A few months ago, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi)’s watchdog desk, which which monitors the self-publishing sector, rates the best and worst services, and offers a partner membership to approved services, downgraded Amazon ACX/Audible’s rating as a self-publishing service from "Recommended" to "Caution”.
This was done with a heavy heart. Unlike other publishers, indie authors have good reason to be grateful to Amazon for the tools and platforms that underwrite the author-publishing revolution. That gratitude remains but independent authors know, better than anyone, that Amazon’s publishing platforms are not perfect, and ALLi has always encouraged its members to publish widely through other distributors, aggregators and retailers, and their own websites, as well as Amazon. The ACX platform has been a cause of particular concern for some years, its payment percentages, exclusivity conditions, and licensing terms the worst in the self-publishing sector.
That concern started to intensify in the last quarter of last year, when a company glitch at ACX gave author-publishers a peek behind what had, until then, been a thick curtain of non-transparency.
What they found seemed to support something independent authors had long suspected: payments on the ACX/Audible platform didn’t add up.
In Perth, Australia, indie author Susan May was moved to start a Facebook group, Fair Deal for Rights Holders & Narrators (FDRHN), inviting other authors and narrators to submit their experiences, financial statements, and emails. FDRHN approached ALLi and the more we dug into the evidence, the more troubling it looked. It seemed that ACX "easy exchange and return" scheme was being funded from authors' share of royalties, without author-publishers' agreement or knowledge.
When a reader returned a book (having been heavily encouraged by Audible to do so through a variety of quasi-library-subscription models), the company deducted the payment from the author share of the transaction instead of their own.
Attempts to get Audible to directly confirm or deny this have failed. Authors who question their statements and the lack of transparency around accounting, receive endless non-commital answers, passing queries from one customer representative to another without progress or resolution, and shutting down the conversation, without leave to appeal. Some have even found themselves accused of fraud, and their accounts summarily closed. Without appeal. Together with representatives from FDFRH and the US Authors’ Guild and UK Society of Authors, ALLi was due to meet with CEO Bob Carrigan and other Audible employees on January 20th, so Audible could explain their opaque payment processes and accounting system. Unfortunately, Audible cancelled the meeting hours before it was due to happen.
While refusing to engage directly with the independent author community, the company has “acknowledged concern” by making some concessions and reducing the authors’ deduction window to seven days instead of 365. But an author-publisher should only ever be liable for true returns (when a listener has consumed less than 25% of the book).
ALLi sees this as the most important campaign we’ve been involved in since our organization founded in 2012. This goes beyond the usual issues of data mining, anti-trust, and unfair competition that are being brought against big tech companies in courts around the world. Based on the evidence currently available to us, this appears to be actual misappropriation: deducting of undocumented monies. And as watchdog John Doppler said when downgrading Audible’s rating, "Transparent and accurate accounting is the most crucial responsibility of any publisher, distributor or self-publishing platform."
We have reason to believe (though we await confirmation from Audible) that at least two of the Big Five publishers of audiobooks are directly affected by this “returns and exchange” policy. Also affected are audiobook publishers and distributors like Tantor, Findaway Voices and Soundwise, and any indie publishers that use ACX for audiobooks.
Audiblegate is important for everyone in the publishing community, not just audiobook publishers. All of us, from Penguin Random House to the most micro of micro-publishers, must work with Amazon if we want to reach the readers and listeners the publishing and retail giant has amassed.
Our campaign—which is supported by the US Authors Guild (AG), UK Society of Authors (SoA) and Writers Guild (WG), Canadian Authors Association (CAA), Australian Writers Association (ASA) and Irish Writers Union (IWU), among other organizations and more than 10,000 authors and narrators to date—is having some success.
As well as reducing the payment deduction window from 365 to seven days, Audible has adjusted its exclusivity and licensing terms and is setting up to provide more transparency on accounts going forward. But they have refused to budge on the substantive issue of providing information about how their returns scheme is funded, confirming or denying the evidence amassed by authors, and making appropriate recompense if contract agreements have been breached.
Now it feels like the company is closing down its legal vulnerabilities while refusing to be accountable to their business partners, the authors and narrators who make the audiobooks.
We hope to reinstate that cancelled meeting with Audible soonest. In the meantime, the campaign continues. Both ALLi and FDRHN thank the AG and SoA and other author representative organizations for their support to date, and invite others to join us.
If you would like to offer your support, you can sign our petition and receive further instructions and updates here: https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org/audiblegate
Orna Ross is director of the Alliance of Independent Authors and an indie novelist and poet. She describes her decision to self-publish as “the best creative and commercial move" of her writing life. Tweet her @ornaross