Easy listening

Agents are on my mind. At last week’s AudioBook Revolution conference, a number of agents raised concerns about how publishers are demanding audio rights when they also buy print. The charge was led from the podium by Curtis Brown agent Alice Lutyens, backed from the floor by her colleague Cathryn Summerhayes, and informed by agent Ivan Mulcahy. It was a debate I had been told no-one wanted to have. Now it feels urgent.

The nub is this: agents want to be able to sell audio as a separate right, but many publishers no longer accept this as even a possibility. Mulcahy said that when he told publishers with whom he was negotiating over Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy that he was minded to take Audible’s "six-figure" offer for audio rights, all of the big publishers left the room. The book was later sold to Canongate. In her talk, Lutyens said there were many good reasons to sell audio alongside print, but equally sound reasons for giving authors a choice and independent audio publishers an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do. There needs to be an "equal opportunity marketplace". 

The audiobook marketplace is complex, and has remained so partly because it was niche. There are numerous independent audiobook publishers, such as W F Howes and Bolinda, many of which profit from well-established routes into libraries. Even publishers who retain audio rights may choose to sub-license them to a specialist publisher. The market for audiobooks is dominated by Audible, which also produces its own audio, some of which it exclusively retails. At the conference, Kobo chief Michael Tamblyn said there needs to be "an education" about the impact of exclusive deals, or there is the risk of a "monoculture".

The audio market is now big business, the fastest-growing sector of trade publishing with sales upwards of £100m, and five new retailers targeting UK listeners. There is also the impact of Amazon and Google’s voice-enabled devices, which will prompt experimentation in storytelling and further drive consumption. "This is our moment," said one audio specialist at the event. There are some parallels with the e-book market, but the audiobook sector seems healthier: standalone publishers exist, prices remain relatively high, new business models are being tested, bigger players such as Google, Spotify and Apple know how to sell digital content, and audiobooks are available from a range of retailers on mobile (though on Alexa, only from Audible).

What did I learn at the conference? That audio is driven by passion and built on professionalism. It’s a sector finding its voice, and one that may redefine the digital content business and help us unpick the mistakes of the past.

This debate is one we need to hear.