Audible and Its Detractors

Prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, who wrote five novels during the pandemic while some of us were watching Schitt’s Creek and loading frozen turkeys into car trunks, has announced the audiobook editions of those novels “will not be on Audible for the foreseeable future.”

The reason? “Audible has grown to a place where it’s very bad for authors.”

If you want details, the current industry standard for a digital product is to pay the creator 70% on a sale. It’s what Steam pays your average creator for a game sale, it’s what Amazon pays on ebooks, it’s what Apple pays for apps downloaded. (And they’re getting heat for taking as much as they are. Rightly so.)

Audible pays 40%. Almost half. For a frame of reference, most brick-and-mortar stores take around 50% on a retail product. Audible pays indie authors less than a bookstore does, when a bookstore has storefronts, sales staff, and warehousing to deal with. 

I knew things were bad, which is why I wanted to explore other options with the Kickstarter.  But I didn’t know HOW bad. Indeed, if indie authors don’t agree to be exclusive to Audible, they get dropped from 40% to a measly 25%. Buying an audiobook through Audible instead of from another site literally costs the author money.

It’s particularly galling when you realize the royalty on an audiobook is based upon the price at point of purchase, and because Audible (and other audiobook retailers) constantly offers a smorgasbord of discounts, sales, and free trials, the percentage paid to the creators can be based on prices as low as $0. The publisher or indie author can discount the title themselves but they have no choice if Audible decides to discount it for them.

And yet audiobooks have never been more popular. For the year of June 2021 to June 2022, audiobooks accounted for more than 11 percent of all trade book sales, up from 10 percent in 2021 and 8 percent in 2020. These sales seem to be at the expense of hardbacks and — surprisingly to me — e-books, sales of which have been steadily falling: for that same period, e-books sales accounted for 12.7 percent of book sales. Audiobooks will probably displace e-books as the digital version of choice in the next year or two.

This very much jibes with my royalty statements for A Season of Whispers. I’ve literally sold hundreds of audiobooks for it and yet my royalties are pennies. As my publisher at Aurelia Leo said to me, the catch-22 of audiobooks’ popularity versus the poor royalty scheme and the high cost of producing them is, in her words, “a head-scratching conundrum.”

I can’t fault people for preferring audiobooks. I don’t listen to them myself but I do enjoy listening to podcasts while multi-tasking, like when I’m making dinner or on a long drive. I prefer the quiet solace of reading a book the old-fashioned way but I understand not everyone has the free time to do so.

So if I may make one request, it’s this: buy your audiobooks anywhere except Audible.

For years, Audible has offered an overly generous policy of allowing buyers to return an audiobook within one year of purchase, which means listeners could essentially check out a title, listen to it, and return it at no cost as if Audible was a library. Audible bore this cost as a loss leader to accrue market share, squeezing as many competitors as possible out of the marketplace. Amazon’s capital allowed them to sustain the losses.

Which is how we arrived at this point.

So if you like audiobooks and you want to support indie and small-press authors, Chirp and Spotify are the best options to listen to A Season of Whispers and other titles. Somebody will make money from my audiobooks and it would be a lot cooler if that somebody was me and my publisher rather than Jeff Bezos.

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