The interwebs are once again spreading the Good News of yet another company (this time an audiobook retailer) eschewing DRM in favor of .mp3 files. And once again, it seems that few of the news sources haven’t bothered to look beyond a press release and actually see if the claim holds up under scrutiny. In this case, it doesn’t for anyone on a Mac.
So I’m making this proclamation: The audiobook business is broken. Sure, you can point to thousands of happy customers who are unaware of just how broken it is, but that doesn’t change things. And believe me, things need to change. As I see it, there are (at least) four things wrong with the audiobook industry.
Call it “The Tyranny of the Trees” if you will, but almost any book you want is available in printed form — even those out-of-print if you look at the resellers. But only a relatively small percentage of printed books ever make it to audio form. Why? Simple. Publishers aren’t willing to make the additional investment required to turn every book into an audiobook.
Now I know it’s hard for a guy distributing well under 300 books to criticize the industry based on scale, especially when there are places boasting 40,000 available titles. Well… we’re working on that. And we don’t expect to bring about this change in thinking through our site alone. Our 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. No, it doesn’t always sounds as well as paying professionals. And I have no beef with pro audiobook narrators and producers. Love ‘em to death. But faced with having no audiobook at all, author-read/produced seems an acceptable alternative, significantly lowering the cost of production.
The act of listening to an audiobook is, well, difficult. CDs are great delivery devices for a 90 minute album, but what about 20 hours worth of a single story? That’s a lot of disc-changing and not at all conducive to most peoples’ on-the-go lifestyle. Better for that are downloadable files that play on computers and portable media devices. But these are plagued by their own problems. DRM doesn’t stop illegal copying of files, but it does make it nearly impossible for legitimate users of downloads to enjoy their purchases in more than one location or on more than one device — if they can get it to play at all. True, some sites are eschewing DRM and I hope that trend continues. But I’d like to see the next advance not require special software to “manage” the download. Thanks all the same, but my computer handles downloads just fine, to the tune of thousands of files, links and images every single day.
But if you do successfully manage to navigate through the needlessly cumbersome process of a digital download, you’ll likely be disappointed in the audio quality of the product. 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. Digital downloads sound like a good idea. But there’s no reason that the final product should not come with a comparable quality to that which you get with shiny plastic discs. (Of course, allowances should be made for lower-speed connections.)
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. To combat this, leading audiobook retailers have taken up a sort of “book of the month club” approach to the market, charging a recurring monthly fee, giving you “earned credits” and discounts for purchases… anything to make it seem less expensive. And for some, perhaps it is. But it sure makes it hard to try anything out and locks you into a commitment. Thanks, but not for me. 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.
If you’re an author fortunate enough to have your publisher produce an audiobook version for you, you’ll likely enjoy compensation on par with that which you already receive for your dead-tree version. And that is what it is, which kind of stinks (published author speaking here). But what if you don’t get that offer (see “Availability” above) and are on your own, ready to invest in the equipment/time/resources to produce your own? It’s an abomination that major audiobook download companies pay out a similar terrible rate — 15% to 20% of sales – for a book that they didn’t pay to have produced. And for a product that has no intrinsic “cost” for each unit sold — it’s a digital download. The cost to carry these titles is incredibly small. So why not pay out more?
So… how do those problems get fixed? Looking back over my list, the last three seem like easy fixes:
Stop the Quixotic file-hobbling.
Get with the times and improve quality — easier without your worthless proprietary software that is costing you needless cash to support.
Use some of that cash to pay out better rates.
I’ll grant you that #1 is the biggest challenge. Yet plenty of authors are already changing that on their own. I like to think we’re helping with that.
The good news? I honestly think it won’t always be like this. Not because we’re going to run everyone into bankruptcy by offering a few hundred serialized audiobooks for free. Heck, we’ve got our own problems with people not understanding how our file downloads work (working on that). At this point, I just want us to be an alternative to authors, distributors and listeners. If I’m right, like minded people will follow along, and our interesting novelty of a site may become part of a larger movement. Now where did I put those signs and banners…