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Business Musings: Audio

19 January 2019

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Publishing analysts have said for years that if the disruption hadn’t hit with ebooks, the story of publishing in the past decade would have been audio. By that, the analysts mean audio rights. They have become increasingly important and will remain so.

Here in the States, where so many of us commute to our jobs, digital audio created a revolution around 2010 or so. Rather than buy a CD or a tape to use in the car (or rent them), folks with the right kind of vehicle could play their digital audiobooks in through their car’s sound system, often by linking their phone to the system.

That has become more common rather than less. But the revolution continues. Joanna Penn, on the Creative Penn, was the first in my experience to point out that voice-first devices, like Amazon Alexa or Google Home would be able to play digital audiobooks. So someone could go from the car to the house without headphones and pick up on the audiobook exactly where they had left off.

For a while, Amazon enabled this too, by offering an inexpensive audio version of a book if you’d already bought the book in another format. Like so many things Amazon, the cheap early adaption part of this vanished, only after people got hooked, of course.

A lot of books aren’t in audio—it’s expensive to produce a good audiobook—so readers have defaulted to having their dry computer voice (Siri or Alexa) simply read the text. Purists complain about this, but when you’re desperate for audio story, you will listen any way you can.

Audio story is expanding almost daily. Podcasts have moved from a group of people talking or someone interviewing someone else into the storytelling format. Some of those podcasts are nonfiction, but many are fiction, and have become a gateway into reading novels and other fictional products. (As I write this, I just got hit with three different ideas that I want to do if only I have the time.)

. . . .

Audio is expensive to produce and it takes time to earn back the initial investment, without proper set up. I’ll get to that below, but first, let’s look at #voicefirst and Voice SEO.

Voice SEO is search engine optimization for voice-commands. With the growth of things like Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and Apple’s Siri, voice commands are becoming more and more common. They can handle relatively easy commands, but not complicated ones or something said in an accent that the system doesn’t recognize.

. . . .

A lot of people make fun of readers who ask their Google Home or Apple’s Siri to read a book to them. Right now, the voice is flat and often mispronounces words. (My favorite version of Siri, whom we have dubbed “The British Guy,” says Wig-Wham for wigwam, and mispronounces every Spanish word he encounters. Which is tough here in Las Vegas, when he’s the one giving driving directions for the GPS. (Wigwam is a major street.) And don’t get me started on how badly he pronounces Hawaiian words, which are also common here.)

The flatness and mispronunciation won’t be a forever thing, though. The read-aloud feature will probably never be as good as a human performance. (The science fiction writer in me forced me to use the word “probably.”) But more and more people will use the feature as the reading improves.

Because the future of audio is moving so rapidly that I missed significant developments by taking nine months off, it’s more essential than ever for writers to hold onto their audio rights.

However, traditional publishers are snapping up audio rights with every single book contract now, which is rather like snapping up movie rights or TV rights. And writers are letting the publishers do it—usually on the advice of idiot agents.

Audio is the reason that Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy declared 2018 the best year ever for the company—the growth of audio and backlist sales, which I will get to in a future part of this series. S&S has its own audio division, and it increased its title count in 2018. The company has also started producing original content, just like Audible has.

Reidy expects S&S’s audio division to become even more important. She told Publisher’s Weekly:

With even more audio retailers coming on board, and the further proliferation of smart speakers and other listening devices, audio will remain a growth engine for us.

Audio will be a growth engine for all of us, if we can manage it. In addition to the audio retailers growing almost by the day, ways for indie writers to produce their own audiobooks and get them into the market have grown in 2018 as well.

Findaway Voices, in particular, has become a go-to site for writers who want to produce their own audiobooks.

. . . .

The key here with audio rights—with all of your rights, really—is maintaining control of them. Watch your contracts. If you’re publishing traditionally, reserve your audio rights. Do not sell them as part of a package to your traditional publisher, no matter how big those companies are.

If you’re indie publishing, watch your contracts, particularly if an audiobook publisher comes to you. As I mentioned above in the bit about S&S, they now have an entire audio division and are producing original content. Which means that they might contract for audio first.

The problem with all of the S&S contracts I’ve seen—the problem with most of the Big 5 contracts I’ve seen—is that they won’t accept a license for a single right. They want to license the entire property, even if they don’t exercise all of those rights. Which means that by licensing audio to them, you might lose paperback rights as well. Or the entire copyright, since that seems to be the M.O. for many of these companies.

Be very careful.

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Audiobooks, Kristine Kathryn Rusch

4 Comments to “Business Musings: Audio”

  1. As usual, Kris hits the nail on the head. Audio matters, but producing your own quality audiobooks is prohibitively expensive unless you’re a huge bestseller. And if you have a big list, like me, you could go bankrupt before you earn out.

    I understand that Google is testing ways to improve their audio voice. I’d be quite happy to have readers buy my books and listen to the audio.

  2. However, traditional publishers are snapping up audio rights with every single book contract now, which is rather like snapping up movie rights or TV rights. And writers are letting the publishers do it—usually on the advice of idiot agents.

    This is another way we see suppliers lowering prices. Offering more for the same price is an economic price reduction. Many authors competing for a limited number of traditional publishing slots means price competition.

    Authors who want to keep their audio rights with a traditional contract will be undercut by those willing to give them up.

    Authors who want to keep their audio rights while distributing text with KDP don’t have to do anything.

    God Bless capitalism, for it offers more choice in more things for more people than any system in history.

  3. “Some of those podcasts are nonfiction, but many are fiction, and have become a gateway into reading novels and other fictional products.”

    Can anybody point out examples? I’ve been waiting for fiction podcasts to become a thing, but have yet to hear of any major successes in this area.

  4. “The key here with audio rights—with all of your rights, really—is maintaining control of them. Watch your contracts. If you’re publishing traditionally, reserve your audio rights. Do not sell them as part of a package to your traditional publisher, no matter how big those companies are.”

    I think the boat has sailed on that. For my first two big-five contracts my agent wasn’t able to “unbundle” audio from the print and ebook rights. For my third contract, I sold the audio rights first – that way they would be off the table come time to negotiate print/ebook. That worked out fabulously. So I did it again for my next project (and, btw, received a 7-figure advance for audio rights to that trilogy).

    When the time came to negotiate my print/ebook rights, I was told by my publisher (and all the other fantasy big-five) that without audio rights they could not offer a deal. There had been a change in corporate policy which absolutely forbid any new contract that didn’t include the audio rights.

    To be honest, when I was signing the audio rights contract, I feared this day was fast approaching. But with the advance I’ve been getting, the print is the smallest of the formats (in terms of income) and the ebooks (which are now forced into indie) earn much higher than if sold traditionally.

    To illustrate the point further. I have a series where the first two books were published traditionally (in Aug & Sep of 2013). The next two books were self-published (Oct 2015 and Dec 2017). The results are striking. I’ve earned $160,000 on the traditional works in 209 months and $600,000 on the self-published works in 40 months.

    The requirement of needing audio in big-five contracts is driving me back into indie publishing, and it’s a godsend because without that nudge, I might have continued as I was…and making a fraction of the income.

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