February 9, 2018
Amazon subsidiary Audible acquires audiobook rights to Shaun White’s memoir in a bid for greater dominance of the audio market
by Simon Reichley
In a statement released on Business Wire earlier this week, Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon) and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) announced that they would be entering “a groundbreaking partnership” to publish Olympic snowboarder Shaun White‘s forthcoming memoir. What’s so radical about two corporate publishing titans producing a book about a scumbag snowboarder and mediocre guitarist? Glad you asked! Audible will release an enhanced audio edition one month before HMH releases the print edition.
Gnarly. Siiiiiick. Tubular.
And that’s not all! The two editions will be, like, very different, you know? With their own… vibe. According to the release:
The audiobook will feature White’s own compelling and accessible narration, complete with the cadence, tempo, and freestyling that have made Shaun a superstar. The Audible version will also include play-by-plays of select competitions, cameo voice appearances from guests, and sound design featuring White’s own musical stylings.
The print edition will be a unique package that will appeal to his myriad fans and his own design sensibilities, filled with never-before-seen photos, special endpapers, journal entries and original art by White.
According to Beth Anderson, publisher at Audible, the two editions will be “independently attractive.” She adds, “In the same way that fans of a franchise will want to read the book and see the movie, we expect that fans will want to enjoy both versions of White’s memoir.” It’s a little hard to imagine listening to eleven hours of Shaun White freestyling his own biography, and then immediately diving into to 200+ pages of self-indulgent extreme sports hagiography, but whatever.
As Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, reports, this single “groundbreaking partnership” is a likely sign of Audible’s designs on the future of audio publishing. As it did with a special edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Audible is attempting to entice consumers into its subscription service by offering additional material not available in other formats or on other platforms. What’s new here are the lengths to which Amazon/Audible is willing to go to secure the rights necessary for this kind of enhanced content, and what that might suggest about their future as a publishing entity.
Trachtenberg reports that Audible “paid for the lion’s share of the memoir to gain rights to the audio version.” Which is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it’s surprising to hear that Audible and HMH estimated that the audio rights represent so much of the book’s potential value. Audible was willing to take on the bulk of the risk in the project to secure that sweet audio. Second, it’s as Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media told Trachtenberg, “what’s different is that Audible is trying to get agents to sell them the audiobook rights before they go out with the other publishing rights.”
If this became the norm, it would mean a major shift in industry standards, and likely increase the already significant friction between Amazon and traditional publishers. Trachtenberg points out that HMH (who also partnered with Amazon Publishing on their New Harvest imprint back in 2012) typically opt to sublicense audio rights to other production houses. But, generally, large publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin Random House operate their own audio studios, and will occasionally decline deals that don’t include audio rights. So if Audible is able to peel off audiobook rights from a significant number of big projects, other publishers may be forced to change their calculus, and could find their large audiobook production departments suddenly starved of projects.
Trachtenberg cites Association of American Publishers data showing that audio revenue represents around a tenth of US adult book sales, but notes that audio revenue in the first months of 2017 was up twenty percent over the previous year, while e-book revenues declined for the second year in a row. Between Audible productions and non-Audible titles sold on Amazon.com, Bezos’s juggernaut already has action on more than half of all audiobook sales. Which gives them a huge amount of leverage, and allows them to credibly argue that authors can make better money in the fastest-growing segment of the publishing marketplace by dealing directly with Audible.
In the last month or so, Walmart, Apple and Google have all entered the audiobook arena. And just as the retail market appears to be getting a little more competitive, Audible is pivoting back to publishing. It’s a major gambit, and a particularly aggressive one. While brick-and-mortar retailers like Barnes and Noble have pushed back against Amazon’s predatory publishing practices before, this new angle may prove more difficult to fend off.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.