Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by novelist Lee Stephen (@epicuniverse). It was updated on Dec. 3 with the addition of “Submitting High-Quality Audio to ACX” and “Sales Figures.” See also the Nov. 23, 2015 update at the bottom of the post.
Like many an independent author out there, I blazed the indie trail out of a love for the artistic side of things and an understanding that total creative control could result in better projects. And like my fellow indies, I soon realized that Amazon could be an outstanding ally. Their platform for self-publishing was second-to-none, and it enabled us to pack the wagon and head out west (figuratively speaking) to the wild frontier of doing-it-oneself.
So naturally, with audiobooks starting to catch fire, Amazon was poised to once again be our faithful companion. Right?
Not so much.
What Are the Terms of Amazon’s ACX?
The knocks on Amazon’s ACX platform have been duly noted in numerous blogs across the web. They keep either 75% or 60% of your profits, depending on whether or not you value the privilege of selling your own material. They require you to sign a contract that handcuffs you to your decision for the next seven years, after which they set the price of your work.
When I set out to create an audiobook for the first novel in my Epic series, Dawn of Destiny, I had done no research on the actual selling of an audiobook. I only knew that I wanted mine done differently. I wanted fans to hear it all and feel it all, like going out to see a summer blockbuster that happens to not have a screen. I hired 32 voice actors, packed the project with bombastic music and sound effects, and came out with an audiobook that sounded like Independence Day. It underwent nearly five years of development and cost more than most people would dream of spending on an audiobook. When it was finished, I was proud of it. This was different. This was new. This was what being an indie was all about. The only thing left for me to do was sell it.
Excited, I ventured into Audible territory.
Needless to say, what I found there devastated me. After five years’ worth of effort, ACX was offering me a mere spoonful of the feast I’d prepared. There had to be an alternative. There had to be a better way.
So I looked. I looked, and I looked, and I looked.
I found CD Baby.
Important note: Before I get into this, I want to make it clear that I do not work for CD Baby. No one from CD Baby has asked me to do this, and CD Baby is not paying me for this. They don’t even know that I’m doing it. I feel these facts must be mentioned beforehand, because things are about to get all warm and fuzzy!)
What Is CD Baby?
I was surprised when CD Baby ended up on my list of places to look into, as audiobooks are not what they do. But apparently, a handful of authors had taken a stab at their services, and from what I could find, no one had much to complain about. Just the same, there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there regarding CD Baby as an audio distributor.
I simply had to investigate.
One hour later, I was sold.
For those who know CD Baby, you know that they pride themselves on being a platform for indie musicians. For those who haven‘t heard of CD Baby, you might be surprised to find out that they’re exceedingly influential in the music industry for the aforementioned reason. Every indie band knows CD Baby.
But I’m not a band. I’m an author. But I’m producing audio, soooo…a phone call was in order.
Several minutes later, I was talking to a person.
Stop right there. Did you catch that? I’ll repeat it again, just in case, because this is actually kind of mind-blowing to anyone who’s needed desperately to talk to someone from Amazon in a pinch.
Several minutes after calling CD Baby, I was talking to a person. Not a sales rep. Not someone with English as their third language. A helpful human being who had the ability to answer my questions, help me set up a profile, then look at said profile to make sure it was the way I wanted. A person who loved their job.
This helpful human being then informed me that, yes, while audiobooks weren’t their typical product, they still had worked with some audiobook producers in the past. They informed me that, yes, I could set my own release date and price. Yes, I could have links to my CD Baby store anywhere. Yes, I would keep a majority of the profit. 91% of it! No, there were no binding contracts. I could cancel, change the price, pull the product, or change any of its information, anytime I wanted.
It was my product.
Audio Quality of CD Baby Versus ACX
Did you know that Audible doesn’t upload audio files at their highest level of quality? Audible Enhanced Audio uploads at a sample rate of 22.050 kHz. This is what they consider CD quality. Funny enough, though, the rest of the world considers 22.050 kHz to be “low fidelity,” and 44.1 kHz to be CD quality, which is the level of quality that CD Baby makes available to the consumer.
Audible also requests that all uploaded files be in mono, not stereo, meaning there’s literally no depth of sound coming from Audible files.
It goes without saying that CD Baby, who specializes in digital audio, uses stereo. In layman’s terms, what does this mean? It means Audible files don’t sound as good. And by “don’t sound as good,” I don’t mean at a level at which only composers and dogs can differentiate. I mean noticeably not as good. I’m getting ripped off not as good. You can’t even find websites that audibly compare 22.050 kHz to 44.1 kHz, because it’s not even a debate.
Submitting High-Quality Audio to ACX
A (very legitimate) point was brought up in one of the comments below, and it warrants a clarification here. If you look at the ACX Submission Guidelines, you will see that you can submit audio files at 192kbit/sec, 44.1 kHz, and in stereo. All of these things would seem to contradict some of the audio quality issues I just told you about. Unfortunately, this is another area where you have to dig a little deeper to find out what’s really going on.
If you read the requirements, they reference that Audible files are available in a variety of formats. And that’s where you have to focus. As you’ll see, there are no specifics as to what quality of audio file the consumer actually downloads. Instead, there’s a level of quality with descriptions such as “CD,” all with asterisks attached. If you look down, you’ll see that the asterisk means: “sound quality similar to.”
Similar to what? When you’re dealing with kbits/sec, there is no “similar.” There simply is, and there isn’t. 196kbits/sec is not like 128kbits/sec or 320kbits/sec. If the files are at 196kbits/sec, they’re at 196kbits/sec. But by using “CD” as a quality identifier, they’ve allowed themselves some wiggle room.
So what gives? What bit rate are consumers actually downloading? ACX doesn’t give you an answer, not even in their Audible Enhanced Audio Help Center. In fact, there only seems to be one website that gives you the answer to this question: Wikipedia. There’s a chart in the center of the page that actually provides numbers for what consumers are downloading. Of the four formats available, only one is available in Stereo. And its quality? 64kbits/sec, 22.010 kHz.
You’ll note that the Wikipedia even cites Audible’s description of “CD Quality” in the chart, but make no mistake: 64kbits/sec is not CD quality.
Wikipedia is not my only source for this, and anyone who Googles sound quality on ACX will find numerous comments and articles by audiophiles much more knowledgeable than me clearly referencing the fact that while files can be uploaded at higher quality rates, they can only be downloaded at 64kbits/sec. As my last point of reference, I would just say … listen. Just listen to Audible files, then listen to higher quality files. You’ll be able to tell.
What About Distribution?
CD Baby can distribute your audiobook to iTunes and Amazon, with the caveat that it will not show up in the audiobook category, but in the “spoken word” category of music.
I do not recommend doing this, especially if you’ve invested as much as I have in your audiobook production. Though both iTunes and Amazon will respect the release date and pay a higher percentage of the profit than they would an audiobook, they will still not respect the price you’ve set for your product through CD Baby. Your audiobook will get listed for $8.99. Thus, I am only allowing digital distribution through CD Baby itself.
Crunching the Numbers
My research revealed that the average price of an audiobook on Audible’s Top 20 was $33.68, with a high listing of $69.97 and low listing of $19.93 and $19.95 (the next lowest after those was $22.67, then everything was mid-$20s and way, way up).
I listed Dawn of Destiny on CD Baby for $25.99. This was $7.68 less than the average, and it would have made Dawn of Destiny the 5th cheapest audiobook in a list of twenty.
Now, all of these numbers are subject to slight change, both upward and downward, as Audible’s Top 20 fluctuates. But it gave me a solid variety of actual figures with which to set a list price.
Had ACX listed Dawn of Destiny themselves and set the price for $25.99, I would be making either $6.49 or $10.40 per sale depending on whether or not I wanted the ability to sell it myself. I would have signed away my rights to the project for seven years, having no control in any area of what happens with it. My product would have been delivered to the consumer at a sound-quality level that isn’t even used in side-by-side comparisons because it’s just that poor.
At CD Baby, none of the negatives in the aforementioned paragraph are an issue, and I make a profit of $23.65 (91%) per audiobook sold while selling it at nearly 25% below the average audiobook price.
What About Visibility to the Market?
You might wonder about the wide exposure that comes with having something on Audible. To that, I would say that our fan bases are our exposure—the incredibly amazing people who follow us on Twitter, who like us on Facebook, who join our mailing lists, and who hound us for our next release dates. And they don’t care if you point them to Audible, CD Baby, or a shed in your backyard. If they follow you, if you’re fair to them, and if you reward them with quality material, they’ll make the purchase.
Sales Update (Dec. 3, 2014)
Many people have asked me about my sales figures. Unfortunately, I’m one of those “never discloses numbers” writers, even in the realm of books sold. But, I do want to be as helpful as possible, and asking about sales figures is legitimate. You want to know if you can make money with this, right?
Well, I do, too.
This is a learning experience for me. The potential is there to make considerably more money on a per-unit basis through CD Baby than through ACX. Whether that potential can actually be realized is something I’m still figuring out (and hoping for!). My intention is to write a follow-up entry in roughly six months, where I’ll identify trends and give honest feedback on what works and what doesn’t. If this is not a viable way to actually turn a profit, I’m going to flat-out say so. In six months, I will have exhausted every promotional tool at my disposal, including a widespread audiobook tour. If there’s money to be made (or not made), I will know, and I will share—even if a disclosure of actual numbers doesn’t accompany that.
Here’s what I can say, so far: sales started decently, then slumped. This is kind of what I expected, being that no one really goes to CD Baby on their own to seek out an audiobook. Audible is still the dragon. I’m just trying to see if there’s a way to slay it. I mentioned it in one of the comments below, and I’ll mention it here, too: I’m impassioned about this. If this doesn’t succeed, there will be a part of me that feels like I’ve failed. If this project succeeds, more authors will look at CD Baby. If more authors look to CD Baby, CD Baby is going to notice. If CD Baby notices, they will offer us more services. And if they offer us more services, well, the game will have changed. Nothing would make me happier than to play a role in authors getting more freedom of choice.
I’m pretty sure this was long so far as guest entries go, but it really is important. CD Baby has made me feel empowered as an indie audiobook producer. You deserve that feeling of empowerment, too. Don’t sell yourself (or your products) short.
I hope you enjoyed this entry and found it useful! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Feel free to ask me any questions about my CD Baby experience either below in the comments, on Twitter, or via email.
You can also check out the five-minute YouTube clip from my audiobook. I was aiming for something different, so let me know if I hit the mark (I do recommend headphones!). Or visit Dawn of Destiny‘s page on CD Baby.
Update from Lee (11/23/15): I just wanted to let you guys know that a major, collaborative update is in the works and will be coming in the near future. The short preview is that the route described in my original entry didn’t work as well as I’d hoped simply for a lack of natural foot traffic. However, all is not lost! I’ve signed on with Author’s Republic and couldn’t be happier. Details will be forthcoming in a later update.