2017/03/13

The Audiobook Talk

audiobooks

If you're a regular reader here, you know how highly I value my readers. The Big Five publishers treat readers as a captive audience whose tastes they can manipulate. I cherish my readers as the people who enable me to write for a living. When my readers have requests or suggestions pertaining to my writing, I listen as carefully as you would to your boss.

I depend on my readers to make my living. When you guys talk, I listen.

Don't believe me? Just ask any of my readers here, on Facebook, Gab, or Twitter about how I offered Nethereal second edition for free to people who'd bought the first version, or how I sent them free epubs when delivery of their print copies was delayed.

Times are tough. Folks need to look out for each other. If you paid your hard-earned money for my books, I look out for you.

Let's talk audiobooks
Ever since I published my first book, people have asked me when the audio version will be out. This told me that there is definitely a demand for audiobooks, so I researched audiobook costs, royalties, and sales trends. The results weren't encouraging--at least not immediately.

Audiobook popularity
Finding out exactly how big the demand for audiobooks is proved to be a daunting task. There is no shortage of sensationalistic articles from mainstream media outlets proclaiming that audiobooks are the future of reading, poised to overtake even eBooks.

But under closer scrutiny, all of these reports start from the false premise that eBook sales are declining. This zombie meme was hatched by the Big Five publishers and dutifully spread by their legacy media buddies to distract the public from the Big Five's collapsing paper distribution monopoly.

I dismantled this fake news here, pointing out that it is only the Big Five whose eBook sales are slipping. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why, since they charge print prices for a bunch of ones and zeroes. Indie now dominates the publishing industry, thanks almost entirely to eBooks.

Unfortunately, all of these stories likewise only cite audiobook sales figures from legacy publishers. When you're charging paperback prices for eBooks, it shouldn't be a surprise when people opt for other formats. The Big Five report that their audiobook sales doubled in 2016, but that doesn't tell me what level of sales to expect as an indie publisher.

In this case, I'm forced to fall back on anecdotal evidence, albeit from reliable sources. Other self-published authors I trust say that audio accounts for 5-10% of their sales. The higher figure is consistent with my print sales, with 90% of my royalties coming from sales of eBooks, so I think it's reasonable to expect that audiobook sales would also amount to 10% of my eBook sales.

Audiobooks aren't books
Another elephant in the room besides audiobooks' unreliably reported popularity is the fact that the term "audiobook" is a misnomer. An audio recording of a book is no more a "book" than the film version is.

Instead, audiobooks are actually extended one-man radio plays. That's not a put-down. Many people, including myself, have listened to and greatly enjoyed radio dramas.

It's important to keep in mind from a business perspective that audiobooks shouldn't be thought of in the same terms as print or even eBooks. People interact with audio in a vastly different way than they relate to print, and while there is some overlap, the book and audiobook markets aren't entirely populated with the same customers.

The takeaway is that audiobooks require a different marketing approach than books do. Producing and selling audiobooks actually means getting into a different business than I'm in now. The production methods and costs associated with audiobooks also couldn't differ more from those of actual books, as we'll see next.

The audio bubble
When I create print and eBooks, the production process is the same. I compose a digital document that can be downloaded as an eBook or printed on demand as a paperback.

By the way, each Soul Cycle trade paperback is now on sale for $14.99.

The primary form of each of my books is the eBook. Producing the print version incurs zero additional costs.

The same cannot be said for audio versions of my books, which are not just more expensive, but prohibitively so.

There are currently two methods of audiobook production available to indie authors.
  1. Hire a narrator at an up-front, one-time fee and distribute via Audible.
  2. Split the royalties with a narrator via ACX's profit sharing scheme and distribute via Audible.
Let's rip off this Band-Aid right up front. Audiobook narrators overcharge. By a lot. Here's proof.

Each of my books so far cost less than $1000 to make. That includes cover design, editing, and formatting.

The most reasonable narrator fee I've been quoted is twice that.

Why should I pay double to produce a product that almost certainly won't double my profits and is far more likely to account for only 10% of my sales?

This isn't a slight against audiobook narrators. They are being good capitalists by taking advantage of the fact that most authors are status-minded rather than business-minded.

When the going price for a product or service far exceeds that commodity's intrinsic value, what you have is an economic bubble. Authors with more disposable cash than sense caused it and continue to feed it by failing to think like publishers.

I write for a living. While my readers' needs are paramount, if I make too many bad financial decisions I won't be in business to supply my customers' needs.

If you write for yourself, validation, or recognition, that's great. People have been pursuing that route forever, and have had a lot of fun along the way. Those people are accurately called amateurs.

Paying audiobook narrators' currently inflated costs makes no sense for professional writers. Don't think like an amateur. Think like a publisher, and make it feasible for professional authors to give readers what they want.

"But what about ACX's proft-sharing option?" Readers and other authors bring this up to me all the time, and I always say the same thing. As bad as paying thousands of dollars up-front is, profit-sharing is much worse.

ACX Royalty Share is a colossal ripoff
Let's break this down. ACX pays 40% royalties on audiobooks. If you don't want to hire a narrator at an one-time fee, ACX will help match you with a narrator. You and the narrator then split that 40% royalty 50/50. Forever.

If that doesn't make you run screaming from ACX Royalty Share, you're either innumerate or have no concept of time.

Here's a concrete example. An audio version of my first book Nethereal would have a total running time of 30 hours. According to ACX's suggested pricing schedule, I could reasonably charge $25.00 for a Nethereal audiobook.

H/t to my friend JimFear138, a pro audiobook narrator who's wisely getting in on the audio bubble while the gettin's good. More power to him!

I earn roughly $5.00 an hour from writing (no 5 day, 40 hour work weeks for me!), which in this market is actually pretty good.

Hiring a narrator at the lowest price I've found to record a 30 hour audiobook means paying over $60.00 an hour. Let's factor in editing, mixing, outtakes, etc. and double the number of man-hours going into the finished audiobook to 60. That's still more than $30.00 an hour.

I'm not paying anyone more than six times my own wage for one-time work. I'm certainly not giving him half of my royalties forever.

That is because royalty sharing gets even more expensive than up front costs really fast.

ACX royalties on a $25.00 audiobook are $10.00. Not terrible.

The author's share after ACX and the narrator take their cut is $5.00. We are now firmly within the eBook royalty range. Ebooks that can be produced for less than half of audiobook costs.

Instead of getting paid a couple grand once, the narrator now gets $5.00 of every audiobook sold forever.

You only have to sell 400 audiobooks to equal that $2000 up-front fee. And you are effectively losing money on every audiobook you sell after that.

"But what if your audiobook is a huge, Larry Correia-sized hit!?" That makes it even worse.

If you sell 10,000 audiobooks, the narrator gets $50,000, and you have now paid $48,000 more for the audiobook than you had to. Congratulations. You are a sap.

"But you got 50 grand, too! That's better than nothing."

I could pay 50 grand to make 50 grand. Or I could save up my eBook and print royalties; then pay 2 grand to make $100,000.

That's thinking like a publisher.

Soul Cycle evangelization
Nobody wanted to hear the uncomfortable truths presented in this article. Frankly, the situation sucks. My fans want audio versions of my books. Believe me, you know I want to supply them.

Audiobook narrators' grossly inflated fees are simply out of my price range. For now.

I refuse to take ACX's royatly sharing option, because it's retarded.

If you're among the fans who desperately want the Soul Cycle in audio, what can you do?

Hint: bugging me about it on social media isn't going to work. It won't put the extra money I need to fund an audiobook in my pocket. My royalties pay my bills. It's poor form asking a guy to not pay rent or buy food for something that probably won't earn its costs back for years. It's no better to suggest that he give up half of his royalties forever.

Is there a win-win solution for everyone? As it happens, yes there is.

Get three friends and/or family members to buy all three of my books.

My critically acclaimed and award-winning Soul Cycle is available right now from Amazon.

As I said above, the print versions are currently all on sale. You can get all three eBook versions for about the same price as a single trade paperback.

Brian Niemeier - The Soul Cycle

There ain't no free lunch, and audiobook don't grow on trees--especially not in this audio bubble economy. If you want something in this world, you have to pay for it. That's a bummer, but we have to deal with reality as it is.

I'm not asking for a handout. My books have proven their value time and again. Jeffro Johnson and Jasyn Jones have pointed out that I am among the new breed of adventure and heroism-oriented authors fighting to take back science fiction from the legacy publishers who all but killed the genre with dull, debauched message fic.

If you want to help spread the Red SF revolution--or if you'd just like Soul Cycle audiobooks, then become a Soul Cycle evangelist.

You have three family members, friends, or coworkers who used to love science fiction, or are desperately clinging to the genre in the hope of something fun and exciting coming along. This is your chance to help them. Introduce them to the Soul Cycle. I know that many of you are passionate about this series, because you tell me. Now is the time to tell them.

If even half of my readers could get three other people to buy all three of my books, we'd have the funds to make a Nethereal audiobook in no time.

I'm doing my part to entertain you and, possibly, save our genre. Whether we meet our goal or not, know that I'm grateful for each of you.

We can do this. Get out there and spread the word!

@BrianNiemeier

9 comments:

  1. And now we know why so many indie authors narrate their own audiobooks.

    And as you'll probably point out, that isn't cheap or easy either. But I'll take a crack at it anyway.

    First and foremost, not everyone has the talents to do something like that. While I disagree with your assessment that audiobooks are more like radio plays than Books, I whole heartedly agree that acting is an important part of the narration (or else people would just be happy with the Kindle's Robot Voice feature), and not everyone has acting chops. There is also the niggly problem of "radio voice" some people have been gifted a nice sounding voice, but not everyone has. If an author's voice is naturally nasally it might not translate to audiobooks well.

    The biggest prohibitive factor is audio equipment and software costs. You probably aren't going to get the quality needed to pass Audible's QA from your Ipad. And then there is the learning curve.

    So yeah, a possible option 3, but still not easy for various factors (and there are probably more reasons I missed.)

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    1. You're absolutely right about the need for acting chops. Narrators are true artists who work hard to hone their craft. Take Jim Fear, for example.

      If you have the means and talent to narrate your own audiobook, go for it. Minimizing costs is vital to any successful business.

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    2. Audiobooks are an audio medium, so the name's half-accurate. Books are a print medium. There are vast differences in how the two media are consumed and how they affect audiences.

      First and foremost, audio requires less audience participation to extract the content than reading does. McLuhan classified audio as a "hot" medium that amplifies one specific sense while print is a "cool" medium that requires more of the reader's imagination to fully experience the content.

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  2. As a businessman myself, it's much more appalling to think a really good writer makes $5/hr than to think a decent audio book reader makes $60/hr. Such a person is an actor, and good actors typically take home at least $15/hr once you figure in tips. ;)

    I think you economic analysis is flawed. Once you figure in at least a couple careful read-throughs to understand and then to mark up the text, create characters/voices/verbal mannerism and then execute that so that it's acceptable, the actor is trading off time that could be spent waiting tables for, at best, a break-even amount of money. Seems to me.

    It would only be a rip-off (theoretically. In a supply & demand environment, there are no ripoffs) if the reader could just pick up the book and read it outloud with no prep. I seriously doubt that would work. Thinking Nethereal, the reader would have to be able to allow the listener to distinguish among a vast array of characters at, at most, a couple spoken words.

    This is not purely academic: Just this past summer, our eldest daughter did a one-woman show of the Taming of the Shrew. While her epic memorization skills are largely a gift (entire Shakespearean plays committed to memory and in RAM) the amazing part is that you could tell instantly which character among a dozen major characters was speaking - and could probably have done it with your eyes closed - because she'd spent hours of effort and tons of craft making sure you could!

    In short, I'd be at least as suspicious of a reader willing to work for less than $60/hour as I would be of a plumber or Porsche repairman willing to work for minimum wage - if they were any good, figuring overhead, opportunity costs, training, etc., $60/hour would seem a minimum. For actors, a 30 hour audiobook gig @ $2k is probably closer to $15/hr - cheap for highly skilled labor!

    The economic problem here seems more that your work is worth much more than $5/hr (theoretically, of course - free market and all that). I've done my part to move that along so far (although I'm thinking hard copies might be nice...). This is no way a commentary on whether you should do an audiobook or not - I could see going either way on that, your decision is completely reasonable (and it's your call to make, absolutely). Actors are in a similar boat with authors, probably even more so, since the investment in writing (actually finishing the book!) will weed out a good portion of pretenders, while there's probably not a good-looking guy or gal in an acting class anywhere who doesn't think they're one break from being the next superstar. Once you rise out of the morass of wannabes, both actors and writers need to get paid.

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    1. It's hard to make a living in any of the arts. I appreciate the work of actors as dedicated craftsmen and wish I could pay them even $15 an hour.

      But, as your last paragraph shows, it's just not feasible for me to spend $15 an hour for the one-time cost of narrating a book that I spent hundreds of hours writing at $5 per hour. It sucks, but writers and actors alike are in a market that's been warped by monopolistic cabals and commie gatekeepers. The only solution is to fix it. Which many of us are currently about the business of doing.

      A couple of points to consider:

      -Supply and demand doesn't apply to digital commodities like eBooks and audiobooks. As collections of ones and zeroes that can be infinitely copied, they are true post-scarcity items. As such, their value is purely relative. I call audiobook production a bubble because the rates charged by narrators are vastly out of proportion to the royalties earned by the vast majority of authors.

      -I didn't say that narrator fees as a whole are a ripoff. Just ACX royalty-sharing. Because it demonstrably is.

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  3. What do you think of Kickstarter/Patreon to have fans fund the audiobook? What would happen if you had a volunteer narrator? (I might worry about re-recording later, and if the narrator isn't professional-level, it might tarnish the brand.)

    I myself am not an audiobook fan, but my wife loves them and will listen to books she will not read.

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    1. Kickstarter is pretty heavily converged, so I wouldn't use them. Even with a non-SJW alternative, successful crowdfunding has to be more than holding out your hat for donations. You need to offer loot that people want. Same goes for Patreon.

      Giving away the audiobook is expected. I'd need to offer more than that to succeed.

      Giving away books that are my bread and butter to fund a product that will likely sell 1/10 as much is counterproductive.

      Serializing a story like JCW is doing might work for Patreon, but it would be equally or more profitable for me to just release it as a novel on Amazon. Increasing my income by filling my digital bookshelf on KDP is the plan I'm following right now, anyway.

      I actually do know a trained actor with an awesome radio voice who's willing to narrate Nethereal for free. He doesn't have the proper recording equipment, so we'd have to rent a studio.

      What it comes down to is what Rod Walker said on his blog. Producing audiobooks is a huge financial challenge for most indie authors. Recording all 3 of my books right now would basically require a small business loan, which would be a bad risk since I probably wouldn't break even for 4-5 years.

      I'll say it again. Audiobook production is overpriced. Yes, voice actors are serious professionals who invest in specialized equipment. The author is still the only one who is absolutely necessary to the whole process. You can't record a book that doesn't exist.

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  4. To anyone who haven't listened to Vox Day's Darkstream last night, it was officially revealed Castalia is going to handle the audiobooks for soul cycle.

    So that's covered now.

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