Demystifying the myths about audiobooks

The Indian publishing industry’s audiobook potential has long since been recognised internationally with the US’s Audible and Sweden’s Storytel already established in the market alongside some local players. The platforms and the spoken word format itself provide publishers an avenue to new audiences as well as a viable story experience for the visually impaired or access to regions where accessing bookshops may be problematic. The growth trajectory for audiobooks in the US and Europe has been nothing of staggering in recent years, giving rise to a proliferation of new business models, new platforms, new opportunities and a multitude of questions for publishers. With this format now in such sharp focus, Nathan Hull, chief strategy officer for Beat Technology, provides some insight and top tips on how to prepare for this new area, in conversation with Emma House.

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Whether to create audiobooks or not is no longer an option. It’s not a valid question. In my opinion, if publishers don’t seek to protect their integrity and their value to authors, then the accelerating world of audio storytelling will be lost to them and in the hands of others. Alongside the “pure” publishing players such as Audible and Storytel other non-book entities such as Spotify, Deezer and Youtube are pushing their way into audiobook space. The following is a crash course in audio, an attempt to demystify a few myths, to clarify some regularly posed questions and to debunk a few misinformed theories. It’s an attempt to inform and qualify and to give publishers a few more tools with which to arm themselves and pose some educated questions ahead of signing deals or deciding upon their chosen path.

Nathan Hull is Chief Strategy Officer at Beat Technology and takes responsibility for its expansion beyond the Nordics. Already the pulse within Skoobe (Germany), Fabel (Norway) and Chapter (Denmark), Beat will soon be adding leading publisher-backed platforms in a further 6 markets in the coming months to add to its portfolio.

Emma: What are the first steps a publisher should take to develop an audio strategy?

Nathan: Regardless of whether your strategy is to take a particular share of the market or pure title-by-title profitability, the key focus point needs to be future-proofing your business. There is no place for short-termism. As the audiobook market grows and more platforms enter the race, it not only provides huge opportunity but also many challenges. My priority considerations would be:

1. Be confident in the terminology.
2. Experiment but experiment safely. Then learn from those experiments. Quickly.
3. Analyse your data continuously.
4. Monitor and assess the marketplace at home and abroad regularly.
5. Listen to your listener.
6. Only sign platform contracts which don’t undermine the value of your books.
7. Don’t sign away your rights, grow your own catalogue.

Then, in order to decide which titles from your backlist to record, you need to research your market and know your own listeners – and potential new listeners. Other platforms will be circling around your catalogue trying to pick off rights directly, and this is often a good indicator of which titles are likely to become most profitable. But, equally, if you already retail titles in audio, analyse your sales and keep an eye on international listening trends. These won’t always be the perfect indicator for your local market but they are a good guide.

Emma House is an international publishing consultant based in the UK. Her previous roles included Deputy CEO of the Publishers Association UK and Head of International Development at the London Book Fair.

Emma: What is the ideal IP position for a publisher in terms of both acquiring and assigning the rights?

Nathan: The long term future of the format’s success and the publisher and author’s success from audio will be strengthened by a competitive retail landscape for audiobooks. The US and UK are dominated by one presence, Audible, other markets by Sweden’s Storytel. Some markets are dominated by all-you-can-listen consumption (Scandinavia, Netherlands, Spain), some countries prefer single purchase subscriptions (US, UK, France) and other areas have seen a listeners adopt both models (Germany, Poland). What is very clear though is that markets with a variety of strong and stable services are the ones that are thriving and provide the author and publisher with the greatest opportunity to reach a variety of listeners and earn healthy profits from their recordings. A competitive marketplace drives a wider interest, more investment and it ensures high standards are maintained.

Once your audiobooks are made and you’ve settled on your own rules for what represents fair remuneration, don’t discriminate where you allow your recordings to be sold. Alongside the wealth of streaming audiobook services and the traditional download retailers, recent months have seen major music and video streaming services such as Spotify, Deezer and Youtube all express interest in audiobooks as an entertainment medium and are starting to host them, exploding the potential reach of audiobooks hugely. Spotify alone reaches 250m listeners. (Be aware, however, that payment model from these services are generally very low.) Additionally, publishers may wish to look beyond their home market, however large it is, to reach diaspora speakers from around the world. Of course, if you’re a publisher who decides to go direct-to-consumer, as many major publishers have across Europe, consider your strategy for hosting your titles exclusively on your own platform for a window, before allowing them onto every other platform.

Emma: What questions should publishers be asking retailers?

Nathan: What’s the business model and how are you paying the publisher and author? Remember – fair remuneration. Don’t give in on this. If the retailers are offering to fund or co-fund your recordings it’s arguably more for their benefit than yours, so only allow so a specified and limited period. Also insist on marketing support and access to usage data – and not just for the titles they’re co/funding, but across your whole catalogue.

Emma: Do you invest in your own audio recordings or assign this to the retailer or A N Other?

Nathan: In Europe a standard fiction audiobook of 90,000 words, recorded in a high quality studio by an experienced professional narrator shouldn’t cost more than €1800 with all rights cleared. Of course, the numbers can fluctuate depending on the length of the titles and the narrator fees. The nascent stages of moving into audiobooks can be expensive as the format isn’t cheap to make – or at least make well. Some platforms will offer publishers co-production deals to share costs in return for exclusivity, but beware not to sign away long period of exclusivity or allow the rights to slip from your grasp. It’s essential for the publisher to grow its own catalogue. Perhaps allow a clutch of selected, well-managed co-production deals through alongside producing your own titles. And learn first-hand.

Emma: What data should you be requesting from retailers and how can you usefully use this data?

Nathan: Generally speaking, retail platforms don’t share usage data around your titles. But they want your authors and your published works, so negotiate hard. Particularly if they are offering co-production deals. Aside from the obligatory numbers around sales and revenue, look to get report on the user demographics, regional consumption, device type, time of day your titles are listened to, completion rates and much more. Armed with this data you can really start to assess what next steps to take for the audio format within your publishing house.

Emma: How do you work out a suitable pricing model?

Nathan: Consider what you believe to be a fair remuneration model for your authors. Even under the banner of streaming there is a plethora on underpinning business models with multifarious calculations laying beneath. Whether it’s the pool model, pay-by-the-hour, flat rate, the new track-by-track methods on the music streaming services or some other hybrid, choose a threshold and method that you feel is fair and then work with any services that fulfil these criteria. Some European markets set this threshold as the price of a paperback book. No audio title is allowed to fall into a deal that generates less than this value per listen.

Emma: How do contractual arrangements work with authors and narrators?

Nathan: Generally a contract should have a separate agreed royalty rate for the audiobook format. Additionally, ensure that within the narrator contract all performance rights are cleared, so there can be no further deductions from your profits further down the line.

Emma: Can you sell audio from your own website as well as other retailers?

Nathan: Absolutely. And this is becoming increasing popular with major publishers or groups of publishers in Europe as they become despondent at the lack of data sharing and poor remuneration from established services as well as some disintermediation and direct author commissions from under their noses. Norway’s leading audio service was founded jointly by their country’s two largest publishers, Spain and Germany’s leading subscription platforms were founded by those countries’ largest publishers. Denmark is the same and Beat will be launching more platforms of a similar vein in the coming months.

Emma: If so, what should you be thinking about before you go down this route?

Nathan: Customers have high expectations of digital services so publisher’s own platform has to be of the same calibre as the existing platforms – or better. It doesn’t have to be expensive either. But it does need the courage to swim against the flow a little and to invest time and effort for the long haul. The first question to ask yourself is why you want to do it and be clear on your objectives.

Emma: What are the best ways to market audiobooks?

Nathan: Suddenly a publisher is armed with a very digitally-friendly format that’s presentable online, via podcasts and radio as its own marketing asset. From embeddable audio previews to potential serialisation, and from B2B marketing partnerships to radio and podcast licensing suddenly this new light being thrown on the world of audiobooks can actually be beneficial to the marketing of a book title overall. Top tip: when recording your actual audiobook, have the narrator also record the additional marketing assets you may require so there’s a recognised voice synchronicity across your whole campaign including stings, voiceovers for ads. Take this a step further and ensure you capture photos, audio outtakes and even video of the recording so you have additional “making of” content for use other PR and marketing materials.

Emma: How can you export your audiobooks?

Nathan: There’s a wealth of international distribution companies that specialise in this field. The likes of Bookwire (Germany), Streetlib (Italy) and Findaway (USA) can distribute your catalogue in whatever languages across hundreds of international retailers meaning a publishers titles can be discovered globally and also enjoyed by the diaspora. In most cases, as well as handling the distribution and accounting, these companies offer additional services such as marketing and data analysis. Additionally of course, Audible and Storytel are international companies, so dependent on the rights a publisher assigns to them, these titles could also be made available outside India.


Glossary

The terminology used around subscriptions and audio business models in particular has become very muddy. The words and phrases are often interchanged incorrectly, frequently leading to misinterpretations and poor decision-making. Here’s a simple guide:

A la carte (or download) services – services and platform will allow the user to download a file at a fixed price for that file. A copy of the file is transmitted fully from the service’s server to reside on the user’s device of choice.
Subscription services – services and platforms which allow users or family groups to pay an agreed monthly/quarterly/annual fee in return for streaming access to content. The user is at liberty to choose files to play at will with no additional payment or obligation to complete a title.

All-you-can-eat – a subscription service normally comprising a vast collection of titles to consume for the user’s regular subscription payment. This has no caps and allows unlimited usage.

Credit based – whilst the service may consist of a huge choice of titles, the user’s payment (usually monthly) is for a credit that they use against a title of their choice each month.

Streaming – streaming is the term describing access to a collection of files which the user can access in return for a payment. No files reside on the user’s device. The file streams from the platform’s server to the user to listen to via their mobile data or wifi connection.

Download to own – the actual file is downloadable to a user’s device where the user is at liberty to play at will.
Revenue share model – typically this remuneration model towards the publisher looks at how many times a file has been listened to proportionately from the total pool of titles available. In effect this mean an audiobook has no fixed value but a fluctuating value based on its popularity within the pool in a given time frame.

Pay-per-book model – this remuneration model sees the platform pay the publisher against a pre-agreed price for any given title. Often the publisher would grant the platform a discount against this DLP (digital list price).
Time-based model – this relatively new model (which is popular in Scandinavia) sees the publisher remunerated based on the amount of time an audiobook has been consumed. Typically this is based on the number of hours listened to.

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