Returns

Although, on the whole, I think I’d rather be talking about film sequels, this isn’t a post about Return of the Jedi or Return of the King. It’s about audiobook listeners returning audiobooks. Yeah, I know. Big yawn, right?

Ordinarily, I’d agree with you. But something has recently come to light that affects many authors and narrators. Not in a good way. I’ll come onto it in a moment after I’ve laid out a little background.

Amazon has what I consider to be a reasonable policy for returns of its Kindle ebooks. A reader can return the ebook within 7 days* of purchase. Since it is possible to accidentally purchase an ebook you didn’t intend to with Amazon’s one-click function, it seems only fair that the reader who does this should be able to return the ebook without fuss. I also have no problem with a reader being able to return the ebook if they can’t get on with the writing style or subject matter and struggle to get past, say, the third chapter, or if the content is utter crap scraped from the internet and published as some sort of scam.

This policy can, of course, be abused. I have held conversations with people who have used Amazon as a lending library by reading and returning ebooks within the period allowed, but I believe Amazon has been clamping down on this practice. I usually get a smattering of ebook returns each month, but they seem to be far fewer now than they were two or three years back. Although the thought of someone buying one of my books, reading the entire thing and then returning it for a refund doesn’t exactly fill me with joy (since I don’t get paid for that ‘purchase’), it happens so infrequently that ebook returns aren’t really an issue for me.

How do I know that ebooks are returned infrequently? Amazon provides this information on my sales dashboard and in the monthly reports I download to compile sales figures. I also receive returns details from most other retailers through which I sell, such as Kobo or GooglePlay. Simple, transparent, as it should be.

So, what about audiobooks? More specifically, audiobooks sold through Audible (or Apple or Amazon via Audible’s distribution arm, ACX)? I’ll post some links shortly to more detailed explanations of the issue for anyone who’s interested; what follows is the potted version.

Audible members pay a monthly subscription, in return for which they have monthly credits (one per month with the basic subscription) they can use to ‘purchase’ an audiobook. Audible is owned by Amazon. It is alleged that both companies are encouraging members to exchange their used credit for a refund, i.e. to reuse the credit to ‘buy’ another audiobook with no questions asked. It doesn’t matter if the audiobook has been listened to and enjoyed in its entirety—the member can return the audiobook and reuse the credit for another book.

You might be thinking that sounds like a great deal for the Audible member, and I’d have to agree with you. But what about the author of the book in question and (if different and they are sharing royalties) the narrator? Ah, there’s the rub. You see, the cost of the refund isn’t borne by Audible or Amazon, but by the author and narrator. Some authors are claiming to be losing up to 50% of their audiobook income. For many of us, this income is part of our livelihoods.

To make things worse, unlike Amazon with ebook sales, Audible doesn’t provide authors with details of audiobooks returned. All we are given are the net sales figures. So, if I sold twelve audiobooks this month, but seven of them were returned by the listeners as allegedly encouraged to do by Audible, I would be paid for five audiobooks and wouldn’t know there were seven more copies sold but subsequently refunded.

To exacerbate matters even further, listeners aren’t limited to 7 or 14 days to return the audiobook for a refund. Fair enough, you might think—it takes longer to judge whether an audiobook is up to scratch than an ebook, so they probably get 21 or even 28 days. Nope, they get 365 days, Yes, you read that correctly. An Audible member could exchange their monthly credit for one of my books, listen to and enjoy the book, and return it up to a year later, whereupon Audible would recoup the refunded cost from me. If I had no sales during that particular month, I’d owe them money.

That’s not what I signed up for when I published my audiobooks on Audible. I was keen to enter the world of audiobooks as a means of getting my work to a wider audience and, naturally, boosting my writing income. I simply cannot afford to, in effect, give my audiobooks away for nothing.

I am deep into producing the second Earth Haven novel in audio. It is a massively time-consuming project that will have taken me the best part of a year by the time it is ready for publication. That’s at least as long as it took me to write, revise and edit the book in the first place. I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort. At the least, I’ll be looking to publish the completed audiobook in places other than Audible.

That’s the thing: unless Audible stops doing as alleged—encouraging returns and allowing them for up to a year without question—and unless it starts providing details of returns to authors and narrators, many content providers will be thinking twice about placing more content with them. What sounded such a good deal for Audible members will become increasingly less so as the flow of new content dries up.

A Facebook group has been set up to pool information and experiences, and to coordinate approaches to Audible. (I’ll link to it shortly in case you’re affected by this—I believe you’ll need to prove you’re an author or narrator before you’ll be allowed to join.) The initial response isn’t promising. While Audible has recently acknowledged there is an issue**, it appears thus far to be reluctant to provide details of returns to authors upon request.

I wondered whether I ought to talk about this. There could be audiobook listeners looking in who weren’t aware that it was possible to use Audible membership as, in effect, an unlimited lending library, and go trotting off to sign up. I am also aware there are people out there who believe that all digital content should be freely available to whoever wants it. Well, all I can say to them is that I, like many others, work my butt off to produce digital content and I simply cannot afford to provide it without any financial return. I hope that most audiobook consumers will agree that authors and narrators deserve to be paid for their work. If we’re not going to be, most of us will stop doing it.

* in the US; in the UK, for some reason, it seems to be 14 days

** from a ‘Letter to the ACX Community’ sent by email on 11th November:
“In addition, we’ve recently heard from members of the ACX community who are concerned about Audible’s overall return policy. While this customer benefit is for active members in good standing and suspicious activity is rare, we take your concerns very seriously and are actively reviewing the policy with this feedback under consideration.”

Links
Audiblegate! The incredible true story of missing sales
The Digital Reader
Facebook group

Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)