A single dark cloud hovers over Zibby Owens’s sprawling Water Mill house, threatening to burst all over her soon-to-arrive dinner guests. She flutters around trying to decide whether to move the entire enterprise inside, into the dining room or one of two grass-cloth-wallpapered living rooms. “Normally, I’m there to manage everything,” she’d whispered to me earlier while distracted by another errand — interviewing memoirist Dani Shapiro down the road at Book Hampton. “I just really like to make sure things are in the right places and everything is okay.”
The dinner is for “a small crowd,” about 20 people, mostly authors whom she has interviewed on her increasingly sought-after podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. It’s the evening before the annual Authors Night festival (which Owens co-sponsors), when the likes of Alec Baldwin, Candace Bushnell, and Gretchen Rubin will gather to hand out their books before shimmying off to dinner parties of their own on plush, springy lawns all across the Hamptons. Owens’s dinner will be in a decidedly lower key: a gingham tablecloth, uniformed servers passing out pigs in blankets, Zibby’s kids popping in occasionally to whisper hello to novelists sipping rosé by the gently lapping pool.
“We just bought this house in September, fully furnished,” Owens told me earlier, which explained the dearth of bookshelves in this book podcaster’s $12.9 million house. Stacked inside a greige walk-in closet were at least a dozen piles of galleys organized with Post-it notes: “Nonfiction — Need to read!” and “Upcoming/further away.” When I told her it looks like my own office, she replied that her friend Lea Carpenter had warned her when she started the podcast, “Just wait. Soon enough you’re going to have stacks of books lined up at your door.”
Carpenter was right, and she would know: She happens to be a former editor of Zoetrope and the founder of the Young Lions club at the New York Public Library, to which Owens once belonged. Zibby’s passion for the library is strong; she had her first wedding there and remains a member of its Advisory Council. Perhaps not coincidentally, the main building of the NYPL bears the name of her father, billionaire (and Trump whisperer) Stephen A. Schwarzman. “Maybe that’s how I got involved?” she pondered when I brought it up, as if the connection to her father hadn’t occurred to her before.
Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books launched just a year and a half ago. Owens has hosted Jennifer Weiner, Jamaica Kincaid, Meg Wolitzer, Celeste Ng, and Rebecca Makkai, and lesser-known authors are now clamoring for guest slots. Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, appeared on Moms to chat about her own books. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (“a friend of a friend”) hosted a book talk at the triplex on Park Avenue that Owens shares with her second husband, Kyle, and her four children from her previous marriage. The apartment, which Owens compares to “a suburban house on top of Manhattan,” also hosts the podcast — which holds some voyeuristic appeal for authors with modest advances. One former guest says, “It took me a solid ten minutes to get my jaw off the floor.”
Of course, the podcast appeals to authors for other reasons, too. Weiner, who went on Moms this summer to promote Mrs. Everything, says Owens “is hitting this sweet spot of women who are the right age, who are at the right place in their lives … and those women buy books.” In a landscape with at least a hundred literary-podcast options, Zibby is locking down heavy hitters. “For all the podcasts there are, only a few actually move product,” a senior books publicist told me. “Zibby can move product.” As Weiner explains, “Her audience are influencers, to use a really overused term.” Which makes Owens the Über-influencer — and an energetic one. “She’s a centralized, all-purpose book maven,” says Jamie Brenner, a novelist and 23-year publishing-industry veteran. “She’ll moderate your event, she does the podcast, she gets your book in front of people at her book fair. She’s like the Oprah of books in New York.”
Sinking into a low-slung couch in her Hamptons family room, Owens wears a comfy shift dress and plain gold hoops, not unlike the casual but put-together moms who listen to her. Her wide smile curls up on itself as she explains how little she had to do with the publishing world before 2018. As the daughter of Schwarzman — the Blackstone Group founder who ranks 100 on Forbes’s list of the richest people in the world — Zibby grew up in the poshest reaches of the Upper East Side. “I won the birth lottery,” she admits somewhat anxiously. “I don’t take it for granted in any way.” In an essay for Medium, she wrote, “I used to be a nice, normal version of the girls in [Gossip Girl], navigating the New York City private-school scene. I could be found wearing my all-girls-school navy uniform with a Chocolate Soup bag banging at my hip, racing to the Lexington Avenue bus.” She still lives seven blocks from her childhood home and directly across the street from her dad’s place — the notoriously exclusive 740 Park.
In other words, Owens did not rebel. Like her father, she attended Yale and Harvard Business School. At Harvard, she met the ineptly named Andrew Right; after ten years of marriage, they divorced. She met her second husband, Kyle Owens, a former tennis pro and fledgling film producer, in a meet-cute straight out of a Woody Allen plot: He tried to talk her out of tennis lessons for her disinterested son. Before the podcast, Zibby freelanced occasionally for Redbook, Shape, Self, and other outlets while writing personal essays for self-publishing platforms. In 2007, she had her first brush with books, helping Paige Adams-Geller (the founder of PAIGE denim) and Revenge Body celeb trainer Ashley Borden write a fashion-and-workout manual called Your Perfect Fit. For years, she has been trying to write a memoir called 40 Love that chronicles her second marriage but has been stymied by a divorce agreement that forbids her from discussing her first.
Moms started the way many podcasts do — as a lark. When Kyle suggested Zibby collect a sheaf of her Huffington Post parenting essays into a book, she snapped back, “Ugh, moms don’t have time to read books.” When an author friend suggested a podcast, she didn’t even know how to listen to one: “Kyle and I had to sit on the couch that night and figure out how to even get the podcast app on my phone. I’m like, ‘Where is it?’ I was looking on YouTube.” The idea intrigued her, though a few friends said they hated the name: “You’re limiting yourself to moms.” The show aims a little more broadly than that, but it is heavy on female voices, parenting books, and the sorts of dishy reads more commonly lobbed at women. Zibby wasn’t (and still isn’t) a podcast listener. She skimmed about a hundred book-related podcasts to get the general idea. “I basically taught myself how to do it using Google and YouTube.” She researched which microphones other podcasters liked. She didn’t have a single social-media account. In an increasingly professionalized medium, her product is unpolished and rambling by design.
Her first guest was her old friend Lea Carpenter. “Not even my mother was listening to that one,” says Owens. But next came a bigger catch. Kyle had a friend who knew Andre Agassi, and lo, episode two featured an international celebrity very belatedly promoting his 2009 autobiography, Open. “After that, it got easier and easier.”
The Book Hampton talk that precedes Zibby’s dinner party is, according to the store’s manager, the best-attended event of the summer. While interviewing Shapiro, a good friend, Owens remains a relatively quiet but energizing presence, poking in only to guide Shapiro to fertile ground. It’s obvious that Zibby doesn’t yearn for the microphone. Although her podcast is entirely unedited, author after author praises her interviewing style, telling me that talking to her is like “just chatting with a friend.” The novelist Courtney Maum, who’ll soon publish a guide titled Before and After the Book Deal, calls her Moms episode “one of the best interviews I’ve ever had.”
After the reading, the rain holds off, and as the evening gets underway, guests pair off to sip wine and, unsurprisingly, talk book promotion. Nearly all the novelists chatting next to the sculpted hydrangea bushes on Zibby’s back lawn are female writers of commercial fiction. There’s Fiona Davis, whose Chelsea Girls was the latest in a string of historical novels set in landmarks like the Dakota and the Barbizon Hotel; Nicola Harrison, whose debut, Montauk, is a beachy 1930s romance; Madeleine Henry, author of Breathe In, Cash Out, about a banking analyst who becomes a yoga instructor (the Skimm called it “The Devil Wears Prada meets Wall Street”). There are outliers sprinkled in — Shapiro, one of the queens of memoir, and Joanne Ramos, author of the dystopian novel The Farm. The only invited male author is the leonine Richard Kirshenbaum — ad exec, prolific author, and Hamptons man-about-town.
After moving through the buffet line, Owens thanks everyone for coming and asks her guests to introduce themselves. It’s the only time she’ll address the whole crowd; as on her podcast, she is self-effacing and primarily, as people tell me, a “connector.” When the novelists raise a glass to their host, her face reddens. Later, on the patio, each woman tells me how she came to know Zibby, and every story is fawning. And why not? How many writers have a promotional fairy godsister? Her podcast may be the real estate every author of a certain type is trying to land, but the brand, Ramos tells me, “is to basically build a literary family.” Another way of looking at it is what one publicist calls “this bubble of referral within a certain echelon of authors.”
In an industry with sinking sales figures and floundering morale, Owens is a buoyant force — a woman of substantial means using her time and seemingly boundless energy to help sell books, no questions asked. (No tough ones, anyway.) And the people listening to her podcast and snacking on canapés in her garden are not just browsers. They “don’t see it as a problem to spend $30 on a hardcover,” says Pat Eisemann, Henry Holt’s VP of publicity. “It’s part of their basic budget.” An author can’t buy what Owens is selling — that Holy Grail of publishing, “word of mouth.”
Building the Moms brand wasn’t all conversation and catering. By the fall of 2018, Owens was putting in 40-plus hours per week, publishing eight or nine podcasts a month, and organizing salons and book fairs out of her living room. Within a year, says Brenner, these “had grown exponentially … It was agents, editors, publicists, authors from Florida, authors from Chicago. It felt like the whole book universe was there.” Maum calls the salons “an Upper East Side preppier version of what Gertrude Stein was doing.”
Gertrude Stein had time to read books. But do moms? Owens says she crams in reading time on the elliptical, on long flights to Los Angeles, and, if need be, at her desk. Then again, it’s now her job. (She says she considered majoring in English at Yale but realized “I don’t want to read all the stuff I have to read to be an English major.”) No doubt, her listeners flip pages wherever and whenever they can, but between the demands of helicopter parenting and the gig economy, that might not be too often. Time is a privilege, after all. Which makes the title of her podcast almost a dare, both for time-starved moms and for combatants in the perpetual debate over how women should spend their waking lives.
Moms is operating at a loss, but Owens says making money was never the point; the enterprise is, as you might expect, self-funded, with a few small sponsors starting to come onboard. Owens mentions that she has been reading the memoir Free Lunch, about one boy’s childhood of extreme poverty, to her kids. She laughs lightly when she tells me it made her son worried: “Are we going to run out of money? You didn’t sell any T-shirts this week!”
It isn’t clear where Moms sits on the spectrum from philanthropy to profession. “I’m not in this to make a ton of money off it,” she says, “and certainly not to take any away from authors and stores.” On the topic of her family wealth, she is “private,” but says, “I don’t try to hide it. I don’t try to flaunt it, either.” Though she goes to great lengths to reassure me how self-aware she is of her privilege, it feels as though our conversation is the first time she has publicly grappled with the role that family money plays in her business. “I just sort of don’t think about it very much,” she says, “and I know that in and of itself is a luxury.” But the women at her events, and the authors who started conversations with me by asking whether I’d seen her apartment, are well aware of it.
As the Hamptons dinner rounds the corner toward strawberry shortcake, Ramos tells me she knew of Zibby through her “uptown friends,” people she met at Princeton. “Otherwise,” she says, “we don’t really operate in the same worlds.” Others see her as a force of pure benevolence, who always has “beautiful things to eat and drink,” who invites them into her $35 million, Rosario Candela–designed Park Avenue penthouse, who joyfully funds an endeavor that adds a few dollars to their meager royalties. Weiner calls it “noblesse oblige,” though it doesn’t feel obligatory: “She loves books, and she loves authors, and I think that this has given her entrée into that world.”
Owens has plenty of ideas for the future: a film of 40 Love, the unwritten and NDA-constrained memoir, a bookstore of her own, a “network” of Moms Don’t Have Time to …” podcasts. Perhaps television, down the line? There isn’t yet an overarching vision, except for the memoir — and the notion of joining the ranks of the authors she admires and promotes. Perhaps she can one day build an accidental empire out of a podcast launched on the fly. Perhaps she will emerge with a business well outside her father’s penumbra. When I mention that he comes up fairly quickly in a Google search, she calls it “unfortunate.” Though she is proud of her dad, “like any child who has a prominent parent, I would prefer that Google search comes up with the work I’ve done.”
Today, September 17, Schwarzman will mark the release of his own leadership memoir, What It Takes, with an appearance on his daughter’s podcast. “I debated: Should I have him on my podcast or not?,” Zibby says. She went ahead with it out of “a mix of pride and love.” She can rest assured, in any case, that while literary philanthropy may run in the family, her and her father’s legacies won’t be the same. Owens has created what Brenner calls “a year of a solid community that I’ve never felt before.” All her dad did was give the New York Public Library $100 million.