessions has been optioned for TV and landed a spinoff trilogy novel deal with Tor Teen. The first installment, The Infinite Noise, was published on September 24; it's a midquel for the podcast from the perspectives of two of its core characters. Now Shippen is working alongside John Scott Dryden on Passenger List, a fiction podcast distributed by Radiotopia featuring actors like Kelly Marie Tran and Patti Lupone. Shippen has also started a podcast collective, Atypical Artists, with her collaborators Jordan Cope and Briggon Snow.
Even with her rise to renown, Shippen has kept her indie spirit strong, continuing to energetically create on her own terms. “I think at this point I’m becoming an expert in making audio fiction,” Shippen told us. “I don’t think I’m there yet, but I think I’m getting there.”
The sweet spot of collaboration
Shippen’s also becoming an expert in things like keeping your intellectual property (aka IP—here, meaning The Bright Sessions) true to your vision while also remaining open to collaboration. “It’s a lot easier across the board to protect IP and to make sure that you retain ownership when something already exists and has an audience," Shippen says, in regards to working on Infinite Noise with Tor Teen. "There’s no way that a studio or a publisher can claim that they know The Bright Sessions audience better than I do.”
This doesn’t mean that Shippen controlled everything about the novel, though. “Publishers understand what draws an audience in: what’s a good cover, what’s a good title, what’s going to work," she says. "[Parent company Tor has] literally 100+ years of marketing experience and audience data collection. You want to rely on your publisher for guidance, and I definitely did… It’s always a matter of knowing what’s sacred to you and knowing what you know—and also being self-aware enough to know that you don’t know [everything].”
“The book was better” is an almost clichéd assessment of book-to-film adaptations, but Shippen doesn’t believe that the best adaptations always follow their source material beat by beat. “The best book-to-film adaptation I can think of is Children of Men by P.D. James…. I don’t think that P.D. James wrote that screenplay; oftentimes, the people who create the story are not the best people to translate it to a new form," she says. "Of course it depends, but I think that there’s a lot of assumption that if you tell a story in one medium, you’re just as capable to tell it in every medium, and I don’t think that’s always the case.”
Know whose advice to seek
Shippen works with an agent when seeking out book deals, but she says that not everyone needs one. “If you’re trying to seek out [opportunities], having an agent is really really helpful. If you’re being approached, you can get away with not having an agent if you have a good lawyer," she says. "The most important thing is to have a lawyer, someone who understands contracts. You never want to go into a negotiation without somebody who knows. Even if you think you know how to read a legal document, you don’t—unless you’ve been to law school, and even then, unless you’ve studied entertainment law.”
Shippen brought up the entertainment industry’s constant hunger for new IP. With adaptations like Shippen’s, the Facebook Watch Limetown series, Amazon’s Homecoming, and more on the way, as a podcast creator you may want to think about your plan of action if you get approached for a TV, film, or book deal. It can be helpful to reach out to others in podcasting who have negotiated similar deals so you can learn from their experiences. But Shippen explains that podcasters shouldn’t only keep in contact with other podcasters.
“I love the community of podcasting,” she says, “but it’s also super-important to have friends who are not in podcasting. I live in L.A., and most of my friends work in television in some capacity. Their everyday problems are problems that a lot of people who want to work in entertainment would kill for. They’re things like, ‘I have to go to set today and watch a bunch of famous actors perform a scene I wrote.’ It helps put problems in podcasting into perspective.” Shippen pointed out that the number of people who listen to podcasts--about 50% of people in the U.S.--is still significantly smaller than the number of people who watch TV or movies. “We still have a long way to go.”
Shippen set a great example by first making a podcast that was widely recognized for excellence before considering any adaptations. “I chose podcasts because I wanted to tell that story that way," she says. "Then, when I was building out the story, there were all these different ways to tell that story and explore different aspects of storytelling.”