Are Audiobooks Preparing to Overtake Ebooks?
If you were the CEO of a large company and your board of directors earmarked $20 million to be allocated at your discretion, what would you do? Build a new office complex? Increase marketing costs? Install one of those fancy toilet seats with a built-in heater and satellite radio?
How about give it away?
That is precisely what Audible.com is doing and unsurprisingly, it has nothing to do with altruism.
In 2012, the Amazon-owned Audible.com offered authors a $1 "honorarium" for every audiobook sale made through their website. If attracting the attention of authors is your goal, free money is a slam dunk way of achieving it. There is, however, far more to the offer than its attractive financial component—authors who agree to make their titles available in audiobook format through Audible.com not only reap a buck for every sale, but they additionally receive the expertise and manpower of Audible's sales and marketing divisions, as well as additional advertising materials for promoting their work. And just for the heck of it, authors get a free copy of their audiobook.
Notice that the preceding paragraph made no reference to the role of the publisher in this financial arrangement. This is because the publisher is cut straight out of the deal. The buck passes freely and without encumbrance from the teeming coffers of Audible to the back pocket of the grateful author. While such an arrangement cannot impede or alter publishing rights previously negotiated between the author and publisher, it nonetheless offers writers a substantial incentive to cut their own side deal. Which introduces the other odd man out—the agent. Because authors sign up for the deal at Audible's site, where terms are fixed, the need for agency is nullified. Whether to bestow any consideration on their agent is entirely left to the discretion of the author.
If this sounds like a pricey gamble by Audible, think again. This Wild West-style free-for-all would not be possible unless the tea leaves indicated sky-high potential for the audiobook market. Make no mistake—while the Kindle-versus-Nook battle gorges on titanic marketing budgets, the audiobook industry continues its rapid commercial ascent. Thanks to your friendly neighborhood broadband service, audiobooks have become massive business. The media has exhaustively chronicled how the digital revolution has treated traditional hardcopy titles much in the same way that General Sherman treated the fields of Georgia. For audiobooks however, the digital revolution hit like a shot in the ass of pure HGH, making it easier than ever to market, sell and transfer titles. With a market share of audiobook loyalists already in place and technology introducing legions of new users to the joys of the genre, the only way to go is way up.
Readers have enjoyed audiobooks for decades, starting with books on tape and morphing into books on CD. Like their printed counterparts however, to purchase an audiobook, listeners had to drive to the bookstore or pay for shipping. Moreover, the audio form of certain titles proved more cumbersome than the original books. Les Miserables, for example, required an eye-watering 60 CDs to digest. With cable modems and outlets such as iTunes and Amazon, literature's biggest titles are now a mere mouse click away, with zero shipping and packaging hassles.
The appeal to users extends far beyond the ease-of-purchase. From a quality perspective, audio-enthusiasts are enjoying a Golden Age not unlike the one unfolding in the world of videogames, where new games receive the budget and resources of blockbuster movies. Likewise, audiobook producers can no longer compete in their space by throwing someone into a recording booth to simply read a book. Audiobook production now entails protracted casting and audition processes, state-of-the-art engineering, and in some cases, licensing of other media, such as music. "Here in Harlem," winner of the 2011 Audie award (the audiobook world's equivalent of the Oscars), boasts 13 narrators as well as period-specific music, which required costly licensing deals with music publishers and record labels.
Also, as with video game production, the audiobook industry now invests heavily in celebrity narrators. The Keith Richards autobiography, Life, captured the top honors at the 2011 Audies, due in no small part to Johnny Depp's narration, which invoked Keith Richards' inimitable cockney cadence without suggesting cheap mimicry. Curiously, Life switches narrators midway through, with New York City vocalist Joe Hurley jumping in with his own take on Richards' drawl, and finally Richards himself rounds out the narration duties to conclude the audiobook, which arguably translates better in audio format than in the original print format.
As audiobooks attract larger audiences, voiceover actors have taken on far greater importance, proving critical to the success of the audiobook versions of Unbroken, the Hunger Games trilogy and Here in Harlem. In fact, the narrators themselves are entering a minor circle of celebrity. Audiobook forums reveal that audio enthusiasts are as prone to buying a book based on the narrator as the author—an interesting twist for producers, who will surely find themselves paying a premium to recruit golden-throated narrators to read their titles.
The obvious end game for Audible is to entice authors to self-publish through their parent company, Amazon, and they have revealed a deadly-serious intent to do precisely that. At a higher level, the sheer audacity of their $20 million offer, open through the end of 2012, establishes that audiobooks are the sleeping giant of the publishing industry. While eReaders fight their war on two fronts: changing the way people think about the physical act of reading; and competing with other eReader manufacturers for a piece of the pie, audiobooks are gathering like a supernova. With expanded production, high-profile celebrity narrators and military-sized budgets, the competition will be fierce and the war bloody, leaving only one certainty: fans of audiobooks have a lot to look forward to in the next few years.
Image via Videomaker
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