Business Musings: Audio (Planning For 2019 Part 4)

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Initially, I started this post as a highlight reel of things that we need to pay attention to in 2019, but which I don’t have the time to explore deeply. I started with audio, and although I don’t have the time to explore audio deeply even in this post, just explaining where we are took more words than I had planned. (Please note that I wrote this before I went to the Consumer Electronics Show, but I saw nothing there that changed what I have said below.)

A disclaimer of sorts: I’m writing a short series about the changes in 2018 with an eye toward 2019. I started by explaining where we are in the disruption of the publishing industry, and that post remains the most important one I’ve written so far. Reading that post is key to all of the posts I’m writing in this series.

If you want to read all of the posts in the series right now, please go to my Patreon page. (You can also see what I had to say about CES.)  If you pledge at the $5 or above, you’ll be able to see all of the posts in this series now. I wanted to get through all this thinking as 2019 got underway, so I finished these in fairly rapid succession.

To be honest, the audio post scared me, because I’m so excited about the ways this technology is going. By trying to limit myself to the highlights, I managed to go a bit deeper than expected. It’s still an overview, but it’s one I think you can use.

Here goes:


Publishing analysts have said for years that if the disruption hadn’t hit with ebooks, the story of publishing in the past decade would have been audio. By that, the analysts mean audio rights. They have become increasingly important and will remain so.

Here in the States, where so many of us commute to our jobs, digital audio created a revolution around 2010 or so. Rather than buy a CD or a tape to use in the car (or rent them), folks with the right kind of vehicle could play their digital audiobooks in through their car’s sound system, often by linking their phone to the system.

That has become more common rather than less. But the revolution continues. Joanna Penn, on the Creative Penn, was the first in my experience to point out that voice-first devices, like Amazon Alexa or Google Home would be able to play digital audiobooks. So someone could go from the car to the house without headphones and pick up on the audiobook exactly where they had left off.

For a while, Amazon enabled this too, by offering an inexpensive audio version of a book if you’d already bought the book in another format. Like so many things Amazon, the cheap early adaption part of this vanished, only after people got hooked, of course.

A lot of books aren’t in audio—it’s expensive to produce a good audiobook—so readers have defaulted to having their dry computer voice (Siri or Alexa) simply read the text. Purists complain about this, but when you’re desperate for audio story, you will listen any way you can.

Audio story is expanding almost daily. Podcasts have moved from a group of people talking or someone interviewing someone else into the storytelling format. Some of those podcasts are nonfiction, but many are fiction, and have become a gateway into reading novels and other fictional products. (As I write this, I just got hit with three different ideas that I want to do if only I have the time.)

As I was setting up this series, Joanna Penn asked me to look into Voice SEO and #voicefirst and examine those. As I said, I lost track of things in 2018, and Voice SEO was one of those things.

I’ve been doing research on this since Joanna mentioned it, and to be honest, I’m a bit glad I missed this in February/March as the discussion heated up. I’m always on the cutting edge, and I would have jumped too soon. For example, WMG Publishing had an audio department until 2015, which was too early. We need that department now, but have the same problem we had: We don’t have the right person to run it.

Now, though, there’s a lot that person could do, but it wouldn’t equal immediate money. It would equal money down the road. Audio is expensive to produce and it takes time to earn back the initial investment, without proper set up. I’ll get to that below, but first, let’s look at #voicefirst and Voice SEO.

Voice SEO is search engine optimization for voice-commands. With the growth of things like Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and Apple’s Siri, voice commands are becoming more and more common. They can handle relatively easy commands, but not complicated ones or something said in an accent that the system doesn’t recognize. (The systems, designed in the mostly white, mostly upper class, mostly American Silicon Valley, also tend to discriminate against pronunciation that doesn’t fit into those categories.)

For example, a few months ago this darling little video went viral. It’s of a toddler who wants Alexa to play a piece of music. Watch:

This video actually teaches us a lot of things. First, there’s that moment of recognition when our voice-activated systems don’t understand what we want. We’ve all been through that, and it’s pretty clear that they’re still not up to snuff.

But the most important thing in this video is that this little girl is a toddler. She can barely talk. She’s interacting with Alexa as a normal everyday occurrence. When she’s twenty, that technology will not just seem normal to her. It’ll be passé. Who knows what it’ll be like when she’s my age?

In the last week of December, Wired had a great article on everything Alexa “learned” this year. It’s a fascinating article on machine learning techniques, and shows how far just one device has come in the past 12 months.

So voice activation is really the future. Maybe even other kinds of interaction, from holographic to virtual realities. We have no idea where it’s going, but it’s definitely moving quickly. (Voice activation and VR interfaces were all over CES this year.)

A lot of people make fun of readers who ask their Google Home or Apple’s Siri to read a book to them. Right now, the voice is flat and often mispronounces words. (My favorite version of Siri, whom we have dubbed “The British Guy,” says Wig-Wham for wigwam, and mispronounces every Spanish word he encounters. Which is tough here in Las Vegas, when he’s the one giving driving directions for the GPS. (Wigwam is a major street.) And don’t get me started on how badly he pronounces Hawaiian words, which are also common here.)

The flatness and mispronunciation won’t be a forever thing, though. The read-aloud feature will probably never be as good as a human performance. (The science fiction writer in me forced me to use the word “probably.”) But more and more people will use the feature as the reading improves.

Because the future of audio is moving so rapidly that I missed significant developments by taking nine months off, it’s more essential than ever for writers to hold onto their audio rights.

However, traditional publishers are snapping up audio rights with every single book contract now, which is rather like snapping up movie rights or TV rights. And writers are letting the publishers do it—usually on the advice of idiot agents.

Audio is the reason that Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy declared 2018 the best year ever for the company—the growth of audio and backlist sales, which I will get to in a future part of this series. S&S has its own audio division, and it increased its title count in 2018. The company has also started producing original content, just like Audible has.

Reidy expects S&S’s audio division to become even more important. She told Publisher’s Weekly:

With even more audio retailers coming on board, and the further proliferation of smart speakers and other listening devices, audio will remain a growth engine for us.

Audio will be a growth engine for all of us, if we can manage it. In addition to the audio retailers growing almost by the day, ways for indie writers to produce their own audiobooks and get them into the market have grown in 2018 as well.

Findaway Voices, in particular, has become a go-to site for writers who want to produce their own audiobooks. I have yet to use them; many of my books are direct through Audible as a traditional publisher. If you’re interested in how this works, check out this post on the Creative Penn by guest author Julia How of Witcherley Book Company.

The key here with audio rights—with all of your rights, really—is maintaining control of them. Watch your contracts. If you’re publishing traditionally, reserve your audio rights. Do not sell them as part of a package to your traditional publisher, no matter how big those companies are.

If you’re indie publishing, watch your contracts, particularly if an audiobook publisher comes to you. As I mentioned above in the bit about S&S, they now have an entire audio division and are producing original content. Which means that they might contract for audio first.

The problem with all of the S&S contracts I’ve seen—the problem with most of the Big 5 contracts I’ve seen—is that they won’t accept a license for a single right. They want to license the entire property, even if they don’t exercise all of those rights. Which means that by licensing audio to them, you might lose paperback rights as well. Or the entire copyright, since that seems to be the M.O. for many of these companies.

Be very careful.

Audio is a growing market, and one where the growth will go in a multitude of directions, some of them unpredictable as I write this in December of 2018. Keep an eye on the changes. See what interests you and do that first, if indeed, you want to do anything.

Remember to watch your contracts. Control your rights. But also watch your time.

Your main job is writing new product. Remember that. With audio, and several other new developments in other areas (that I’ll deal with next time), you could lose hours, days, weeks, months to things that feel like writing, but aren’t.

You won’t be able to get to all of it, and you might have to delegate some of it. Or you might have to miss this particular gravy train, at least for the time being.

Those are the kinds of decisions you’ll have to make in 2019. Be patient. Eventually, you’ll figure out how best to seize this opportunities in your own business—without selling out your business or ceasing work on the thing that makes your business unique.

Have fun….


I couldn’t be writing this series without the support and suggestions from my Patreon supporters. They helped me organize my thoughts as I got ready to write this series, and for that I’m very grateful.

The rest of you sent links and made comments throughout the fall that helped as well. My Pocket Reader is overflowing with book marked articles as I get ready to move into 2019 myself.

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“Business Musings: Audio (Planning for 2019 Part 4),” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.



16 thoughts on “Business Musings: Audio (Planning For 2019 Part 4)

  1. “However, traditional publishers are snapping up audio rights with every single book contract now, which is rather like snapping up movie rights or TV rights. And writers are letting the publishers do it—usually on the advice of idiot agents.”

    Because I wasn’t successful in keeping the audio rights from Orbit on my first two contracts, I started selling the audio first, so they would be “off the table.” This worked fine for my next contract and that added another $340,000 in audio advances to an already lucrative .5M advance for print/ebook (for 4 books fo the series). My next audio rights deal (for a trilogy came in with an advance of $1M). But when I signed it I did so thinking that it may cut me out from print/ebook contracts (because audio would be required).

    Sure enough, that seems to be so. The only publisher I’ve not checked with is Tor (and DAW – who despite a PRH distribution agreement is still an indie press), but Ace, Del Rey, Orbit, Harper Voyager, and Saga have all said no audio = no contract, no exceptions.

    So, while your advice is sound, and IS something that can work out from an indie publisher, I don’t think you can get a new big-five contract with audio rights reserved. If someone can prove me wrong, I’d love to hear about it. But my intel on this matter has been pretty through.

    It’s a blessing in disguise as I MIGHT have continued “business as usual” and selling ebook/print rights through traditional. But by keeping the audio rights I’m forced into indie for those rights. The ebooks are earning amazingly well. And I still have wide bookstore shelving by doing print runs and using a distributor. My Riyria Chronicle series has the first two books published by Orbit (Aug & Sep 2013) and the next two by myself (Oct 2015 and Dec 2017). The income paints an amazing story.

    $160,000 in 209 month from traditional
    $ 600,000 in 40 months from self (I pay a lot for cover design and editing so $7,000 of that needs to come off the top, but I don’t pay for advertising and the print & warehousing were already deducted off the initial numbers.

    Anyway, that’s a long involved way of saying, your assertion is a good one, I’m just not sure whether (in the face of cartel-like behavior) authors/idiot agents will be able to take the audio off the table. It seems like the ship may have sailed on this one. But if I’m mistaken, and people are getting big-five contracts without audio, I’d love to know because I’ve been keeping my ear to the pavement and haven’t found anyone who has been able to pull off that hat trick.

      1. I don’t think the publishers were lying to me when they said, “No exceptions” – you know as well as I do that some things just aren’t negotiable. Period. Life of copyright – non negotiable. ebook rights – non negotiable, and now audio is as well. But like I said, if someone can show me a contract negotiated from here on out where they were able to keep their audio rights – I’d love t see it, but I don’t think such a thing will exist. The reason the publishers have such crappy rights-grabby contracts is because they work as a cartel. If one breaks ranks the whole system falls apart. So, yeah, Del Rey lost a few hundred thousands by not signing my last three books…but how many audio rights will they keep by making it clear that there are no exceptions? Well, a lot more than my books were bringing in. That’s for sure.

        1. Oh, there are always exceptions. Trust me, Stephen King or Nora Roberts or James Patterson would be exceptions. It’s just where the publisher draws the line. They don’t want to lose the gigantic cash cow. They seem more and more willing to lose the slightly smaller cash cow. (They’re setting lots of bestsellers loose, which makes no sense to me.) And your analysis of what they lose versus what they gain is spot-on.

  2. I’ve had a good experience with Podium Publishing for audio, for whatever that’s worth. Not sure if I’ve earned back what they spent, but they’ve been good to me with regards to providing any sales data.

    1. Podium has their act together. They pick good titles, have excellent narrators, and have built a reputation for quality because, well they produce quality. Also, like Audible Studios, they pay on actual gross sales rather than “net” which means you aren’t in the % of a % situation. Depending on what that % is, it could be pretty lucrative. The only downside with Podium is they don’t pay advances. With the six and seven figure advances I’ve been getting, that’s hard to walk away from. Still, I’ve often said, I’d rather have a higher royalty than big advances, so I may do a project with them in the future. They’ve asked…but as I’ve said, it’s the advances part of the equation that has so far kept me away.

      1. When dealing with traditional publishing, I always take the advance. I’ve learned the hard way that someone who pays great royalties and is aboveboard will stop behaving like that with some small regime change. Money in hand when dealing with outside entities is always better than money down the road, I’m afraid. So I’m agreeing with you. The lack of advance bothers me as well.

        1. It’s a good point, not to mention when the advance is high – they have a lot of skin in the game and that may mean more marketing dollars or support from the sales and merchandising staffs.

  3. The toddler video is fascinating, for the reasons you mentioned. I remember when touchscreens were a new thing, videos of toddlers showed up where they tried turning pages of print magazines like they would on a touchscreen device … a line from a song in ‘Evita’ reminds me if this, ‘Get them while they’re young, Evita, get them while they’re young’.
    I’m 60 years old, and I see my contemporaries mourning the ‘good old days’ and being left further and further behind. We will never have the ‘feel’ for new tech that those younglings have, and perhaps that’s a good thing, but we can’t afford to be so far from it that communication becomes impossible.

  4. I’ve had a good experience with ACX. I don’t have to pay for professional audiobook production up-front, but instead share royalties with a producer. The biggest knock on ACX’s royalty share program is distribution is limited to Audible, Amazon, and iTunes for a seven-year term. When I get enough cash flow to justify paying $2000 up front for audio production, I’ll do that and distribute my titles more widely.

  5. Or you might have to miss this particular gravy train, at least for the time being.

    Thanks for mentioning that. I’ve wanted to get into audio since 2012, but just have not seen my way to it. Yet. I think the key for me is to simply hang onto my rights until I can, make audio happen. And keep writing! 😀

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