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  • Susan May

Audiblegate! The incredible true story of missing sales



Here's an ALLEGED tale of a giant in the tech and online retail industry you'll struggle to believe. If it wasn't happening to me and many, many authors, I'd think it can't be true, that it might be an exaggeration. Grab a coffee or tea or even an alcoholic beverage and let me take you into the Twilight Zone of the audiobook business, where the company who now controls a majority of the publishing industry, the same company who calls themselves the most customer-centric company in the world is fleecing authors blind, emphasis on blind (since they've been hiding it very well for years.) Your favorite authors, me included, have been used in a program by Amazon called Audible. You might have heard of them. They're just a little audiobook company that it seems may be losing market share, or something has worried them, so they've found a way around the one thing standing between them and mega-profits: paying their content providers. You know, the little guys who spend months, years even, creating a story, then producing an audiobook to keep their readers happy and hopefully bolster their mostly meagre income in order to feed their family or pay for enough coffee to write their next book.

Returns have been actively hidden from Rights Holders and we have been robbed in broad daylight (or blank spreadsheet).


Whether you are an author who has audiobooks currently or you are planning audiobooks, or you're a book lover or Audible customer, it's worth your while to read this saga. This is probably the single worst royalties grab by an Amazon company so far, and we need to stand together and stop this urgently. Big and small earning authors and those in-between, along with small publishers (and maybe Big Fives) are losing mega-dollars because of Audible's egregious behavior. Soon book lovers will also lose, because audiobooks will no longer be released from their beloved authors, me being one. It's just not financially worth it, plus who wants their stuff stolen when you've taken so much care to make it so nice.


Audible has their own publishing/distribution company where you can produce your book and then that book is distributed to Audible, Amazon and Apple. If you choose to "go exclusive" and distribute only to these three, you are granted the princely profit split of 40%. This is after spending sometimes upward of $6 to $8k on an audiobook. To give you an idea, my last audiobook Destination Dark Zone cost me $US6,200 to produce. If you're not exclusive to Audible and decide to distribute your book to other retail stores such as Kobo, Scrib'd and local libraries, then you only receive twenty-five percent of your sales or your share of the pot from memberships. Oh, that's right, I didn't mention that. There's three ways an author is paid. When an Audible member uses a monthly credit which they receive as part of their membership, a rights holder receives a share of the pot created by the number of memberships paid, minus Audible's profit. This pot varies each month. So we never know how much this per download share will be until the day we are paid, but it's something close to $US5, while members pay $14.95 for a membership with one credit per month to use on a book. When you pay, say, $7.49 on Amazon for an add-on audiobook when you've purchased the eBook, we are paid $2.99 on the forty percent split. Should you buy an audiobook as a member from Audible and not use a credit, according to my reports, members pay $9.15 for most of my books, and I receive $3.61. Some rights holders don't have an exclusive deal with Audible. Many don't because they believe in not putting all their eggs in Amazon's basket. Well, they get less. So, just go right ahead and nearly halve these payments because they only receive twenty-five percent. It's not much is it compared to what readers and members pay for each book or monthly subscription fee?

There's a lot involved in creating a book.


Here's a crash course. You don't just record it and release like it's magic. You have to search for the perfect narrator and that sure takes some time. Then brief them, swapping emails until you're positive they're a good fit for you and your work. There's plenty of back and forth between you as you nail the characters' voices and polish them to your liking before the narrator starts the narration.


This involves them sending you a fifteen minute file, you listen and send them feedback until you're both happy. There're studios hired sometimes, and the narrator's fee is dependent upon their experience and quality of work. Mine have all won awards and they don't come cheap but they're brilliant professionals so I don't begrudge their charges. After the recording, which can take a week or more, we have proofing and engineering to ensure the whole book's sound is consistent and intakes of breath and random clicks are banished. For every hour to which a reader listens it takes two to four to produce, and that's just the narrator's time. In my case, I listen through the finished audio files, and even with paying for proofing still a few mistakes slip through. So back it goes for the narrator to drop in the corrections (which takes a bit of time for the narrator, and if it's my mistake with a typo, I pay extra) until it's right. You won't believe how tough it is to listen to your own book and think, Gee, I could have written that sentence better, or hear an actual typo or the same word used too many times in one paragraph. Then finally, yay, your audiobook is done and you pay the narrator or in some cases where independent authors who can't afford to pay up front, you enter a royalty share deal and split the future income with the narrator for seven years. So, in this case, the narrator works for nothing, zip, nada, and hopes to eventually somewhere down the track recover their costs and actually get paid so they can buy mouth gargle and honey to keep their voices healthy and, well, eat. It's pretty tough for some if they pick the wrong book to narrate which doesn't go on to sell and never pays out. They've worked for nothing or very little. The excited author then hits publish and waits for their book to go through Quality Assurance at ACX. Keep in mind, they've already paid and probably aren't rich, so they need that book out there selling units to get their money back because, well, eating is kind of addictive, and life without hot water is pretty miserable. For the past twelve months though some authors and narrators have been waiting months to have their books approved. This is while business is booming at Audible apparently but they don't have enough staff to keep everything running smoothly. It's November 2020 now and I've seen comments that some audiobooks from March, and even January are still caught up in the quality assurance system. And these kind of delays started well before COVID hit.


I'd like to pause at this moment to ask where the Quality Assurance Department is for their Quality Assurance Department? "We seem to have a problem here, Captain Kirk." Where's Scotty from engineering when you need him?


BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE...


Audible is actively now promoting returns as a "benefit."


So, this whole system seems a little unfair, right? Authors pay for everything, take all the risk for a smaller cut of the profits, while the richest man in the world's company keeps the lion's share and controls everything.

But, wait, this isn't the story I'm telling. This is the prologue, the background, so you're informed and will realize how dire what I'm about to share with you is for your favorite authors and why I've spent the past month not writing but trying to fight for an injustice to be rectified. Even more insidious than the low royalty rates paid us by Audible is something I call #AudibleGate, of which you may not be aware. Audible is promoting returns of any audible book for "any reason, no questions asked," even if the person has listened to the whole Audible book and enjoyed it. The return is permissible up to 365 days and in some countries it's been reported that it's infinity. What??? Hey now, no, Susan May, how would that work? Surely not. That would be objectively unfair to the author. Might even be illegal.


Why, yes, it is unfair and morally wrong and possibly even theft by stealth. You're so smart to realize that. Do tell Audible because they don't seem to get it.


Audible are actively promoting this "benefit" to their members as a way of incentivizing them to stay locked in each month because you can only return audiobooks if you're a member. Hmm, that's clever marketing. Audible even sends emails encouraging users to return a book, screens pop up after you finish reading suggesting a return, and there is even an obvious "return" button on the app which changes wording depending on whether you've finished the book or are part way through. Part-finished it's "RETURN TITLE". Finish the book and it changes to "EXCHANGE."

Who loses when I return a book? readers think.


Audible! Surely, Audible? Surely not authors? And who cares anyway? Audible's owned by the world's richest man, so, it's not big deal to return a book. It's my right. It's part of being an Audible member.


Well, you're favorite authors lose, my wonderful reader. Our accounts are debited for that returned book, sometimes a year later. We, the hard-working content creators and narrators eat this loss, not Amazon. Let me repeat this for impact. Authors pay for this "benefit" and many times we are not earning any money for the sale of an audiobook even if it is thoroughly enjoyed by the reader. Audible though, they don't miss out, they still get your monthly subscription payment. Authors weren't asked if we wanted to offer this "benefit" or if we agreed to it or were happy to pay for it. Audible just did it for their own commercial benefit. Think on this, too, if you're following all the antitrust cases against Amazon around the world where they're accused of using their market dominance to unfairly compete against rivals, how easy it is to hold out any competitors in the Audiobook market when you don't have to pay for content? Why would a reader use another service when they have unlimited Audible books every month for one low price. Nobody else currently can offer that model because it's too expensive to pay authors if a reader listens to more than a couple of books a month. So, they cap the number of books consumed per month and limit the titles included in other cases. Not Audible though because their titles are free to them.

How many readers, I hear you ask, are returning books? Surely everybody is honest and wouldn't do this unless the book is absolutely terrible and you've only listened to an hour or so?

Ah, ah, ah, nearing fifty percent returns for many authors. Some less, but not by much. My number is fifty per cent. Think on that now. They're halving my sales to prop up their business. My books can't be that bad. If they were that bad, they should kick me off the platform for poor customer experience.


We don't know how long they've been doing this but we feel it could be the past eighteen months or longer, maybe a lot longer, maybe even years but growing slowly as more people spread the word about how to easily return books.


You might like to view this entertaining video created by a popular YouTuber Fantasy writer where he verbalizes how outrageous this is. Read through some of the hundreds of comments below the video to see examples of what's been happening and how entitled some Audible members are with regards to their return "benefits." Oh, and their excuses as to why they've been returning whole series of books or using the system as a library rental facility: just because they could; a glitch that keeps on giving; didn't want to pay for the audiobooks; can't afford to listen to as many as they'd like. They're fun reads while you nibble on your dry biscuits and drink dirty water as you sit in the dark. Click here to watch. It's pretty entertaining the way he presents things, awful as the facts are for us, and he's spot on, too.


IT'S ALL SMOKE AND MIRRORS

How'd we authors miss this tomfoolery for so long? We're pretty smart. We keep a check on figures and sales and many of us spend tens, even hundreds of thousands on marketing, so we need to understand our return on investment. Well, that's due to the dubious and alarming practice which allowed this travesty to be perpetuated unknown for so long because ACX/Audible HIDES the returns beneath the sales. They don't use a simple common accounting form of a separate column to show returns.


You only know you have a return if you haven't sold enough books to cover the returns with a sale. So you'll see a -1 or -2, or whatever. Other times, you'll see a "0" which means you've had returned as many books as you've sold. Unfortunately, this is a common, every-second-or-third day experience and hugely deflating for an author. And, oh, so frustrating that it makes you want to give up writing. Ask my muse, they're waiting for me to come back and start being a writer again.

I stopped advertising my books for the last six months because if you sell more than a few books a day, you'll miss the returns. When you're only selling a few, you'll see them pop up. It's not an exact science because you really don't know what count of numbers have added up to your nett figure of sales. How many sales to begin with and how many minus returns? We just don't know. But our hackneyed system of half-guessing is all we've got because one of the acknowledged world's greatest data harvesters can't supply a simple column to show us, we the content providers, our returns.


So, until a recent glitch occurred (which they're "sorry for the confusion", or because they finally got found out) where ACX clawed back three weeks of returns in one day on the 20th October, many authors had no idea this was even happening.


Authors simply awakened to see they had lost ten, twenty, thirty, and in some cases hundreds of sales. That was for those who'd been keeping tally of their sales to date for the month (quite a few don't). Some had suspected something was amiss, like myself, but didn't know how many were being returned exactly. We only saw the minus figures and zeros on a regular enough basis to know there was an issue.


I felt my returns were sitting at around th