Thursday, December 01, 2011

Audiobooks: A Cautionary Tale

I was talking to an author last night. Actually, we were sending text messages to each other, something I don't do a lot of, but it was sort of fun, texting. I'm not going to identify her, or the book.

She had a novel published recently by a major publisher. I read it. I really loved it.

I thought, Why not see if I can do it as a Neil Gaiman Presents Audiobook, through ACX?

I asked if there was an audiobook. She said, "No, no audiobook."

I asked who had the rights, and whether I could do it in ACX. She was thrilled and said of course, and she'd find out if she had the rights or if her publisher did. We talked about what kind of voice narrator she'd want, and whether a male or a female narrator would suit the book best.

And then I got a message from her saying "Oh. Bizarre. I just looked online and see there is an audiobook of (the novel) which no-one ever told me about. It apparently came out in November."

I went online and looked. There was indeed an audiobook, and it had a terrible cover. And this morning brought an email from the author saying, sadly "Don't listen to the (novel) audiobook. It might be the worst thing I have ever heard."

I felt so sorry for her.

It was the same stuff that I'd been talking about in the interview that Laura Miller did for me with

Why is there so much hesitation?

For me, the tragedy of audiobooks is that the physical limitations and impossibilities of putting out complete novels as audiobooks in the days of LPs and then pretty much in the days of cassettes, meant that the costs and the odds were always against you. Most books aren’t out as audiobooks. If you like a book, it’s probably not been done as an audiobook.

Publishers would take audio rights but then never do anything with them. ... That process is that you persuade your publisher to do an audiobook and then you have no control over who gets cast, or who reads it. You have no quality control over pronunciation or goofs or anything like that. And then your publisher brings it out and then your publisher remainders it.

That is the problem that ACX was created to solve — and for me it’s also the problem that it’s highlighting. I’m hitting it more and more. All I know is that there could be lots and lots of audiobooks out there that aren’t. For years it didn’t matter that the rights were held by people because nobody could do anything anyway. But we’re not in that world anymore.

Can you talk a bit about the importance of the right narrator, and how much that person can add to or subtract from the audiobook experience?

I remember once talking to a best selling author about audiobooks. He’d written a book that was narrated by a 20-something black male and the audiobook was read by a 50-something white female. He had no say in this and after listening to it for five minutes he stopped, feeling physically sick.

In some cases, when the author is alive and available, I cede that choice to the author. I become the production entity and I’ll cast a deciding vote if the author says it’s between three narrators he or she likes equally. If the author’s alive, I want the author happy. That’s the most important bit.

And I felt really extra sorry for my anonymous sad author, because I was SO happy about the release two days ago of Swordspoint -- mostly happy because of how amazingly happy author Ellen Kushner is. (See for proof and background.) Swordspoint's an audiobook narrated by the author, with additional soundscape and acting from such luminaries as Simon "Arthur Dent" Jones, and it's a thing of joy. She's happy, I'm happy, the people listening to it seem amazingly happy, the people at are ridiculously happy because people are downloading it and the reviews are already coming in and they are happy reviews.

(Go and listen to the Swordspoint extract, or listen to me introducing it, or read more about it at

And I don't want to turn this into a big plug for Swordspoint, or a rant against publishers wasting or not using audio rights. I think what I want to say mostly is, if you are an author, Get Involved in Your Audiobooks Early. Get your agent involved and interested. Talk about them at contract stage. Find out if you're selling the rights, and if you are selling them then find out what control you have or whether you are going to be consulted or not about who the narrator is and how the audiobook is done.

Also, make sure that your publisher has worked out a way to give you free copies (obvious if it's out on CD, much less so if you're on download-only platform).

If you're an agent, notice that we are not living a decade ago, when audiobooks were expensive bells and whistles that meant very little, that normally wouldn't be done for anything outside of major bestsellers, when abridgments were often the order of the day: we're entering a golden age, in which there is no reason that any book shouldn't be available in professionally produced audio. Unless you know that the audio rights are going to be used and used well, keep them for your author. And if they are being sold with the book, then guard your author, and make sure that she or he gets rights of approval.

I love, am thrilled with, and am getting a huge kick out of the ACX way of doing it, where authors (or rightsholders), producers and voice talent sign up and get together and make audiobooks that Audible put up. It's there for you if you're an author, an agent, a publisher with lots of rights you don't know how to exploit, a director/producer/studio engineer, or an actor, and interested. (Right now, it's US only, but they are working on that.) (Find out more at (End of plug.)

But this isn't an ad for ACX, either. Honestly, you can do it on your own, if you want: Find a narrator or a studio; you can release it through the web; you can give it away as a promotional item, or because you can. Or you can make sure that if your publisher is putting out an audiobook that you have a say in it, and it's the book you want it to be.

Because otherwise it might be you writing to friends telling them not to listen to the audiobook of your book. And that would be a terrible thing indeed.

Labels: , , , ,