Business Musings: Audio (2020 in Review)
I have courageously decided to review the year 2020 in publishing. Courageously only applies to me because I actually dread looking at the numbers or the things I remember. 2020 has made me skittish and has forced me to believe everything is a disaster, even when it isn’t.
I have already logged a few blogs in this series. I’m writing them and posting them on Patreon first. The rest will appear throughout the next few weeks on this website. Please note that when I link to the previous essays in this series, I’m linking to them on Patreon. If you’re reading this on my website, you’ll have to search “2020 in Review” to get all of the essays.
Audio has had a mixed 2020. The year started well for audio, with reports coming in that the audio segment of the publishing industry grew 16% in 2019. The audiobooks segment of the industry had grown the previous year as well, so audio was seen as being on a marvelous upward trajectory.
And then…Covid. At first, audio sales went down dramatically. No one was commuting. The regular listeners…stopped. Sales declined. So audiobooks companies became creative. They gave away books to get listeners into the infrastructure.
Early in the pandemic lockdowns, I found myself sharing dozens of links for free audiobooks, especially for kids. Parents who wanted to augment learning could get education-based audiobooks for free. I can’t find most of those offers now, and I don’t feel like going through my social media to find it. As I was researching this, I found them again…and lost them. I had forgotten that side of the early pandemic.
But others hadn’t, and apparently, that early giveaway encouraged parents and students to start buying audiobooks. I searched and searched for U.S. numbers, which are hard to find.
The big traditional book companies reported losses in their audiobook revenues, which is not a surprise. Their marketing is extremely old-fashioned. Penguin Random House did do some early freebies, but their own site for audiobooks is counter-intuitive and not user friendly.
Audible doesn’t report its numbers to anyone because it’s an Amazon company. I had private confirmation that Audible’s sales were down well before audiblegate, which we will get to in a moment.
Sales figures from overseas are a little clearer. According to The Guardian in the UK, sales of “consumer audiobooks” in the UK “surged” 42% in 2020. According to a report by German digital distributor Bookwire and Austrian industry consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart, audiobook downloads increased by 109% during the first European lockdown. Those downloads were “bolstered by targeted marketing campaigns by publishers and discounts” (including the freebies I mentioned above). Those downloads decreased once that early lockdown ended.
Even more interesting, I think, is that audiobook subscriptions in Europe were up 37%. The subscriptions continued to grow even after lockdown, showing that once customers encountered audiobooks, a solid percentage of those customers remained.
I don’t know if audio will continue to grow in the post-pandemic era at the amazing rate that it was growing pre-pandemic. We don’t yet know whether people will resume commuting, at least at the levels they were commuting during the pre-pandemic era, so we don’t know if the growth in audiobooks will continue at the pre-pandemic levels.
Even if audiobooks level off for a year or more, they’re still doing better than they did five years ago. And the markets are growing. There’s a lot of innovation in audiobooks and audiobook retailing at the moment, things I’m only beginning to understand.
Rather than try to blog out of my partial understanding, I’ll do a longer audiobooks piece sometime in 2021.
But speaking of new markets…
A lot of writers have terminated their relationship with Audible in 2020, after something dubbed #audiblegate. For an in-depth look at #audiblegate, read this post from Susan May. It’s well written and shows what a lot of writers have been up against, even before the pandemic hit.
Audible controls most of the market in the U.S., which has led to some awful practices on their part. Full disclosure, I left Audible in the summer, not because of #Audiblegate, but because my treatment from Audible Studios (not ACX), which has published my audiobooks for about 15 years, deteriorated when my main editor left. The next editor was terrible (so bad he got fired) and then the next was worse, and the new guy, well, I couldn’t take it anymore.
So I finished out my contract, and will move on to other venues, something I’ll discuss in a future post. (Don’t worry, audio fans. You’ll be able to get your favorites in audio, no matter what.)
Figured you should know that I’m not happy with Audible either, so keep that in mind as you read this.
Anyway, #audiblegate. In a nutshell, Audible allowed audiobook returns for a year after purchase. Which means you could listen to and relisten to and listen again to a book you purchased…and still return it for full credit. Those “sales” would be deducted from an author’s royalties. Again, as much as a year after the book “sold.”
Not only were listeners taking advantage of that, but Audible was promoting that feature as if it was a good thing.
Indie writers, traditional writers, and writers organizations rose up in protest. Audible responded…by changing the return window to seven days. Authors are still unhappy, not just because of the return window, but also because the transactions are difficult to follow, the clawbacks of income hidden. Some organizations are asking Audible to grant the writers restitution.
The problem is ongoing, and will probably have an impact long in 2021.
One fascinating aspect of #audiblegate is that indie writers are terminating their relationship with Audible as quickly as possible and moving to other venues, like Findaway Voices. Anecdotally, the exodus from Audible seems substantial. I can’t find any real numbers though, and don’t expect to know what the real numbers are until we can see the growth in these newer platforms at the end of 2021.
Speaking of other platforms, they’re growing and innovating. Findaway Voices is adding new distribution partners almost weekly, it seems. And Findaway is global, as opposed to Audible’s ACX which is only in certain territories. Findaway has also made it easier for authors to sell their audiobooks direct to their listeners.
Bookfunnel is also adding a direct-to-listeners feature. Bookfunnel has been working on audio for more than a year now. First it was small files, and now, they’ve expanded so that they’re doing Bookfunnel of audiobooks.
Right now, it’s in beta, and only available to existing Bookfunnel authors, but by next year, it’ll be available to anyone.
Findaway’s and Bookfunnel’s innovations would have happened anyway, even if 2020 had gone differently. (And why, why, didn’t it? Oh, never mind.)
But other innovations are happening because of the pandemic. I’m going to showcase some here, not because they’re relevant to writers, but because I think it’s important that we keep up with the other arts and how they’re trying to survive in this pandemic economy. I’m sure there are other places to add this, but it feels natural here.
First, because of the shutdown in the entertainment industry, performers are doing their best to figure out how to perform. That’s leading to a revival of one of my favorite forms, the audio drama. (Or as we called it in my day, the radio play.) Right now, they’re at the beginning of their renaissance, but with luck, they’ll grow into something bigger.
Then, this week on The Voice, Keith Urban and Pink performed their duet properly distanced—from everyone. The performance was lovely and innovative, and I can imagine more performances like it post-pandemic, particularly when artists are not able to be in the same place at the same time during a live show like the Grammy’s.
Because I had just seen that, I paid particular attention to this article in the Las Vegas Weekly. “Musical HQ” explores a new rehearsal space for local musicians. (Local musicians here are often…um…famous musicians worldwide.)
Sonic Rodeo Studios will open in the Arts District here in 2021, because of things learned in the pandemic, and the changes that may be permanent because of COVID. A lot of musicians received new audience members because of live streaming. But…
(Larry) Reha (of Sonic Rodeo) says that while livestreams have helped bands get their music heard this year, quality can be an issue. “Like, if the video was good, the sound wasn’t good, and if it sounded good, the video was boring,” Reha says. “So we’re gonna try to combine those to have great lighting, great sound in really good video with multiple camera angles and stuff like that.”
So, he innovated, and birthed Sonic Rodeo Studios.
He’s not the only one innovating in this town. I’m talking to artists every day who are doing something they never expected to do. And in that same issue of Las Vegas Weekly, Leslie Ventura spoke to Nevada Ballet Theater Artistic Director Roy Kaiser about the lost revenue of this year’s Nutcracker. Usually the Nutcracker earns 15 million dollars for NBT. This year, the theater is dark. No new Nutcracker.
So they innovated. Rather than re-air an old performance, NBT partnered with a local TV station to air three programs—one on the history of the Nutcracker and NBT; the second a behind-the-scenes; and the third the Nutcracker through the eyes of a child.
Those programs will also be streamed online. And, because NBT is not using its costumes this year, it has partnered with the Discovery Children’s Museum to have a Nutcracker Exhibit, featuring the props and costumes.
I know, I know. Dance is about as far from an audiobook as you can get. But I wanted to pull this quote for you from NBT’s Artistic Director:
Even when the pandemic eventually ends, Kaiser says, the new NBT element will likely continue. “[COVID-19] has forced all of us in the arts to reimagine how we work and how we create and how we maintain a connection to our public,” Kaiser says. “So I think things like these broadcasts will continue. Even once we’re back, full force onstage, a lot of the efforts that we’ve made during this time will continue, because it gives us another touch point and opportunity to be connected to our audience.”
I think we will see a lot of changes in 2021 and beyond that were born from the wreckage of 2020. All of us will have changed some habits and expectations.
As for audio itself, it’s not going anywhere. It will continue to be a small percentage of the overall book market. But it will be a worthwhile part of what many authors do, depending on how they use it. (Beware the time sink of audio production.)
I think what we’ll take from 2020—all of us in the arts—is an ability to rethink what we accepted to be The Way Things Are Done. It’ll take a year or two for all of these changes to shake out. But you watch: a lot of them will come from this destruction. In time, we won’t even realize how much we’ve changed.
Only that we have.
I have a lot of topics to cover as I try to grapple with this earthshattering year. I’m going to try to write all of these posts in the same week or so. You’ll be able to read all of them on my Patreon page in the next few weeks, or one per week here on the website.
I will probably put other posts in-between some of these, particularly if there’s truly important industry news, or I feel we need a break from the memories of this unreal year. But as I sketch out this series, I’m realizing there is a lot of ground to cover. Not just in what we lost or what changed, but on what might be coming ahead of us.
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“Business Musings: Audio (2020 in Review),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / studiostoks