I’ve long been a proponent of indie authors creating audiobooks. It’s the fastest growing segment of the book industry, and audiobooks are a great way to reach new audiences. Plus, I personally LOVE listening to audiobooks. However, my enthusiasm for audiobooks has diminished a bit lately because of a huge controversy involving Audible (the audiobook company that Amazon owns) and ACX (a service for indie authors to partner with audiobook narrators and post audiobooks). It’s a complicated issue, so here’s my try at explaining it.
First, let’s just get this out of the way. Amazon and Audible are monopolies. They have a stranglehold on the book and audiobook industry. One reason Amazon sells so many more ebooks than other retailers is because they make it easy to buy books and there are also tons of reviews, even for indie titles, which makes it much easier to find books that match your particular interests and writing styles. That really isn’t the case for many other online book retailers. For example, I got a Nook last year, and the reviews for books at the Barnes and Noble online store are miniscule compared to the reviews on Amazon. For example, one of my favorite books last year, Network Effect by Martha Wells, currently has 2,461 review on Amazon. On the B&N site, there are only 4 reviews! Audiobooks are also tightly linked to Amazon since it’s easy to buy a print book, ebook, and/or audiobook all from the same page. I can’t think of another book retailer that allows you to do that. Amazon also offer reduced fees for an audiobook if you already purchased the ebook. I’ve taken advantage of that feature numerous times for my favorite book series. I can’t justify spending $30 for each audiobook in my favorite series, but I am fine paying like $10 per audiobook.
Amazon’s dominance means that most indie authors (and likely traditionally published authors) can’t make a good living if they aren’t selling ebooks and print books on Amazon and/or audiobooks on Audible. There are a few enterprising authors out there who manage to sell books through their web page or some sort of training program, but that’s rare.
So what’s the current problem with audiobooks? Well, Audible has a new membership program called Audible Premium Plus that aggressively markets the option of returning audiobooks you purchased, no questions asked. This means that Audible is not only allowing, but promoting, the option for audiobook customers to use a credit to download a book, listen to the entire book, then exchange it book for a new book. They’re basically turning Audible into a lending library. Get one credit, and listen to an unlimited number of books every month! All you have to do is return each book as you finish listening to it–no questions asked!
So… what’s the problem? That sounds like a great deal, right? Well, it is a great deal for customers and also for Audible. But guess who it’s not a great deal for? The authors and the narrators. You see, when someone returns an audiobook within 7 days of purchasing it, the author’s account is debited for that sale. Many people buy an audiobook, start listening to it, and finish it in a day or two. I almost always finish an audiobook within 7 days of buying it, especially with fiction. If they enjoyed the book, then decide to return it, perhaps to get the next book in the series, the author gets $0. This is an absolutely terrible deal for authors, and is making many indie authors rethink whether or not to even create audiobooks, and I don’t blame them. Up until recently, authors would have their account debited if someone returned their books up to 365 days! That time period was reduced to 7 days after an outcry from a whole lot of indie authors, but most of us think 7 days is still too long to allow a no questions asked exchange–especially if someone actually listened to the whole book. A more equitable system would be to allow returns only if you listened to less than a certain percent of the book, like 30%. If you want to listen to books for free, go to your library or LibriVox (an awesome an ethical site that posts public domain audiobooks).
A couple of author groups have researched this new policy and have shown that it’s possible to get a book with one credit, return that book, and basically listen to dozens of books a month with just that one credit. In reader discussion groups, some people brag about listening to entire book series on their one monthly credit. In the process, authors are getting screwed over and paid nothing.
There’s another aspect of this controversy that’s worth exploring if you’re an indie author. One of the most popular sites for indie authors to create and distribute audiobooks is called ACX. It allows indie authors to audition narrators and partner with a narrator to create an audiobook. Authors can either just pay the narrator for recording their audiobook, or not pay the narrator anything up front, but agree to enter into a royalty share arrangement where the narrator gets 20% of profits for 7 years. There is also a hybrid system where the author can pay a reduced up-front rate with additional royalties for 7 years. If you’re not experienced with the process required to create an audiobook, it’s incredibly time consuming. In general, it takes between 4 and 5 hours to create one hour of an audiobook. So let’s say an audiobook is 10 hours long. That means the narrator spent between 40 and 50 hours recording the book, correcting mistakes, then doing all of the technical audio editing to ensure the book sounds great and meets the very specific technical requirements for the sound files. This can be an expensive process, at least a couple thousand dollars for a quality audiobook. If an author pays up front for a narrator to record and produce an audiobook, the narrator is not really affected by the shenanigans and Audible. However, if the narrator agreed to a royalty share, the returns policy also impacts their livelihoods. The more returns, the lower the monthly royalties–again, even if people listened to an entire book and enjoyed it.
And here’s the part of ACX that made me decide not to use them. Keep in mind that as an author you spent a ton of time writing your book, then either spent a bunch of money hiring a narrator, or you are agreeing to split profits for a narrator for 7 years. So what kind of cut does ACX take? A huge cut. So if you paid for your narration up front and then agree on only distribute your audiobook on Audible, you get 40% of each sale. That means ACX and Audible get 60% of each sale. If you’re splitting royalties with a narrator, you are required to only distribute your book exclusively to Audible, nowhere else, and your cut is reduced to 20% for you and 20% for your narrator. And for what, you might ask? For just making the files available on Audible. ACX and Audible do nothing for the authors in terms of marketing. And what if you want to distribute your audiobook to other places besides Audible? You know, like libraries and other audiobook services readers enjoy using? In that case your cut is reduced to 25% of each sale. Yes, that means if you want to distribute your book anywhere other than Audible, you only get 25% of each book sale even though you did 100% of the work and paid 100% of the fees to produce the book.
That might be OK if Audible and ACX treated its customers fairly and ethically, but there have been lots and lots of problems recently. There’s been a crazy long wait for getting audiobooks approved and posted for sale–like months and months. When authors inquire, they don’t get answers to their questions. For a company taking such a huge cut of the profits, you’d expect better customer service.
Another problem with ACX is that the company can take an author’s book down for no reason, and usually refuses to answer questions about why the book is no longer available. Many authors who are demanding better terms from ACX/Audible have received cryptic emails that they’ve violated some policy, or have somehow engaged in fraudulent activity despite not doing anything questionable at all, but ACX will not explain what they did wrong and authors generally have no recourse. Many authors think there are issues with “giveaway codes” that authors often use to allow reviewers to listen to their book for free. Well, after all, if the book is actually yours, shouldn’t you be able to give free copies away to help market it? Evidently not! Many authors suspect their books are getting taken down for demanding changes in how ACX operates. And even worse, If they signed an exclusive contract with ACX, they can’t post the book anywhere else either if it’s taken down.
This whole story shows that authors need to carefully research every service they use to ensure they won’t get scammed or ripped off. Read the contracts even though they’re boring. Ask other authors what tools and distribution services they use for audiobooks. Make sure you educate yourself before signing a lengthy contract for any of your intellectual property.
So should you still produce audiobooks? I think the answer is yes. There are other companies out there that do a good job of distributing audiobooks, and you can choose whether or not to distribute books to Audible. Two of the current best options are Authors Republic and Findaway Voices. There aren’t any other options out there that I’m aware of that allow authors to do royalty share with narrators, though. To keep up to date about this issue, join the Facebook group Fair Deal for Rights Holders & Narrators.
Also, as an audiobook listener, please don’t return books. I mean, if you bought it by accident, fine. But all audiobooks have a free sample you can listen to so you can be sure you like the narrator. Read reviews of the book before your buy it. But if you listen to more than 20% of the book, just suck it up and don’t return it. It’s not fair to the author.
Also, investigate alternatives to Audible. I currently use Chirp, a site that offers some great sales that have helped me find some great new authors and narrators. Do your part to support creatives write more great books!