Talking audiobooks

Audio is the "heatseeker" within publishing, and the recent FutureBook Conference was a watershed moment in championing the category. But many issues also surfaced. Expensive recordings, different marketing from print and a new supply chain are just a few; the consequence is that there are as many publishers losing money from audio as there are profitably growing.

More worrying is the dichotomy that emerged in a panel discussion on rights. Publishers reported double-digit growth, agents described a decline in author revenues (owing to audio being bundled with print), retailers spoke of legions of titles locked into exclusivity deals, blocking their ability to sell them. We need to think bigger than this if we want audio to grow. A progressive rights market measures itself on free competition, fair author compensation and collaboration after the deal on order to leverage the brand across media. These are simple precepts that will stimulate growth and benefit companies in the long term, but we need to be big enough to step away from the exclusivity and bundling of rights which restrict trade.

As the UK’s largest indie audiobook publisher, which is part of the largest independent global audiobook publisher and distributor, RBmedia, content is at the heart of W G Howes’ business. In 2018, we will publish more than 1,000 new audiobooks to the trade and library markets. A large share of those titles will be bought from authors or literary agents who pitch rights to us at the same time as submitting print. But our titles will also be acquired by sublicensing from print publishers or collaborations where we act as a publisher’s audio division. We also distribute audio in libraries for other publishers, and so are uniquely positioned, working with all stakeholders in audio—including authors, agents and publishers. Our aim is to partner with the best and leverage the audio industry’s growth.

There is no doubt that digital is driving growth. Audible leads the retail race, but we also have new entrants and expansions from Google, Audiobooks.com, Apple, Kobo and Storytel, as well as many start-ups. Equally, our library digital sales are growing even faster than retail digital sales. Our e-lending platform, RBdigital, is installed in 97% of UK public libraries and the number of users has more than doubled this year. RBdigital enables W F Howes to sell directly as well as to distribute other audio publishers’ content.

Libraries get poor press but for us they often generate more than half of an audiobook’s revenue. Volumes appear small, but it is a premium-price lending market where you touch many consumers with each copy sold. A large portion of library sales are physical, so we also have print-on-demand facilities on-site. Yes, many libraries have closed and those still open may well have less funding, but look through a different lens: libraries had more visits last year than the UK’s theatres, cinemas, top-10 tourist attractions and music gigs—combined.

Working alongside authors to help grow their brand specifically for audio is also key. Research shows that listeners and readers are not necessarily the same people: listeners may be podcast fans, commuters or time-poor professionals. We ensure each title has an audio- specific marketing plan in each channel which encompasses both physical and digital media.

Audio is a business which appears simple, but is complex. Many sales happen behind walled gardens such as digital subscriptions and library platforms. There are multiple formats and channels to market, with many royalty scenarios. This means new layers of metadata and reporting. The recording itself is a lengthy and skilled production which defines the product for years to come.

There is more to do. As an industry let’s have the audio discussion, publish bestseller lists in different channels, compete over rights, and see the market for what it really is. If we can do that, then we can create a vision for audiobooks for the next five, 10 or even 20 years.