Audiobooks are experiencing some of the best growth in the book publishing industry; sales were up by more than 24 percent in 2015 according to the Audiobook Publishers Association.
Along with that growth has come increased interest from both traditional and independently published authors in getting their backlist books available in digital audio form. But the costs can be prohibitive—usually in the low four figures if not more.
ACX (owned by Amazon) has long been the go-to solution because it allows authors to find the voice and production talent they need on a royalty-share basis, rather than having to pay upfront, and it works hand-in-hand with Audible distribution—by far the largest retailer of digital audio in the United States.
But working with ACX can have drawbacks, including a 7-year-contract term and a high penalty on the royalty rate if you choose not to be exclusive to Audible. One author wrote a guest post for me a couple years ago describing how much work he did to avoid the ACX path, with mixed results.
Another option is now available to authors: ListenUp Audiobooks. In addition to working with traditional publishers, they work with small publishers and authors on a fee basis, and can also handle distribution to Audible—and beyond—if you choose. I asked David Markowitz at ListenUp about the details of their service and how it compares with ACX.
Jane Friedman: One of the reasons ACX works for so many authors is that it offers an option to do a royalty share, rather than pay upfront for audio production. I know cost is often the No. 1 consideration for authors, so let’s get that out of the way first. Can you give us a sense of the upfront costs involved if authors choose ListenUp to produce their audiobook?
David Markowitz: The royalty share option has certainly helped a lot of people create audiobooks and it’s great that ACX offers it. But it has its drawbacks—it can be a lot of work for an author and the final product isn’t always of the highest quality.
ListenUp is approaching the problem differently. We’re a full-service audiobook solution. We give every author and small publisher the same service we give to our big clients. That means a dedicated casting director, choice of narrators, professional studio recording with a trained engineer, a full edit and final mastering according to Audible standards. Authors have the option to use us for distribution or do it themselves. And we’re creating new marketing solutions.
And with us, you can call up and talk to us about what you want. There are a lot of different ways to go about creating and distributing audio and we’re open to exploring all of them.
Our standard rate is $450 per finished hour of audio. That’s for a book with one narrator. To estimate how much a book will cost, figure a narrator reads about 10,000 words an hour. So a 70,000 word book will be approximately 7 hours long, or $3,150.
What is the advantage to authors if they want to use you for distribution instead of ACX? What percentage do you take as distributor?
We take 25% of cash received on each sale. We want to make it as attractive as possible for authors to distribute with us. Because the more titles we’re sending to the different outlets, the better terms we can negotiate, and the more money we can give back to authors.
The biggest advantage is reach. We distribute everywhere audiobooks are found and beyond. Naturally we distribute to the big digital retailers like Audible and Audiobooks.com, and all of the major library outlets, as well as on our own site. We also work with Findaway (which provides audiobooks for Scribd, Nook and TuneIn), and a lot of smaller sites doing really interesting things—sites like Libro.fm, which is working directly with independent bookstores to host their audiobook catalogue and give them a stronger digital presence.
While the retail outlets still make up the bulk of the profits, libraries now offer significant earnings, too. Currently it’s about 70% retail, 30% library. Our goal is to keep growing the distribution pie to give consumers more options and make listening to an audiobook as easy as picking up a print book.
Authors can choose to distribute a title themselves or use us just for certain outlets.
If authors enter into a distribution agreement with you, can they leave at any time?
Absolutely. We keep it simple. Once an author contacts us in writing, it takes about 60 days to ensure the audiobook is down from all of the various sites.
One of the key concerns I hear from independent authors about audiobooks is that it takes forever to earn out on the investment. What advice do you have on promoting audiobooks to help that investment earn out more quickly?
Audiobook sales are still dependent on the success of a book in its print or digital format. It’s helpful for authors to think of the audiobook as another edition of their book, extending its presence and reach. So when a reader goes to buy it, every option is available to them. At the same time, when an author promotes a book, there will likely be a spike in sales of all editions. Running an advertisement for a discount on an ebook through a service like BookBub has been shown to increase audio as well as ebook sales.
Much like promoting an ebook or print book, authors should offer review copies to bloggers, reviewers, and social media influencers who have significant reach. For the audiobook, authors should focus on reviewers who regularly review audiobooks and can touch on both the story and the narration.
Beyond that, ListenUp is actively working on partnering with various book promotion sites as well as building out our own marketing services. More to come soon!
Do you think indie-produced audiobooks are at a disadvantage visibility-wise when being sold through Audible or other retail environments? I’ve heard this anecdotally from some indie authors. If so, how can this disadvantage be overcome?
As we all know, discovery is always a big challenge. While the total number of audiobooks is much smaller than ebooks or print, it’s now up to a few hundred thousand titles. And sites like Audible are long-tail markets which will always favor more popular titles.
Which is why we’re seeing the value of going wide, of being everywhere, and finding specific promotion opportunities for each platform. Audio creates the possibility of different marketing strategies than digital or print, and we’re exploring it all. A couple examples:
- What does the explosion of podcasting mean for audiobooks and how can we use it to enhance discovery? Sites like TuneIn or Bandcamp, which have traditionally been music focused, are now offering audiobooks. Are there some titles that will work better in those environments than others?
- How can we use the “local” factor to promote authors through library and independent bookstore sites?
Is there a certain type of author who you believe should absolutely be doing audiobooks right now, and investing in the upfront cost?
Certain genres definitely do better in audio. Fiction, especially adult fiction, generally sells better than nonfiction. Literary fiction, science fiction & fantasy, mystery & thriller, and romance & erotica are the most popular genres and tend to work well in audio. Which isn’t to say that nonfiction books can’t be successful, too. Self-help, history, memoir & biography, and business also do well in audio.
As with ebooks, a series is always a good bet, especially romance, fantasy and mystery. If an author has a number of titles published in a series and is starting to grow a significant following, recording the first few books are a great way to get new audiences involved.
Investing in an audiobook always involves some risk, but the potential for return is far greater today than just a few years ago. Mobile has changed everything. Demand continues to grow and new distribution outlets appear monthly. Amazon, Google and Apple all have (or are developing) audio driven ecosystems. You can already listen to audiobooks on the Amazon Echo. Any author who wants total control over how their audiobook sounds and where it’s distributed should invest.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.