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By Terry Lessig
The Past As Prologue
If you are one of the mega-publishers of the last 30 years, this doesnt really apply to you. Deep pockets allowed you the freedom to invest resources into producing audio books from those manuscripts your research said would be profitable, hire top named talent, fill the pipeline with product, and wait for sales. In reality, it was to your advantage, as it moved the earn-out goalpost further downfield and delayed additional author royalties by that much more. You also had the freedom to sell the audio rights to an audio-only publisher in cases where such practice made economic sense.
This is for mid-sized and small publishers who rarely, or never ventured into the full exploitation of audio rights. You might have sold those rights whenever and wherever you could to provide an immediate return on your investment, caring little if it earned you and your authors further royalties. You published books, not tapes or CDs. Your world was the tactile, printed page, and you were happy to allow niche companies to handle the spoken step-child.
How It Has Changed
The digital revolution altered every aspect of communications. The proliferation of personal computers spawned an Internet that was not possible before, and this new taste of instant accessibility fostered dreams of even greater flexibility when combined with cell phone technology. New wireless devices were developed to deliver books directly to consumers, without brick and mortar stores, without a distribution pipeline, and even without printing a page.
Publishers quickly became comfortable with the idea that sales revenue could be made without having a tactile product move from their warehouse to a readers bookshelf, as a book could now travel almost directly from an editors workstation to a consumers handheld reading device. In a very short amount of time, a remarkable percentage of titles are sold this way.
Audio Book Publishing Evolution
Since the advent of audio books more than three decades ago, they have consistently accounted for about 15% of a titles revenues, on average. Major publishing houses saw them as a necessary evil for their major titles, and hoped the audio version would at least earn back its production costs, which could be substantial. Big name talent were often employed to read, and the cost of analog audio production was high due to the cumbersome methods of editing that had to be used.
The use of computers in audio production significantly sped up the process, but something else drastically reduced the cost of audio production across the board, including how audio books are processed. Hardware and software costs created an ease of entry such that a teenager could now accomplish on his desktop a job that used to require rooms full of sophisticated machinery, and a team of specialists to keep it operating at peak performance. What they lacked in artistic judgment was quickly dismissed in favor of the cost savings, and it wasnt long before the artistic value was restored, as the learning curve of computer editing was nil compared to the old analog ways.
It is interesting to note that despite the printed page predating its audio counterpart by a number of centuries, audio book downloading to a personal listening device was nearly a decade ahead of the Kindle and its cousins. Audio downloading remains one of the fastest growing segments of the publishing industry.
Audio Books Now
Audio book publishing is no longer a niche market, nor is it a step-child. With an abundant number of personal devices able to receive, store, and play digital audio books, and the growing number of host platforms and sites, some offering a 60% split, it is a serious profit center.
Downloading now accounts for greater than 50% of all audio book sales, and it is growing rapidly. No longer is it necessary to manufacture CDs to publish audio, and by saving this cost, along with the associated costs of inventory logistics, a distributor, freight, and returns processing, the only cost to bear is productiona one-time, finite charge for a process that has also been revolutionized and streamlined by digital technology.
An audio book can now earn back its costs with as little as a few hundred units sold. This puts profitability within the grasp of small, medium, and now for the first time, self publishers.
The Case for Retaining Your Audio Rights
A standard publishing contract feature provides for an equitable split of fees earned on subsidiary rights, so when figuring the profitability of audio, you must also factor in that by retaining them, they only cost you one-half of their true value.
By combining the unlimited virtual bookshelf, reduced production costs, and zero manufacturing, shipping, or warehousing, it is easy to envision how audio book versions can be more profitable by retaining and exploiting them rather than subjecting them to a subsidiary sale, which also depends upon the existence of a buyer. A good thing to keep in mind is that a subsidiary rights buyer must believe there is a profit to be made with that right.
So far we have learned that digital technology has revolutionized every aspect of the publishing business, and that the Internet, combined with wireless technology, has created a method of instantaneous sales, void of any physical product.
We learned that a number of personal devices exist to receive and reproduce both printed and audio books, and that the number of host sites serving them is growing.
We learned that these factors create significant savings throughout the publishing process, including the associated costs of accounting and logistics for books and audio books in physical form.
We learned that audio book downloading has surpassed the tipping point, and accounts for more than one-half of sales.
And we learned that it takes fewer sales than ever to have a title in the black.
Many opportunities exist for publishers today to monetize their audio rights, but the creation of audio books is as much an art as it is a science. While it might be tempting to buy a USB microphone and download some audio freeware, audio recording and editing needs the skill set of a professional producer who can envision the end product and guide the project to completion.
About the Author: Terry W. Lessig is the Executive Producer and Publisher at
, an audio book production and publishing company. To learn about AudioBookMan’s different options available to authors and publishers, please send an email to