June 6, 2018

New types of deals between Audible and authors might mean trouble for publishers


The expanding audiobook market feels a bit like the wild west. It shouldn’t, really — audiobooks have been around for a while, and I thought we had agreed that they were slightly inferior to regular books, but with a strong situational use value (like when you’re driving).

Then we got podcasts. And the podcasts got longer, and often more boring and specialized, until it seemed we’de all agreed that they’re kind of just audiobooks-by-other-means. And that we love audiobooks now.

Hence our current moment, in which print publishers and audio publishers are a bit drunk on the thrill of The New, and searching for new ways to make a little noise. Take for instance the record-setting number of narrators in the award-winning audiobook for George Saunders’s  Lincoln in the Bardo. Or perhaps the instance in which Audible–a subsidiary of Amazon and a major player in the audio game–will experiment with releasing enhanced audio editions of books before the printed books ever see the light of day.

The latest breaking news in audio exploration comes to us from Alexandra Alter at the New York Times, who reports that authors as landed as Michael Lewis, to name just one, have inked deals directly with Audible for straight-to-audio stories.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lewis’s deal is that it challenges the meaning of “audiobooks” as we know them. Really, what Lewis will be contributing to Audible is “audio longform journalism” — stories like we’ve come to expect from him in Vanity Fair.

From a creative standpoint, this is pretty cool. Especially because he’ll still be publishing books in the traditional way.

But from a market standpoint, one detects an old pattern of Amazon boxing out publishers. As Alter writes:

Audible, the biggest player with more than 425,000 titles in its online store, has an enormous advantage in this increasingly crowded arena. Amazon has been pushing audiobooks on its platform, listing them as “free” with a trial Audible membership, which costs $15 a month, and includes a book each month. (The typical price of la carte audiobooks ranges from around $15 to $40 depending on the length.) The company is increasingly looking for new ways not just to sell audiobooks, but to create them independently from publishers, driving their profit margins even higher.

Publishers—of books especially—will ultimately be hurt by Audible’s efforts to buy audio originals direct from others, or to jointly acquire content with publishers.

Audio rights are one form of subsidiary rights that a publisher often buys (one of the many intellectual property provisions involved in acquiring a book), then licenses to an audio publisher for a fee that goes partially toward recouping the author’s advance and partially toward other costs associated with traditional print publishing. These types of sub-rights used to go much further than they do now toward contributing to the financial success of a book (think of the many serial opportunities that no longer exist, or the heyday of special book club editions licensed from publishers).

Without audio sub rights to sell, presses stand to lose that small piece of the pie they once got.

Moreover, Audible’s subscription model threatens to have listeners paying for the privilege of continued suckling at the Amazon content teat, rather than spreading their money around to other forums, and receiving the milk of content providers who would rather nourish us than own us.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.