Regarding Audible

From Brandon Sanderson:

Hey, all. Brandon here, with what I consider to be some pretty exciting news. Many of you may remember when I wrote last year about my worries regarding audiobook royalties (particularly for independent authors).

. . . .

  • I seriously worried about the opacity of reporting to authors about audio sales. We didn’t know what a sale meant, how much of an Audible credit was given to authors when a book sold via one, and how royalties were being accounted.
  • I felt that the industry was taking advantage of authors because of their lack of powerful corporate interests to advocate for them. While video game creators and musicians get 70–80% (88%, in fact, on two major platforms) of a sale of their products in a digital platform, Audible was paying as low as 25%–with the high end being instead 40%.
  • I felt I could have gotten a better deal for myself, but the entire state of this industry was seriously concerning to me. So, I made the difficult decision NOT to release the four Secret Projects on Audible, costing me a large number of sales, to instead try to bolster healthy competition in the space, highlighting some of the smaller Audible competitors.

I hoped this wake-up call would prompt change. I didn’t refuse to put my books on Audible out of retribution or to declare war; I did it because I wanted to shine as powerful a light as I knew how on a system that highly favored the audio distributors over the authors. I was convinced that the people at Audible really did love books and writers, and that with the right stand taken, I could encourage them toward positive change.

I’m happy to say that this stand has borne some fruit. I’ve spent this last year in contact with Audible and other audio distributors, and have pushed carefully–but forcefully–for them to step up. A few weeks ago, three key officers high in Audible’s structure flew to Dragonsteel offices and presented for us a new royalty structure they intend to offer to independent writers and smaller publishers.

This new structure doesn’t give everything I’ve wanted, and there is still work to do, but it is encouraging. They showed me new minimum royalty rates for authors–and they are, as per my suggestions, improved over the previous ones. Moreover, this structure will move to a system like I have requested: a system that pays more predictably on each credit spent, and that is more transparent for authors. Audible will be paying royalties monthly, instead of quarterly, and will provide a spreadsheet that better shows how they split up the money received with their authors.

This part looked really good to me, as I understand their decisions. I tried poking holes in the system, looking for ways it could be exploited, and found each issue I raised had already been considered. This doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect, and people smarter than me might still find problems that I didn’t. However, I think everyone is going to agree the new system IS better. We will better be able to track, for example, how Audible is dividing money between books purchased with a credit and books listened to as part of their Audible Plus program.

. . . .

I’m not at liberty to explain in its entirety their new structure right now, as they’re still tweaking it, but they did say I could announce its existence–and that I could promise new, improved royalties are on the horizon.

Now, before we go too far, I do anticipate a few continuing issues with the final product. I want to manage expectations by talking about those below.

  • What I’ve seen doesn’t yet bring us to the 70% royalty I think is fair, and which other, similar industries get.
  • Audible continues to reserve the best royalties for those authors who are exclusive to their platform, which I consider bad for consumers, as it stifles competition. In the new structure, both exclusive and non-exclusive authors will see an increase, but the gap is staying about the same.
  • Authors continue to have very little (basically no) control over pricing. Whatever the “cover price” of books is largely doesn’t matter–books actually sell for the price of a credit in an Audible subscription. Authors can never raise prices alongside inflation. An Audible credit costs the same as it did almost two decades ago–with no incentive for Audible to raise it, lest it lose customers to other services willing to loss-lead to draw customers over.

These are things I’d love to see change. However, this deal IS a step forward, and IS an attempt to meet me partway. Indeed, even incremental changes can mean a lot. When I was new in this business, my agent spent months arguing for a two-percent change in one of my print royalties–because every little bit helps. These improvements are going to be larger than two-percent increases.

Link to the rest at Brandon Sanderson

As PG has mentioned before, he doesn’t think that many of Amazon’s best technical and business minds are to be found in KDP and Audible.

While indie authors help save Zon’s bacon way back when all the big New York publishers got together and decided to stop selling books to Amazon, that’s ancient history at this point, however.

Just like KDP, Amazon has kept the Audible managers in their own little world, separate from the giant parts of Zon that generate billions of dollars every couple of weeks.

So, Audible gets sloppy about indie authors and audiobooks. Zon is the biggest seller of audiobooks by light-years, but the dollar amount audiobook sales generate won’t move any big needles in Amazon’s megaworld.

Brandon sells a huge number of print books/ebooks/audiobooks for Zon. While Brandon moving everything from KDP/Audible won’t move Amazon’s big revenue needle, it will definitely impact KDP/Audible revenues and profits. PG suspects that if Brandon decides to go another way, the hit on KDP revenues would be substantial, maybe big enough so the bigger bosses in corporate who have the book businesses as a part of their larger responsibilities might ask embarrassing questions and maybe fire some KDP bigshots.

But this is pure speculation on PG’s part and he could be completely wrong.

AI is coming for your audiobooks. You’re right to be worried.

From The Washington Post:

Something creepy this way comes — and its name is digital narration. Having invaded practically every other sphere of our lives, artificial intelligence (AI) has come for literary listeners. You can now listen to audiobooks voiced by computer-generated versions of professional narrators’ voices. You’re right to feel repulsed.

“Mary,” for instance, a voice created by the engineers at Google, is a generic female; there’s also “Archie,” who sounds British, and “Santiago,” who speaks Spanish, and 40-plus other personas who want to read to you. Apple Books uses the voices of five anonymous professional narrators in what will no doubt be a growing stable: “Madison,” “Jackson” and “Warren,” covering fiction in various genres; and “Helena” and “Mitchell,” taking on nonfiction and self-development.

I have listened to thousands of hours of audiobooks (it’s my job), so perhaps it’s not a surprise that I sense the wrongness of AI voices. Capturing and conveying the meaning and sound of a book is a special skill that requires talent and soul. I can’t imagine “Archie,” for instance, understanding, much less expressing, the depth of character of say, David Copperfield. But here we are at a strange crossroads in the audiobooks world: Major publishers are investing heavily in celebrity narrators — Meryl Streep reading Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake,” Claire Danes reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a full cast of Hollywood actors (Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle and more) on “Lincoln in the Bardo,” to name a few. Will we reach a point where we must choose between Meryl Streep and a bot?

The main issue is, naturally, money. The use of disembodied entities saves time and spares audiobook producers the problems of dealing with human beings — chief among them, their desire to be paid. This may explain why so many self-published books are narrated by “Madison” and her squad of readers. Audible insists that every audiobook it sells must have been narrated by a human. (Audible is a subsidiary of Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) Major publishing houses say the same. But how long until they see the economic benefits of AI?

Jason Culp, an actor and award-winning narrator who has been recording audiobooks for more than a quarter of a century, knows how much goes into a production. A 10-hour audiobook, he says, takes a narrator something like four or five days, with a couple of additional hours for editing mop-up. For each finished hour of audio, narrators make about $225 — somewhat more for the big names — and editors, about $100. Beyond that, producers must pay a percentage to SAG-AFTRA, the narrators’ union. There are other production costs too, of course, but you can see how eliminating the human narrator appeals to the business mind.

Apple’s narrators are cloned from the voices of professionals who have licensed the rights to their voices. Their identities are secret, but speculation abounds. It’s a touchy subject, and you can see why. Whether to sell the rights to one’s voice is an agonizing decision for a professional narrator. The money offered amounts to something like what a midrange narrator makes in four years; on the other hand, agreeing to the deal seems to many to be a betrayal of the profession, one that would risk alienating one’s peers.

According to Culp, narrators are alarmed by the advent of AI narration “as, naturally, it might mean less work for living, breathing narrators in the future. We might not know the circumstances under which a narrator might take this step, but generally there is a lot of solidarity within the community about encouraging narrators not to do it. As well, our union is keeping a close eye on companies that might be using underhanded tactics to ‘obtain’ narrators’ voices in works that they have produced.”

Even though the notion makes my skin crawl, I listened to Madison’s narration of “The New Neighbor” by Kamaryn Kelsey, the author of almost 60 self-published books (Apple, 1½ hours). This is the first installment in a series of 19 detective stories starring female private investigator Pary Barry. The plot is entertaining enough, and Madison is a slick operator, in the sense that you can believe that she’s human — for about five minutes.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG asks, “When you listen to an audiobook, are you focusing on the performance of the narrator or the book itself? Do you forget about the narrator’s voice after a few pages?”

While the human narrator is certainly capable creating a better or worse “performance,” the narrator’s first obligation is not to interfere with the listener’s enjoyment of the book.

PG wonders if someone’s appreciation of a particular human performer may be a little like wine-tasting. Some people have a palate that always discriminates between a good or bad wine, for others, unless they have a side-by-side comparison, are fine with the equivalent of a house wine.

PG suggests that a very large portion of the present and future listeners to audiobooks will be perfectly happy with the house wine.

(Note: Although PG has not tasted wine for several decades, he does recall the various business lunch/dinner performances of the sommelier carefully uncorking a bottle, presenting the cork for a sniff test by whichever businessperson was paying for the meal and drinks, pouring a bit into a wineglass for the host to swirl around, sniff, then swallow delicately, look into the air, then communicate approval. On more than one occasion, a host who was also a good friend would admit he had no idea what the difference in taste was between an expensive wine and the house wine. To indicate how long it’s been since PG has witnessed this ceremony, he doesn’t ever recall the presence of a business hostess. No, those were not the good old days for PG. He prefers the present.)

Findaway and Corporate Rights Grabs

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I know many of you have asked me to write about Findaway’s giant rights grab this week. I just finished a short post on it. I’m no longer doing the regular business blog. Instead, I post about business things on my Patreon page. I made this post wide, so everyone can see it, but most posts will not be.

. . . .

A lot of you have written to me, asking me to write a bit about Findaway’s rights grab. I think those of you who wrote knew what I was going to say.

For those of you who aren’t aware of what’s going on with Findaway, I’m going to give you the quick & dirty and then a bit of context.

. . . .

Anyway…on Thursday, February 15, they posted a new Terms of Service that would go live on March 15. It said:

Accordingly, you hereby grant Spotify a non-exclusive, transferable,  sublicensable, royalty-free, fully paid, irrevocable, worldwide license  to reproduce, make available, perform and display, translate, modify,  create derivative works from (such as transcripts of User Content),  distribute, and otherwise use any such User Content through any medium,  whether alone or in combination with other Content or materials, in any  manner and by any means, method or technology, whether now known or  hereafter created, in connection with the Service, the promotion,  advertising or marketing of the Service, and the operation of Spotify’s  (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including for systems  and products management, improvement and development, testing, training,  modeling and implementation in connection with the Spotify Service.  Where applicable and to the extent permitted under applicable law, you  also agree to waive, and not to enforce, any “moral rights” or  equivalent rights, such as your right to object to derogatory treatment  of such User Content. Nothing in these Terms prohibits any use of User  Content by Spotify that may be taken without a license.

I was going to underline the egregious parts, but it’s all egregious.

It sparked an immediate and forceful backlash.

Today when I went to look at the TOS, it had changed. It now says: 

Accordingly, and without limiting any payment obligations under Section 5  herein, you hereby grant Spotify a non-exclusive, worldwide license to  reproduce, make available, perform, display, distribute, and otherwise  use your User Content on and in connection with the Spotify Service and  the Distribution Services (as defined in Section 5). This license  permits the use of the User Content by Spotify for systems and product  management and development, testing, training, modeling, and  implementation in connection with anti-piracy and anti-fraud measures  and the discoverability, promotion, marketing, curation, distribution,  and sale (or developing the user experience in connection therewith) of  the User Content and the Spotify Service. Spotify’s distribution  partners also have the right to distribute your User Content via the  Distribution Services, subject to your right to discontinue distribution  as described below in this Section 4 and/or to opt out from particular  Distribution Partners as described in Section 5. For the sake of  clarity, these Terms do not authorize Spotify to use User Content to  create a new book, ebook or audiobook, or to use User Content to create a  new, machine-generated voice without your permission.

Note that some of the terrible language is gone, such as waiving moral rights and the creating of derivative works. It still will let them use your product to train AI though and other stuff, but to my surprise and their credit, they did change their TOS.

Does that mean that after next week, you will find my work on Findaway? Um, no. You will not. As a friend of mine said, they’ve shown their true colors. Musicians have had trouble with Spotify for years and these are Spotify-inspired changes.

Spotify bought Findaway in 2022, paying about $123 million dollars. At the time, Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek, told investors that he was “confident that audiobooks will deliver the kind of earnings that  investors are looking for, with profit margins north of 40 percent.” 

Over the past 18 months or so, Spotify has tinkered with Findaway in a variety of ways, mostly to do with the way that they’re paying content providers. Then this new TOS rights grab, which is not unexpected. In fact, it’s right on time.

Remember, what Spotify wants to do with Findaway and Anchor and all of the other services it is buying is increase profit margins for investors. The company does not care about providing a good service for its content partners. Because this is a giant corporation which is publicly traded, it has corporate goals that have to do with investors, making big money, and profit margins. 

If Findaway does not earn the kind of money that Spotify hopes, then Findaway will be discontinued, broken off and sold, or dissolved.

In other words, don’t expect that lovely tiny company that started in indie audiobook distribution to ever return.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

PG has signed up for access to The Patreon Site Kris set up on January 1 of this year because he likes the style and insights he finds in her essays on a regular basis.

Kris has also structured her Patreon membership costs in a savvy manner. Memberships start at $1.00 per month. There are steps up from that fee, but she includes a lot of interesting resources in the basic tier.

PG has shied away from any number of Patreon offerings that start at $100 per year and go up from there. That price may seem reasonable to some, but, for PG, that large an ask requires a lot more work than he suspects more than a few expensive Patreonistas will be willing to devote to their sites.

Spotify rolls out audiobooks offer to US

From The Bookseller:

Spotify is rolling out its audiobooks offer to subscribers in the US after launching in the UK and Australia in October. 

From today (8th November) premium subscribers in the US will have access to 15 hours of audiobooks per month on the platform. Spotify says the platform now has 200,000 audiobooks including new releases such as Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me (Gallery). 

The rollout to the US is quicker than expected, with Spotify originally saying the offer would be available in the US “this winter”.  

As The Bookseller reported last month, all of the major book publishers have entered into deals with the Swedish tech giant, as well as a number of independent publishers. Book publishers have long expressed reservations about subscription deals for digital content, but Spotify has offered variations of the typical pooled income arrangement, with a more limited offer that publishers believe will assure agents and authors that their income streams will not be undermined. 

David Kaefer, vice-president of business affairs at Spotify, previously told The Bookseller that Spotify was working with publishers in slightly different ways, according to the structures that best suited them. “We’ve gone in with that mindset of ‘how can we get you comfortable with participating?’ The central thing that everyone has in mind is if you can grow the market, then we want to figure out how we can work together. How we work together might be a little bit different publisher to publisher.” 

He continued: “There is a pooling model for a segment of our partners and generally its partners who are slightly smaller scale. A part of that is the convenience and the understanding that it feels good to be part of a common set of terms … for a lot of people they were comfortable with that approach. Some people, particularly larger providers, wanted to do something different.” 

The Bookseller understands deals with larger publishers are more akin to a pay-out per title based on a listening threshold being reached.  

Speaking at Frankfurt Book Fair last month Nihar Malaviya, the newly confirmed global c.e.o. at Penguin Random House, played down concerns around its deal with Spotify, indicating that the arrangement it struck with the tech music giant over its audiobooks was “basically commensurate to what we’re getting from the marketplace overall”. 

He also stressed that it was the unlimited consumption model that still alarmed PRH. Malaviya said PRH has previously participated in different subscription schemes, and that the compensation model it had agreed with Spotify “made us comfortable with participating in this specific offering”.  

Malaviya said he could not go into the exact details due to confidentiality but surmised “we are interested in models where we are basically getting paid”. He went on to argue that Spotify has “hundreds of millions of paying subscribers around the entire world” and the new offer could “bring new people into the reading ecosystem”. 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG says competition is good for Amazon and authors all across its book business.

How to Read (and Retain) Research Material in Less than Half of Your Usual Time

From Jane Friedman:

For the last two years, I’ve had unexpected success in experimenting with my “chipmunk research method.” I was inspired to try this technique after hearing an intriguing comment made by my friend Oriano Belusic, past president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB).

Blind since age seven, he has learned to read at high speeds. (I use the term “read” for audiobooks, as this is the word used by most blind people I know.) Oriano uses a screen reader, which he routinely sets to a speed of 2.5. A speed of 1 is normal audiobook speed for most of us.

When I first stood by his side while he read an email, I could not understand the fast and garbled speech. Yet, Oriano says he is on the slower end of the spectrum when it comes to screen reader speed. He said he knows blind people who, through repetition, practice, and experience can read at chipmunk-fast speeds of 3 or 4.

I was skeptical, but my friend insists anyone can train themselves to discern fast speech. He suggested our brains, with very little coaching, can do unexpected things outside of our usual understanding of “normal.”

I learned he was right.

As a recent MFA graduate (narrative nonfiction), every day I encounter more nonfiction books than I have time to read. So, I decided to try speeding up my research methods by reading the hardcopy version and the audiobook at the same time.

To avoid purchasing two copies of the book, I often borrow the hard copy from the library, and purchase the less expensive audiobook from Audible. Speeded-up listening is not the old speed-reading hype from years ago. That approach involved more scanning than reading and was never successful for me. This is different.

When I started reading a thick book that would normally have taken me two or three weeks to finish, I decided to play around with the audiobook speed. Over a couple of days, I notched it up to 1.2, and then 1.5, 1.8, before eventually pumping it up to 3 a few weeks later. As I read the print book, I keep pace listening to the audio version. The idea may sound improbable, but I felt like I did when I learned to skip French ropes when I was nine. One minute it looked impossible, and the next I was doing it.

The process involves using several senses as I visually read, listen to every word, and underline critical passages (if the hard copy is mine). Keeping up with the fast speed requires studious focus with a simple pause or rewind if I need to stop and reflect.  While I was at first doubtful about whether this would work, I have discovered I have uncommon retention of the material using this technique—and believe it or not, after using it for a couple of years I find it relaxing to be intently focused on the content.

I also love knowing that I can pick up any huge nonfiction tome and read it thoroughly in less than a week. This approach is probably better for reading nonfiction than fiction—unless you are reading fiction for research or are under a time crunch.

Below are a few examples of recent successes on my path. I read these titles in one-half to one-third of the completion time listed on the audiobook:

  • The Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford’s Frame translation, 1957) — 883 pages, listed on Audible at 50 hours, took me less than 20 hours to read.
  • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc — 436 pages, listed at 20 hours, took me 9 hours.
  • A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders — listed at 15 hours, took me 5 hours.
  • Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake — listed at 10 hours, took me 4 hours.
  • The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant — listed at 9 hours, took me 6 hours. (I slowed down on this one to revel in the hauntingly beautiful nonfiction story. I did not want it to end.)

Over time, I have adjusted my research process to read at different speeds. How I feel on the day and the complexity of the text may determine the speed I choose. I am a little slower if the subject is less familiar to me, i.e. science.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Kindle Direct Publishing Will Beta Test Virtual Voice–Narrated Audiobooks

From Publishers Weekly:

In a post today in the Kindle Direct Publishing community forum, the self-publishing giant announced that it has begun a beta test on technology allowing KDP authors to produce audiobook versions of their e-books using virtual voice narration. The ability to create an audiobook using synthetic speech technology is likely to result in a boom in the number of audiobooks produced by KDP authors. According to an Amazon spokesperson, currently only 4% of titles self-published through KDP have an audiobook available.

Under the new initiativeauthors can choose one of their eligible e-books already on the KDP platform, then sample voices, preview the work, and customize the audiobook. After publication, audiobooks will be live within 72 hours, and will distributed wherever Audible titles are sold. Prices can be set between $3.99 and $14.99 and authors will receive a 40% royalty. All audiobooks created by virtual voice, the post says, will be clearly labeled and, as with any audiobook, customers can listen to samples.

“We are excited to introduce a new option for customers and authors,” said Amazon spokesperson Lindsay Hamilton. “Virtual voice gives authors more choices to create audiobooks and will deliver greater selection to customers.”

The new virtual voice option complements Audible’s existing Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), which matches audio rightsholders (authors, agents, publishers) with audio producers (narrators and studio professionals). KDP said that it plans to grow the virtual voice beta test over time, and will share updates in the coming months.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says it was only a matter of time.

Lots of very nice people earn a living or supplement their income from other sources by working as readers of audiobooks. As with all human endeavors, some do a better job than others. Regular audiobook listeners will sometimes choose an audiobook because they have heard the voice artist before and like his/her voice and style.

That said, the voice artist is a means to an end – turning a written story/account into a spoken version of the original.

PG hasn’t listened to any of the KDP books created using virtual voice narration, but he’s likely to try one out fairly soon.

Assuming that the quality is reasonable, there are some benefits the indie author can reap from audiobooks.

There is no delay between the roll-out of the printed book and ebook and the release of the audiobook. Authors need not delay KDP print and digital to wait for the creation of the audiobook if they wish to announce audio and print/electronic at the same time.

To be certain that a human reading a book aloud has not made any embarrassing blunders in pronunciations of non-standard or foreign words, an audio proofreader may be hired to check the audiobook. Presumably, at least after working through early-product glitches, the virtual voices will produce highly-predictable results.

Finally, of course, there is the cost of an audiobook with a human narrator vs. the cost of an audiobook produced with digital narration. Absent some sort of promotional pricing, human-performed audiobooks typically cost more than the paperback versions and much more than the ebook versions.

As mentioned in previous posts, PG’s exposure to audiobooks is quite limited because, boorish Neanderthal that he is, he consumes ebooks at a much faster pace than he is able to injest any other format.

So, he would be interested in the opinions of serious ebook readers about virtual narrators vs. narrators who inhale from time to time.

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, 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 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

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