About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Calling an Audible

Way back toward the dawn of Brillig, in fact it's hard for me to believe it's close to five years I've had the blog, I did a post called Audio Rules!, where I discussed how, in 2007, Audible essentially decreed that there should be science fiction and fantasy on audio, where previously there had been very little.  Looking back on it, this was just a few months before Amazon announced it was purchasing Audible, it's interesting to speculate on if the imminent purchase was a factor in that decision, or if it was an all-Audible thing.  Doesn't really matter, doesn't make the speculation less interesting.

Since then, we've sold a ton of audio rights, whatever it was we were selling when I did that blog post in 2008 was kind of the tip of the iceberg.  As with all things like this in the content business, it's been interesting to see it play out. As an example, the Lost Fleet books have performed on audio well beyond any reasonable expectation.  I spoke in that long ago post about the rule that an audio book would sell 10% of the hardcover, the Lost Fleet books by Jack Campbell are selling something like four times that.  The series also really outperforms on e-book, but even if we looked at audio as a percentage of combined e-book and print sales the percentage would be way higher than the rules would suggest.  Other clients of ours, their audience might be in print and might be in e-book, it just doesn't want to be in audio.

Now, and this is definitely an Amazon thing, the audio market is taking another great leap forward.

Publishers Weekly and other places reported in the spring on a major 200+ title deal between Audible and Richard Curtis Associates, another literary agency.  Not entirely a surprise.  This was a year or so after Audible introduced ACX, a service to match authors, publishers, and audio narrators to allow brokered self-publication of audio to help boost content availability, and a few weeks after we'd gotten word from Audible that their next step was going to be to buy up huge amounts of content.  The stated goal was to beef up overall sales by increasing the likelihood that readers would find things they wanted whenever they visited Audible.  Or, to put it another way, they might not make money on every new piece of content they obtained, but they would boost their sales and profits nonetheless because Audible would be to audio what Amazon was/is to pretty much everything, if you wanted to buy something it would be there for you to buy.  In that Amazon was, there was a hidden and unspoken subtext that was revealed simultaneous with the launch of the new generation of Kindles.  They'd mastered the code for enhancing their "whispersync" so that you could read six pages of a book on your Kindle while downing your breakfast, have the audio pick up right where you left off when you got into the car, have the Kindle take it from there during lunch hour, and then back to the audio again right where you left off on the ride home.  So the more audio on Audible with this feature enabled, the more books with matches for Kindle, the more likelihood that they might be able to get you to buy the book in both formats to have a seamless whenever/wherever reading/listening experience across devices, formats and media.

So suffice to say that there are a lot of those 200+ title audio deals going around, and we've been mailing off contracts to clients this week for a large helping of titles.

Some of these are recent backlist, some are books that haven't been in print for 20 years, all kinds of books in-between.  As above, another great leap forward, from not being able to sell anything just five years ago, to at least being able to sell everything with a reasonable argument.  To being able to sell the occasional surprising thing.  And now to being able to sell lots and lots and lots of things.

Some observations:

If you want to take a very negative approach, these deals are a bad thing for the authors involved.  Because of the volume of titles involved, I will admit the prospect that Audible has received a volume discount.  Perhaps some of the individual authors could have been more aggressive in seeking higher advances for their individual titles.  The counterargument is that the deals might not exist at all if the titles weren't being offered by agents or publishers that would allow Audible to buy a lot of content quickly.  Do you want to buy 200 books via Richard Curtis, 200 books from us, 500 books from some other agency, or do you want to have 62 separate negotiations with 62 authors to buy up those 900 titles?

Will we be able to retain audio rights as often in the future?  We've always tried to keep them, where we haven't been able to keep them we've tried to get provisions to recapture the rights if the publisher wasn't actually using them, now we come to a place when it's possible that there will be a market for audio rights to everything.  Once upon a time the publishers could say they weren't missing out on much if they let the rights stay with the authors, now maybe they are, maybe they insist, and even if we get "use of lose" provisions maybe not using is a thing of the past.  When you're in the publishing business, you can find the down side to anything.

This is the inverse to our own bottom line of a film option.  Most of those, you lose money doing the deal but hope you'll make it up down the line by having one of those options actually get purchased some day, thus making up for all the times you spent six months haggling with a Hollywood or studio attorney over a $2500 option.  Here, the immediate effect to our bottom line is nice because we've just sold rights to lots and lots of books.  However, over time, we're going to have a much bigger pile of royalty paperwork from Audible, some of the titles will sell in moderate quantity, and over time we may have a lot of processing costs that will weigh on our resources.

In spite of that fact, I decided to sell as broad a package of titles as we could muster within the JABberwocky family.  I suspect there will be days in the future when I'll look at a lot at large stacks of paper and large stacks of checks and wonder what I was thinking, but in my heart I think the decision was correct, and in general, when I've felt in my heart that something was right to do for the JABberwocky family it's been right to do.

And not only that, we're going to talk to some people about reinvesting the Audible proceeds to do e-book conversions for books that we might not rush to do otherwise for fear of a long payback period.  In many instances, this is doubling down on paperwork madness, to add potentially small bits of e-book royalties to potentially small bits of audio royalties.  But again, it seems right.  If the ability to drive accretive sales across formats is part of the goal Audible has with enhanced whispersync and enhanced availability on Audible, let's help drive that process along.

It's all going to be very interesting.

And if you'd asked me about the likelihood of any of this five years ago... well, not very!  As I've said, the whole e-book revolution took longer than people expected to arrive, and once it arrived it's changing things way faster than I'd have thought.  The growth and development of the digital download market for audio is a part of that even without the ability to cross-sync with an e-book, and with that ability all the moreso.

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