Business Musings: The Future of Audio 2019
Surprisingly, for me, one of the best panels at the Business Master Class this year was on audio. We’ve done audio panels in the past. They’ve dealt with audio books, podcasts, and a whole variety of audio options.
Except that in the past, there weren’t as many audio options. The game changer for indies was Audible’s ACX. In the beginning, it was truly wonderful, because both narrators and writers were experimenting. You could hook up with a tremendous narrator on a royalty share, and get great work done.
It took a year or so before the narrators realized that they were losing a lot of money working that way. We managed to keep a couple of our narrators because our books earned them good money, but most writers lost theirs. And ACX became a jungle, where people sometimes got good beginning narrators and sometimes got nothing. Plus, there was the seven year contracts and a whole host of other problems.
A few years ago, Findaway Voices came into the marketplace, with better contracts and more options for creating audiobooks. They continually expand their offerings.
I haven’t used them yet. In fact, I haven’t used most of the services I’ll mention in passing here, but I plan to. Because what I learned at the Business Master Class was a game-changer.
The things I mention here I learned from Joanna Penn, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Andrea Pearson, and Damon Courtney. Joanna’s Creative Penn Podcast has addressed some of these options in the past. I’m not going to take the time to find the particular episodes. You’re on your own there.
And really, this isn’t going to be a list of possible products for audio so much as a post about the future of audio.
For ten years now, it’s been clear that if ebooks hadn’t taken off, audio would have been the publishing story of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Audio is a growth market. With the digitization of audio, and the fact that we carry audio devices on our persons every day, the growth became exponential. Add to that the rise of home-specific devices like Google’s Alexa, and the myriad ways you can link your phone to your car or other devices like your iPad or your TV and you can go from home to car to work while listening to a book—without using one single device, without headphones, and without actually taking a break while listening to that book.
That’s why podcasting has grown as well, and why companies like Spotify offer a podcast streaming option. People are listening more than ever, but like every disruption, the listening is not happening through a handful of curated products or through a particular provider.
Anyone can start a podcast. Anyone can hire a narrator to read a book, and then get that audiobook delivered to a wide swath of the listening audience. All it takes is time…and a little money. Less money than it took five years ago, with more options for distribution.
The options will continue to appear. As Joanna pointed out on the panel, the English language audio books market has existed for 60 years now. But the rest of the world hasn’t had much of an audiobooks presence. That’s changing.
So more and more books will exist in audio, and every country in the world has become a growth market, not just for English language books, but for books in other languages as well.
Thanks to a new program through Bookfunnel, writers can read their own books, and upload an audio file that will go directly to their fans with no other service between them. (No Findaway, no Audible.) Right now, the files are mostly limited to short-story sized, but that might change.
Some writers are using the system to release a chapter per week in audio form to their readers. Others are uploading shorter works, and using it to sell their own audio from their websites.
Writers have found other ways to combine fiction audio and podcasts. Andrea Pearson releases her books as a podcast, again, in a chapter per week, and she’s not the only one doing such innovative things.
I suspect that there’s a lot more going on in audio on that DIY level that I know nothing about. Feel free to add it into the comments.
Another phenomenon that old radio person me hadn’t expected was this: many people—most of us, in fact—will listen to information programs like podcasts at 2.5 speed or faster. Rather than listen to people discuss a cold case or writing programs in their regular voices at their normal pace, listeners speed up the recording, so they’re getting the information in half or a quarter of the time.
That frees listeners up to hear to more podcasts. A lot of people listen to how-to books in the same way. And some—a rare few, but some—listen to fiction audiobooks like that as well.
And then there is machine reading. Right now, some listener somewhere, maybe cooking dinner or making cookies, has asked Alexa (or one of those other in-home speakers) to read a book out loud. That reading is probably flat and toneless. But it serves its purpose.
At the moment, listeners have three choices: they can listen to audiobooks with a narrator at normal speed or audiobooks with a narrator at faster-then-normal speed, or regular books read (flatly) by a computer at any speed.
Those choices will change within the year.
Programs like one in beta at Descript.com will allow anyone to create a digital voice double, so that “you” can read your book, without really reading your book. In other words, those hours you would spend reading it would become maybe an hour as you set up the program.
It wouldn’t be 100% accurate, and probably would still have some flatness, but that’s a problem that will go away with time and technology.
Right now, for 99 cents, Alexa users can have their device speak to them in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice. So, if my readers want to hear my Smokey Dalton books read by Samuel L. Jackson, they’ll get a digital approximation of that.
Of course, if we hired Samuel L. Jackson to do an actual reading, he would do it as a performance. That would have a lot more animation and emotion. It would be different from the digitized reading you would get from Alexa.
And then there is the full audio version of a story, one that would include music, and other sound effects. In fact, you could go full dramatization, with multiple voices and multiple effects.
All of those options led to a big realization for me in the middle of that panel: We can scale our audio for our various supporters.
Think of it this way:
A digital audio version of the book, read by my audio voice double (my digitized voice), might sell for as little as 99 cents or 2.99 or something that would cover the cost of distributing the file.
An actual audio version, read by me the actual person, might cost more, maybe $5 to $10.
A performance version by an actual voiceover artist, or a famous actor, or someone known for reading audio, might sell at the $20 level or more.
A full dramatic version, with sound effects and multiple voices, might sell for even more, maybe as much as $100 for the version, particularly if there are some famous voices involved.
There’s a lot of side marketing that could happen as well—videos of the audio production as it’s being recorded, ringtones and other snippets of catch phrases, and anything else audio/video that you can think of. Or that I can think of.
I’m so excited about these possibilities that I’m taking a voiceover class this spring, to get the proper training on the latest equipment and, in this city of entertainment, meet some voiceover artists whom I might hire to work with us on future projects.
I’m still going to keep some work at Audible, although this past year has been difficult with them. (For the audiobook of The Renegat, I couldn’t convince a brand new (frustratingly new) editor that the book was long and needed extra time for production. As a result, the audiobook came out two months later than the other books, even though the book was done at this time last year, and if he had listened to me, would have been released on time. Grumph.)
I want my listeners to hear the same narrators, though. Right now, I can only do that through Audible, although as my finances free up, I might be able to hire them to work with me directly.
That won’t happen for a while, though, since I’m locked in on some projects.
That’s all right. I have a lot more.
There’s a lot of opportunity in audio, and more growing each and every day. As I set aside my notes to write this blog, I read in AARP: The Magazine’s August/September 2019 issue about a bedtime app that will read a story aloud to you.
The app, called calm.com, offers 100 short tales read by very famous people, all designed to help adults who can’t sleep calm down enough to get some shuteye.
Great idea. And I’m sure there are more great ideas out there in the audio sphere, ones I don’t know about.
Audio is going to be a focus for me in 2020. I need to organize my thoughts and my plans on my audio work. The class will help. (By the way, you can take voiceover classes online. To find them, Google “voice coach.” And, as always, take what you find with a grain of salt, and research, research, research).
Audio has come a long way in the past 10 years. I suspect it’ll grow even faster in the next five.
The key for writers will be time management. Because we’re still going to need to fulfill our primary mission—which is write our stories. Everything past that is gravy. And we have to remember that, while we face all of this marvelous opportunity and growth.
2020 will be the first year of a new decade. I’m going to be planning my focus, not just for the year, but for what I can see of that decade. So you’ll see a lot of focus from me on these topics for the next few weeks or months.
Speaking of that, we are offering four new online classes to help you get through 2020, as well as get a proper start to the decade. To find out more, check out this post from Dean and the one that follows.
Also speaking of 2020, we will hold the last Business Master Class in this format in October. The class is almost full already. (It might be full by the end of the year.) We will have a waiting list, however, once the class fills. See this blog post to understand why we’re making this change.
I usually try to write ahead on my blog, and I got behind this fall. I’m scrambling to catch up. I’ll be doing some live-blogging of CES on Patreon, although not as much as last year. I’ll also be putting up blog posts early plus some extra material there.
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“Business Musings: Audio 2019,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / paulfleet.
My friend Mary E. Lowd told me about the power of “Nothing Much Happens,” a podcast of Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups that really works to put me to sleep. It’s deliberately boring writing! So you don’t worry about missing anything. Gentle and full of specific sense details, though. 🙂
I listen to audio books every day — I have different ones on the phone (currently Susan Rice’s TOUGH LOVE) and the iPad (currently a romance). Our library has a Hoopla app that allows me to borrow audio books for free.
Hi, Kris! Thanks for the column!
Sorry I’m late to the party here, but this is a fantastic and edifying summary of the audio options available, Kris. When my first two novels were released in 2009 and 2013, respectively, I recorded them both on audio using a BLUE Snowball mic and Garage Band (audio recording app that comes with MacOS) and released them for free one chapter at a time, first on a podcast site called Prometheus Radio Theatre (now on indefinite hiatus) and then on the popular Podiobooks.com, which eventually merged into Scribl.com. You can still listen to them for free on Scribl as well as Librivox. The quality of both the reading and the audio itself turned out beautifully.
With the release of my third novel in 2018, I simply could not make the time between other writing projects and life changes to record the audio. I still feel a bit guilty about that so, depending on how 2020 goes for me, I might record it by the end of the year. I wrote about my audio experiences in a recent blog post. https://www.philgiunta.com/now-you-listen-to-me/
Thanks again for this information, Kris. It might have been the kick in the pants I needed. Cheers!
I agree with the opportunities presented by audiobooks – but those price points? No. For $9.95 a month (plus tax), I can get an almost unlimited number of stories, complete with music, some with famous actors, most also with not just their voices but their faces. It’s called “Amazon Prime,” or “NetFlix,” or “Hulu,” or half a dozen other streaming services.
Now, I also disagree with the “calming” effect of having a story read to you at bedtime – but I am most likely part of a very small demographic there. I just cannot fall asleep with any voices, even music vocals. (Actually, most music is also disturbing to me; my mind gets activated trying to anticipate its next direction. Contrariwise, having large military cargo planes exercising right over my house – as is happening just now as I type – does not bother me in the least. So – definitely Odd there.)
My personal theory, albeit without any extensive study behind it, is that the growth in audio is partially being driven by Amazon, looking for their next growth market now that most people who want a Kindle have one. I know Amazon isn’t the only factor – podcasts have also made a real comeback in the past couple of years, and I would guess they’re even more popular now than they were in their previous heyday – but they’ve certainly been pushing audio to an obnoxious degree (at least obnoxious from the perspective of someone with auditory processing issues that make fiction listening too difficult to be enjoyable; readers interested in audio may well be grateful for the increased visibility of audiobooks). Over the past few months, they’ve started doing things like sometimes directing people to the Audible edition by default (even for people who have Kindle format set as their default), adding popups to book pages to advertise the audio version, adding an Audible link to book pages on e-ink Kindles (which makes no sense to me, since the e-ink display won’t improve the audio experience and there are easier ways to listen to an audio file, but if Amazon is still doing it, there must be a market there), putting audiobooks on their top-100 lists, offering audio versions of some Amazon-published works for free, and probably more that I’m forgetting. They’re doing a BIG push to get more Audible listeners.
Digital technology can alter the speed of a recording without altering the pitch, and vice versa. I’d expect 2.5x would sound quite unnatural, but if you listen to a lot of books like that, you’d probably get used to it.
-sigh- I don’t even like voice acting in MMOs. It’s so slow compared to reading, and doesn’t 2.5 speed sound like the Chipmunks? Audio is a phenomenon I truly don’t understand. As for the various options, would anybody really pay for the bargain basement version?
Most audiobook readers are on the go a lot. I pretty much only listen to podcasts when I have a drive ahead of me. The friends I know who listen to audiobooks do genuinely enjoy them, but if not for that they wouldn’t be consuming books at all because they’re doing other things.
I prefer to immerse myself in a story by reading, but if I have to wash a ton of dishes or drive half an hour or more, I’m a lot happier with something to listen to (probably a language podcast or something).
I guess that makes sense. I spend most of my time at home and listen to CDs in the car coz radio ‘hosts’ annoy the hell out of me.
-sigh- I’m getting old in more ways than one.
For me, one of the most exciting horizon possibilities here is for the emerging markets where literacy rates are low and oral storytelling strong.
Right now the cost of audio makes emerging market engagement challenging, but as we see with podcasts, the interest is there. Everyone has a smartphone, and auto-voiced audio will soon be able to deliver acceptable quality audiobooks globally via subscription services at locally-comfortable prices and in local languages.
Revenue returns per hourly read will be low, but volume could be game-changing.
As we start 2020 there are 4.5 billion people online around the world and fewer than 7% are in the USA,
There are already 560 million people online in India, 523 million people online in Africa…
Building out on your overview of opportunities, Storytel finished this year in twenty markets, and over one million subscribers. Scribd hit one million subscribers this year, and took over $100 million in revenue in 2019. Audiobook and podcast production and distribution operators like Ubook, Audioteka, Legimi, Spreaker, Luisterhuis, AudiolibriNarratore and a hundred more, are facilitating and delivering audio and podcasts to a world largely ignored by those focussed on the US/UK low hanging fruit, but that offers rich rewards for those willing to step outside that comfort zone.
Here’s the funny thing, Kris: A little over three years ago a fellow writer recommended your blog. At the time I was doing some renovations to my house and, wanting to keep my mind occupied while I stripped woodwork and patched cracks in the ceiling, I went back to the beginning of the Business Rusch, imported your posts one by one into TTS Reader, and binge-listened to them all.
It’s gotten so that I’m so used to hearing your thoughts in that flattish “U.S. G” canned voice, I have to seek out your real voice on YouTube to get straight on what you really sound like. And if I take in your posts only with my eyes I feel somehow I haven’t really read them; I have to listen to them, too.
So audio, yeah. I’d truly love to have an audio version of my first (and so far, only) novel, but it gets complicated with the dual POVs and the frequent (public domain) musical quotations. Especially the ones that really are in French, but I render them in English.
But with the improvements you speak of, I suppose that what I have in mind might be brought down to a cost I can afford sooner than anyone would previously have thought.
The funny thing is, I’m not exactly sure where I heard Kris’s voice often enough, but I always hear her voice when I read her blog posts. I must’ve gotten lucky with a WMG lecture or something.
Amazing post! I read Joanna’s podcasts transcripts and have learned a great deal about audio books. You have just taught me more. Thank you. I do believe that audio is the real growth market, and should be part of every author’s plan to distribute worldwide. I will share this widely as I have so many other posts in this group.
OMG… that Voice Double thing (with good quality text-to-audio) will be a game changer. Awesome!