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 (January 31st 2008 Through February 19th 2008)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008
Crime podcast novel gets HUGE boost in advertising
Video of a digital billboard advertising for Seth Harwood’s “Jack Wakes Up”

The parseInt gotcha
I’m pretty sure once you’ve been hit by this parseInt() behavior in javascript you never forget it, but if you haven’t you should learn about it now before you do.

CSS Tools: Reset CSS
Eric Meyer’s Reset style-sheet (now in its permanent home, with versions numbers). Including this should reduce browser inconsistencies, and help you not to rely on undefined default behaviors.

CSS Tools: Diagnostic CSS
Eric Meyer’s diagnostic.css (now in its permanent home). Including this stylesheet will highlight elements that are incomplete and may be degrading the user experience.

Jason Bateman Confirms “Arrested Development” Movie Talks
I cannot begin to express how much I hope this comes to pass.

Amazon acquires Audible for $300 million
This caught be by surprise. Hopefully it will remain mostly unchanged, although adding stereo support to all the stereo BBC programs they carry would be nice.

Links of Interest (November 27th 2007 Through January 3rd 2008)

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008
How to rewrite
A detailed post on rewriting, and how to do it.
Podiobooks.com Community
Online community based around Podiobooks.com. A place for listeners, authors, producers, etc. to communicate and help improve Podiobooks.com
Issue #1 of Sci Phi is available
The first issue of Sci Phi (The Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy) is now available. The download version ($7) contains all stories and articles in various ebook formats as well as MP3.
GTD: Free Bundle of GTD Articles Written By David Allen
Lifehacker has a link to a collection of 17 articles available for free download from the David Allen Company.
Infamous IE hasLayout is toast
This “feature” of the IE rendering engine has caused me more headaches than I care to remember. I’m not at all sorry to see it go.
Kindles in libraries – the importance of ebook standards
DRM, lack of e-book standards, and related issues are even bigger issues for libraries.
AICN: 12th Episode will air!
SaveJourneman.net brings word that episode 12 of Journeyman will air. Journeyman is my favorite show of the new season, and I hope it comes back, but at least it will get to finish it’s run.
Tags: , ,
Doug Morris, Old Person
Jonathan Coulton posted this summary of the New York Magazine blog’s summary or Wired’s profile of Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group. I’m not going to further summarize, just read and be enlightened.

Links of Interest (November 21st 2007)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007
OpenDocument Foundation closes up shop after slamming OpenDocument Format
As someone who hasn’t used word since the 90s, and never intends to go back, I’ve been watching the ODF vs OOXML stuff with interest. This chapter is just strange.

Tags:
Benchmarks: Hackintosh vs. Mac Pro vs. MacBook Pro Benchmarks
Benmarks of the $800 hackintosh vs. some standard Apple offerings. Most of the comments miss the point of this article, which (I think) is not to do an Apples to apples comparison, but to show you what your $800 bucks gets you.

Hack Attack: Build a Hackintosh Mac for Under $800
Are you interested in trying out Mac OS X Leopard, but not it buying a Mac? Are you used to building your own PCs from parts (I sure am)? This is your best bet.

Stacks Overlays
If the appearance of the Stacks in your Leopard dock annoys you as much as they do me, these might be for you.

How to Size Text in CSS
An excellent article showing how to get consistent text sizing across numerous browsers using CSS. A great starting point for anyone concerned with the end user experience.

Links of Interest (September 7th 2007 Through September 20th 2007)

Thursday, September 20th, 2007
Lincoln’s $5 bill gets a colorful makeover
I was just thinking, boy I wish this $5 bill had a big purple number on it (of course I was hoping the number was $1,000,000, but you can’t win them all).
The future keepers
Philip K. Dick’s children work to ensure the influential author’s cinematic legacy. I hope it works out because there have been some less than stellar adaptations of some truly amazing stories.
Animal Magnetism: Making O’Reilly Animals
History of the animal designs on O’Reilly’s book covers.
Record Industry Proves Again How Much They?ve Lost The Plot
Say hello to the Ringle!
Floatutorial: Step by step CSS float tutorial
Exceptionally detailed tutorials on floats.

Michael A. Stackpole Selling New Fiction Online

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

It looks like Michael A. Stackpole is experimenting with direct e-book sales on his site. I’m very interested to see how it works out (and I hope it does).

Jed and the Titanium Turtle is a short story “about America and how it deals with a bunch of alien visitors who are ‘here to help.'” Sounds like it could be worth the $2 he’s asking.

Also available are the first two chapters of The Grand History, a fictional non-fiction history of the DragonCrown War. This is going for $1 a chapter, and may be the more interesting experiment. You’re only going to sell this to the subset of people who read the DragonCrown War books liked them enough to want to read meta-fiction in that universe. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy this type of work. I just think it has less commercial appeal, which makes it perfect for this type of sales model. I hope it works out because I’d love to see more of this type of thing.

The setup seems similar the one Holly Lisle uses in her shop. On the other hand, Mr. Stackpole is focusing on fiction, and short works. This immediately brought thoughts of micropayments to mind. iTunes has shown that the $1 granularity works for online sales (at least in huge quantities), but last time I looked into it (which was a few years back, and I was focusing on comics at the time) a decent micropayments systems for sub-dollar amount sales still hasn’t emerged.

All the works are currently only available as PDFs (just like Holly Lisle’s). This is a bummer (for me) because I can’t easily read them on my eBookwise 1150, which I’d prefer. I already work and write at the computer (although I’ve been doing more longhand writing lately). Extra on-screen reading is too much for my eyes. Since PDFs don’t let you resize the text and have it re-flow that means I’ll have to print them out. which is what I do with his excellent writing newsletter The Secrets. I don’t mind printing those out since I keep them indexed in binders to make it easy to refer back to them.

None of these are really issues I expect anyone to just solve, let alone authors selling their own stories for a couple of bucks. I do wish reasonable tools and standards were in place so that a more flexible solution would be the obvious choice.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to giving Jed and the Titanium Turtle a read later.

Links of Interest (June 1st 2007)

Friday, June 1st, 2007
DVR viewers push ad ratings up
This whole thing seems like a no-brainer to me, but it’s news to the suits.
Closing the book on Apple’s Mac mini
AppleInsider believes that the Mac mini is dead. Sounds like Apple will be pulling out of the sub-$800 market. It’s to bad if it’s true, because I have had money set aside waiting for the next-gen of the mini to be released. Guess I’ll upgrade my PC.
Lumosity – Brain Fitness and Memory Improvement
Online “brain fitness” program.
European robots assist children in forming relationships
Using robots to help autistic children form relationships.
Under stairs storage: brilliant
I never would have thought of doing this, but now that I see it I’m amazed at how obvious an idea it is.

Links of Interest (May 3rd 2007 Through May 7th 2007)

Monday, May 7th, 2007
Lost’s end in sight.
“Lost” has three more seasons (but with only 16 episodes each), ending in 2010. It’s still one of my top five shows, and I’m glad they are planning a definitive ending (not because I want it to go, but because it can’t go on forever).
DryerFox – It’s like Firefox, but inside a dryer!
Just what it sounds like.
IE 8: Opt-in for standards compliance
Apparently there will be a way to tell IE8 “my site is standards compliant”. I imagine that means the default assumption is “my site works in IE”.
MASSIVE: Microsoft May Acquire Yahoo for $50 Billion
Peter Cashmore’s take on the news that Microsoft is in talks to buy Yahoo! My immediate reaction is to wonder about Pipes and YUI.
Science Fiction and Politics University Course continues
“Professor Courtney Brown’s course at Emory University is a Political Science course entitled Science Fiction and Politics (Political Science 190).” The lectures are available free for download and as a podcast.
Can e-books hurt your eyes?
As someone whose vision is not at all good, this is near and dear to my eyes. Also this is one of the reasons I avoid DRM crippled e-books and PDF e-books. I want to view e-books on my preferred device, with my own font size choice.

Holly Lisle’s Writing Clinics on Sale

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

Just wanted to let people know that Holly put her three writing clinics on sale ($2 off each) through Friday (March 9th) at her online e-book shop.

I can personally recommend them, especially the language clinic. I’m currently working on my second language for Miracles and I’m enjoying the heck out of it. The books are clear and concise, and most importantly they make the process fun (and manageable, but fun is more important). If any of this even sounds vaguely interesting you owe it to yourself to check them out (the shop pages contain Table of Contents and excepts):

2YN: The Two-Year Novel Course, Year One

Monday, June 12th, 2006

I feel compelled to recommend 2YN: The Two-Year Novel Course, Year One, by Lazette Gifford to anyone who has even considered writing a novel. I haven’t yet read the book, but I did take the class on which the book is based. In fact, I’m taking it again for my next novel.

The first year covers:
  • Writing Basics: Ideas, Genres, Themes, Conflict and more
  • Character development
  • Worldbuilding
  • Outlining
  • Writing, including what to do when you get stuck

Having gone through the process, and I can tell you that it works. Pick up a copy now. It is currently available as a downloadable PDF, so you can get started right away. What are you waiting for?