Is the Audiobook Industry Broken?

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

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 []

Links of Interest (June 25th 2008 Through July 16th 2008)

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008
Digital Dickens: How Scott Sigler is changing the way we read
The Independent (UK) covers the upcoming UK release of Scott Sigler’s “Infected”.
Leo Laporte Does 24 Hours of iPhone to Over a Quarter Million Viewers
I always find Leo entertaining. I tuned into this a few times and was amazed at how even with numerous technical faults and no sleep he kept things interesting.
Human Mirror
Improve Everwhere fills a subway with identical twins creating a human mirror, and messing with peoples minds.
Interview: Gaiman, Zelazny and More Coming To Your iPod
An interview with Steve Feldberg, content director for Audible’s science-fiction/fantasy line Audible Frontiers who have been releasing some very exciting audiobooks (including the upcoming release of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories)
Story of a Peanut: The TiVo Remote’s Untold Past, Present and Future
Fascinating history of the TiVo remote.

Links of Interest (April 10th 2008 Through April 22nd 2008)

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008
Matthew Wayne Selznick Signs Book Deal
Author and Podcaster Matthew Wayne Selznick signed a deal with Swarm Press to re-issue his novel “Brave Men Run” in paperback. Congratulations Matt!
Take notes during phone calls with friends and family
One of those “that should have been obvious” suggestions. I’ve conditioned my brain to filter out most things that aren’t useful to me right now. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in people’s anecdotes, and schedules, it just means I’m unlikely to remember them without some reminder.
Ajaxian Featured Tutorial: Hacking transparent PNG support into IE6 with IE PNG Fix, CSS and jQuery
Ah, IE6. I’m pretty good at getting it to do what I want, but it’s very existence makes most of the things I have to do harder than they should be. This tutorial deals with one of the harder issues, PNG transparency in positioned background images.
YouTube – Sigler Book Tour (Seattle Q&A) Part2
In the second part of the video Scott covers such diverse topics as Sci-Fi Channel’s lack of foresight and how when it appears he has made a mistake it is actually sabotage by J.C. Hutchins.
Sigler Book Tour (Seattle Q&A) Part1
I’m not lucky enough to live near any of the book stores Scott Sigler was signing at, but luckily Natalie Metzger captured this video of one of the Q & A sessions.

Links of Interest (February 21st 2008 Through April 1st 2008)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008
INFECTED Trailer
Amazing film-style trailer for Scott Sigler’s novel Infected (available now in hardcover).
OverDrive to offer DRM-free audiobooks via Borders: Time to try unshackled e-books, too?
This can only be good news. OverDrive has an interesting history with DRM. They have always claimed to be unable to work with iPods due to Apple’s proprietary DRM, while failing to make clear they were using Microsoft’s proprietary DRM.
garfield minus garfield
Take Garfield (the comic strip) and remove the title character, and you’re left with something darker and disturbingly funny.
‘Lego Universe,’ a brick MMO, is in development
I haven’t been real interested in Massively Multi-Player Online games in a while, but the idea of a Lego based MMO might change that.

Download Scott Sigler’s “Infected”

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Your first hit is free

On April 1 Scott Sigler‘s thriller novel Infected will be released in hardcover to bookstores. But why wait? Thanks to a special arrangement with Scott and his publisher you can download the entire novel in PDF right now, but only until March 31.

Click here to download the PDF
Infected is the first major print release from Internet phenom Scott Sigler, whose podcast-only audiobooks have drawn an immense cult following, with more than three million individual episodes downloaded. Now Sigler storms the bookstore shelves with this cinematic, relentlessly paced novel that mixes and matches genres, combining horror, technothriller, and suspense in a heady mix that is equal parts Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Crichton, and Stephen King.

Does that sound at all interesting? Go on, give it a try. Just this one time. Download it already, and tell your friends to do the same. There’s no risk here, unless you’re afraid you’ll like it so much you’ll feel compelled to purchase the book. Go on, risk it.

But wait there’s more

Want to learn more about Scott Sigler? You’re in luck. J.C. Hutchins just released the latest episode of his UltraCreatives interview series with Scott as his guest. Yeah, that’s free too. Old One-eye Jack knows how to treat you.

Go Listen: Lafferty, Sigler, and a Barrel of Monkeys

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Mur Lafferty’s Playing for Keeps

Playing for Keeps [...] tells the story of Keepsie Branson, a bar owner in the shining metropolis of Seventh City: birthplace of super powers. Keepsie and her friends live among egotistical heroes and manipulative villains, and manage to fall directly in the middle as people with powers, but who just aren’t strong enough to make a difference. Or that’s what they’ve been told. As the city begins to melt down, it’s hard to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad.

Mur Lafferty’s latest podiobook officially launches tomorrow (although you can hear the first chapter right now). If you’ve ever listened to I Should be Writing you’ve probably heard of it (although perhaps under the title Keppsie’s Bar). It looks like Mur is trying out some new things with the Playing for Keeps Experience feed which will feature a host of additional content, including PDFs of the chapters and Stories of the Third Wave, a supplemental podcast.

Listen to the Promo and subscribe.

Scott Sigler’s Nocturnal

Something lives deep beneath the streets of San Francsico. Something that has been there for centuries, something that comes out at night … to feed on the dregs of society. A sub-culture, with its own myths, its own legends of leader named The King that will lead them out of bondage, and their own demon, a hunting shadow known only as Savior.

But the legends of Savior’s brutality have faded, the fear passed into stories told to frighten the young ones. When The King finally appears, just as foretold, the Nocturnals know their time has time — the time to come out from under the streets and hunt humanity in the open.

Scott Sigler’s newest podiobook thriller launches tonight at midnight EST. As usual it sounds like quite the ride. If you’ve heard Scott’s stuff you already know what to expect, if you haven’t you can head on over to Podiobooks.com and grab Earthcore and Ancestor at any time.

The print version of Nocturnal is currently scheduled for 2010, but the podcast launches tonight, so why not listen to the promo and subscribe.

The NanoMonkeys

NanoMonkeys Coverart

Hosted by PG Holyfield, Chris Miller, and Kris Johnson, the NanoMonkeys aim to help get you through the madness that is NaNoWriMo.

For those of you, like me, that are participating in NaNoWriMo, and thinking “Gah! Who has time for new podcast novels?”, I’ve got just the thing for you. The NanoMonkeys is a daily podcast (approximately five minutes per episode) that runs throughout November offering writing advice and encouragement. This year the line up features a number of guest authors (including me on November 3rd). I made listening to this part of my daily routine last year, and I recommend you do the same.

This year’s welcome episode is available now. What are you waiting for, subscribe?

Links of Interest (August 16th 2007 Through August 22nd 2007)

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007
Launch: Google Earth Adds Sky
Google Earth adds a “Switch between Sky and Earth” button. The Sky view is made up of over 1 million photographs. Nice!
Sigler v. Hendrix Webscab Smackdown
On September 19th 2007 Terry Bison will moderate a debate between Scott Sigler and Howard Hendrix revolving around releasing works of fiction online for free (you know, webscabs).
That Yawn After Lunch Is Perfectly Normal
Feel sleepy after lunch? Here’s why. I agree with the suggestion of a short nap. Around 2pm on weekends I usually hit a wall, after which I’m not productive. A 10 minute nap is enough to stave that off for me.
Where you fall in poll of U.S. reading habits
Apparently one in four Americans read no books last year. Those who did, read four on average. I wonder if the poll took audiobooks into account.
Warner Bros. Follows the Yellow Brick Road
Warner wants to create a new Oz film. Todd McFarlane is involved. I love the Oz books. I do not have high hopes for this movie.
Sucking it up with the new Roomba
C|NET looks at the new Roomba 500 series from iRobot. We’re pretty happy with our existing Roomba. My kids talk to it sometimes.
The Best Software for Mac OS X
I’m new to Mac OS X, but this looks like an worthwhile list of applications.
Author King ‘mistaken for vandal’
Stephen King was mistaken for a vandal when he started signing books in an Australian book shop. I admit I’ve imagined having books on the shelves and just going in and signing them. Never really thought it through though.

Links of Interest (April 30th 2007 Through May 1st 2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007
First of May – Joe Murphy Mix
A “Band-Aid” style version of Jonathan Coulton’s “First of May” recorded by a number of podcasters in support of The Joe Murphy Memorial Fund. Warning: Explicit Lyrics
Prototype JavaScript framework: Prototype 1.5.1 released
Release announcement for Prototype 1.5.1
Loupe.js
“[A]llows you to add a loupe (magnifier) to images on your webpages. It uses unobtrusive javascript to keep your code clean.” Interesting. I like the Xray example.
How A Small Press Author Stormed Amazon?s Charts (and beat Black Lab)
Video interview with Scott Sigler about Ancestor’s performance on Amazon, and the reaction.
Mr Potato Head: Spider-Spud
When a radioactive spider bit Peter Parker Potato, he became SPIDER SPUD!
Mr Potato Head: Optimash Prime
Potatoes in Disguise!

Scott Sigler Scores a Three Book Deal

Thursday, April 12th, 2007
Quick follow up to the last post. See Scott’s announcement here. I’m sure there will be more info forthcoming. Congratulations!

Podiobooks and Free E-Books Harmful?

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

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 have both an audible.com and a podiobooks.com account. Do I value one over the other? Not really. I don’t think most people equate free with no value. Not anymore, if they ever did.