Audiobook Boom Provides Big Opportunities for Publishers
If you're under the impression that Colin Firth's finest professional moment involved his supporting role in Bridget Jones's Diary, or that Jake Gyllenhaal's controversial performance in Brokeback Mountain was that actor's crowning achievement, well, you'd be wrong.
Last year, Firth's narration of Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair, resulted in a surprise Audiobook of the Year award from Audible. Audible also made headlines in 2013 after publishing an audio version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in advance of the book's most recent film adaptation; Gyllenhaal's narration of Gatsby has been called "masterful."
In fact, many of Firth's and Gyllenhaal's A-list Hollywood brethren are increasingly narrating audiobooks. Kate Winslet (pictured above), Samuel L. Jackson, and Diane Keaton are just a few who’ve lent their vocal talents to recently published projects. And that’s just one of the many indicators of the growing popularity of the audio format.
The audiobook business, in case you haven’t noticed, is exploding. And that’s not mere hyperbole. According to the Audio Publishers Association, 2012 saw six million more audiobooks sold than in the year previous. That’s partly due to the fact that audiobooks are today being pumped out in such increasingly large numbers.
In 2009, for instance, just 4,602 audio titles were published. By 2012, the latest year for which sales figures are available, that number had risen to 13,255 titles—a nearly 200 percent increase in just three years. According to Michele Cobb, president of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), the projections for 2013 are beginning to show that upwards of 20,000 audiobooks were produced last year. “And that’s a huge sea change,” she says.
Audible publisher and EVP, Beth Anderson, attributes the skyrocketing popularity of audiobooks to a few main factors. “One is that we’re busier than we’ve ever been before,” she says. “And so multitasking—being able to read while you’re exercising, or while you’re driving, or while you’re watching the kids’ soccer game—is just a great use of time.”
True enough. And yet if it weren’t for the widespread proliferation of mobile devices and the advances in digital download technology that accompanied it, as Anderson points out, the type of multitasking we all take for granted today wouldn’t even be possible. Audio publishing insiders, in fact, are fond of pointing out the result of the single-use MP3 player being eclipsed by the multifunctional smartphone: The majority of us are now walking around with some version of an audiobook player in our pockets at all times.
There are other explanations, of course, for the rise of audio, which experienced its first major wave of popularity when the Sony Walkman was introduced, and its next when the installation of CD players in automobiles became customary.
One could also credit the arrival of Audible itself with the mainstreaming of audiobooks. “I think what Audible did,” says Anderson, “is we made it affordable. When you look at what unabridged books on cassette or even CD cost, [they’re] forty or fifty dollars; I think people have always felt the sticker shock there.”
Anderson continues: “The technology has gotten cheaper, and the cost of production has gotten much cheaper. So it’s no longer as expensive for Audible or Random House or anyone else to produce an audiobook.” What used to be a two- or three-person job,” she adds, “can now be a one-person job.”
Indeed, even legacy houses like Hachette have been taking full advantage of audio’s significantly lowered price of admission. According to Hachette Audio vice president and publisher Anthony Goff, one of the company’s most buzzed-about releases of the past few years was The Storm King, an audio-only release featuring spoken-word narratives by Pete Seeger.
“We’ve been publishing as many titles as we possibly can that make sense in audio,” says Goff. “We still cherry-pick what we believe will be best-sellers. But the scope of what has become audio has really widened over the last five years or so.”
Trend-watching aside, opportunity is probably the one word that best encapsulates what all of this means for the book publishing industry. “I think there are lots of opportunities now that didn’t exist before,” says Anderson, who points out that the cost of audiobook production and the technology it requires have both lately become much more affordable.
Making It Work
Whether you have a print or digital backlist you'd like to offer in audio format, or would like to see audiobooks become a part of your future book releases, there are a number of ways to take advantage of audio. Following are 8 suggestions for those considering feeding the public's appetite for audio.
Don't dive in without educating yourself first. Regardless of whether your audio plan involves the significant financial outlay of building your own studio, or simply outsourcing the entire process (see sidebars), gaining an education of the audio side of the industry should almost always be your first move. “There’s definitely some risk involved, and you have to be a pro,” says Goff, on the matter of investing in top-flight studio equipment and the talent necessary to operate it. “You have to know how the industry works.” Even the seemingly lower-risk option of outsourcing to a turnkey service provider should begin with an educational element, says Robin Whitten, the founding editor of AudioFile. “I think it’s a matter of understanding enough about audiobooks,” says Whitten. “The more you know about audiobooks as a format, the better the experience [of working with a partner] is.”
Becoming a card-carrying member of the APA and taking advantage of its collective wisdom would certainly be sensible. Becoming a card-carrying member of the APA and taking advantage of its collective wisdom would certainly be sensible. Whitten also suggests that would-be audio publishers consider attending the annual Audio Publishers Association Conference (APAC), which takes place in conjunction with Book Expo America in May. The event’s business track will cover topics ranging from marketing and social media to children’s audio, digital platform apps, and the specifics of working with narrators who operate from home audio studios.
Never underestimate the importance of a professional narrator. Perhaps no one has a more intimate knowledge of the modern-day audiobook industry than a professional narrator with 10 years of experience and more than 200 titles to her credit. Gabra Zackman is one such professional. And like many of the industry's most popular voices, she's an actor by trade; you may have spotted her on television shows like Law and Order or All My Children. But these days, Zackman says, an even 50 percent of her income is derived from her work as a freelance audiobook narrator.
Especially when a publisher is operating within an open market like Audible's ACX, "the [only] way you can assure you're going to get good quality," says Zackman, "is if you know you're getting a narrator of quality."
That's a sentiment Audible's Beth Anderson certainly agrees with. One of the biggest mistakes many publishers stumble over when first entering the audio market, Anderon says, involves the belief that everything should be author-read. "Sometimes that's a good idea," she adds, "but sometimes it's not a good idea. Because these actors do something very special that's not necessarily what the author who wrote the book, and wrote the words, and thought up the whole thing can do."
If your author has a platform, however, he'll probably be your best narrator. As Goff explains it, the Hachette Audio vision largely revolves around an effort to create an extended version of their author's print book in audio—a product that will essentially help to widen the channel.
"Our mission is really to bring the author's vision to life, and to help expand the author's fanbase," Goff says. "So the pressure is on, because you want to make sure that what you're doing is ultimately selling more books, and selling more audio, and getting the author out there in a big way."
To that end, Goff suggests not only involving a book's author in the audio process, but also having those authors with significant platforms actually narrate their audiobooks themselves. "I think a book will ultimately sell more copies when it's read by [a well-known author]," he says. "[Especially] in terms of nonfiction. But there are delicate balances there, because authors will cost more. And they might also live in Idaho. So you have to really make some serious considerations [in terms of] where you're going to record, and how you're going to get them there. And the cost only goes up from there, versus using talent from New York or L.A. So it's definitely a case-by-case basis when you're deciding what to publish and how to publish it."
Always take your quality assurance seriously. So what's the secret to finding that perfect voice for your project? "Don't be afraid to ask as many questions as you might need to ask," Zackman suggests.
She adds that nearly every reputable studio's website has a range of available audio samples. "You can [call] one of the producing houses," she adds, "and say, 'I really loved your production of this book;' or, 'I love the way that quality sounded;' or, 'There was something in this book that I didn't like.'"
Aside from the websites of various production houses and the collection of narrator profiles listed on Audible's ACX, Voice123 is another trusted online database where publishers can listen to audio samples from actors and narrators.
Look to build audio talent in-house. As far as the technical side of the audio business is concerned, Goff claims that the greatest need in the industry is probably for highly-skilled producers and engineers. “We’re looking for new talent every day,” he says, “whether it’s in narration, or whether it’s people who can do production work or editing.”
In other words, many of the most talented free agents are currently being scooped up by your potential future competitors. If you’re thinking of adding to your staff right away, Goff suggests looking to the music industry. “A lot of our producers are musicians or ex-musicians [who] produce audiobooks during the day,” he says, “pretty much to pay the bills.”
Considering joining forces with an audio publisher. According to Goff, Hachette Audio hasn't historically acquired a large number of projects from outside the reaches of its own house. But in those few cases where it has, the resulting yield has been surprisingly rich. "Certainly not everything translates well into audio," Goff says. "But [because] there's so much opportunity out there to produce , we're always all ears if someone comes to us with an opportunity."
For those publishing houses that don't currently have an audio division to speak of, Goff suggests that the possibility of partnering up with an audio-specific publisher could prove to pay significant dividends. "If you don't have the resources to build [an audio division] yourself," says Goff, "think about teaming up with someone you might already have a good relationship with, or who you've heard good things about, or whose work your admire, and look to strike a deal."
To keep costs down, consider outsourcing to a home studio. There was once a time, Zackman says, prior to the most recent wave of audiobook popularity, that most publishers employed not only a narrator for each project, but also an audio engineer and a director as well.
But in an effort to retain even more of their net proceeds, many publishers—including the most well known houses—are sending their work directly to narrators who work solo from a home studio. "For the most part," says Zackman, "when you reach a certain [professional level], everybody's got a home studio."
Zackman offers up the story of a job she once handled for an especially well-known publisher; she was paid around $4,500 to record a book in its professionally-staffed studio. "Which is good money," she adds. And yet just a few months later, that same publisher paid her a home studio rate of just $2,000 to narrate a similar title, all on her own.
When home studio work comes her way, Zackman completes it in a soundproofed walk-in closet with "very high-end equipment." She cautions publishers "to listen closely to the quality" when someone sends an audio sample, especially if it's from a home studio.
Don't just audition the talent—audition the service provider too. Everyone involved in the exploding audiobook business today is "crazy busy,"as Zackman puts it. "But if you're going to sell them a book," she says, "they're not too busy to be able to answer a couple of questions."
And while that may seem like fairly standard business advice on the face of it, it's worth bearing in mind that in every quickly growing industry, fly-by-night operators are bound to be lurking. "I think it's really interesting to see how your contact treats you," Zackman says. "Do they treat you with respect and kindness, and like they're interested in producing something the way you want it produced?"
One method of testing a potential new partner, according to Zackman, is to request specific samples from certain narrators, or even to ask narrators to audition. It's more often the authors who'll request an audition than the publishers, she says. "But we do it all the time. An author will say, 'I want a really specific sound—send me five auditions.' And I think there's nothing wrong with asking for what you want."
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Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.