Is the Audiobook Industry Broken?

Evo Terra over at Podiobooks.com feels that the audiobook industry is broken. It’s not the first time I’ve seen him mention it, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

NOTE: Before going on I feel I should mention that I am an affiliate for Audible.com as well as a long time customer. That is in no way my motivation for posting this1 , but I figured I should mention it. The opinions are mine, as always.

Overdrive and the MP3 Audiobook Bait and Switch

Evo starts off pointing to points to Borders offering downloadable DRM2 free MP3 audiobooks. The problem is they aren’t offering downloadable MP3s at all. All Borders is doing is putting yet another new front on Overdrive3 . Overdrive is everywhere4 . If your library offers free audiobook downloads, chances are they’re Overdrive.

Overdrive very carefully words things to say their product works with most MP3 players. Until recently they didn’t technically work with any MP3 players. They were all DRM protected WMA, and if your device doesn’t play WMA 5 then you are out of luck.

What really left a bad taste in my mouth was the slimy marketing they used to defend this. They used to have literature all over their sites decrying Apple for only supporting DRM on proprietary formats, all the while using Microsoft’s DRM laden proprietary format, which cut non-Windows users out of the loop all together. This lead to my local library posting information that was practically correct, but technically bogus as to why you couldn’t use your iPod to hear the MP3 audiobooks they offered. In reality they didn’t offer MP3s at all.

More recently they’ve started offering files in MP3, or so they claim. They still package the files in some container format, and you need to use their software to get the “DRM free” MP3s out. The software only runs on Windows, so Mac users are out in the cold. I can not comprehend how an action that seems to have been taken primarily to support the Apple iPod doesn’t support users of Apple computers.

Evo’s Four Reasons

Evo offered four reasons for why he thinks the audibook industry is broken, and I’m going to respond point by point.

Availability

Publishers aren’t willing to make the additional investment required to turn every book into an audiobook.

This is generally true. Not every book receives an audiobook release. How I wish this weren’t so. Audible.com , at least in the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy, is doing their best to rectify this6 .

[Podiobooks.com's] goal is to leverage something the other audio houses haven’t thought of or are only experimenting with — letting the authors do much of the heavy lifting.

Author’s reading their own books was common practice for some time. I have many audiobooks on cassette read by the authors. These are more rare today, because audiobook consumers voted with their wallets and pro-narration won out.

I realize Evo is referring to authors recording and editing their own readings their own works for the publisher if the publisher would just take and release the files, but I’m almost certain it’s not that simple7 . I’m sure many authors would have no problems, but just as many wouldn’t bother because they wouldn’t know where to begin. Also some authors are openly hostile to the idea of audiobooks, and don’t think people who have listened to them have “read” their books8 .

Usability

The act of listening to an audiobook is, well, difficult.

No huge argument there from me. In fact Random House’s recent split with Audible.com is a great example. To listen to Scott Sigler’s Infected on my iPod I had to rip the CDs and merge them into an audiobook file. It’s not something I’m willing to do again. I don’t really care who is at fault in this one. The fact that the parties involved can’t suck it up and come to some agreement is childish. It’s costing them both money (Audible.com because they can’t sell me the books I want, and Random House because they don’t offer a viable alternative).

DRM is a huge part of the inconvenience, but not all of it. Audible.com uses DRM, and I wish they didn’t, but the way they deliver their books, and how the work on devices is damn close to my idea of audiobook nirvana. I only have one or two files to stick on my device, and it’s broken up into chapters for navigation, has cover art9 , bookmarks where I left off 10 , and just generally works for me. Basically the other conveniences, for me, outweigh the DRM issue (for now) 11 .

Most of the DRM free options are not so convenient a listening experience. I have to jump through hoops to make the books work for me. It’s a pain.

Low bit rates are the norm in the download space, and it’s really unnecessary in a world where bandwidth and storage space are anything but scarce

I couldn’t more strongly disagree on this one. You can ask anyone who knows me, I’m very picky about audio quality, but I cringe when I see audiobook files at high bitrates. Last time I checked my audible library was about 25GB for just under 11 weeks of audio, all of which sounds better than my cassette based audiobooks ever did12 .

Accessibility

It’s not uncommon for audiobooks to cost more than twice their hardcover counterparts and be an order of magnitude higher in price than the paperback version. [...] Things are different for disc-distribution. It may cost more to stamp out 20 discs than it does to print 400 pages. But when looking at a digital download, the cost to distribute approaches zero.

I was used to audiobooks costing a lot, but you have to look at the length of the content. I have audiobooks that are 24+ hours and cost less than a DVD Season Box Set from HBO. I value books higher than I value TV, so I pay for it13 . My understanding is that CDs are cheap as dirt, so if you think you’re paying for the physical medium you’re being ripped off just the same.

Profitability14

It seems downloadable audiobook companies apparently don’t pay out great royalties. I assume this comes down to the fact that most non-casual purchasers buy books with membership credits, so while the cover price may be $80+, the customer only ended up paying around $1015 . I believe it was Orson Scott Card who mentioned that by recording some extra audio content for all his books he gets paid twice (book royalty and performance royalty). I don’t know how solvable this is for traditional publishing.

So Is it Broken?

All the numbers I’ve seen point to the audibook industry booming like it never has before. Sales were estimated at $923 million in 2006. While all the issues mentioned above are real, they don’t seem to be slowing things down enough that I expect any big changes any time soon. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, or I’m living in a bubble.

From where I’m sitting this is the Audiobook Golden Age. Most pro-audiobooks are unabridged, and there are more audibooks available than ever before. There are some really great places like Podiobooks.com and Librivox offering free content.

Do I wish things were different? Sure. I wish Audible would drop DRM, at least at the publisher’s request. I wish Overdrive would go jump in a lake and get out of my library, or change their tactics to be less slimy. I wish Podiobooks.com offered convenient audiobook-listener friendly formatted files16 . So, from where I sit it’s a bit broken, but it’s better than it’s ever been before.

  1. In the years I’ve been an affiliate I don’t think I’ve hit three digits yet, total, so honestly the money doesn’t enter into it here []
  2. What’s DRM? TIME magazine’s The Battle Over Music Piracy may help you understand. []
  3. aka SimplyAudiobooks. []
  4. Like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but without any hot beverages. []
  5. like that iPod thing []
  6. As are folks like Scott Brick who is independently producing Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Books []
  7. Although Scott Sigler’s Infected shows that it is at least allowable. []
  8. more on this lunacy here []
  9. although it really needs a resolution face lift []
  10. some devices offer a way to drop in your own bookmarks as well, but the iPod does not []
  11. Audible’s management software has CD burning support so if you can get DRM free access to your purchases, it’s just a bit of a pain. []
  12. Audible.com does offer BBC Radio Dramas, which I will not buy because of the bitrate, and lack of stereo support []
  13. Truth is I end up paying ~$10 per audiobook currently, but I used to pay the cover price. []
  14. Couldn’t find a good pullquote, you should have read Evo’s article anyhow. []
  15. actual transaction []
  16. which I would be happy to pay for []

5 Comments

  1. Club Penguin says:

    I have tried using Audiobooks, but I just can’t listen. I need a good ole’ fashioned hardcopy in front of me.

  2. Jason Penney says:

    For me, the time to sit and read is a luxury I can’t afford, even if I’d like to (which I would, actually). The vast majority of books I consume are in audiobook form at this point, but even there my pace has slowed lately.

    Were you just sitting there listening? I find listening while doing things I can do mostly on autopilot (like the dishes) works best for me.

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  3. Club Penguin says:

    The only way I can listen to an audiobook is to just sit and listen. If I was to perform another activity while listening I would get nothing out of it. I would focus on the activity so much that the audiobook would just become background noise, so it would be a waste for me to even listen to it. I would have to relisten to it just to figure out what I missed.

  4. Jay says:

    Everyone is different. Sounds like audiobooks just don’t work for you.

    I don’t possess the ability to give my full attention to mundane tasks, so for me they’re great. I know pretty quick when I’ve lost track of the story (which isn’t to common), and I scan back.

  5. Lynne says:

    I love audiobooks. I listen to them on my long commute, while walking and even while doing the dishes. If I didn’t get to listen to my stories, I wouldn’t be able to “read” as much. I believe that audiobooks are here to stay personally. Especially with the younger generation. My son is 15 years old. The only way he reads books other than what’s required for school is by audiobooks. We’ve been doing it for years. We “read” the whole Harry Potter series that way. He liked Harry Potter, but would not read the books when I bought them for him. So I stopped buying them and we just listened to them from the library.

    Thanks for your post.