Grasping the audio nettle

We’ve come a long way. In my nine-year stint at HarperCollins, we transformed the audio publishing programme, from producing 80 titles and digitising a backlist of abridged tapes to creating 500+ new audios annually. All to feed the smartphone revolution. It’s 2017, and big cheeses are saying all the right words, audio departments are no longer just solo affairs, and more titles than ever before are being published (yes—simultaneously to print and e-book!) There’s even the odd bit of marketing floating about. Audio finally seems to have hit the tricky teenage years and while the cash may be piling up, I can’t help worrying that long term we’re missing a trick. Audio is not just a quick bit of bunce to replace plateauing print and e-book revenue—it could be the game changer that publishing so desperately needs, but the combination of one huge retailer, publishers being risk-averse and a lack of vision is holding us back.

Confidence in the format is key, as is a willingness to invest so the sector can progress to maturity. We’re still not publishing enough titles, and not well enough. Be it by one house or a combination of trade and specialist, together we need to commit to the format and let authors know they will be published in print, e-book and audio. If we can’t show readers we are serious enough about the format, how can we expect their long-term interest?

One giant retailer saw the potential far sooner than traditional publishing did and took the lead, and that commitment has paid off. The only people with access to sales data across the whole industry, Audible’s constant investment and innovation is awesome. “Take Me to the Good Part?” Wow. There’s a retailer who knows what its customer wants. But its failure to share data in any meaningful way massively contributes to the uncertainty around audio, the feeling that we’re all taking a punt. Concrete data collection has to be part of the solution; until then, we’re left to second-guess trends or use the limited data we have in our own systems. Obvious fields like literacy and education are relatively untapped and instead we stick to the safe bet. Another edition of Murder on the Orient Express, anyone? There are currently six and counting, while thousands of backlist titles are as yet unrecorded.

The response to this imbalance of power from publishers is to cut costs and make cheaper recordings. The constant cry of, “Oh, it’s so expensive” highlights the difference in approach and a lack of vision. Audio is not, like an e-book, a copy of an existing product but brand new IP, digital product proper with a myriad of uses and ROI potential. And the expensive tag doesn’t wash when compared to a couple of broadsheet ads or a bulk order of Chinese-cloth tote bags. It’s fear of the unknown and a reliance on doing the old familiar.

I want this industry to grow and fulfil its promise and to do that we need to nurture and support it. Let’s do more of what we’re doing better and less of what we’re doing badly. Every other format in publishing is just text on a page. Shock news, but that just ain’t sexy to an awful lot of people. We could move on from the perennial squabble over market share to a truly new era, one in which we get our books to the people who have never crossed the threshold of a bookshop. Millions of people don’t ever buy books, but they listen to radio, to podcasts, to CDs and stream music.

Jo Forshaw ran the audio publishing team at HarperCollins until spring 2017, taking its output from 80 titles a year, to a position of having an audio edition of pretty much every print title across its list.