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.
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 .
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 .
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.
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.
- 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 [↩]
- What’s DRM? TIME magazine’s The Battle Over Music Piracy may help you understand. [↩]
- aka SimplyAudiobooks. [↩]
- Like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but without any hot beverages. [↩]
- like that iPod thing [↩]
- As are folks like Scott Brick who is independently producing Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Books [↩]
- Although Scott Sigler’s Infected shows that it is at least allowable. [↩]
- more on this lunacy here [↩]
- although it really needs a resolution face lift [↩]
- some devices offer a way to drop in your own bookmarks as well, but the iPod does not [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Audible.com does offer BBC Radio Dramas, which I will not buy because of the bitrate, and lack of stereo support [↩]
- Truth is I end up paying ~$10 per audiobook currently, but I used to pay the cover price. [↩]
- Couldn’t find a good pullquote, you should have read Evo’s article anyhow. [↩]
- actual transaction [↩]
- which I would be happy to pay for [↩]
Audible.com has an interview with Orson Scott Card and Ben Bova available as a free download. The interview is conducted by Stefan Rudnicki, and touches on the recently mentioned audiobooks vs. print argument (both authors agree that listening to the audiobook does count as reading).
GalleyCat pointed out The New York Times article Your Cheatin’ Listenin’ Ways (also mentioned on TeleRead this morning). It’s not the first time an article about audiobooks in The New York Times has set me off. I continue to be dumbfounded by peoples reactions. I’m even more disturbed by the people in the article who listen to audiobooks an feel guilty about it. What’s wrong with people?
In general I don’t feel the need to defend myself on this, but it seems many audiobooks listeners feel some sort of shame, so I guess I will. Listening to an unabridged audiobook is not cheating. Listening to an unabridged audiobook is reading a book. The majority of books I consume are in audio form. When reading paper book I sometimes find that I don’t remember the last few pages and have to reread them. This happens much less often when listening to audiobooks (and when it does I do backtrack and listen again). I also don’t have the luxury of doing just one thing at a time. I have responsibilities to my family, my writing, and my job. I was only getting six hours of sleep before the new baby. When am I supposed to read? I do have a number of print books I want to read but they have a long waiting period before I can get to them. Even once I do it often takes months for me to get through them. I’ve had John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in my queue for a while and I’m elated to find out yesterday that it will be available on audio soon.
Most importantly, I’m thirty and my eyes are not in good shape. They aren’t going to get any better. I already have separate reading/computer glasses and my eyes have basically shut down due to eye strain multiple times.
The reality is, there’s very little difference between listening and reading. According to The New York Times article:
“If the goal is to appreciate the aesthetic of the writing and understand the story,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, then there won’t be much difference between listening and reading. “The basic architecture of how we understand language is much more similar between reading and listening than it is different.”
I know this is true. When I’ve re-listened to audiobooks I’ve been amazed at how much of the story I remember word for word.
My wife and I have been listening to Harry Potter on audio since before book three. Listening together is tougher now then it was then, so it’ll probably take a year to get through the new one, but it’s wonderful to be able to enjoy books with my wife in this way. Currently I’m working to instill a love of audiobooks in my children. I’ve found some great stuff for them on Audible.com (which is where I get most of my stuff as well). I love reading to my kids, but I also enjoy experiencing a story with them, and just enjoying it. I feel no shame in any of this.
Ron McLarty wasn’t able to get The Memory of Running published in print until after the audiobook was available and people heard it. Numerous authors are releasing free serialized audiobooks, many for otherwise unavailable works. I assume they consider the medium valid. Feel free to comment whether you agree or disagree. I’d like to hear what others think.
Flametoad seems to thinks so (found via TeleRead). He suggests that authors like Cory Doctorow, JC Hutchins and Scott Sigler are devaluing the audiobook and e-book formats, and buying the p-book is “paying for the paper because the content has no value”
I don’t see it. Perhaps these authors value readers. After all, what value does you work have if no one has read it? Cory Doctorow’s books keep showing up in the bookstore. In fact IDW recently bought the rights to do a series of comics based on his works even though the license for those works allows anyone to create such comics non-commercially. Scott Sigler recently managed to sell quite a few copies of his new print book recently. Heck, I bought two (one as a gift).
I’ve spent almost all of my time since my last post getting ready for, traveling to and from, or participating in Jon and Nicole’s Wedding. Jon’s been one of my best friends for twenty years. I was honored to be asked to participate. The ceremony was amazing (if a bit hot), and the reception was a lot of fun. It was great to see some people I haven’t seen in some time (including Jon’s family), and meet some really fun new people. I even managed to give my toast without choking too badly. I wish Jon and Nicole the very best, and hope they’re having a great time on their honeymoon.
The drive there took forever, but coming back things at least kept moving. Denise and I listened to the amazing unabridged reading of Ender’s Game (I’d heard it before, but it’s great to be able to enjoy a good book with your wife). The full-cast unabridged readings of the Enderverse books are some of the greatest audiobook productions I’ve ever experienced. I can’t recommend them highly enough (available for download from audible.com as well).
I need to thank my Dad for spoiling… er… taking care of the kids while we were gone. I also need to thank Edna and my grandparents for helping him survive the experience.
Now it’s time to clean the desk off (it got a bit cluttered during the search for the GPS serial cable), and get back to work on the book.
You may have noticed that I got really quiet after posting almost every day. Well, I was participating in the “March Madness” writing marathon over at Forward Motion. If you’ve been keeping an eye on my progress bar at the top of the site, you may have noticed it moving quite a bit. My goal was to write 1000 words a day for 7 days, and I pulled it off! That means I pretty much doubled my daily output, and didn’t miss a single day for seven days. That’s including working about 50 hours this week, and spending 2+ hours a day cleaning the house. Phew! I hope to keep it up, but I’m giving myself a lower goal for this weekend as it’s a bit crazy.
I hope to have more detailed reviews, but in case I don’t get to it I finished a few books since my last post. First, I finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Wow. It was an amazing book filled with surprises of various kinds.
More recently I finished listening to Ender’s Game: Special 20th Anniversary Edition by Orson Scott Card. I’ve always wanted to read this, and my friend Matt had recommended it. When I realized that Audible had the majority of the series available unabridged I decided to give it a try. I really enjoyed it. I’ve read some of Card’s books on writing, but this is the first novel of his that I’ve read. It’s the story of a young boy being schooled in the art of warfare to fight a war against an alien race he has only seen on propaganda films. Ender’s story is filled with interesting and fully realized characters. I thought I saw the ending coming, and while the events I suspected did happen, it was not the ending at all. Great stuff!
More soon, unless I’m busy, then more later.