Kindling the debate: publishing audio and e-books

Posted on November 3, 2009 in Uncategorized

The SYP’s September speaker meeting covered the hot topic of the moment: are printed books essential, or is a move to purely electronic media inevitable?

First to speak was Bella Todd, Editor of Latest 7 magazine and founder of Time Out’s monthly audio books column, A Word in Your Ear. ‘I’m speaking to you as a fan rather than an industry professional,’ Bella told us. ‘I pitched A Word in Your Ear in 2008 because I loved audio books. My first encounter of them was my mum taping them for me from the radio. Now it’s more about commuters and iPods.
‘There’s been a massive shift in the past few years in the type and range of audio books available, from classic to cult, to new books. People can download the same books as are being reviewed in the books sections. Time Out exists to give coverage and consideration to all art forms, and I think audio books merit this ­– they are an art form. Think of the quality and calibre of reading that are available.
‘Audio books have allowed me to finish lots of books that I’d only just started to read, such as Midnight’s Children and Tristram Shandy. It’s a bit like having a personal trainer – and it means I don’t read the same paragraph three times! I don’t think it’s dumbing down at all; audio books are a means of engaging new readers.’
Next to speak was Simon Bell, Head of Strategic Partnerships and Licensing at the British Library. Until a year ago, Simon worked in mainstream publishing. ‘Now I work at the British Library on the issue of digitisation – which is front and central to the current debate amongst significant libraries worldwide.
‘We’re a legal deposit library, which means a copy of every item published in the UK is deposited in the library. We exist not just to collect and provide access to books, but also to audio, movies, web content, comics, journals and so on. It’s really a collection of the intellectual content of the UK.
‘There’s an increasing appetite from the Google generation – they don’t go to libraries to find information, they want to access it from their desktop. This, of course, means digitisation. We have over 150 million objects in the British Library, so it’s a big project, but it’s a service to the scholarly community. We particularly want to make out of print items available and accessible through digitisation.
‘Digitisation is expensive, even where there’s a commercial return, which isn’t the case for the more obscure items. For example, we have millions of newspapers in our archive – there’s no money from the public purse to digitise them, so how do we find the money? We have to find commercial partnerships, but then how do they gain a return – especially when ideally we want to provide the content for free?’
Colin Weir, Business Development Coordinator at, told us that Audible have ‘around 35 000 downloads available on our website, from comedy sketches to books. The pricing varies, but has to be in line with the customers’ expectations. They tend to see a download as equivalent to an album, not a box set of CDs that they’d buy in a shop.
‘We offer a membership plan, which allows you to download one audio book a month for £7.99 or two for £14.99. I take this membership plan, and go out to partners to see how to develop it. I try to spread the word about audio books, and partnerships help us to reach new readers.
‘So who buys audio books? As I see it, there are two niches. The first is people who go to libraries and shops and buy a CD box set of an audio book, but are yet to be converted to the benefits of downloading. So we’d target these people by something like placing an offer in the Radio Times offering a free audio book. Of course, we do often get older ladies calling up who don’t understand how to get their free book, but we can help them with that!
‘The second is people who love downloading and iTunes, but aren’t yet fans of audio books. They think they’re only for the elderly or the visually impaired. Twenty per cent of 18–25 year olds haven’t read a book in the past year, and these are the people to grab. We give them a celebrity biography or a music biography – for example our partnership with Xfm where we gave away the Nick Cave audio book. We also have offers for children – for example, free Horrid Henry downloads in partnership with Marmite.’
Clive Stanhope, Managing Director at CSA word, was next to speak. ‘Audio books tend to be forgotten by book publishers – they’re second on the list,’ Clive told us. ‘But digital life is coming and it’s here to stay. And audio books are here to stay. There are of course copyright issues to consider, and the debate over the MP3 versus the Windows format, but these issues are largely being ironed out, and the audio book is well established.
‘Pricing is, of course, an issue. An audio book is a physical product and there is a manufacturing cost. With downloadable content, when it’s created, there’s nothing left to pay for – the publisher doesn’t lose any money on reprints, apart from perhaps through royalties. There are no stock issues.
‘However, you do have to record the book. How do you produce an unabridged audio book for £15.99? There’s no extra CD cost, but you still have to pay the reader, studio costs, and the rights.
‘For many of our titles at CSA, the break-even point is not yet being met by download sales alone. We have only three of four titles which would have made a profit if we hadn’t released them on CD also. But our CD sales are up on last year, despite the recession. I don’t think downloads are taking the place of CD sales, but it shows that new people are getting into audio books.
‘We’ve had a long battle with getting electronic rights. At first it wasn’t clear whether you were allowed to sell downloads as well as CDs when you’d bought audio rights. We have to pay royalties to both the author and the reader, and agents ask for the majority of the money as they think we have no costs. But they don’t think about things like the fact that we had to dump all our cassettes at one stage – we bore that cost – and royalties are being earnt, so they’re not being ripped off.’
Our final speaker for the evening was Neil Jewsbury, Commercial Director at Waterstone’s. He was involved with the launch of the Sony e-reader, ‘the most exciting development within the industry in recent years.’ Neil shared with us some customer insights about their experiences of e-books. ‘People think that the people who are into e-books are geeky first-time adopters, but this isn’t the case – the split in our customers were roughly 50 % male and 50 % female, with 70 % over 35. 60% buy more than eight books a year, and 90% had bought a book within the past three months, so they were buying both physical and e-books.
‘When asked what they enjoyed about e-reading, they said that it was “new and exciting,” and “convenient”, especially for travelling. It was also “in-line with current times,” and gave a more fashionable look to reading. In terms of what they didn’t like, they wanted to know why there wasn’t more choice in the range of e-books, and why it’s not possible to buy an e-book at the same time as the hardback is launched. They were also confused by the pricing. They weren’t clear about why e-books are VAT-able and physical books aren’t, thus making the e-book more expensive. They tend to automatically assume that a digital book will be cheaper than a conventional book.
‘It’s certainly an exciting development for the book industry – e-books are touching and reaching new customers. It’s a convenient method of reading, and it’s a positive development for authors, publishers and readers. However, there industry has to consider three things – pace, price and possible piracy. The digital space moves faster than anything we’ve known before, so pace is of the essence. Customers will demand this. In terms of price – it’s not about marching to the lowest price. We should be sensible about pricing. The customer doesn’t want to feel overcharged. If these two things aren’t addressed, piracy will be the result.’
Questions followed, on the topics of whether digitisation is overall a good or a bad thing – the general consensus from the panel was that it is. As Simon pointed out, 80% of academic journals are available digitally. ‘Academic and STM publishers have been quietly getting on with the process of digitisation while everyone else has been making a fuss about it.’ The panel also felt that the e-reader is an intermediate technology – a multi-purpose device is the way forward, and that in ten years’ time, digitisation will be the norm – no-one will comment on it anymore.
The panel also commented on whether the publishing industry is capitalising on digital technology – to which they suggested that the industry is being held back by fear of piracy and fear of what e- and audio books will do to our existing business model. Clive cited his background in the music industry – ‘the music industry moves a lot faster. They leap on new technologies, even if they don’t always turn out to work, they try it. Book publishers have to realise the technology is out there are get on with it.’
Neil summed up the dilemma and ended the evening with the idea that ‘there are two ends of the spectrum – the problem and the opportunity. Publishers’ focus is wrong. If they continue to be preoccupied by the problem, they will miss the opportunity.’
Lucy Mitchell