What Makes a Great, or Terrible, Audiobook Performance?

From Vulture:

During the first days of the 2019 impeachment hearings, the headline of an essay by the Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse floated the question “What does female authority sound like?” One of the earliest witnesses had been the acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., a rather ordinary, if genial, middle-aged man. Afterward, Hesse noticed the name Walter Cronkite trending on Twitter. The following day, testimony from Taylor’s equally if not more impressive predecessor, Marie Yovanovitch, prompted a standing ovation in the committee room. Yet, Hesse noted, no “adoring comparisons to any deceased icons” had followed. “Her voice, after all, did not sound like Walter Cronkite’s.”

The issue wasn’t how she sounded. It was how she sounded to us, a listening public without the aural reference library to assess female authority, trustworthiness, and power.

I have thought about that column and headline many times since the fall of 2019. I thought about it a lot when Joan Didion died late last year, and I thought about it even more trying to listen to a recording of Diane Keaton reading from Didion’s work around that time. Rereading Didion’s essays and reporting after her death, I had thought, That right there is what female authority sounds like — by which I meant the dry, detached, unsentimental, sly but muted, deadpan voice that characterizes not only Didion’s literary style but those of Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Mary McCarthy before her as well as the voices of such contemporaries of Didion’s as Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm.

But listening to the five-minute Audible sample of Keaton reading from the first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I had to admit, “Whatever female authority sounds like, it isn’t that.”

. . . .

I had gone online to see whether there were any decent recordings of Didion’s work. I like to keep tabs on this sort of thing, probably because I grew up listening to written-word recordings. As a child, I had trouble falling asleep after we moved to an apartment where I no longer shared a room with my sister, and letting me drift off listening to spoken-arts records was my mother’s solution. So from time to time, I check up on how some author or piece of writing has fared at the hands of the audiobook industry. I do it when a writer who has meant something to me dies. I do it when I run across prose that makes me want to hear it beautifully read. I do it when something I’m reading on the page moves me for reasons I can’t explain.

This happened to me once with a Jonathan Franzen novel. His narrative voice tends to be so mordant, so unforgiving toward his characters, that I couldn’t fathom how something toward the end of his novel Freedom had me sobbing. Flipping back to the beginning pages, I saw how the irony in Franzen’s description of his protagonist mingles caustic knowingness with compassion.

. . . .

Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

I wanted to hear what that alchemy sounded like. But when I went to the recording, the actor to whom Macmillan had assigned the book kept telling me with his voice what I was supposed to feel. He seemed to have no understanding of how writing works. Every syllable was an opportunity for a new artistic choice, as though words exist in isolation and sentences have no relation to one another. He wasn’t reading the novel so much as making sure the listener knew it was being read by an Actor. It was impossible to follow the logic, let alone be affected by Franzen’s meticulously calibrated prose.

Link to the rest at Vulture

PG doesn’t believe that he has ever revealed his undergraduate major on TPV.

So here’s the big reveal:

Oral Interpretation

or, if you want more detail,

The Oral Interpretation of Literature.

He understands that many will look at that major and think, “Thank goodness he went to law school. Otherwise, he would have starved to death.”

PG will restrain himself from explaining why Oral Interpretation makes more sense than immediately comes to the mind of an above-average rational person.

The point of this shocking disclosure is to provide some authority to PG’s point related to the OP:

Some people have good speaking voices and habits and others have terrible speaking voices and habits.

It is wonderful if someone has a good speaking voice in her/his genetic makeup, but, absent that blessing, it is possible for anyone to develop a better speaking voice if they feel theirs is not up to snuff.

Motion picture studios hire voice coaches to help actors improve various aspects of their voices.

One of the most common changes to improve the sound of your speaking voice is to lower it a bit.

If you lower it a lot, you’ll sound stupid, but most people have developed a habitual speaking voice that is higher-pitched than is optimum for their physical pipes (a technical term Oral Interpreters learn in their classes). Men or women, just lower your voice just a bit and you’ll sound better.

Ingrid Bergman had one of the great voices for an actress during the middle of the Twentieth Century. Note that it is lower than the voices of many women.

Here’s another clip of a young Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, each with a very good voice.

Here is a collection of very good female voices:

France’s ‘Digital Barometer’: 27 Percent Trying Audiobooks

From Publishing Perspectives:

As you may recall, just before the Festival du Livre de Paris at the Grand Palais Ephémère (April 22 to 24), the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE-France) announced that May would be “Audio Book Month” in France.

There was a promise at the time that the French publishers would release new data from what turns out to be the market’s 12th annual Digital Book Usage Barometer, and today (May 4), we have some numbers from that information. What we have today is focused on digital reading in ebooks and audio formats. The entire report runs to 107 pages, available here in French (PDF).

In many world publishing markets, some of these figures will make it clearer why the publishers’ association has moved to declare this its Mois du Livre Audio: The study conducted again by Médiamétrie, this time at the beginning of this year, studies reading habits of French citizens in 2021, and finds that:

  • Fifteen percent have listened to a “physical audiobook,” meaning on CD or tape, of course
  • Twelve percent report that they have listened to a digital (downloaded or streamed) audiobook

In ebooks, by comparison, 25 percent—these respondents are 15 or older—have read a digital book.

Respondents whose reading habits are on the light side tend to be using fewer digital (ebook or audiobook) products, while those who say they’re generally medium-to-heavy readers are leading the way. Some 22 percent of digital book readers report that in general they’re “avid” readers.

And here’s a bright spot: The association reporting that audiobooks, both physical and digital, “are increasingly attracting male readers.” This trend, seen at times in other markets including the United Kingdom, continues to suggest that audio may be a format that can help publishers draw more men and boys to reading, which is dominated by female consumers in many markets.

. . . .

Among Digital Fans: More Intense Reading

Bulleting out some more points for you from the research:

  • Thirty percent of ebook readers say they read more books than before
  • Twenty 20 percent of physical audiobook listeners say they’re listening more than in the past
  • Twenty-seven percent of digital audiobook users say they’re listening to more titles than before
  • Only 52 percent of physical audiobook listeners say they’ve listened to one fewer title than they did a year ago, and the researchers say they believe that signifies that those respondents are likely moving to downloadable and streaming audiobooks from CDs and tapes

Reading among the study’s respondents is still “very largely considered above all as a pleasure activity,” the report tells us, with more than 80 percent of those asked in all reading media in agreement that they do most of their reading at home

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Google Play Books Expands AI Audiobook Narration – maybe

From The New Publishing Standard:

Per a report in Publishers Weekly yesterday, Google Play has now expanded its AI-narrated audiobook creation option to the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Spain.

. . . .

[B]y offering 35+ narative voices in English and Spanish, the Google Play Books AI-narration option means publishers of all sizes have the chance to upload an ebook or epub file and use what, for now, are free tools to tweak an automated narration before publishing on Google Play and, all importantly, exporting the finished file to be sold elsewhere.

The Google Play Books AI Narration page carries a quote from respected industry heavyweight and former IPA President Richard Charkin of Mensch Publishing saying “The technology has supassed my expectations.”

Again quite what is new here is not clear, but the PW post at least gives me an excuse to bring up AI-narration options once more.

No, AI narration will not put competent real-life narrators out of jobs any time soon, if ever.

What it will do is open up audio to authors and publishers to reach new consumers with acceptable, if not superb, narration that will being in revenue from low-profile and backlist titles that would otherwise never make it to the audiobook platforms.

. . . .

The single biggest drag on AI-narration development right now is not the technology – that’s already comfortably within acceptable limits, and can only get better – but the platforms themselves, which either discourage or outright disallow AI-narrated content.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG is a big fan of well-trained human voice boxes performing/reading literary works. That said, he doesn’t think he would feel secure if he were making his living as an audiobook narrator/voice actor.

AI in the voice area has been advancing at an incredible rate of speed over the past few years. PG suggests it won’t stop until AI provides professional-level audio from text.

(A)I, RAPPER: WHO VOICES HIP-HOP’S FUTURE?

From Public Books:

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” raps Kanye West, in what sounds like an a capella cover of Freddie Mercury’s timeless opening lines. The performance is so convincing, you might be surprised to learn that it never really happened. Thanks to new AI, users can create vocal “deepfakes” of their favorite celebrities, the most popular example being a viral performance of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the disturbingly realistic “voice” of Kanye West.

It is incredibly easy to create a vocal performance using a famous rapper’s voice with the help of Uberduck, a popular AI-driven text-to-speech (TTS) synthesis engine. After logging in with a Gmail or Discord account, users can select from a drop-down menu of different categories (such as “rappers”) and then specify the individual voice within that category (such as the artist “Kanye West”). The user is then directed to either enter the text they wish to hear or select prewritten versions of sung and spoken snippets. After they instruct the system to “synthesize” all the information, the text is rendered audible, and the user has the chance to engage in further vocal processing, including changing the speed, pitch, and word length. Within minutes the performance is ready to be downloaded, overlaid on a TikTok video, and shared.

. . . .

In recent years, terms like “high-tech blackface” and “digital blackface” have become popularized, as scholars on race and media have begun to theorize how this dialectic shows up in unique ways in the technologies of the digital age, enabling non-Black people to adopt Black personhood through their avatars and across networked platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Much has been said by scholars, cultural critics, and everyday observers about the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and the “blaccent” by non-Black people and companies seeking to harness the selling power of Black culture through tweets, memes, and other forms of quick content, with no investment in actual Black communities or people. Tools like Uberduck might therefore meaningfully be understood as extending these kinds of appropriative digital practices into the realm of sonic performance.

In many ways, my specific concerns about Uberduck are connected to broader developments that I have observed in regard to rap music, AI, and the veneer of techno-optimism that increasingly brings these worlds together. I am a Black feminist rapper with a PhD in science and technology studies (STS), a field that examines the social relations that coproduce scientific and technological knowledge and practices. As such, I have long been interested in exploring our dominant narratives about the technologies we make and use. So I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when a succession of stories at the intersection of rap performance and AI flitted across my radar last spring: first I was introduced to FN Meka, an “AI robot rapper” who, perhaps unsurprisingly, also sells NFTs. Around the same time, Google Arts & Culture announced the Hip Hop Poetry project, led by creative technologist Alex Fefegha, to answer the question of whether AI can rap. A few weeks later, I learned about the success of Uberduck imitating Kanye West. I listened only once before putting down my phone in discomfort.

I’ve since begun to think more deeply about the messaging around AI that emanates from stories like these—about whether, the creepiness and potential legal thorniness aside, we should uncritically accept the use of AI as a mode for crafting rap lyrics and performances. I worry that in our excitement to explore these new creative potentials we risk reproducing the same exploitative dynamics that currently separate Black and brown artists from the fruits of their labor, across music and countless other forms of entertainment.

Link to the rest at Public Books

From Uberduck.ai:

Case study: Yotta

Yotta contacted Uberduck in late 2021, wanting to create a memorable end-of-year wrap-up for Yotta’s users.

In two weeks, Uberduck helped Yotta create and ship 150,000 professionally produced rap songs with lyric videos, every one customized to each individual user. (Check out the video at the top of this page for an example.)

Yotta’s users loved their raps and shared them across social media, driving hundreds of new checking accounts.

“We aren’t your typical bank and wanted to stand out from the crowd with our year-end project. Yotta Rapped was just that – a fun and personal look at each user’s individual journey with Yotta over the past year. It wouldn’t have been possible without Uberduck.”

Adam Moelis – Co-Founder/CEO, Yotta

Link to the rest at Uberduck.ai

Uberduck includes an applet on its website that allows anyone to post a short bit of text, then synthesize it into an audio message after choosing a voice from what looks like a large number of users.

PG synthesized the following message using a voice titled “Casey Kasem” from a category called Radio Hosts.

Here’s the text, pulled from the Uberduck website:

Yotta contacted Uberduck in late 2021, wanting to create a memorable end-of-year wrap-up for Yotta’s users. In two weeks, Uberduck helped Yotta create and ship 150,000 professionally produced rap songs with lyric videos, every one customized to each individual user.

And below is the 15 second audio Uberduck created.

Digital Publishing, Then and Now

From Publishing Perspectives:

One of the major developments in our industry has, of course, been the ability for us to publish digitally as well as in print. This column is all about digital publishing and, given my extreme age and waning faculties, I’ve been assisted on the recent developments by the much younger and more digitally-savvy Emilie Marneur, the director of audience and business development at Bonnier Books UK. She oversees Bonnier Books UK’s digital strategy and manages its digital-first imprint, Embla Books.

It all started for me 40 years ago when I heard about a New York-based start-up, which was developing electronic versions of reference books for distribution on quaintly-named “floppy disks.”

I managed to license them various smaller Oxford dictionaries for an absurdly high advance with promises of untold royalty wealth to follow. I don’t think we ever saw a royalty check but we did have some electronic products to boast about, and the advance helped pay for a few lexicographers. Less than a decade later, we were able to sell the whole of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary on just two CD-ROMs.

General book publishers in the 1990s were way behind. It wasn’t until the launch of Amazon.com in 1994, opening up a completely new sales channel, and the subsequent launch of the Kindle in 2007, that publishers began to wake up to a new world order.

How would traditional bookshops survive? Public libraries? What would be the appropriate royalty rate? Is the sale of an ebook a sale or a license? How to protect the content from piracy? How to avoid monopolization of the distribution channel without breaking antitrust regulations?

In parallel, the 1995 launch of Audible.com opened up new markets and new commercial issues, particularly when acquired by Amazon, thus cementing the superpower’s position as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the intellectual property distribution world.

Authors and publishers had to adapt. Major booksellers tried but with little or no success. But the book in all its formats sailed on into the new worlds of self-publishing, Kindle Direct Publishing, subscription models, and new supply-chain imperatives. This brings us to today and the new opportunities and challenges for our industry, for authors, retailers, and of course publishers.

. . . .

While Amazon, including Audible, remains the dominant retailer for ebooks and audiobooks, we’re seeing the emergence of many new online retail platforms and business models.

Most of these start-ups focus on English-language content, but some of the most innovative may well be operating in Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, and other heavily-used languages. The English-language businesses range from highly-specific entities serving the higher-education market such as Perlego or Kortext and professional support such as nkoda supporting music and musicians. There are more general offerings for foodies such as ckbk and for people with limited reading time such as the German-based book-summary service Blinkist.

And of course these and other businesses can interact directly with authors, potentially cutting out the publisher’s role altogether. Substack has attracted significant authors and has earned some of them significant income from their writing. And there are more traditional self-publishing sites for authors. How much these sites will suck revenue and energy from traditional publishers is unknown but they’ve represented a wake-up call for publishers to focus more on the value of services they offer authors.

. . . .

Then we come to the so-called audio boom.

There can be little doubt that listening to books, radio, and podcasts online has increased and this growth is reflected by industry statistics. Audiobooks again saw double-digit growth in sales in 2021, and continued growth for the 8th year running. With that growth has come an appetite among retailers for exclusive and original content, not unlike what we see with video-streaming players.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Exclusivity in 2022 Part Two

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I’ve owned a lot of businesses. I have some ethical issues that do not benefit me as a business owner. There are business practices that I do not like that, if I did them, would make me a lot more money than I am making right now.

Those practices are stupidly easy to do. They rely on the gullible side of human nature. People want to believe that the other people they’re doing business with are good-hearted and have their best interests in mind. Many business people do not have other people’s interest in mind. They only consider their interest.

So let’s look at exclusivity through that prism.

As a business model for a publishing or related industry, exclusivity makes complete sense. The more a business can bind an author to that business, the better off that business will be, particularly if the author is famous.

The problem with publishing businesses is that they don’t create anything. They buy other people’s creations and then put those creations in a form that can be distributed. Generally speaking, a writer or an artist who licenses their work to a publishing company is relying on that publishing company’s expertise in design, marketing, and distribution to get that book/project/writer out to as many readers as possible.

This is the deal writers make with traditional publishers. With the Big Five, and others that operate just like them, the writers have been brainwashed into believing those companies are the only route to distribution. And they were once, but ironically, they licensed fewer parts of the copyright in those days…when a writer, by necessity, had to be exclusive.

Now, though, there’s indie publishing and a million other ways for a writer to maintain their rights and distribute their work, if the writer is willing to run their own business. Which means that distribution companies, publishing companies, streaming companies, and others must up their game if they want bestselling writers in their fold.

. . . .

As long-time readers of this blog know, the writing business is not linear. Fortunes rise and fall. They never really go down to their lowest level. The rise always results in a much higher floor than the writer had before, but the rise itself is never permanent.

So, at some point the most popular writer in Company A will be superseded by some other writer who will sell more or whose product is fresher or more attuned to the moment. The original popular writer will still be popular, just not the Flavor of the Month. And slowly, ever so slowly, the original popular writer will be neglected.

Company A will still benefit from original popular writer’s latest releases, but original popular writer will run into new problems.

And that’s charitable. Sometimes original popular writer will fall off a cliff.

First, let me give you an example from my own business. And then, I’m going to show you some other ways that permanent or superstar or long-term exclusive can go horribly wrong.

My example has to do with Audible. Fifteen years ago, Audible was not just new(ish), but it was the only real digital audio player in the game. Unless a writer had access to a recording studio—and had the chops to read a book—the writer couldn’t even record their own work, let alone distribute it.

I’d had some audio books—on tape—from some of the best companies in the business…whose business soon got subsumed or at least offered through Audible.

Audible came to me with a great deal. I got up-front money on all of my books including backlist (under Rusch only at first, and then Nelscott, but never Grayson). In addition, I got paid a hefty bounty for each book sold, a bounty that did not get counted against that advance money. I got royalties and a bounty, and all of that translated into tens of thousands, and in one case hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I had my eye on it, though, and I had voice training. I knew that Audible would eventually get real competitors. One of my main priorities in setting up WMG was setting up our own recording studio, and we did it just as ACX got started. I was going to run the recording studio, but I got sick. We hired an audio director who turned out to be horribly unsuited for the work. (My fault: I thought she could grow into it. I was wrong.)

Had we followed my lead at that time, we would have had a lot of WMG-produced high quality audio that we could still market now.

But I was sick, the audio program fell apart, and so I relied on the money that Audible provided through the equivalent of its superstar program.

Which no longer exists. They use other incentives now.

My editor at Audible moved, a new editor got hired and then fired. He was replaced by one of those corporate employees who comes in as some kind of hatchet man—someone who wipes out all trace of the previous employees. I can’t even get my new editor on the phone or contact him by email.

Needless to say, Audible and I have parted company on new work. The old work has pretty good contracts—I can get out of them at any time—but that would make my backlist unavailable in audio, something I’m not currently willing to do.

It’s a mess, and it’s one I need to clean up.

Audible asked for exclusive, I granted it, and now, fifteen years later, I have a major mess to clean up. Part of that mess are my audio fans. There are a lot of listeners who don’t have time to actually read a book, so they listen on their commutes or whatever. And all that reaching, growing, and developing will fall by the wayside if I don’t do something in the next few years.

Yes, it’s on my ever-growing to-do list.

Here’s the thing: I benefited from Audible’s superstar program back in the day, but I’m paying the price now.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and here’s a link to Part 1 of her two posts.

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Artificial Intelligence – Text to Speech

Amazon has a website as part of its Amazon Web Services site that demonstrates various applications of artificial intelligence:

One of those sites is for the demonstration of Amazon Polly, a text-to-speech program. PG understands that Polly has multi-lingual capabilities, but it appears PG is not located in a region that has access to more than English.

Here is a speech file with Polly translating a written quote from Helen Keller in one of its many female voices:

Here is a speech file with Polly translating a partial quote from the Declaration of Independence in ont of its many male voices:

Here is Polly translating the Declaration of Independence quote using a younger male voice. You will notice that the recorded translation to the younger male voice is a few seconds longer than the adult male voice above.

Here’s a link to Amazon Polly

Synthetic Voices Want to Take Over Audiobooks

From Wired:

WHEN VOICE ACTOR Heath Miller sits down in his boatshed-turned-home studio in Maine to record a new audiobook narration, he has already read the text through carefully at least once. To deliver his best performance, he takes notes on each character and any hints of how they should sound. Over the past two years, audiobook roles, like narrating popular fantasy series He Who Fights With Monsters, have become Miller’s main source of work. But in December he briefly turned online detective after he saw a tweet from UK sci-fi author Jon Richter disclosing that his latest audiobook had no need for the kind of artistry Miller offers: It was narrated by a synthetic voice.

Richter’s book listing on Amazon’s Audible credited that voice as “Nicholas Smith” without disclosing that it wasn’t human. To Miller’s surprise, he found that “Smith” voiced a total of around half a dozen on the site from multiple publishers—breaching Audible rules that say audiobooks “must be narrated by a human.” Although “Smith” sounded more expressive than a typical synthetic voice, to Miller’s ear it was plainly artificial and offered a worse experience than a human narrator. It made giveaway mistakes, like pronouncing Covid as “kah-viid” when referring to the pandemic.

Miller tracked down “Smith”—the voice matched a sample posted to SoundCloud by Speechki, a San Francisco startup that offers more than 300 synthetic voices for audiobook publishing across 77 dialects and languages. He and other narrators and audio fans who discussed the artificial audiobooks online reported the titles to Audible, which eventually removed them. Although it wasn’t a large number, discovering that synthetic voices were good enough for some publishers to put them to work prompted Miller to wonder about the future of his art and income. “It’s a little terrifying because it’s my livelihood and that of many people I respect,” he says.

Richter says he chose an artificial voice because the concept and its “uncanny valley” sound suited his book, which has a piece of intelligence software as one of its main characters, and that he was unaware of Audible’s policies. “My intention was never to upset or offend anyone,” he says. Speechki says it recommends publishers identify that narrations are synthetic and that it informs them of Audible’s policies. Will Farrell-Green, a senior director at Audible, said in an emailed statement that the company uses automated and manual processes to enforce its rules but that “due to the volume of content on our service, titles that are not compliant do slip through from time to time.” Audible’s “human’s only” policy dates back to at least 2014, when synthetic voices were much less convincing, and the company has said the rule helps provide listeners the performances they expect.

Synthetic voices have become less grating in recent years, in part due to artificial intelligence research by companies such as Google and Amazon, which compete to offer virtual assistants and cloud services with smoother artificial tones. Those advances have also been used to make reality-spoofing “deepfakes.” Speechki is one of several startups developing speech synthesis for audiobooks. It analyzes text with in-house software to mark up how to inflect different words, voices it with technology adapted from cloud providers including Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, and employs proof listeners who check for mistakes. Google is testing its own “auto-narration” service that publishers can use to generate English audiobooks for free, using more than 20 different synthetic voices. Audiobooks published through the program include an academic history of theater and a novelist’s exploration of cultural attitudes to sex. Google spokesperson Dan Jackson says its auto-narrated books supplement rather than replace professionally narrated books. “Our goal with auto-narration is to make it possible to create a low-cost audiobook for any ebook title and increase content accessibility for those that are unable to read via ebook,” he says.

Link to the rest at Wired

Here’s a sample of a synthetic voice from Speechki that was embedded in the OP.

Per the Speechki website, their software can produce an audio book in 15 minutes.

This page features an audiobook sample in Spanish.

2030 audio market projection hits $50 billion

From The New Publishing Standard:

In a presentation for the US Audio Publishers Association in September 2021 TNPS suggested a more likely valuation of $37 billion, while acknowledging that could be conservative.

Then came the Spotify and Storytel US acquisition news and TNPS made clear our $37 billion forecast for 2030 was looking “tame”.

The latest forecast, from Denmark-based podcasting platform Podimo, projects a 2030 audio market valuation of $50 billion, and here at TNPS we’re not seeing that is unrealistic in the light of recent developments.

It was back in July 2019 that TNPS reported, to the amusement of many in publishing, that Mofibo founder Morten Strunge had raised $6.7 million in seed funding for a beyond-crazy idea that money could be made out of podcasts, which everyone back then regarded as the poor man’s audiobook, only good for giving away free to try upsell the real thing.

. . . .

The genius of Podimo lies not just in giving consumers quality content, but in rewarding creators through its “user-centric” revenue-sharing model.

In a press release Strunge explains:

Our model provides premium content and a seamless user experience through AI-driven personalized recommendations and video trailers. As a full-service content production house, we can enrich existing IP in new and exciting ways, as well as produce our own IP, challenging what listeners can expect from short and long-form audio now, and in the future.

While Strunge doesn’t offer any detail on his projection, he asserts the podcast and audio market will,

grow beyond 50 billion USD over the next 5-6 years.

Strunge went on:

…With more and more audiences discovering compelling, short-form, spoken word audio every day. It’s a tremendous opportunity, and with our strategic focus on content in local markets’ native languages, we feel well-positioned to grab a substantial part of this market.

With a solid foundation, we can accelerate our investments into premium original and exclusive content from today’s most exciting and important voices, bringing in more users and bigger payouts to creators, while applying our learnings to new market expansion.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

A Matter of Volume

From The Bookseller:

I used to imagine an Apple event where its c.e.o. Tim Cook would unveil a standalone audiobook app with exclusive audio-only titles available on subscription. He would then invite J K Rowling and Stephen Fry on stage to announce a new audio-first Harry Potter series. Sadly Apple TV+ and Steven Spielberg got in first.

My personal disappointment at Apple’s lack of ambition for audio should not detract from the fact that the storytelling bit of the market for listening remains in rude health. Nielsen’s latest Understanding the Audiobook Consumer shows a seventh year of double-digit growth, with sales about to crest £200m. In the US, figures from the Audio Publishers Association for 2020 show a ninth year of double-digit increase. Audible turned over £187m from its UK business in 2020, representing growth of 30%.

Outside our own range in the UK, the growth in listening—be it from traditional audiobooks, podcasts or music—continues. Spotify’s revenue has more than doubled since 2016 (it surpassed Penguin Random House in 2017,) and today has announced a deal to buy Findaway, the US audiobook business; in December Amazon bought podcast platform Wondery for a reported $200m; while Storytel, Sweden’s answer to Audible, grew its half-year sales to £90m (and this week bought AudioBooks.com), with Bonnier-owned rival Bookbeat hot on its heels.

From a once smallish cottage industry that serviced libraries, those with reading difficulties and (with intermittent support from the high street) CD buyers, audiobooks are now central to a global storytelling industry whose potential risks stretching way beyond the publishing sector’s ability to service it. Storytel is the harbinger of things to come: in the summer it announced a deal with the Conan Doyle Estate for a new scripted audio series of Sherlock tales to be written by a team of writers under Anthony Horowitz. Tangentially, Apple has also got in on the act: watch its series “Calls” via Apple TV+ and tell me if that isn’t one of the most exciting audiobooks released this year?

The wider vision for audio is stymied by a number of things. It remains expensive to produce, and actors are a scarce resource (electronic voice is not yet the alternative it may one day be). Audible remains far too dominant, with Google, Apple and AudioBooks.com bit-part players. Audible aside, those with the biggest audience of listeners operate streaming models that the big UK and US publishers eschew. I’ve never taken the view that books should become a subscription service just because film and music have, but for those innovating in this space, it is their financial underpinning and how they recruit new customers.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones audiobook review

From The Guardian:

The latest masterwork from Dan Jones, the British historian and author of The Templars, isn’t short on ambition. Spanning a thousand years, it tells the story of the “awkward slab” of time that is the middle ages, the period between the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century AD and the Protestant reformation. Jones, who reads the audiobook himself, lays out his plan in the introduction to “sweep across continents and centuries, often at breakneck pace. We are going to meet hundreds of men and women, from Attila the Hun to Joan of Arc. And we are going to dive headlong into at least a dozen fields of history – from war and law to art and literature.”

He isn’t wrong about the pace: he hopscotches from the collapsing Romans, barbarian migration and the rise of Islamic empires to the age of the Franks, the brutal Mongol superpower and the plague that wiped out millions across north Africa, Asia and Europe. But despite the hectic schedule, his reading feels relaxed as he delights in peculiar details and revels in witty asides. While the tone is confident, Jones mercifully avoids the declamatory style that can afflict historians in performance mode.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG noted the OP for two reasons.

  1. In his reading, it isn’t common for a large-circulation periodical to include audiobook reviews.
  2. Having the author voice the audiobook is also somewhat unusual.

Perhaps those who follow audiobooks more closely that PG does will correct any misconceptions PG has about this part of the literary world.

Does Listening to a Book Have the Same Brain Benefits as Reading?

From Well+Good:

While there aren’t exactly a wealth of scientific studies endorsing that binging Real Housewives is good for your brain (clinical trials, get at me), reading is one hobby that has been well-documented to supporting cognitive health. It’s up there with doing crosswords and playing a musical instrument in terms of habits brain health experts always recommend people to do keep their mind sharp.

Sometimes, there is nothing better than curling up in your favorite chair with a paperback. But if you want to multitask and read at the same time, audiobooks can be handier. You can’t exactly drive or deep clean the bathroom with a book in your hands. But as audiobooks have become increasingly more popular, it does beg the question of whether or not you’re really getting the same benefits as traditional reading. Sure, you’ll be able to chime in at book club, but does listening to a book require the same brain power? When it comes to the reading versus listening debate, neuroscientist and Biohack Your Brain author Kristen Willeumier, PhD. has some thoughts.

The brain benefits reading and listening have in common

Most people know that reading is good for brain health, but a lot of people don’t know why. “Reading is a cognitively engaging task that requires higher-level cognitive processing integrating written information and language comprehension,” Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that reading—and then processing what you’re reading—activates different parts of the brain. She says this includes the frontal lobes (involved in cognitive processing, attention, reasoning, reading fluency, and language comprehension), temporal lobes (memory), parietal lobes (language processing), occipital lobes (visually processing the words on the page), and cerebellum (motor control related to visual processing—aka moving your pupils across the words).

“A consistent reading practice strengthens your ability to communicate and will improve your vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills while enhancing brain network connectivity. Reading has been shown to promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that lead to greater longevity,” Dr. Willeumier adds. For example, researchers at Yale School of Public Health found that book reading had a 20 percent reduction in mortality in readers versus non-readers.

While the study focused only on physical books and didn’t include audiobooks, here’s what Dr. Willeumier says reading versus listening have in common when it comes to brain function: In both situations, you are processing information associated with story comprehension. Whether you’re reading or listening, your brain is working to connect the pieces of the puzzle, making sense of the plot and attempting to predict what will happen next. But there are some differences in terms of how this information is processed.

Reading versus listening: how the brain benefits differ

“The brain is differentially activated when processing speech versus print,” Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that understanding what you’re reading activates the left brain (in areas associated with language processing), while understanding what you’re listening to activates both (in order to process speech and acoustics).

. . . .

She also says that listening to an audiobook may lead to developing greater empathy because you’re hearing the emotion in the narrator’s voice, not just reading it on the page. “Listening to an emotionally-driven storyteller engages emotional circuits in the brain and can heighten the intensity and imagery of the episodes, leading to deeper processing of the narrative and greater enjoyment of the material than experienced by reading a book,” she says.

Link to the rest at Well+Good

AI audiobooks take a big step towards the audio New Normal

From The New Publishing Standard:

Pretty much since smartphones became mainstream, audio content in the form of podcasts and audiobooks have been gathering momentum as a significant format sector in the global publishing industry.

Even with the à la carte and monthly credit subscription models audio has taken off big time with consumers, while in the markets where publishers are amenable to unlimited subscription audiobooks have quickly become a format to rival – and in the case of Sweden even to exceed – the popularity of print.

But the brake on audio – and especially on longform audiobooks – has always been the production costs of studios, sound engineers and narrators that can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a book as a sound product, deterring many publishers and making some titles financially unviable.

Lurking in the background as the audio industry discovered and embraced digital, was AI – artificial intelligence – with the futuristic promise and premise that one day an entire book could be narrated by a robot and no-one would know any better.

Well, we’re not there yet, but anyone who follows developments in this arena will know quality is accelerating, driven by the proven global demand for digital audio based on text-to-speech (TTS).

As an author I love the idea that one day I might, at the click of a mouse, convert my novels to saleable-quality audiobooks, and as an industry commentator writing TNPS I fantasise about the day I might hit the mouse and my TNPS posts be converted into podcasts.

In the real world it seemed like the latter might happen soonest, as TTS (text to speech) seems to be developing fastest in the non-fiction arena, where delivery relies less on emotion and more purveying information.

But the reality is when I try the latest sample AI offerings I hit one major obstacle – TNPS posts are so full of “foreign” names (as in not in the AI English names database) that the text converted to sound is quite unacceptable. Another couple of years and it might be a different story.

But for fiction, where conveying emotion and tone has been the problem, progress has been palpable, this week resulting in news that one AI-audio operator, UK-based DeepZen, has partnered with US distributor Ingram to offer its AI-audio services to a no doubt cautiously optimistic publishing industry.

Per the DeepZen press release,

The service uses innovative technology that replicates the human voice to create a listening experience that is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Developed specifically for audiobooks and long form content, it incorporates artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and next generation algorithms.

DeepZen’s AI voices are licensed from voice actors and narrators, capturing all of the elements of the human voice, such as pacing and intonation, and a wide range of emotions that produce more realistic speech patterns. They are benchmarked against human narration, and are a world away from the robotic, monotone, voice assistants with which we are all familiar.

But that still begs the question, are they a world away enough to be acceptable to paying consumers?

The 49 second sample DeepZen offers via the press release really isn’t enough to make that call, but check it out here and see – or rather hear – for yourself.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Here’s a link to DeepZen where you can hear some AI voices

Writing for audio made me a better writer, period

From Amazon Author Insights:

When Audible came to me looking for an original audio-first novella, they showed up at just the right time. I had an idea for a story I’d been rolling around in my head for a while, and it was just about to drop: something about a world in which people who were murdered came back immediately (and were pretty annoyed at what had happened to them). I pitched the story that would become The Dispatcher (they said yes), and off I went to write.

So far, so good. Except that I usually write stories for print first, and this one was going straight to audio.

Does that make a difference?

Well, the basic storytelling is the same. You have a protagonist (in this case a fellow named Anthony Valdez) with an interesting job (he’s a dispatcher, whose job description is “licensed therapeutic murderer”), who finds himself in the middle of a plot crisis (a friend of his has disappeared, and Anthony must help find him), and there’s a ticking clock (if the missing friend’s not found soon, things are going to get grim). Set up the pins, knock them down, and add a few twists and turns—everyone’s happy.

This classic storytelling mode works whether the medium is print, audio, or screen. It’s nice and hardy. Reliable, even.

But there are things unique to the audio medium that you have to pay attention to while writing. Like the fact that the audience’s first experience with the story will be through their ears. Which means you need to write the story to be spoken. Which means you have to try to put yourself in the shoes of a narrator: Is what I’m writing going to be something the narrator is actually going to be able to read effectively?

If the narrator is having fun, there’s a good chance the listener is going to have fun too.

Now, a moment of appreciation here for audiobook narrators. These people are pros. No matter what you throw at them, there’s a very high chance they’ll make it work. They’re actors; they’re used to having words put into their mouths and then speaking them out to thrilling effect. They can take a jumble of exposition and give it drama, which is a hell of a thing. In my career, I’ve been blessed with excellent narrators—William Dufris, Tavia Gilbert, Wil Wheaton, and for The Dispatcher, the awesome Zachary Quinto—and I know at times they’ve made my prose sound better than it might otherwise.

Even so, I try not to make their lives any harder than they have to be. So I write with speaking in mind: Naturalistic dialogue. Exposition that is conversational. A rise and fall in story and scene so they can vary their delivery so readers won’t get bored. And here and there, a bravura scene that they can really have fun acting. If the narrator is having fun, there’s a good chance the listener is going to have fun too. And it’s good for the story, anyway. So make the narrator’s job easier, and make the narrator happy.

Another audio-first consideration: getting rid of writerly things that have the potential to throw the listener out of the story and the flow of narration—things like dialogue tags. In print, having “he said” and “she said” at the end of dialogue makes good sense—it helps direct traffic and pacing. Dialogue tags can get repetitive, but most readers eventually gloss over them—they know the tags are there, but their brains start processing them more like punctuation than like words. They see the tags, but they don’t sound them out in their heads.

But in audio, every “he said” and “she said” is spoken out loud by the narrator. I was never more aware of how much I used dialogue tags than I was while listening to one of my audiobooks. It became so obvious to me, in fact, that after I started regularly selling my books to audio, I started reducing dialogue tags even in work that was going into print first. And for The Dispatcher, I tried to keep them to an absolute minimum.

This had the effect, I think, of making my writing better overall. Dialogue tags are useful, but they can also be a crutch. I had to find other ways of making it clear who was talking—and a lot of that came down to making sure the voices of all characters were well defined even before a narrator gave them separate voices. Writing for audio improved my writing, period.

Link to the rest at Amazon Author Insights

‘Immersive Media & Books’ Study: Audiobooks and Context

From Publishing Perspectives:

As many programs and presentations this year have demonstrated, the digital acceleration prompted by the still ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic  created strong market movement for audiobooks in 2020, in many parts of the world and particularly in the United States.

. . . .

Panorama and the Audio Publishers Association offer several key top-line findings that add numbers to our growing understanding of the energy in digital formats and particularly in audio— energy that has in many markets, the States included, persisted beyond what some would have expected into this year.

Note, for example, the importance to the trade book publishing industry of the second point in which we see audiobook-engaged consumers buying the same book in multiple formats. This is a key to the messaging coming from the association and the Panorama Project survey, a depiction of audiobook consumers as both interested and integrated in the broader community of literature and its commerce.

  • 43.6 percent of the general survey population respondents said they engage with audiobooks
  • 49.6 percent of those who engage with audiobooks said they buy the same book in multiple formats
  • 67.9 percent of those surveyed who engage with audiobooks said they are also avid book readers (on the order of four or more books per month)
  • That subset of audiobook-engaged consumers equates to 53 percent of the general survey population
  • Audiobook engagers surveyed identified themselves as younger than the general survey population, with 41.5 percent of millennials and 43 percent of Gen X people responding saying that they’re engaging with audiobooks
  • Greater percentages of people of color—Black 19.6 percent, Latinx 16.4 percent—said they engage with audiobooks compared to the general survey population
  • Audiobook engagers surveyed said they rely heavily on word-of-mouth for book discovery, with 21.6 percent citing friends, 13.6 percent citing family, and 10.1 percent citing social media
  • 81.4 percent of audiobook engagers surveyed said they have a library card, compared to 75.8 percent of the general survey population

Audio enthusiasts surveyed said their favored genres in adult fiction are mystery, classics, fantasy, romance, and thriller. In adult nonfiction, respondents listed history, biographies and autobiographies, body/mind/spirit, spirituality, and business. The audio enthusiasts surveyed said they engage with YA (fiction and nonfiction) in all genre categories at higher rates than was reported by the general survey population.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

I Probably Modeled Him on Something I’d Heard

From Slate:

Twenty years ago, Grover Gardner began narrating a series of comic mysteries whose title character is a white lawyer named Andy Carpenter. In the series—written by David Rosenfelt—Carpenter also has a partner, Willie Miller, who’s a Black ex-con, which means Gardner had to voice Miller too. Back then, he hardly gave any thought to the fact that he was a white narrator voicing a Black man. “I probably modeled him on something I’d heard on television, on Hill Street Blues, or The Wire,” Gardner said. Today, 14 books later, he’s still voicing Willie—but he’s changed his approach. “I’d think very hard about doing that kind of accent now,” he said.

In an era of heightened sensitivity to issues of representation and misrepresentation, it’s no longer acceptable to cast a white actor as a character of color in a movie or TV show. But audiobooks play by different rules. It’s customary now in the audiobook business to try to match a book’s narrator to the gender, race, and sometimes sexual orientation of a novel’s author or main character. Yet most novels feature characters with an assortment of different backgrounds, and this can require narrators to voice characters with identities very different from their own.

When audiobooks first rose to popularity in 1980s, the field was overwhelmingly white. Gardner, who has been an audiobook narrator for four decades and also works as a producer, recalls that, for the first couple of decades of his career, “the whole industry was geared toward middle-aged white businessmen” who listened to “books on tape” while on the road for work. There were hardly any narrators of color, and few female narrators back then, Gardner said. “I recorded Scott Turow’s [1990 novel] Burden of Proof. The narrator of that book is a Latino lawyer,” he told me. “I did it. We did whatever they sent us back then. But I wouldn’t do that book today. You would find a Latino narrator to do it.”

. . . .

Apart from the amused response to the cartoonish accents Ronan Farrow rolled out when narrating the audio version of his 2019 exposé Catch and Kill, the audiobook world has so far been largely free of the sort of scandals that have triggered reckonings about representation in other creative industries, like magazine publishing and television. This is partly because it’s a low-profile, unglamorous field that doesn’t attract a lot of attention from the press. But many who work in the industry still feel the tensions around casting acutely. Amid a publishing boom in literature by writers of color, nonwhite narrators are being offered more work than they once were. Meanwhile, like most narrators, they find themselves getting asked to voice marginalized characters from backgrounds that bear no resemblance to theirs. January LaVoy, a biracial narrator who identifies as Black, said that cross-cultural audiobook narration is freighted in different ways for white narrators and narrators of color. “For many white narrators, it’s difficult because of fear [of backlash]. For many narrators of color, it’s difficult because of the weight of responsibility.” The industry is grappling with these issues daily. “It’s difficult for everyone,” LaVoy said.

Although some publishers have audiobook divisions, they usually function separately from the print division, and the audio rights for many titles get sold to separate companies such as Brilliance or Blackstone. The producer of an audiobook, who is employed by the publisher, acquires the rights and oversees casting and other big-picture decisions, such as opting for multiple narrators on a novel that often switches points of view.

Michele Cobb, a producer and the executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, told me that she and her colleagues have tried to figure out how they can sensitively ask narrators to provide producers with information about their backgrounds—such as gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability—that can be helpful when casting. Cobb explained that it’s an ongoing challenge to cast appropriate narrators for books by authors of color, while avoiding typecasting. In her own company, which publishes romance audiobooks, “I’ve definitely had authors come back and say, ‘Well, this character is white so I wouldn’t go with a Black narrator,’ ” a choice she feels obliged to respect.

. . . .

Traditionally, both a director and an engineer, usually both freelancers, work on the recording with the narrator. Director Simone Barros outlined an exhausting list of tasks to me, from making sure the narrator doesn’t skip or add words to researching accurate regional pronunciations and maintaining continuity. “You can get to the last page of the book, and it will mention that a character had a German accent the whole time,” said Barros, speaks with the mile-a-minute lucidness of a person whose job is anticipating every contingency. Barros is of Cabo Verdean descent and identifies as Black.*

In the case of some first-person narrators, such as the one in Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind, an audiobook Barros directed, the book is “written so much within the perspective of the first person that the ethnicity of other characters are specifically heard from the narrator’s perspective of them. More specifically in Antkind, the author’s very point is this shifting, mutable and even unreliable perspective, to shine a light on how too often minority characters go unseen, or only seen or heard through a bias cipher.” But with a book written in the third person, she and her narrator will work up a full voice profile—a cache of recorded dialogue and biographical information—for each speaking character. That way, if, say, a villain appears in a novel’s first few pages only to disappear for several chapters, the narrator and director can remind themselves of what he sounds like. Such profiles are particularly helpful with recurring characters in sequels and series, which may be recorded years later.

In the past, it was largely left up to the professionals behind the scenes to anticipate and head off any problems. Ten years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a book’s author—the person most intimately acquainted with a title—to have no input at all in the audiobook production. But as audiobooks became a more mainstream and high-profile format, authors began seeking more oversight. Today, writers often get the final say on casting, and are often invited to choose a narrator from a selection of sample recordings and encouraged to provide crucial information about how characters ought to sound. Nathan Harris, a Black writer whose debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, is set at the end of the Civil War, knew the accents of his multiracial cast of characters, who include freed slaves, would be a challenge. “You can go down a very precarious road with how they sound,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t want to do it myself.” His publisher presented him with an audition recording by William DeMeritt. “They told me they could go in all sorts of different directions if that’s what I wanted,” Harris said. “But he just nailed it.”

. . . .

Some narrators say they now turn down jobs when they feel unsure about voicing major characters. Cassandra Campbell—narrator of, among other things, Delia Owens’ bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel featuring several Black supporting characters—recalled narrating the first two in a series of books, which made her the automatic choice for the third. But when she discovered that the third book was told from the point of view of a young Burmese boy, Campbell, who is white, bowed out. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with it,” she said.

A multitude of minor characters can turn an audio book into a minefield for its narrator. Edoardo Ballerini, who was profiled in the New York Times Magazine last year as “a go-to voice for intelligent, subtle but gripping narrations of books,” says he’s now most often asked to narrate books requiring European accents. (His father is an Italian poet, and he was raised in New York.) Still, challenges do arise. “Take a James Patterson book,” he explained. “Let’s say it’s set in New York City and the detective is hard-boiled, an Italian-American. I can do that. His partner is a feisty woman and I think I can handle that.” But then the minor characters start showing up, sometimes slotted into uncomfortably stereotypical roles: “They get in a cab and there’s the cabbie, or they run into a perp who happens to be Black, or whatever it is. You have to voice them as well. And there’s really no way for anyone to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to do this book because there are a handful of lines by an Indian cabbie.’ ”

. . . .

A character’s accent can be an evocation of her origins and identity, but it can also be—as was the case with Apu, the Indian-born convenience-store clerk on The Simpsons, voiced by white actor Hank Azaria—a mocking caricature. (Azaria recently announced that he would no longer voice Apu and expressed a desire to “go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize.”) “Actors love to do accents!” Campbell told me. “It’s fun to do vocal gymnastics, but we have had a moment of recognizing that there are certain accents where you’re appropriating someone’s culture.”

The one motto that nearly every audiobook professional I interviewed repeated to me when I asked about their strategies for dealing with accents is “less is more.” Kevin R. Free—a Black theater actor who began narrating audiobooks 20 years ago and has become the voice of both a soap opera–addicted cyborg in Martha Wells’ Murderbot series and of Eric Carle’s iconic picture books (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc.)—laughingly recalled reporting for his very first recording session armed with a set of theatrically bold character voices, only to be told by his director: “I don’t want you to think of doing this book as doing a solo show. … There’s no reason for you to go all the way there.”* That holds especially true for cross-cultural accents. If Ballerini feels that “maybe I’m not the right person to give a voice to this particular character, let me just do it as plainly and as simply as I can. I think that’s a general trend that’s happening in the industry.”

Link to the rest at Slate

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Word Order: Audiobook First

From The Wall Street Journal:

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book opens with ominous sirens, planes droning overhead and a powerful explosion.

Unlike most audiobooks, which are offshoots of a traditional text manuscript, “The Bomber Mafia” was conceived first as an audio project. Only later, after there was a completed script, was it offered to a major publisher. The print and ebook versions, as well as the audiobook, go on sale April 27.

“The Bomber Mafia” is part of an effort by Pushkin Industries Inc., an audio company that Mr. Gladwell co-founded, to become a major provider of highly produced “original” audiobooks. Such projects sound more like podcasts than traditional audiobooks, since they often feature original scores, as well as archival and interview tape.

Industry giants including Bertelsmann SE’s Penguin Random House and Amazon.com Inc.’s Audible also produce high-production original audiobooks with sound effects and a cast of multiple actors, representing significant competition for Pushkin.

As a writer, Mr. Gladwell has been a star on the pop-culture circuit for more than two decades, thanks to such bestsellers as “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “Outliers.” His ability to look at popular subjects in fresh and unexpected ways has made him an arbiter of human behavior and social phenomena.

Mr. Gladwell later applied that approach to podcasting with “Revisionist History,” a show launched in 2016 that looks to shed new light on past events. When the company that produced the podcast exited the medium, he launched Pushkin with former Slate Group Chairman and Editor in Chief Jacob Weisberg to keep “Revisionist History” going.

Today, the company has 12 podcasts, including Dr. Laurie Santos’s “The Happiness Lab,” which focuses on the science of well-being, and Dana Goodyear’s “Lost Hills,” a tale of true crime, which recently hit No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts. Ms. Goodyear, like Mr. Gladwell, is a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine.

In a move likely to raise Pushkin’s profile, the company this week agreed to create an audio content subscription program called “PushNik” for a new podcast subscription service Apple Inc. is expected to launch next month. The offering will include ad-free versions of Pushkin’s various podcasts as well as a weekly news roundup and other exclusive audio content.

. . . .

Mr. Gladwell conceived the idea for “The Bomber Mafia” while recording the fifth season of “Revisionist History,” several episodes of which are about the life of Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay and the World War II bombing campaign against Japan.

“We were looking for some audiotape of Curtis LeMay, and realized that there were archives at the Air Force with audiotape of literally every major military leader involved in the air wars over Europe and Japan,” said Mr. Gladwell. “It was then I realized—I could do a whole book on this story.”

“The Bomber Mafia” will be Pushkin’s fifth audiobook. The first title it published, “Fauci,” came out about six months ago, and quickly rose to No. 1 on Audible’s nonfiction bestseller list. The title includes exclusive conversations with infectious-diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci and his wife, Christine Grady, as well as key colleagues and peers, archival recordings and an original score.

The budget for some Pushkin audiobooks can top six figures, significantly higher than the estimated industry average of $10,000 to make a typical title.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

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Audible Returns and Indie Author Royalties – A Detailed Discussion

A couple of days ago, PG posted an item about author dissatisfaction with Audible’s return policies and the negative impacts they were having on indie authors’ audiobook royalty payments.

One of the comments was from a long-time regular on TPV, PolyWogg, and provided detail and discussion that PG thought deserved a more prominent position on this illustrious online stage.

Here’s PolyWogg:

In my view, there is quite a bit of disingenous hand-wringing here, and while part of it is the digital nature of the product that confuses things, two other elements are worse.

NOT ALL RETURNS ARE THE SAME. In a paper world, returns take two forms — seller returns and buyer returns. To be clear, the current issue is about buyer returns. People are not very careful with their wording though and some articles have referred to “longstanding conflicts over returns” which is the first type, not the second, and completely irrelevant to this discussion. Yet some of the authors fed that narrative.

For the “buyer” return, buyers return products for a bunch of reasons according to the popular research:

a. They already had it and didn’t need another one / they bought several and only needed one;
b. It was a gift and they didn’t want it;
c. It’s defective;
d. It didn’t perform as expected; or,
e. They used it and don’t need it anymore.

From market research, most people are generally okay with (a) to (c). A simple return. Almost all stores offer it, even when there is no legal requirement to do so. They can say, “All sales final” if they wish, subject to consumer protection legislation, but most places accept returns.

IRREGULAR RETURNS. A smaller percentage of the population are also okay with d (poor performance), but depends on the product. For example, if you bought a vacuum cleaner and found out it doesn’t pick up cat hair, it may not be defective but it doesn’t do what you expected. And if you return it soon enough, most stores will take it. They’ll reseal it, put back on the shelf or sell it as open box, and away it goes. There is, after all, nothing wrong with it. However, for the writer, what exactly does this mean? If you read 50 pages of the book, decide the author sucks, can you return it? Many buyers say absolutely yes, authors want to say, “Of course not”. But the publisher and the store makes that decision in paper world, not the author. And most of them will take the return unless the book is marred in some way. And even then, many of them will take it rather than alienate the customer.

The other area (e used/need) is a not-insignificant area of concern. The cliché is the girl who buys a party dress / man who buys a suit but doesn’t cut the tags off so that they return it the next day. They’re essentially converting their purchase into “borrowing” for the night cuz they either can’t afford it or see nothing wrong with ripping off the store. People do it with tools, computer equipment (like scanners), anything that can be a “use once” type situation where you need it but when you’re done with it, you don’t need it anymore. According to most market research, people are usually of the view that this is scummy behaviour and SHOULD NOT be allowed. I even bought a special purpose computer tool from a computer store about two years ago and the salesman told me to take it home, use it, fix my problem, and then bring it back afterwards. I bought it, I didn’t return it. It didn’t feel right to me, but not everyone feels that way.

For the author in the Audible situation, where they want to allow long-term returns, everybody wants to paint it as (e used/need), not (d poor performance), and therefore should not be allowed.

DIGITAL PURCHASES. The problem with all of this, which is exacerbated by the timeline, is that it is a digital product with no degradation from a return. It’s not “used” in that sense, just that potentially the buyer already got the benefit from it. Audible wants to give them the right to return something up to a year after they bought it. Which all the authors then say, “Well sure, you’ve listened to it by then, and NOW you want to return it?”. Putting it squarely in group (e). Bought, used, returned.

Except the authors are wrong. Sure, there will be people in that category, as there are for lots of industries, and for those people, it is similar to a subscription / all you can eat buffet. But market research puts it in the 5% category as legitimate purchasers (not pirates) believe it is wrong. They feel like they would be cheating, so they don’t do it. Pirates and pseudo pirates would, but they’re a small percentage and don’t really represent lost sales. They aren’t going to buy anyway. Would/could it increase? Sure.

But the real question is *why* would Audible want to offer that length of time instead of 1m, 3m, etc.? It puts no money in their pocket and actually costs them money to do it. Every business model out there (except two) would tell them this is a bad idea.

One exception to that general limitation on returns is the “lifetime guarantee” or “extended warranty”. Sears in Canada used to have their “satisfaction guaranteed” promise and the best story I ever heard was a refrigerator that crapped out after 20 years, the guy tried to get it fixed, couldn’t get the parts, and the STORE TOOK IT BACK SINCE HE WASN’T SATISFIED. He didn’t even ASK for it, they just did it. Of course, small differential in price to buy the new one, but that was their model. About 6 years ago, I returned a tablet within a 2-year warranty and they gave me the full original cost back because none of their current tablets had the same features to give me a replacement.

The new “disrupted” exception is digital purchases. Since there is nothing to repackage, check for defects, etc., it is 100% resellable (although not really since it is just a digital copy anyway). There is no added cost to the returns. So why would Audible embrace this model for long returns? Because the buyer isn’t using the product right away.

If you look at the number of books bought for Kindles the day after Xmas, another example, people load them up. Dozens of books. Do they read them all in a month? Nope. Some they might not get to for several months. Or perhaps never.

Audible is identical. People buy several books, and might take up to a year to get to listen to them. Perhaps they buy four books in a series so they can listen to them. And after partway through Book 1, they realize they really don’t like them. This puts it SQUARELY back in category (d poor performance). And for Books 2-4, those are more like category (b a gift they didn’t want).

Now, well after the purchase time, the reader/listener is sitting there with multiple books they don’t want, they bought in advance, and now they want to return them. More than 6m after they bought them. If it was paper, they probably couldn’t normally because too much time had passed.

If they can’t return them, what do listeners do? They stop buying in bulk. They buy 1 book now, and they wait until it is finished before buying the others. THIS is why Audible wants to offer the return. So that people will keep buying well in advance knowing that they might not read it for several months. And if they get to book 3 and find they don’t like the series anymore, they can return it.

Audible knows that if they don’t accept the returns, sales will go down in the short-term. People won’t binge buy. It’s part of the reason Kindle sales die off after a short while. Yet one of the other questions is why doesn’t Amazon offer it for ebooks?

In short, because the lead time from purchase to reading ebooks isa bout the same as it is for paper books, no differential. Audio books though tend to have strong purchasing from really busy people looking to timeshift their listening (commutes, workouts), and with COVID, many of them are NOT getting through their audio books as fast as they used to with commutes and gyms eliminated.

Audible is doing it because they’re tryign to keep buyers buying at sales and promotions, and buying in advance generally, not just when they run out of the previous one.

I agree there’s an issue of transparency, as there is in EVERY CORNER OF PUBLISHING, but there isnt’ a scandal here except that once again, a bunch of writers/authors are trying to tell you they are “artistes”, not business people making widgets that can be returned.

Audiblegate 2: The Emperor’s New Clothes Policy

From Susan May Writer:

Welcome back to Audiblegate, the place where things just keep getting weirder and weirder. Settle in, this is a long one but ends, no less, in Brussels after we visit the Emperor’s New Clothes Policy, the pot theory, unicorns, pirates and so much more. If you haven’t read my first blog post on Audiblegate, start here first. Everything, of course, is all ALLEGED.

One of my favorite stories is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. You know, the tale of two swindlers masquerading as tailors who trick the vain Emperor into believing that the new clothes they’ve created for him are only visible to those who are clever and competent? Nobody’s going to admit they couldn’t see these clothes, not him, nor his most trusted minister, the courtiers, or those in the crowd as he parades by, nobody! That is until a young child calls out “but he hasn’t got anything on.” Still the Emperor continues with his parade even though he suspects the boy is correct and he has indeed been tricked. Who wants to admit they’ve been conned?

Well, we authors, Audiblegate whistleblowers, are not happy to be swindled, but we’re not ashamed to admit we were conned. After all, the swindle was well played and though some out there, including Audible and ACX, still want you to believe this isn’t as bad as it seems or that it’s part of business in the modern age, don’t you believe it.

THE SWINDLE

The swindler in our story, Audible/ACX (both pretty much acting together and residing in the same building, so let’s call a spade a spade) wrote to all those trapped in contracts with them on the 12th November, apologizing and offering “to show our appreciation for your continued support of ACX, for the month of December 2020 we will pay an additional 5% royalty on all sales of your ACX audiobooks through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.”

They end with a heartfelt, “ACX would be nothing without you, the creators of more than 200,000 audiobooks that have delighted listeners for the past nine years.”

Gee, that’s nice, glad you feel that way guys. Please pay for those books then and provide transparency while you’re at it. This email arrived following more than three weeks of an avalanche of emails from authors, rights holders and narrators asking that we receive our returns data separated out from our reports. We replied immediately repeating our request for transparency and what with all the advertising of their returns “benefit,” we certainly felt as though the days of trust were behind us, and we’d appreciate seeing how much we were actually worth to them.

But something’s not right here with your offer, we added, because our math tells us that 5% of nothing, which is what we’ve been receiving for up to fifty to sixty percent of our audiobooks is, well, a big fat 0% nothing.

Link to the rest at Susan May Writer and thanks to R. for the tip.

Perhaps PG has been sheltering in place for too long because he had not heard about Audiblegate before.

Visitors to TPV are invited to share, fill in the blanks, debunk, etc., on this topic.

Storytel Norway denies rumour it plans to pay publishers by the minute rather than a fixed rate per download

From The New Publishing Standard:

Storytel Norway is the only one of the 21 Storytel markets where it still pays a fixed rate per download to publishers, rather than compensating by the minute consumed. The reason being Norway’s fixed price book law.

Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen, per a report in the Norwegian publishing journal Bok365, claims to have seen an internal memo between Norwegian publisher Gyldendal and Storytel NO which asserted,

Storytel will switch to a time-based royalty model, where the author receives NOK 1.25 ($0.14) per hour played.

Storytel NO currently pays a minimum of NOK 10 ($1.13) per unit played after 20% consumption, and told Bok365:

We operate in the Norwegian market according to the agreements that apply here, and have not changed to time-based royalty settlement (adding that) Storytel Norway has been through a somewhat challenging third quarter.

A challenging third quarter, when elsewhere Storytel appears to be thriving amid the pandemic? That would appear to be directly related to the fixed-rate payout. Per Bok365:

Short books that are listened to by an increasing number of subscribers become bad business and cannibalise the earnings of longer audio books.

This of course exactly the imbalance the by-the-hour compensation was intended to remedy.

Havik happily admits he would prefer Storytel NO have the same payments system as the rest of the Storytel empire, but said Storytel NO would observe the local law. He explained to Bok365 that the Klassekampen story arose from a specific incident where a Norwegian publisher offered a dozen short children’s stories, which are a classic problem for the fixed rate unlimited subscription model where an audiobook of perhaps thirty minutes duration will be paid the same as one of twenty hours, leaving the subscription service in the red. 

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Audible bows to pressure and changes returns policy

From The Bookseller:

Audible has announced an alteration to its returns policy, following an open letter signed by over 10,000 authors and industry representatives calling for it to make changes.

From 1st January 2021, the company will pay royalties to authors for any title returned more than seven days following purchase. The company currently deducts royalties from authors’ and narrators’ accounts when a purchased audiobook is returned or exchanged within a year.

. . . .

“In instances where we determine the benefit is being overused, Audible can and does limit the number of exchanges and refunds allowed by a member. But as designed, this customer benefit allows active Audible members in good standing to take a chance on new content, and suspicious activity is extremely rare.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG can visualize how returning an audiobook an individual has purchased and listened to could be carried out. That said, thieves gonna thief and that has been a fact of life for centuries.

(“Visualize” means PG can imagine how it might conceivably be done, not that PG could actually execute his visualization with mere bits and hardware. PG’s visualized world works so much better than the alternative, it’s quite frustrating at times.)

C:\ Thinking in an http: World

From Publishing Perspectives:

The “Battle for Attention”—part of the title of Bookwire‘s conference report from Frankfurter Buchmesse—became a lot more vivid for many professionals participating in the digital evocation of the trade show last week.

That’s because the enormous fair, which draws more than 250,000 people annually in its physical setting at Messe Frankfurt, was, for once, almost entirely online.

. . . .

Without those beloved print volumes propped on shelves in stand and after stand, without the gliding moving sidewalks between halls, and without the beeping of catering trucks moving in reverse, the center of international publishing for a week was just a click or two from your Netflix and Amazon Music accounts.

. . . .

[W]hat Videl Bar-Kar, who heads up audio at Bookwire GmbH in Germany, presented Thursday (October 15) was the result of survey work that reached 2,335 people in Germany aged 16 to 65 about their media use. In addition, 1,000 consumers of ebooks, audiobooks, and/or podcasts were surveyed about their usage patterns.

A recording of Bar-Kar’s presentation, like others in the Frankfurter Conference series, has not been posted for review, so as yet we can’t offer you a link to see it. Frankfurt’s organizers say that these recordings of four days of conference programming and other events will be available “soon.”

. . . .

What develops as you look at the report is a question of the wisdom of gauging podcasts along with audiobooks and ebooks. Podcasting is not necessarily in the same vein as audiobooks and ebooks because a podcast (unless someone sits at the mic and reads a book to listeners) is not the delivery of a book. There are variations and content hybrids, of course—and a podcast certainly may make a powerful marketing tool for a book—but the inclusion here of podcasts with audiobooks and ebooks presents something like one apple (podcasting) and two oranges (audiobooks and ebooks).

. . . .

Digital Content Becoming ‘Mainstream’

What Bar-Kar and his research refer to as “mainstream” refers to people using two or three of the digital media in question—ebooks, audiobooks, and podcasts. It’s not clear from this work if it’s possible to know what percentage these formats’ usage comprised of a user’s overall media array. If a user said she’d used an ebook or audiobook in the last six months, how does that compare with how many print books she’d read, how many films or television series she’d viewed, and so on?

  • Of those surveyed, 43 percent said they’d used at least one ebook, audiobook, or podcast within the last six months. Some 48 percent reported using “a number of these in parallel.
  • Twenty-one percent said they use all three formats, and 27 percent said they use two of them.

. . . .

A favorite question, of course, is whether audiobook, ebook, and/or podcast consumption tends to preclude a user’s consumption of other content. The standard response of those who work in audiobooks, ebooks, and/or podcasts is, “Of course not!” And this survey doesn’t disappoint.

“They only cannibalize each other to a minor extent” is the charming lead answer here. Nibbling on each other’s toes, as it were, nothing worse than that.

“Ebooks, audiobooks, and podcasts hardly cannibalize each other at all,” the survey writers say. “A maximum of 14 percent of users said that they use ebooks, audiobooks, or podcasts at the expense of one of the other two media. While ebooks and audiobooks are used for relaxation and entertainment more so than podcasts, podcasts tend to expand knowledge and education and/or are more informative about current issues.”

Well-intended as it may be, this commentary is probably the least reassuring in the report. Unless one has a chart of one’s format usage and thus can tell, “Gosh, a half-hour of my podcast time was eaten up by my e-reading,” it’s quite subjective as to how much a user might feel is going into one mode or another.

And the more important area of inquiry here is about the challenge that other media (including podcasting may present to reading in various formats. Many people today say that with so much beautifully produced storytelling available in television and film formats, their reading in all modes is taking a hit. By contrast, attrition to other forms of reading is less a worry. If publishing “loses” someone from print to ebooks, publishing should feel relieved that they didn’t move to Streamer City and stop reading entirely.

. . . .

The survey does offer this comparatively useful point—still inside the publishing sector, but going beyond the three key formats in question: “Looking at cannibalization effects on traditional media, just under half of ebook users (44 percent) said that they read fewer printed books because of their digital counterpart. This figure was 25 percent among audiobook listeners.”

. . . .

In short, things are still unsettled in terms of where podcasts stand next to books, especially in the audio space.

If you’re fond of podcasts, you may call them complementary. If you’re not, you might call them competition.

. . . .

Perhaps easier to get our publishing heads around, a section of the survey asked “Which are Your Favorite Media”? Here, it looks as if reality has arrived at the door to reading’s future in this particular survey.

By far, the respondents went for video streaming and television as their favorite of several media.

Radio and print books were next, followed by gaming, online news, and newspapers.

Digital audiobooks and podcasts came in behind all of those. Ebooks fared a bit better, beating out online news and newspapers.

Not even those podcasts were competitive to media outside the trio in the survey, except for physical audiobooks, which in most markets have long been on the decline as downloaded audio took over.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Although downplayed, the author of the OP seems to be feeling what came to PG’s mind as he read the OP:

WHAT CENTURY ARE GERMAN (AND MAYBE OTHER NATIONALITIES) PUBLISHERS LIVING IN?

Podcasts vs. print books?

PG is suspect of “cannibalization” studies in general.

The fundamental proposition is that if people start doing more of something, they are doing less of something else.

This assumes that “something” = an activity that makes someone, usually a large commercial organization, money directly or indirectly.

So, for example, if a meaningful portion of the populace starts spending more time in voluntary charitable activities, that activity is not part of the cannibalization equation.

Ditto if someone starts taking Yoga seriously and spends time thinking of Oneness.

Second Ditto if someone who is feeling overly confined due to a life-threatening pandemic goes to a restaurant that observes social-distancing by closing half of its seating, and hangs out while having a good conversation after lunch with someone else. (Coincidentally, this is exactly how PG and Mrs. PG spent a couple of hours this afternoon. The conversation included, but was not limited to, PG’s mostly-useless comments as Mrs. PG read a couple of the most recent chapters from her WIP.)

Podcasts?

PG is not a podcast person, but wonders if people who listen to podcasts do so instead of reading books of either the electronic or let’s-cut-down-another-forest variety.

PG is happy to be instructed/corrected/updated/straightened-out/brought-into-the-21st-Century, etc., by podcast people.

A Voice Actor

When a voice actor shifts their focus on to the listener and off of themselves, their instrument (voice and body) has freedom from their mind to fully express itself.

Rosemary Chase

Before you voice a piece, ask yourself, “What do I bring to this that nobody else does?”

Nancy Wilson

Promoting Your Audiobooks

Mrs. PG has been enjoying very nice sales from her most recently-released audiobook, An Oxford Murder.

This is the first time she has worked with a Voiceover Artist named Lillian Rachel.

Lillian is British-born, but has lived in Washington DC for some time. Mrs. PG has heard from more than one of the purchasers of her audiobook that the voices, accents, etc., that Lillian has provided are both accurate and an excellent accompaniment to the story.

In connection with her services, Lillian sent Mrs. PG a list of audiobook websites that can provide an indie author with lots of marketing, review and advertising opportunities.

With Lillian’s permission, PG includes the list of websites below. The descriptions are Lillian’s:

WEBSITES FOR REVIEWS AND PROMOTION 

The big granddaddy of them all is Audiofile Magazine. They’re the dominant industry trade magazine, and getting your book reviewed there a Really Big Deal. They give Earphones Awards throughout the year to titles they deem worthy.  

http://www.audiofilemagazine.com

For digital audiobook submissions: Please email editor@audiofilemagazine.com with a download link (Dropbox, Hightail, etc.) or a link to your title on Audible.com. Please include the high-res audiobook cover art (300 dpi), ISBN, and distribution information. 

Audiobook Jukebox is an aggregator site. They’ll list your title as available for review, and if a subscriber is interested you get reviewed, usually in a blog and on Audible. 

http://www.audiobookjukebox.com 

Audiobook Reviewer is a curated site – lots of different reviewers submit reviews there. Lots of followers, and big social media presence make this one a good place to offer your title, though. You can also be a “featured” title on their site for a fee. Not sure how that works, or what kind of traction it gets you. They also give awards annually. 

https://audiobookreviewer.com

Love & Lace Inkorporated– (Romance Genre Only) 

This is an online and physical quarterly publication designed for Romance readers!  It is extremely affordable to put an ad in for a spotlight, Audiobook Feature/new release, Character Interview, Author Interview, etc. 

https://www.dragonflyinkpublishing.com

AudiobookObsessionReviewTeam–   

These ladies offer a team of over 200 audiobook reviewers. You simply give them your codes and they get you reviews. They also do Release tours, blitz, IG tour, etc. GREAT resource 

They also do Release tours, Release Blitz and IG tours. The Review tour is probably the best at getting the word out! Many of my authors have done this and have had great success! 

https://www.facebook.com/AudiobookObsession/

WEBSITES TO DISTRIBUTE REVIEW CODES 

(NB: ACX no longer pays for redeemed codes) 

https://audiofreebies.com/

https://audiobookboom.com/

https://freeaudiobookcodes.com/

https://audiobooksunleashed.com/

FACEBOOK GROUPS FOR GIVEAWAYS AND PROMOTION 

AudiobookObsession–  https://www.facebook.com/AudiobookObsession/ 

Audiobooks Rock! – https://www.facebook.com/groups/267216150092617/ 

Promote Your Audiobooks – https://www.facebook.com/groups/Promotefreeaudio/ 

Audiobook Narrator/Book Blogger –https://www.facebook.com/groups/audiobooknarratorsbloggers/ 

Everything Audiobooks –https://www.facebook.com/groups/EverythingAudiobooksE.A.R.S/ 

Audiobook Addicts –https://www.facebook.com/groups/audiobookaddicts/ 

Audio Bookfly– https://www.facebook.com/groups/AudioBookfly/  

Audio Loves– https://www.facebook.com/groups/AudioLoves/  

Aural Fixation– https://www.facebook.com/groups/auralfixationaudio/ 

PG thanks Lillian for her willingness to share. Should you be interested in finding out more about her services you can do so below:

https://www.lillianrachel.com/

You can also hear a sample of Mrs. PG’s audiobook with Lillian’s voice artistry by clicking the link below. If you haven’t listened to an Audible sample before, just click on the arrow you’ll find right below the audiobook cover image.

(Of course, feel free to buy the audiobook if you like the free sample)

https://amzn.to/2FHHQC2

The most borrowed ebooks and audiobooks since Libby launched

From Overdrive:

To celebrate National Book Lovers Day, we thought it’d be fun to look at the audiobooks and ebooks that have been checked out more than any others since Libby was launched.

Audiobooks
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Educated by Tara Westover
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis
You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’engle

Ebooks

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Educated by Tara Westover
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
The Whistler by John Grisham

Link to the rest at Overdrive

For those who may be unfamiliar with Libby, it’s a program used by many public library systems to facilitate ebook and audiobook lending.

Viral Intimacy

From Writer Unboxed:

“The primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission,” as Derek Thompson put it on Monday at The Atlantic brings together for me an intriguing parallel between the COVID-19 pathogen, our experience of it, and literature.

Contrary to trends found in studies showing people have less time for audiobooks during the pandemic – because many are at home more and not alone on commutes or gym trips – I’ve been listening to more books. Masked breaks from the desk for me are more frequent, not less, and more necessary because of a heavier workload.

And something about the nearness of a voice in your ear, the digital equivalent of someone’s breath on your shoulder, can intensify the psychological proximity of reading–the author in your head, the voice against your face, dangerous in terms of a contagion, luxurious in terms of literature.

Thompson is right that the scientists’ shift from a focus on surface transmission to an aerosolized threat hasn’t been followed well by the public. But neither was the shift to an understanding of masks’ importance, either. As the medicos’ grasp has deepened, the population’s attention has waned (or has been politically diverted), and yet both cleaning! and masks! are part of the same evolving insight, even as so many folks are breathing heavily from their labors with sponges and soaps, “funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals,” as Thompson writes.

. . . .

But the understanding now is that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is moving through the population on one of our most intimately shared features: breath. Talking. Whispering. Chatting someone up. Shouting someone down. At bars, outbreaks occur not because everyone is drinking after each other or pawing the same table top or bar surfaces but mainly because they sit close to each other to be heard over music, they raise their voices, they share breath. And they may be fully asymptomatic, too – the final terror.

Ironically, of course, the more isolated we become in order to keep from sharing each other’s breath, the more literature’s intimacy may mean to us.

A book is a thing of safe breath.

It’s better if it’s digital than print because other hands (and breaths) won’t have impacted its surfaces.

But it may be even better if rendered in audio, not only freeing you from the safety issues of surfaces but bringing the format into alignment with the communicative mechanism we need to avoid: speech.

. . . .

I find that I favor an almost conspiratorial tone in a narrator, reliable or otherwise. I want a voice that wants me. I want a story that arrives with eloquent urgency. I think there’s such a thing as narrative pressure and it feels good, like a breath on the ear.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

While it’s only a premise for the OP, PG questions whether anyone paying attention to the the world’s currently most famous virus formerly believed it was primarily contracted by surface transmission instead of floating invisibly into the bodies of its victims when they inhaled.

PG does agree that the quality of the audiobook narrator’s voice is an important part of the entire experience. He recently returned an audiobook edition of a bestselling traditionally-published book because he found the narrator’s voice annoying.

PG could be wrong, but he believes the quality of a narrator’s voice in an audiobook should become almost unnoticeable to the listener after the first few words. It needs to be a good voice, but not necessarily an overly-distinctive voice.

The rise of audiobooks and podcasting

From Deloitte Insights:

The next time you settle down with a good book, will you reach for a set of headphones instead of an eReader? Audiobook publishers are hoping so—and the market’s anticipated growth lends weight to their aspirations. In 2020, Deloitte predicts, the global audiobook market will grow by 25 percent to US$3.5 billion. And audiobooks aren’t the only audio format gaining in popularity. We also predict that the global podcasting market will increase by 30 percent to reach US$1.1 billion in 2020, surpassing the US$1 billion mark for the first time.

These numbers may not look like much next to radio’s US$42 billion and music’s (recorded and live) US$51 billion global annual revenues (figure 1). But in a world where overall media and entertainment growth stands at just 4 percent, 25 to 30 percent annual growth is impressive, even considering the low absolute base. The signal is clear: Audiobooks and podcasts are outgrowing their “niche” status to emerge as substantive markets in their own right.

. . . .

The anticipated growth in audiobooks and podcasts is part of a larger trend of better-than-you-might-think growth in audio overall. In the United States, for instance, recorded music revenues grew by 12 percent in 2018; vinyl record revenues went up by 8 percent, showing that even physical music media can still have consumer appeal. And although neither global radio revenues nor global concert ticket sales are increasing at the same rate, both are still growing a few percentage points faster than global TV and global (printed) book revenues, and 10 to 20 percentage points faster than global magazine and newspaper revenues (as the latter markets are contracting). Meanwhile, 2018 headphone sales reached US$20 billion in the United States alone, up 27 percent year over year. People use headphones for more than just podcasts or audiobooks, of course … but they do illustrate how important our hearing is.

. . . .

The United States’ audiobook market—predicted at US$1.5 billion in 2020, and growing at a seemingly sustainable 20 to 25 percent per year for the next few years—is the world’s largest. Coming in second is the Chinese audiobook market, expected to generate about US$1 billion in the same year, up from US$450 million in 2017. Outside these two well-studied markets, data is sparse and the markets themselves more nascent. Data gleaned from various sources suggests that annual audiobook revenues in the four Nordic countries are running at about US$100 million; the UK audiobook market was about US$85 million in 2018, with audiobook revenues for all of Europe (including the United Kingdom) grossing about US$500 million. Based on these figures, a global audiobook market of US$3.5 billion seems reasonable, with the United States and China making up about 75 percent of it.

The audiobook market isn’t just about dollars; it’s about listeners as well. According to a 2018 survey, 18 percent of American adults said that they listened to an audiobook in the last 12 months, up four percentage points since 2016. Assuming this growth rate has held steady, these figures imply that more than 73 million people listen to an audiobook at least once a year in the United States today. Likewise, data from China suggests that 22.8 percent of the population listened to at least one audiobook in 2017. Assuming similar growth, likely more than a quarter of the Chinese population, or another 350 million people, listens to audiobooks today. Globally, the number of current audiobook consumers almost certainly exceeds half a billion.

In the longer term, we expect double-digit growth in audiobooks to continue, even if it slows somewhat from 2020’s torrid 25 percent pace. US audiobook revenues, for instance, have grown at double digits almost every year since 2013, and even accelerated to nearly 40 percent in 2018. The spread of smart speakers is one likely driver, as are streaming-books-on-demand (SBOD) models that offer monthly subscriptions. Globally, too, growth is likely to accelerate as other countries and regions catch up to the levels seen in the United States, China, and the Nordics.

Audiobook consumption will likely differ across geographies and demographics. In 2019, for example, 74 percent of audiobook listeners in the United States listened to them in their cars. Countries where commute times are longer may thus see higher revenues, growth rates, and opportunities for audiobooks than countries with shorter commutes. Children’s audiobooks, too, which already represent a substantial fraction of the total number of audiobooks sold, may also be a growth hotspot: In 2017, this category made up 40 percent of the audiobook titles sold in China, 10 percent in the United States, and 25 percent in France.

Interestingly, while audiobooks are rapidly gaining share in both the book market and the overall media market … that share isn’t coming from print books. As an example, in the United States, revenues from sales of print books for consumers (trade books) in the first six months of 2019 rose by 2.5 percent year over year, even as revenues from downloaded audiobooks also increased by 34 percent. E-book revenues, however, went down by 4 percent in the same period (although e-books still made 77 percent more money than downloaded audiobooks). It appears that, while hardcore print lovers are clinging to the physical page—which is still the dominant form of consumption, accounting for 78 percent of all US trade book revenues overall—a war in the digital arena is underway between those who want to use their eyes versus those who prefer their ears. The outcome? No one knows for sure yet—but at current growth rates, audiobook revenues are on a trajectory to pass e-books by 2023 or so.

Link to the rest at Deloitte Insights (multiple footnotes and links in the OP omitted)

After conquering the big screen, Hollywood stars are taking over audiobooks

From Yahoo News:

As the audiobook market has been booming these past few years, a growing number of actors are lending their distinctive voices to the audio adaptations of our favorite books.

While Deloitte predicts that the global audiobook market will generate $3.5 billion in 2020, publishers are increasingly willing to spend five-figure sums to attract big-name narrators such as Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Reese Witherspoon and Tom Hanks.

Among them are also former First Lady Michelle Obama, who collaborated with the Amazon-owned Audible for the audio adaptation of her bestselling memoir “Becoming.”

The 19-hour-long audiobook notably won the award for Best Spoken Word Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards.

With all forms of audio storytelling soaring in popularity, publishers are mounting hugely ambitious productions with star-dubbed ensemble casts and unique soundscapes to appeal to audiobook listeners.

For instance, Penguin Random House Audio has enlisted a record-breaking number of 166 narrators to record the audio adaptation of George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

Among them were A-list talent such as Ben Stiller, Don Cheadle, Rainn Wilson, Julianne Moore, Megan Mullally, David Sedaris, Keegan-Michael Key and Nick Offerman.

“I love the idea that by casting actors and non-actors. We were able to simulate that ‘I hear America singing’ notion,” Saunders said of the award-winning audiobook, which he also narrated.

More recently, Audible has enlisted award-winning British writer Dirk Maggs to direct the first-ever audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman,” which will be narrated by the author himself alongside a star-dubbed cast.

Link to the rest at Yahoo News

This interested PG on a couple of different aspects of the OP.

First, he’s interested that Audiobooks have become a large enough market that traditional publishers are willing to spend the not-insignificant sums necessary to acquire the audio performance talents of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.

Someone in the bean-counter department has not laid/lain/etc. across the tracks to prevent the expenditure of an extremely large sum of money on any audiobook, expecting that it won’t be a giant money-loser.

His second observation is that actors who excel in one medium do not necessarily excel in a different one.

There is the famous historical phenomenon of successful silent-screen actors and actresses not being able to make a successful transition to films with sound tracks.

There are also extremely-talented radio performers who wouldn’t be employable by the standards of any major television network.

Ditto for film and/or television stars who would bomb on radio.

Voice acting is its own craft/art. The difference between excellent voice acting and mediocre performances will, in PG’s voice actresses/actors who wouldn’t be able to work successfully as voice actors.

Certainly star power may, as a promotional element, increase the sales of an audiobook. Tom Hanks’ or Emma Thompson’s name will certainly result in more sales of an audiobook than PG’s name would.

PG will be interested in the opinions of the highly-intelligent visitors to TPV concerning how well a star of stage/screen/television does in an audio recording booth.

PG lacks even more expertise on audiobook quality then he lacks for a variety of other topics about which he regularly opines.

As PG has mentioned before, for him, audiobooks are a welcome accompaniment to long stretches of relatively straight interstate highways when the time during which cruise control is activated is measured in hours. At home and elsewhere, PG consumes books in the old-fashioned manner on his Kindle.

Therefore, PG will be interested in opinion of audiobook aficionados who hang around this joint.

Subscriptions, Searchability, Local Languages

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its online program Wednesday (June 24) on the state and prospects for audio publishers and other players in the world industry, the mood was upbeat, the presentations ran smoothly, and the audience was offered a lot to think about.

. . . .

As is frequently the case in these events, the statistical data, which necessarily needs to be programmed first, was probably the most interesting, particularly in a topic like audio, which holds a fond spot in the hopes of many in publishing. As we reported in our advance story, Dosdoce’s Javier Celaya came bearing just the gifts of a glowing future for audio that many enjoy hearing (and understandably so).

In addition to his estimates we’ve already reported—a global audio market growing 25 percent by January 1 and being worth US$25 billion by 2030—Celaya had many key points to bring forward.

For example, his research shows that subscription streaming services are growing more quickly in markets outside the United States than in. Of Netflix’s roughly 200 million subscribers, for example, only some 60 million, he said—about a third—are in the States.

He also brought forward a key point for many publishers to consider in how they think of streaming content consumers: Two-thirds of them, he said, hare happy to “stream only,” rather than downloading. This continues a trend, of course, that can be traced back to the Kindle ecosystem and earlier evocations of ebook technology in which the reader-consumer never actually owns a book–she or he is licensing a copy. Ownership has progressively become less important in many markets and there are generational aspects to this as well as the simple fact that so much entertainment of so many kinds today is available.

Celaya’s talk set up the two-pronged approach for the whole program: In essence, for publishing’s interests, all audio is divided into two parts, audiobooks and podcasts. And in a key difference between the podcast-noisy States and the rest of the world, American podcast revenues, he said, tend to be advertising-based while in Europe, paid subscriptions are more frequently the income source.

. . . .

  • Spain, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, the  States, Argentina, Canada, and Australia appear to be leading in driving podcast growth. Both in audiobooks and podcasts, Celaya says, as much as 70-percent is backlist. “More mature” markets in terms of audio, can handle longer listening times, he says, the English-language markets being amenable to 8- to 10-hour audiobooks, and something closer to 4- to 6-hour book lengths in other cultures.

. . . .

  • Binging is a factor, he said, and in podcasts that means listening to three or more episodes in a row or, with an audiobook, doing 90 or more of listening in a sitting.
  • Smart-speaker technology such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are a factor in families’ and children’s listening.

. . . .

  • Celaya made a point that’s dear to the hearts of journalists but should be important to publishers, too: transcripts are important in audio work because they make audio “visible” for search engines. When transcripts are made through automated means, human editing is important, but transcripts raise the discoverability of audio content markedly.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

US audiobook market value up 16% to $1.2bn in 2019. Unit sales also up 16%. But how much does the delivery model hold back the format?

From The New Publishing Standard:

Touting the fact that the US audiobook market had seen double-digit growth for the eighth successive year, the Audio Publishers Association, referencing a survey of 24 reporting companies, paints a rosy picture of the US audiobook scene without questioning whether it might be even more dynamic were publishers to be more open to opportunities.

Chris Lynch, co-chair of the APA’s research committee and president & publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, summed up the understandable excitement among mainstream publishers:

Eight straight years of double-digit revenue growth is simply phenomenal. Even more encouraging are the continued upward trends in consumer listening behavior—both in how many titles they listen to per year and in their finding more time in their day to listen.

The latter point declines to note the pandemic-induced lockdown which might be responsible for all this extra time consumers are finding to listen to audiobooks, and stands at odds with another common theme being touted by publishers: that audiobook consumption was down because fewer people were commuting to work.

Of such contradictory and confusing sentiments are publishing urban myths built.

Not that the rise and rise of audio is an urban myth, although we should remember that back in the day ebooks were regularly seeing triple-digit growth, until mainstream publishers reigned in their ebook engagement and deliberately raised prices to stifle demand, leaving an open goal for self-publishers to seize a hefty chunk of the market.

With audiobooks the self-published element, while growing, is still a small part of the scene, and as audiobooks generally are not seen to cannibalise print sales in the way ebooks supposedly do, audiobooks for now are the publishing world’s darling format.

. . . .

A separate survey found US audiobook consumption by title up from 6.8 in 2019 to 8.1 in early 2020, with mystery and thriller leading the way, in stark contrast to “reading” books where romance heads the genre choice in the US.

Quality of narration (professional voice-artist vs author read-aloud) was deemed important to consumers.

More than 50% of audiobook fans said they were listening to more, making extra time.

Most significantly 43% of consumers queried said they preferred shorter length audio (1-3 hours). What isn’t clear from that response is whether that is related to the time needed to listen to a book or simply the fact that shorter length audiobooks tend to be considerable cheaper if buying as a unit.

. . . .

We’ve seen time and again how, where unlimited subscription is an option, consumers flood to the format.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Sweden’s digital audio subscription market will shrink 25%, says a Mediavision survey

From The New Publishing Standard:

It’s been so long since we heard anything negative about Sweden’s experiment as the world’s audiobook subscription Petri dish that it sometimes seems digital subscription, led in the Nordics by audiobooks, can do no wrong.

But if a Mediavision survey is correct, the good times may be coming to an end.

According to the Swedish news site BreakIt (auto-translated),

One in four subscribers to the audiobook companies plans to cancel the subscription or change service within 12 months.

This says BreakIt, equates to 195,000 households.

. . . .

It’s not clear from this how much the anticipated shrinkage will be due to genuine disaffection with the service and format, or how much any particular operator is likely to be hit or to benefit.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG doesn’t watch audiobook pricing as closely as he does ebook pricing.

When PG checked, the top five New York Times Best Sellers for audio versions of bestselling books were priced as follows on Audible (a quick check of Barnes & Noble audio CD prices for these books surprised PG because the CD pricing was very close to and sometimes lower than the downloadable audio price from Amazon):

  1. Where the Crawdads Sing – $31.50
  2. Hideaway – $31.49
  3. Fair Warning – $26.94
  4. Camino Winds – $31.50
  5. If It Bleeds – $27.99

A couple of questions occur to PG:

Should audiobooks be less expensive?

Each of these tradpub audiobooks have a price tag which is about twice what the ebook version of the same title is.

Is the price of audiobooks too high?

PG understands that a narrator who has likely spent time developing his/her talents is involved and will require payment. He also understands that audiobook recording studio time and/or recording equipment and a home audio setup won’t come free, but, is the price of audiobooks depressing sales?

Particularly during a serious world-wide economic downturn?

Just as with ebooks, once the original version of an audiobook is created and uploaded to Amazon, all each purchaser is receiving is a bunch of organized electrons. (He’ll set aside CD version as the equivalent of a hardcopy printed book.)

For an organization with as many hard drives as Amazon, electrons are pretty close to free. Delivering 100 copies of an audiobook to 100 purchasers doesn’t cost much more than delivering a single copy of an audio to a purchaser.

What would happen to audiobook sales if an audiobook was priced at 99 cents? Or $2.99?

Or if someone purchasing an ebook could get an audiobook of the same title for $1.99 more?

Is the best opportunity to sell an audiobook at the same time a customer is purchasing an ebook of the same title? Or vice-versa?

Sophisticated retailers, online and offline, work hard to increase the amount of money their customers spend with them. Cross-selling, up-selling, free shipping thresholds, selling related products are goals for any smart retailer. Gaining a greater share of the customer’s purchasing activity is an obsession with well-run business organizations.

Which, of course, raises the perennial question about why commercial publishers aren’t managed very well. Maybe publishing is just too special to be subject to market forces.

That would be of little concern to PG if authors didn’t ultimately bear a great deal of the financial burden created by ineptly-managed publishers.

KKR Completes OverDrive Purchase

From Publishers Weekly:

The investment firm KKR has completed its purchase of OverDrive. On Christmas Eve, KKR announced it had reached an agreement to acquire the digital reading platform from the Japanese conglomerate Rakuten. The deal was expected to be closed in the first quarter of 2020; it is not known whether the pandemic caused a problem in completing the agreement.

“With the sale completed, we are excited to begin working on the opportunities to grow our digital content platform with KKR’s support,” said Steve Potash, OverDrive founder and CEO, in a statement. “We are pleased to have an investor with global resources that knows our industry, believes in our mission and is committed to helping us and our library and school partners succeed.”

In addition to OverDrive, KKR owns RBmedia, one of the largest independent publishers and distributors of audiobooks. The OverDrive acquisition, like that of RB, was overseen by Richard Sarnoff, one-time executive at Random House who also was president of Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments until leaving for KKR in 2011.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG hopes this doesn’t mean that libraries get squeezed by higher ebook expenses.

It also occurred to PG that KKR, a good-sized investment firm, might be thinking of doing something big with ebooks and audiobooks. He suspects Amazon has been watching this deal develop with more than casual interest.