Fight for unabridged audio rights

Unabridged audio rights are said to have become a “battleground”, as dedicated audio companies such as Amazon-owned Audible increasingly look to sign rights directly from agents.

Agents meanwhile say they are looking to place audio rights where they can be fully exploited, even if that means bypassing traditional publishers.

Alice Lutyens, audio manager at Curtis Brown, said that selling to dedicated audio publishers produced the best results for authors. “The policy at Curtis Brown is to not grant audio rights to publishers in the head contract, and instead focus on selling the audio rights to independent audio publishers, such as Audible, W F Howes, Bolinda and AudioGo,” Lutyens said.

“We often go to auction, with very strong results [bids] from the audio publishers. Currently it is the best route for the author because the royalties are usually higher,” she said. “Audiobooks are their speciality, and they know exactly where and how to produce and market them.”

Dominic White, head of publishing and commerce at audiobook publisher W F Howes, said: “It is absolutely the case that agents are coming to us to sell audio rights—I think they view us as having a greater potential to exploit the rights and get the best value for their authors.”

But Madeleine Milburn of the Madeleine Milburn Agency said publishers were also increasingly keen to gain audio rights themselves: “Generally I like to keep audio rights back, but publishers are very keen to get them,” she said. “It can be a deal-breaker for them, and if there is a good offer it can be difficult to turn down.”

Pandora White, audio publisher at Orion, said the area had become “a battleground” with “a fight all round for unabridged rights”. She said: “Audible is now approaching agents and offering a better royalty. It looks at what titles aren’t available in audio, then goes and looks to get hold of the rights itself . . . It is forcing us to change how we work. We have to emphasise the quality of our product, the fact we can link in to the publicity and marketing of the print book. It also means we’re exploiting the rights more to show agents we can, and our list is growing, which is a good thing.”

Lutyens agreed that publishers were getting “better and more savvy” when it comes to audio rights.

Laurence Howell, director of content at Amazon-owned Audible, said they worked closely with agents to acquire titles. “We have a good relationship with agencies, who are very proactive,” he said. “Customers also drive us—if they ask us, ‘Why can’t I buy an audio version of this?’, we will go and look to see who has the rights. If an agent has them that’s great, and if they are with a publisher, [we think] maybe we can do a deal.”

Audible’s prominence in the market has raised some questions. Chris Book, c.e.o. of audio download subscription service Bardowl, said: “Audible offers agents and publishers excellent deals for audio content, and it has become a successful retailer—almost the only one in town. The biggest danger is that Audible dominates the retail space, and then start doing all the rights itself as well.”

Nicholas Jones, m.d. of audiobook publisher Strathmore Publishing, agreed: “Audible is the biggest retailer with a huge percentage of the market, and it is increasingly a publisher too, and it sets the price . . . It makes sense to be wary, though it does lots of good work.”