Easy listening: the rise of the audiobook

From The Guardian:

Recently, I was a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Backlisted, which brings historically under-recognised books and authors to centre-stage. The work under discussion was Angela Carter’s collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber, published in 1979. Aware that I might be called on to demonstrate detailed recall of the book and – frankly, who isn’t? – short of time, I decided to augment my re-reading by plugging into the audio version on a long car journey.

. . . .

And yet, I find myself succumbing, and I am not alone. Last year there was a 12% rise in the volume of audiobook sales, and 15% in terms of value. In the last five years, it appears, sales have doubled. The main contributors to the rise? Apparently men between the ages of 25 and 44, and those who commute (neither is my demographic, and I’d be fascinated to know which titles are most popular among the guys; apparently, science fiction and fantasy, the classics, self-help, history and science have been doing especially well).

The effects on the publishing world are striking. Rachel Mallender, group audio director at HarperCollins, worked for two decades at BBC Radio before joining the company last year. HarperCollins, she tells me, has a “total audio policy” – every book that has a narrative structure will have an audio version, and the aim is to reach as broad a range of audiences in as many ways as possible – from single-narrator books such as Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, read by award-winning audio reader Cathleen McCarron, to Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke’s Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible,which features clips of many of the women and girls they interviewed.

. . . .

But if sales are measurable – even allowing for the fact that Audible, the audiobook retailer now part of the Amazon empire, doesn’t disclose its sales – the effect that the rising popularity of the format will have on our relationship to books and narrative is trickier to gauge. Some observations seem to proceed from common sense: short stories work very well, because you can listen to them in one hit, which is why publications such as the New Yorker have committed themselves to a podcast series of writers reading their own work. It is not rocket science for me to know why I recently ironed a whole batch of laundry while listening to Gary Shteyngart read “The Luck of Kokura”, an acerbically funny story about a financier on the run; nor why I am having little luck with my bedtime attempts to make headway with Proust. Thus far, I doze off before Swann has even made an appearance.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

15 thoughts on “Easy listening: the rise of the audiobook”

  1. “the effect that the rising popularity of the format will have on our relationship to books and narrative is trickier to gauge.”


    The format is also ripe for satire, goofs, put-on’s, and other assorted snarky and semi-snarky endeavours. 🙂

    On the serious side, this should be a clarion call to self-published authors that there’s a real gold mine of money that’s being left on the table.

    • I wish it was as easy as “produce audiobook, roll in riches!” I wrote a really long blogpost about the economics of self-pub audio editions, though, explaining why it’s not as simple as ‘yes, pull the trigger.’ Audiobooks are *not* cheap to produce. :/

      • However, author-narrated, do-everything-yourself audiobooks ARE cheap to produce. It’s just time consuming, and the opportunity cost is that the author could literally write a novel in the time it would take them to do an audio.

        • Renting an audio studio long enough to produce an audio book or building a studio at home isn’t exactly trivial.

          So yes, rolling your own costs both money and time that might possibly be best expended creating a different book.

          On the other hand, a book that is selling well already is a good candidate for audio. No hard rules for every authors or every book. Mileage will definitely vary.

      • I think one of the things that really hampers indies from producing and profiting from audiobooks is the Audible/ACX situation. Audible has a near-monopoly on audiobook distribution, and as such, are able to force the author to basically accept whatever amount in payment per book that Audible feels like giving them. By setting the price to whatever Audible feels like setting it. Lack of control not only over the sale price of our books but–more importantly–the wholesale price, especially when combined with Audible’s ability to unilaterally change the agreement at any point in their favor (as they did when they changed the whispersync price for most indie books from 1.99 to 7.49, resulting in a dramatic drop in profit to many authors because the purchase was no longer a no-brainer) means that shelling out the thousands of dollars to produce an audiobook (assuming you don’t record it yourself and want to avoid getting entangled in a royalty share deal) is a very risky proposition with no guarantee that you won’t take a huge loss, no matter how many books you sell. The 7.49 whispersync price that Audible forces on most indie audiobooks means it’s too high to be easy to gain readers but too low to make much profit per book, especially since the author’s cut of an audiobook on Audible is far, far lower than the percentage an author gets of an ebook sold on Amazon.

        As long as Audible has a near-monopoly on audiobooks, indie authors are taking a huge risk by producing them, no matter how much the audiobook business is booming. Indies with some amount of success may be able to risk the thousands of dollars investment in them and wait to see how that side of their business grows (or doesn’t), but it’s cost prohibitive for most newbies.

        Because ACX/Audible is pretty much the only way for indies to sell any number of audiobooks, and because of Audible’s insistence on retaining all pricing control over indie books (and paying based on sale price as opposed to a wholesale price dictated by the supplier, like most legitimate businesses do), I’m not planning on investing much if anything in producing audiobooks. If I can self-record a book and satisfy myself with the result (I have reasonably high standards for audiobook narration), I may toss a book in there to see how it does. But anything that involves paying a narrator will have to wait until I have several thousand dollars to spend on the personal pleasure of hearing my book in audio (and even then, distribution through ACX will have to be weighed against the possibility of audio sales cannibalizing ebook/paperback sales). I may even decide to shoot myself in the foot out of pure rebelliousness and distribute the audiobook everywhere I can BUT Audible. For the time being, though, my first choice is seeing if I can get a good contract with an audiobook publisher, both in order to get a top-quality narrator (I’d have to insist on narrator approval as part of any deal) and so I’m not the one taking the majority of the financial risk.

  2. Re that gold mine of money being left on the table, I agree with M.C.A. and Scott. It sounds great until you get into the realities.

    Yes, a friend of mine who is both a talented writer AND an accomplished actress records her own books. For the rest of us, the cost of hiring a professional-quality narrator (who also does the producing) runs upwards of $2,000 per book. I have a large backlist of rights-reverted titles plus a few originals, so even if I picked out half a dozen books, this would require $12,000+ up front. I would also have to commit substantial time for supervision, listening and correcting, with no guarantee of breaking even, let alone profiting.

    This is one area where traditionally published authors have an advantage–IF their publishers issue audio books of their work. Unfortunately, mine did not.

  3. I agree with MCA. I consume a couple of audiobooks each week and finish reading a book about once every 4 months. I’d love to see my 10 books in audio, but I keep looking at the steep mountain to climb. One series has 6 or 7 recurring characters. I have neither the acting skills nor the technology to pull off the audiobook on my own. I don’t even have any friends that are amateur actors and could do it for me on the cheap. So I’m sitting on the sidelines waiting for some technological breakthrough that will allow me to read my book aloud and synthesize it into multiple character voices.

  4. 525 page print book: 24-26 hours in audio

    decent recordings take $300 equip plus computer. Audacity will do for recording software. Larn to set your levels: 5 mins.

    talent : you

    do 3 hours at a time for 6-8 or 10 days. Done. Most people spend hours fooling around each day, even when writing

    Cover, plenty of free software and pub domain pix out there. one hour to learn 20 mins for all covers later

    upload time, negligible

    Income; yes, and discoverability means you are going to market

    have done this many times. Works. Easy. Income, ever increasing.

    • First off, you’re assuming one finished hour of audio takes one hour to record, and that’s definitely not true. I’ve heard that even professional narrators take something like three or more hours per each finished hour. And you didn’t take into account editing, which is also required and takes additional time/expertise.

      And any cover designed with purely public domain pics and one hour of expertise + 20 minutes spent on designing it is not any cover I want representing me or my books.

      Some people may be happy with quick-and-dirty productions, but what you’ve described is not the way to get truly professional-quality audiobooks made.

  5. Uh, is there a reason no one is mentioning Audible/ACX’s Royalty Share deal? The author splits the back-end royalty 50/50 with the narrator/producer. No money up front. Time spent, yes (in pitching and script notes), but money spent, no. I’m strongly thinking of this for my historical fiction saga (579 pages =18 finished hours of audio).

    And no way I will do this myself. I need a pro who understands voice styling, multiple accents, etc.

    • I personally would never do a royalty share deal for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to entangle myself with someone for a long-term deal like that unnecessarily. I’m far happier with a one-time payment for service arrangement. Second, I don’t think it’s fair to expect a narrator to take a financial risk for their work, which is what a royalty share deal is. You’re asking them to invest in YOUR project as if it were their own. It’s not. I’d bet if you survey professional narrators, the overwhelming majority would prefer to get paid for a job and move on rather than having to do work and hope to eventually get paid over time. Third, and related to the second reason, a lot of the best narrators won’t even consider royalty share deals. Getting a great narrator on royalty share can be a lot more time and effort than getting one for an up-front payment. Given some of the changes with ACX and how they’re pricing and paying authors, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of narrators who’ll even consider royalty share goes down more and more over time.

      In short, royalty share is a big risk for narrators, and it’s not one I’d ever want to ask someone to take for my benefit. That’s just not how I want to run my business.

  6. [sorry for dupe; hit Submit too soon]…

    Uh, is there a reason no one is mentioning the Audible/ACX Royalty Share deal? The author/rights holder splits the back-end royalty 50/50 with the narrator/producer. No money spent upfront. Time spent, yes (pitching, script notes), but money, no.

    No way I would do this myself for my historical fiction saga (579 pages = 18 hours of finished audio). Voice styling, multiple accents, etc. I need a pro.

    • I have my fourth audiobook in-process via the 50/50 model. There’s no way I could have afforded to do this financially or produce it professionally without it. Love it.

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