A Look At Audiobook Solutions and Providers
This article originally appeared as a sidebar in the audiobook feature in Publishing Executive's April issue. You can find that article here.
Audiobook Creation Exchange
An argument could certainly be made that the audiobook industry was forever altered in 1995, the year entrepreneur Don Katz introduced Audible.com to the world. Although as APA president Michele Cobb explains, the audiobook e-commerce portal didn't truly catch on for another six years, when Apple's iPod was launched. "That's when, for us as an industry, digital really hit its stride," she says.
The next major step in Audible's evolution occurred in 2008, when the company was acquired by Amazon for $300 million. And then in 2011, Audible introduced yet another innovation, an online marketplace known as the Audiobook Creation Exchange, or ACX. ACX is already having a significant effect on the manner in which the industry does business, largely by offering publishers both large and small easier access to the means of production.
Beth Anderson, executive vice president and publisher at Audible, likes to think of ACX as something akin to a dating site the for audiobook industry, where the rights holders-authors and publishers-are on one side, and the service providers-narrators, audio producers, studio professionals-are on the other.
"If you're talking about smaller publishers, ACX is an excellent resource," says Robin Whitten, editor of AudioFile, a monthly consumer magazine that reviews audiobooks.
The process of using the platform is relatively simple. After logging onto the site and creating a profile, publishers who own previously unexploited audio rights can post a few pages of a manuscript, and then request audio samples-mini-auditions, really-from narrators and producers.
Rights holders can also scroll through any number of general auditions from actors advertising their skilled French or German accent, say, or their particularly believable old-man voice. Where finances are concerned, deals can either take the form of hourly payments-anything between $60 and $500 per finished hour is typical-or a 50-50 royalty split between the rights holder and the talent.
Turnkey Production Services
While ACX may indeed be an ideal solution for certain publishers—those who aren't bothered by the idea of sorting through pages of service-provider profiles and audio auditions—the slightly bigger fish might be better served elsewhere when it comes time to convert a substantial print or digital backlist into audio. And that's where the audio-only publishers come in. These are companies that deal almost exclusively in all things audio. And while many are now getting into the audio publishing game themselves, they've traditionally made the bulk of their money by acting as one-stop-shops for publishers looking to convert books to audio.
Back when audiobooks were “something you associated with your grandmother in a Winnebago and a shoebox full of cassettes,” as Anderson jokingly refers to the pre-Audible period, independent publishers that dealt exclusively in audio were actually quite plentiful.
But then came the era of consolidation, and today, just a sprinkling of such companies still operate in North America. Do your homework and you'll probably find three names that pop up over and over again: Recorded Books, Tantor Media, and Blackstone Audio, which deals exclusively with the library market. Blackstone also runs an e-commerce arm, Downpour Audio.
Largely in response to the fact that “everybody is producing more and more and more, and trying to get it out there simultaneously,” as the APA's Cobb explains, the most prolific of the audio-only publishers began offering turnkey services about three years ago. It was in early 2011, for instance, when Tantor introduced to the public its Tantor Studios division, which offers a full suite of production and distribution services, including top-flight audio engineering and best-of-breed narrators like Bronson Pinchot. Tantor even utilizes its own proprietary software that was developed specifically for use with audiobooks.
While the studio works with many of the top publishers in the U.S., it also works with independent publishers, as well as the occasional self-published author, according to Tantor's director of operations, John Nesco. An audio title can be produced in as little as seven days, says Nesco, although standard schedules tend to call for a month or more. And like many of its competitors, Blackstone among them, Tantor has since added both print and e-book capabilities to its menu of services.
“One of the big movements [currently] is to just go digital, because there's no real overhead or cost of goods,” says Greg Boguslawski, head of wholesale sales and merchandising for Blackstone and Downpour.
Audio-First & Audio Products
If the iPod was the device that allowed “digital [to] really hit its stride” in the audiobook business, as Cobb suggests, the iPad will probably prove to be the device that ushers audio into its next wave.
Already, a small number of publishers have begun experimenting with interactive and multimedia variations on the audio-first approach, which involves releasing the audiobook version of a particular title well ahead of its print and e-book companions. Autumn 2012, for instance, saw the release of The Silent History, an iPad- and iPhone-only product created by a self-described “programmer and storyteller,” and which was lauded in Wired magazine as “part book, part multiplayer game, part Google map, and entirely revolutionary.”
Fogland, created by the author Mark Capell, is a much more recent example of an especially unusual audio model. It’s something of a fictional podcast that features multiple episodes, or short stories, which are penned by different writers who explore the goings-on of an imaginary town. The stories are given away free on iTunes, while the text versions appear simultaneously online.
And while that's a model that doesn't immediately appear to be backed by an obvious financial incentive, the larger picture probably exists somewhere between creativity and opportunity. “I think it's fabulous,” says AudioFile's Whitten, referring to the industry's recent leanings toward innovation. “Because there should be creative enterprises around audiobooks.”
Related story: Audiobook Boom Provides Big Opportunities for Publishers
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.