This is the first of a series of posts about the campaign known to self-publishing authors as #AudibleGate. The Alliance of Independent Authors would like to extend thanks to Susan May for this post and for her work with the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators Facebook group. This pressure group of authors and narrators is amassing evidence and testimony that is providing an understanding of what is happening to transactions and payment accounts at Audible.
If you haven't already, please sign the #Audiblegate petition here. This will keep you posted as the campaign develops. Now over to Susan.
When an author enters the independent publishing world, one of the most important pieces of advice shared with them is to calculate your return-on-investment (R.O.I.). If you don’t advertise, the calculation is a simple, how many books do you need to sell to repay editing and book cover costs? If you dive into audiobooks, well, that number of books jumps because of high production costs. This again should be straightforward. Your costs plus marketing divided by the profit paid per book by the retail platform.
What happens though when the profit paid value of your audiobook sale is incorrect or hidden beneath net sales?
You might decide to create an audiobook which could take much longer to pay you back, and that’s if you ever recoup your investment. Had you known the true payment calculations you may not have traveled the audiobook path. Another issue if you are a marketer is you may cancel advertising after a time because the R.O.I. tells you it’s not worth it. This then becomes lost potential when we base our formula on incorrect assumptions. The low R.O.I. might even cause you to give up publishing or affect your enthusiasm for writing.
Audiblegate: Knowing Something Was Wrong
Many authors, and I include myself, have felt this loss of passion. I’d created more books over the years, including expensive Audibles, but my income stagnated, while my gut told me it should increase with my marketing and growing reader base. My life experience had been decades of successful marketing and business in many industries, so I have a feel for business numbers.
I had kept extensive data on sales income and advertising expenses, and despite producing high-quality audiobooks with award-winning narrators (based on reviews and star ratings), I was heading backward. Something was wrong, and I couldn’t explain what. One avenue I’d explored was spending extra time and money on promoting audiobooks because it made sense with less competition and a growing market.
Business depressed but determined is what I’d call my attitude since 2019. I kept looking for answers as, unbeknown to me, had others. The answer lay in front of us in our reports, just well-hidden and so egregious you’d never consider it a reasonable answer.
If in secret, someone siphons away twenty, fifty, or maybe even sixty percent of sales from beneath your nose, what then? A financial disaster on so many levels. This idea hadn’t factored into our calculations until recent months because we must trust our sales platform partners, Amazon and ACX/Audible. We must trust them because they are too big to question. They have failsafe technology, right?
An urban myth exists that talks of Amazon hiring the best data scientists in the world. The Amazon Science-Customer Obsessed Science page brims with advancements in machine learning, search and information retrieval, knowledge management, computer vision and even quantum technologies. All this brainpower and advancements to support and further Amazon’s passion for customer service; customers, they say, which includes their business partner sellers, which means authors too.
These are lofty commitments indeed, unless it comes to Amazon’s passion for Audible’s business partners, where they can’t spare a scientist or even an intern to do basic data reporting. Nobody for close on seven years could create an extra column in the ACX income sales reports to allow authors to know how many of our books are returned. An oversight possibly, except in October 2020 when Audiblegate became a thing and authors asked for their returns data.
Audible claimed it was too hard, the resources needed too few and the costs too high.
These seem like excuses based on the evidence we have accrued. It seems Audible created a profitable and competitor-proof business by offering an Easy Exchange Member Benefit which allowed listeners to make returns for which the company doesn't have to pay. Deduct the money from authors instead. Hide the returns beneath sales and call them net sales, and problem solved.
You don’t need a quantum computer to highlight a genius profit plan and a perfect way to habituate members into continuing their monthly subscription.
Audiblegate: Easy Exchange Equals Easy Profit.
This great plan worked well for Audible/ACX until a glitch occurred in October, in which three weeks of returns were clawed back by the company in one day. Thus, began the #audiblegate scandal that just won’t die.
When authors asked for their returns data, ACX denied the requests again and again and again. Though isolated by the solitary nature of our business, authors for the first time united against an Amazon company in joining a small Facebook group: Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators (FDRHN). Within weeks, the small band grew to thousands of tenacious, outraged authors, narrators and rights holders.
I didn’t set out to lead a group of authors. Keep my head down, write my books and live my life, that’s been my thing. As I’ve said, though, to those brave others who are working behind the scenes, you don’t drive past an accident and not stop to help when you have medical training. So I, and a small band of authors I call our Brain trust, will be there fighting alongside Alliance of Independent Authors and our colleagues in FDRHN until we see justice.
AudibleGate: Concessions but Key Demands Ignored
We’ve had quick wins already. News of these arriving via emails from ACX or through their blog addressing the aggrieved author community as “valued writers and ACX partners.” We’re valuable to them, yes, but valued?
That's not how it feels when we receive opaque replies, or another fob off to our concerns. Oh, and there was a scheduled meeting on January 20 between ALLi, two major author organizations, FDRHN, and Audible’s CEO and staff, cancelled by Audible at the last minute, perhaps because some uncomfortable truths were shared. We didn't feel too valued then, either.
Instead, of a meeting, Audible put out a release advising authors they were no longer tied to a seven-year contract, and from February 1, 2021, rights holders could move their books wide, or even remove their listing for sale from the Audible platform after ninety days had elapsed since publication.
This is a welcome change and big news. Mention of authors’ original key demands, though, glaring in their absence.
Might it have been a bone thrown so the trouble-making rights holders might pick it up, pad off somewhere, and stop asking tricky questions?
One thing we’ve learned in the past few months is that when authors stand together, we are a force. Hard work and a unified stance, with the support of ALLi, has seen our small group cause Audible to concede to limit returns authors cover to seven days, while they continue their 365-day guarantee, and abolishing the seven-year contract. Oh, yes, and there was a 5% increase in December payments to say they were sorry, but we won’t mention that because 5% of nothing won’t buy you a coffee.
Our battle continues with much vigor because when a company as big as Audible scrambles to offer little nuggets, we wonder what precious secrets might lie hidden in those vaults? We won’t stop until we discover the truth and unshackle ourselves from unfair practices. There’s another #Audiblegate revelation. Far from feeling valued, we feel we can’t trust these guys anymore.
The Future of Audiobook Publishing
I’ve been publishing since early 2013 and lived through the evolution of self-publishing. I look at many independent publishers today, myself included, and realize we’ve become a perfect example of the Boiling Frog syndrome. We need to climb out of this pot because it’s unhealthy for our business. Many of us gave up a degree of our independence for a comfy all-your-eggs-data-in-one-basket space. You shouldn’t stay when a company makes it part of their business plan to steal your eggs from beneath you.
We continue our fight with renewed vigor for these key issues and a few adjuncts we’ve come across after digging deeper into Audible’s practices. If Audible’s listening, as they claim to be, hear this. We won’t be stopping our campaign until you:
- Supply returns data prior to 1st Jan 2021.
- Pay losses on these returns, which fall outside the terms of authors’ contracts.
- Make authors accountable only for true returns, where less than 25% of the book has been listened to.
For authors, we’ve added two more goals:
- Climb out of the pot and find a better home—an answer to this coming soon.
- Educate our community on contracts and reading payment statements.
Knowledge is power, and so a small group of us have done the research and we’ll soon release regular mini easy-to-understand posts. With everything you know about Audiblegate, there’s still much more to learn.
Next Monday, and over coming weeks, accountant Colleen Cross, author of Anatomy of a Ponzi: Scams Past and Present, and novels starring a corporate fraud investigator, will lead us through eye-opening essays on Audible/ACX practices and formulas. Did you know, for instance, the real percentage split of payment on sales is not 40/25%?
Audiblegate matters to all Authors
Audiobook creators: don’t think you’re not affected if you distribute through aggregators such as Findaway, or license your intellectual property to publishers like Tantor. There’s obscure math happening behind the reports that has been missed but we are using this new knowledge to give us the courage to climb out of the pot.
Audiblegate revelations leave us asking questions which sometimes sound closer to conspiracy theories unless you study the facts. It makes me wonder what those data scientists Amazon employs really do with their time? Could it be they search for new and more obscure ways to cut percentages out of rights holders’ earnings?
Even if you don't hear of Audiblegate every week, just know the campaign continues. To dig a tunnel to escape a prison takes time, along with grit and a helluva lot of work. We can’t afford to lose, not for ourselves, indies who’ve taken our writing destiny into our own hands, and not for those authors who will publish through Amazon in the future.
The fight continues. Grab your pitchforks and outrage, we’re storming the gates.
If you haven't already, sign the petition here.