AUDIOBOOKS: CRAFT OR COMMODITY?

This article was first published in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily, 11 October 2013. The original text is below, with footnotes indicating where more recent data has been established. 

The audiobook industry has seen major changes over the 20 years I have been a producer. Do they threaten the industry, or open up opportunities for publishers and producers? Are they beneficial for listeners?

In the early 1990s audiobooks were often thought to be synonymous with books for the blind; now they are a significant part of the general trade publishing market. UK internet research group Audiencenet reported for Q2 2013 that 4% of the general UK population over the age of 15 have listened to audiobooks, a customer base of at least 2 million. The Publishers Association reports sales up 27% year-on-year, with 48% of audio consumed on mobile devices.1 The Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) keeps records of the number of titles in the top 1,000 books that make it into accessible form: in 2012 nearly half (49%) were available in unabridged audio form, up from 13% in 2010.

Rapid growth

The rapid growth of the audiobook market in the US has been noted recently not only in the trade press, but in the mainstream. The Atlantic Monthly reports the US market at $1 billion,2 with more than 60% of audiobooks downloaded.3 The Wall Street Journal describes, as an example of the new audio customers, a 25-year-old Boston software engineer who read at most two printed books a year, but who will now get through 10 or 12 on audio. It adds, quoting the Audiobook Publishers Association, that US output has increased from 4,602 titles in 2009 to 13,255 in 2012.4 Download sales there grew by 29% last year.5

Apple, with its iTunes, and Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook retailer, deserve great credit for growing the market by making audiobooks readily accessible for users of mobile devices; very many people now have an audiobook player in their pocket. As data speeds for mobiles increase with the arrival of 4G, the relatively large file sizes of complete audiobooks will cease to be a problem, and it also opens the way for streaming services such as Bardowl (the “Netflix of audiobooks”).6

Perfect scenario?

All of this seems like a perfect scenario for everyone concerned. Consumers get wider choice at lower prices, and all of those working in the industry should be benefiting.

The problem is that the revenue per title to the producer is far lower than it was in the days of physical sales on CD or tape. At the height of Waterstones’ support for audiobooks, one might have found 3,000 titles to choose from in the flagship store in Piccadilly. Now audiobook consumers have 80,000 titles or more online.7 An enthusiastic audiobook listener might get through 25 or 30 titles a year; Audible reports that its members average 18. That cannot increase much, but the sales are now spread across a vastly larger number of titles and the market has become self-competitive.

The increased number of audiobook listeners does not fully compensate for the fact that the revenue-per-sale returned to publishers is only a third to a half of what it was in the heyday of CD sales 10 years ago. The fees being paid to readers, studios and engineers are consequently stuck at or below prices from that era, and inflation over that period means that in real terms it is a 40% cut. The problem is exacerbated by the “one price fits all” approach of the Amazon subscription service, where an audio is priced at £7.99 or $14.95 regardless of whether it is one or 50 hours long, and regardless of the complexity of the production.8 While publishers can set suggested digital prices, in practice most sales are at the subscription rate.

High degree of attention

At Strathmore, we recently produced Andrew Marr’s History of the World for Macmillan Digital and Antony Beevor’s The Second World War for Orion. Each of these contains several hundred proper names from many countries. Pronunciation research took several days. Sales and reviews have justified that degree of attention, but the uncertainty of the revenue that a title will generate means that it is rare that such commitments can be made. Even bestselling books can sell surprisingly small numbers in audio form; I know of one fiction title where the paperback was in the top 10, but the (I think excellent) audio has sold fewer than 200 copies.

The relentless reduction in the amount those involved in creating audiobooks can be paid has led to an increase in the building of lower-spec studios, competing largely on price. But the process of reading an audiobook is a long haul, and working conditions (proper air conditioning, not having sonic interruptions, a decent green room) have an appreciable effect on the final result. Good audiobooks can be produced in less-than-ideal circumstances, but good working conditions mean consistently good standards.

Role of the producer

It used to be the norm that there was a producer as well as an engineer in the control room; increasingly there is only one person, and the onus for preparation moves to the reader. The engineer will probably not have read the book. That can be hazardous. I have known readers appear on recording day without having glanced at their script; if the person in the control room hasn’t either, the session is likely to be challenging.

A fantasy novel recorded recently was divided between two readers to reflect the book’s two viewpoints, but since there was no producer and the readers never met, it was only because of a chance remark that the pronunciation of the chief character’s name was agreed and adopted by the two independent readers. In short, producers have their uses: they need a kind of Rumsfeldian instinct for knowing when something might be an “unknown unknown”.

They also have to decide on accent and performance style. How does a London convict transported to Australia in 1806 speak? (A challenge prompted by recording The Secret River.) Which single reader can create audio pictures of characters from the Ukraine, Poland, Malawi and a talking labrador? (Two Caravans). How do you protect the reveal in The Wasp Factory, that (spoiler alert) the apparently male narrator is actually a girl? (Answer: the reader is also a professional counter-tenor.)

The very best audiobooks achieve a sort of magic in which the listener discovers the author’s words delivered subconsciously into his or her mind. That requires that all those involved in the production understand the book, care about it, and can afford to care about it.

The reader needs someone to perform to and provide feedback and encouragement. That person should be an informed producer, a first listener who is privileged to be able to intervene to make the most of the material.

A good production may enhance understanding and interpretation in a way that reading the written text cannot so readily do: I worked with Richard Dawkins on an audio edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. At the end of the recording session he remarked that preparing to read the book aloud had made him detect new meanings and subtleties in the text that he had not appreciated before and could now communicate to his listeners.

The diminishing revenues for individual titles are thus potentially a threat to quality: if producing audiobooks is a craft (as I believe it is and should remain) production budgets need to be flexible; if audiobooks are a price-led commodity, standards cannot necessarily be maintained.

Nicholas Jones

1The Publisher's Association statistics yearbook reports a 25% rise from 2013 to 2014 - marking a staggering 170% rise between 2010 and 2014.

2The US Audio Publishers' Association reports this as $1.48 billion in 2014.

3The US Audio Publishers' Association reports this as 73% as of 2015.

425,787 titles in 2014 - a levelling off from the year before, which saw 24,755 titles published.

5Again, maybe a levelling off - in 2014 dollar sales increased 7.3% and unit sales increased by 10% for digital downloads.

6Bardowl closed in January 2015. Despite having a core of loyal consumers, the service failed to gain traction with major publishers, and the subsequent lack of major titles on their interface meant they were unable to compete properly.

7A conservative estimate. The week this article was first published, Audible boasted of having 150,000 titles plus to choose from. In March 2016, their website claims they have over 200,000.

8Audible still charge the same price for their subscription service.  

 

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