“Half of Americans over the age of 14 have listened to an audiobook in the past year…” ––Publishers WeeklyApril 25, 2019, from a survey conducted for the Audio Publishers Association.
Audiobook revenues rose 36% in the past year—AAP report February, 2019
As I have posted earlier this week, the first book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Maids of Misfortune, is on sale for 99 cents on Chirp, an audiobook promotion site that, in partnership with Findaway Voices, has the potential to expand the audiobook market for indie authors such as myself.
I haven’t done one of these long posts about the publishing industry and indie authors in a long time because, frankly, there seem to be so many other great sources of information out there (see my blog roll at the bottom of the page.) However, this Chirp promotion seemed a good time for me to put my thoughts about audiobooks down, so authors, hang in there with me. I have also discovered that some readers enjoy getting a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes in the world of self-publishing. If you are one of those readers—I hope you enjoy the ride.
If you are an indie author, and you have been paying attention to trends in the publishing industry, I imagine you have at least thought about whether or not you should publish an audiobook edition of your work. If you have hesitated, it was no doubt because there are several issues that indie authors face if they want to produce and sell audiobooks that traditionally published authors are less likely to encounter. Like:
- How to find a narrator that will bring their characters to life?
- How to cover the up-front cost of getting their book narrated?
- Once the audiobook is done, how to get listeners to discover it?
- How to get listeners to try their audiobooks when they are relatively unknown authors?
The creation of ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange) in 2011 was a game changer for many indie authors because it offered some answers to the questions above. Today, looking at my own experience with audiobooks, I am going to explain why I think the rise of alternatives to ACX, especially Findaway Voices, and the creation of Chirp by BookBub could provide the next big leap forward for indie authors who wish to sell audiobooks.
A little history (because…that’s what I do.)
With the acquisition of CreateSpace in 2005 and the launch of KDP in 2007, Amazon completely changed the landscape for authors who wanted to publish their books outside of the traditional publishing industry. With CreateSpace and KDP, indie authors could now publish their books in print and ebook form, for virtually no upfront costs if they were able to create a cover and format their books themselves.
This lowered the risk of publishing in print (no more stacks of unsold books in the garage) and made it possible for indie authors to price their ebooks low enough to get readers to take a chance on their books. That, added to the fact that indie books would show up in Amazon’s expanding on-line store, where indie authors could use competitive pricing strategies, meant that many indie authors began to attract a fan base and make money.
For example, at the end of 2009, I decided to self-publish Maids of Misfortune, the first book in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series because I was only risking the $250 I paid my cover designer for both the ebook and print editions. Given that I made over $25,000 on that book the first two years it was out, the gamble was more than worth it. As KDP provided more tools for promotional opportunities and other eretailers like Kobo, Nook, and Apple came on the scene, more and more writers started taking the plunge into self-publishing.
However, in these first few years of self-publishing, most indie authors did not produce audiobook versions of their books because of the up-front costs of paying for a professional narrator or paying for the necessary equipment/studio time if they were going to narrate their own books. In addition, there wasn’t a good way to distribute independently-produced audiobooks on either Audible or iTunes—the major markets.
The launch of ACX:
As with KDP and CreateSpace (now KDP Print), the creation of ACX (by Audible, which is a subsidiary of Amazon) offered indie authors a number of solutions to the problems they faced.
- ACX provided a way for authors to find professional narrators.
- With the development of the royalty share option, authors had a way of getting their books narrated with no up-front money. (With ACX’s royalty share option, for seven years the author splits their royalties 50/50 with the narrator.)
- Completed audiobooks are sold on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. (Until 2017, ACX had the exclusive contract to sell audiobooks on iTunes–now called Apple Books.)
- One way ACX helped indie authors sell books was occasionally to include them in short-term promotions and to issue codes that authors could use to give away copies of their audiobooks as a promotional tool. (This is still true, if the book is exclusive with ACX.)
In 2012, a year after ACX was launched, I published an audiobook edition of Maids of Misfortune, using the royalty share option with a narrator I had found on ACX and choosing the option that gives an author a higher royalty rate for agreeing to sell that audiobook exclusively through ACX. I was certainly not the only indie to start producing audiobooks at this time. And I have had moderate success, primarily as spill-over from promotions of my ebooks through BookBub.
Then, in 2014, ACX changed its terms, lowering the royalty rates it gave out for both exclusive and non-exclusive contracts, causing a number of problems for some indie authors.
- It became harder to find successful professional narrators who were willing to risk a royalty share agreement—since they shouldered all the up-front costs, and these new terms meant it would be even harder for them to make back these costs—much less make a profit.
- In addition, the seven-year contract under the royalty share option became a problem for some authors, such as myself, when we discovered fans didn’t like a narrator we had chosen. This is why it took so long for me to have Alexandra Haag, who has narrated all the rest of my books, narrate a new edition of Maids of Misfortune. (Here is a good post on some of the elements that go into choosing an audiobook narrator.)
- Also, new markets for audiobooks were opening up, providing a better royalty rate, but under ACX’s royalty share option an indie author couldn’t shift to making the book non-exclusive so they could take advantage of these new markets. (Here is a good blog post on some of the issues surrounding the royalty share option.)
As a result of ACX’s changes, my new narrator, like many other professional narrators, decided she could no longer afford to narrate books under the royalty share option. So, except for my second book in my mystery series, Uneasy Spirits, I have paid her up-front for all the rest my books.
While this meant I have had to plow some of the income I make on ebooks into subsidizing my audiobook production—it did mean I was getting the full 40% royalty rate on my sales—since I continued with the exclusive option. Until recently, I wasn’t convinced I would sell enough outside of Audible or Apple Books to warrant cutting my ACX royalty rate to 25% under the non-exclusive option. On the other hand, this also meant that, except for Uneasy Spirits, I have been in the position with the rest of my books to shift to a non-exclusive contact if I changed my mind about this.
By 2017, more and more stores were starting to sell audiobooks online, and I had started to consider whether or not I should start looking beyond ACX as my only distributor. This is an excellent post laying out the argument for “going wide.
But it was a talk I heard at a conference about the newly launched Findaway Voices that forced me seriously to reconsider staying exclusively with ACX. Findaway Voices not only provides similar opportunities to ACX, it has improved on what ACX offers in ways that made it particularly indie-friendly.
- Like ACX, Findaway Voices helps an author find a narrator. Currently they do not offer a royalty share option (which really can be the best option for a newly published author with limited resources) but they are developing a modified royalty share option that will lower the costs of paying a narrator upfront, while making this a more attractive alternative for narrators. See this post.
- Unlike ACX, Findaway Voices does not require you to sign an exclusive, long term contract. You can take your book out of distribution with them at any time. This is useful to indies who might discover, as I did, that they wanted to replace the audiobook version of a book.
- Unlike ACX (which just distributes to Amazon, Audible, and Apple Books), Findaway Voices distributes to 32 different marketplaces, including Audible and Apple Books, and this list includes numerous international eretailers like Storytel, and libraries. Again, for indies, in the long-run, a wider market might mean more potential sales, as the audiobook market expands, and less dependence on one retailer.
- Unlike ACX, Findaway Voices lets you set the price of your audiobook (except if you distribute to Audible–which still insists on setting the price even if you distribute through Findaway Voices.) This is even true for audiobooks on Apple Books if you distribute to them through Findaways. In fact, Apple Books now gives authors 45% of the royalty on books distributed through Findaway Voices (versus the 25% that authors get through ACX with a non-exclusive contract.)
This last point—being able to set my prices–– is what convinced me to choose the non-exclusive option when I uploaded my new science fiction series to ACX last year so that I could then upload to Findaway Voices.
As an indie author, I know that being able to sell my work at a lower price than traditionally published authors is one of the best tools I have to convince buyers to take a chance on my work. Now I can do this with my audiobooks as well.
This did mean that, in the short run, I would lose potential revenue on Audible, because my royalty rate on these books on is 25% versus 40%. But to me it was worth the risk to see if the wider distribution I was getting through Findaway Voices would, over time, make up for the difference. So far my sales of these books–mostly to libraries–has made me about the same revenue as I have been getting on ACX. And I confess, I really like being able to distribute to libraries!
However, having a competitively lower price on an ebook or an audiobook isn’t enough to sell a book, since a reader or a listener needs to discover that book first.
If you have a huge mailing list, or are good at using FaceBook ads for books, you might be able to use these strategies to get the word out about your competitive prices.
When it comes to marketing my ebooks, not having either a large mailing list or a particularly effective FaceBook ad strategy, I have generally relied on doing periodic discounts of my ebooks and using ebook promotion sites to alert consumers to those discounts. BookBub is the premier site for this, but there are lots of alternatives, for example the 68 different places listed by Reedsy.
For audiobooks, however, there haven’t been similar sites—probably because an author has no control over pricing for the books they distribute through ACX. And even with Findaway Voices, because there are so many places it distributes to, a price change might take at least a month to propagate through the list—making it hard to schedule a promotion for a specific, limited time.
What this had meant for most indies, is that the only marketing tool for audiobooks has been to use the free coupons that distributors like ACX and Findaway Voices hand out to authors. While these are nice to use for newsletter giveaways, raffles, etc, they don’t have the impact that being able to put a book on sale—particularly a book in a series—can have when the information goes out to a large mailing list—particularly to the kind of list that BookBub has developed for ebooks.
Needless to say, I have often heard indie authors say they wished that someone would do for audiobook promotion what Bookbub did for ebooks.
Findaway Voices, Chirp, and Discoverability.
Then in March, 2019, BookBub made the announcementthat they had launched a beta program for the promotion of audiobooks, called Chirp, and that they were partnering with Findaway Voices for this this service. I immediately signed up to be on the waiting list to be notified when they were ready to take submissions from authors who wanted to participate.
The next day, I put in my first request to ACX to shift the status of my Victorian San Francisco mystery books from exclusive distribution to non-exclusive, so that I could start uploading those books to Findaway Voices.
My goal was to be ready to take advantage of this new promotional opportunity as soon as Chirp opened up for submissions. By the end of April, this process of shifting my books to non-exclusive status was complete. As you might imagine, I was then both surprised and pleased when I was asked by Chirp to let them promote Maids of Misfortune at 99 cents when they were still in this beta testing process. (See my earlier blog post on this promotion.)
On May 19, Maids of Misfortune was in the email that Chirp sent out to their subscribers who had signed up to see audiobooks in the Mystery & Thrillers category. The unofficial count of sales for that day was 417. I have no idea how good that is, comparatively. But today, when I looked at the Mystery & Thrillers list on their website, ranked by popularity, Maids of Misfortune was the sixth book out of 21 books. This put it right above McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Potted Garner. Needless to say, I was happy that Maids of Misfortune is holding its own against two other very popular cozy mysteries (smile.)
In addition, the book will stay available at 99 cents and visible on Chirp’s website for another two weeks, and of course I hope it continues to sell—and that all the people who have given the audiobook version of Maids of Misfortune a try, will go on to buy the other audiobooks in the series.
What does this this all mean?
Simply, the opportunities are opening up for indie authors who want to have more control over where their audiobooks are available and how to market them.
With these opportunities also come choices.
Do you go exclusive with ACX, not wanting to forgo on the higher royalty rate? Or do you go non-exclusive, and hope to make up the loss of royalties on Audible by “going wide,” through a distributor like Findaway Voices?
If you do go wide, what price do you want to give your books? Most of my novels are $24.95 on Audible (or $14.95 if you are an Audible member), so I have generally priced those books through Findaway Voices at $14.95—to make them competitive with Audible memberships. But I did price Maids of Misfortune, as the first book in a series, at $9.99. We will see how this works. But of course, unlike with ACX, if I want to lower or raise I price, I can do so.
Do I want to try one of the discount opportunities, dropping the price on a book for a limited amount of time and promoting it through things like my newsletter or a facebook ad, or apply for the promotions that Findaway Voices does monthly with selected stores, or apply for Chirp promotions in the future?
One of the main reasons I became an indie author was so that I would have choices, so that I could experiment, so that I could shift strategies quickly in a publishing and marketing environment that changes rapidly. (See my post on changing strategies about KDP Select and going wide for an example of what I mean.)
As a result, I am very excited about the changes Findaway Voices and Chirp are bringing to the audiobook industry.
What about you?
M. Lousia Locke, May 22, 2019