ACX, Amazon's audio production platform, and Audible, its retail arm, are dominant players in the audiobook market. Their vertical integration gives Amazon tremendous control over all aspects of the audiobook market. Through them, Amazon dictates non-negotiable terms to authors, narrators, publishers, and customers, unfailingly to its own advantage. Which is why today, we're showing you audiobook publishing alternatives to ensure you have other options for your business.
By some estimates, Audible dominates over 40% of the 1.3-billion dollar audiobook market.
Some of the practices used by Audible-ACX to achieve this dominant position have been questionable and authors have suffered. Since October last, ALLi has been supporting an author campaign to reverse these wrongs and compensate authors. You can find out more about ALLi's stance on that campaign here.
Given the size and dominance of Amazon, can audiobook authors afford to shun the corporate giant completely? The short answer is no. But in line with ALLi's policy of non-exclusivity, we recommend that authors move from exclusivity to non-exclusivity with ACX, asap, even though that means a lower payment rate.
When you do, you'll find there are a number of alternative services available to you, all of whom supply ACX but also many other outlets and territories to which Amazon does not have access. By paying attention to marketing methods, a publisher can soon build a presence on these platforms and a profit base that exceeds what's paid out on ACX.
The purpose of this post is to provide a comparison of terms between ACX/Audible and six rival audiobook distribution services — Author's Republic, Findaway Voices, Kobo Writing Life, Lantern (formerly ListenUp Audio), PublishDrive, and Soundwise. All of these services are recommended Partner Members of ALLi.
We hope this post will help you to choose your best option for reaching more readers and selling more books.
We also encourage you to consider publishing direct, supplying audiobooks (and ebooks) on your own website.
Audiobook Distribution Channels
ACX distributes to Amazon, Audible, and Apple, collectively the world's largest audiobook venues. Despite the size of these venues, a majority of the world's audiobook sales takes place outside these Big Three. For authors distributing exclusively through ACX, that could mean money left on the table. Apple, a major player in the audiobook market, is no longer exclusive to ACX. You can reach them through other distributors, who offer better terms. Other big players are moving into the market. Google and Kobo have made commitments to expand their market share. And options for authors to sell audiobooks directly from their own websites have greatly improved in recent years.
Audible may own the biggest share now, but market share is ever in a state of flux, and what is true today may not be tomorrow. As publishers, indie authors have a part to play in ensuring a diverse and vibrant audiobook ecosystem.
Author's Republic offers a wide distribution network, including the Audible/Amazon/Apple triumvirate, retail partners (Barnes & Noble, Nook, Kobo), library distribution channels (Overdrive, Hoopla, Baker & Taylor), and a few unique subscription services (YouTube Premium, eStories, Napster).
Findaway Voices features even more outlets, and its extensive and diverse distribution networks, make it the world's largest audiobook distributor. Its channels include all the main players–Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, and Walmart–as well as an enormous variety of smaller retailers and venues.
Kobo Writing Life
Kobo avoids Amazon entirely, and maintains an international focus through Walmart in the US, Indigo in Canada, Bol.com in the Netherlands, Booktopia in Australia, and its own Kobo.com.
In addition to its own online store, Lantern distributes to a solid array of retailers including Downpour.com, Audiobooks.com, Storytel; and to libraries through Hoopla, Overdrive, and Mackin Educational Resources. Lantern also distributes through Findaway, Kobo, Audible, and Apple, so it's a great choice for authors looking to aggregate their distribution under one umbrella.
PublishDrive distributes audiobooks to a small but robust lineup of major channels. Audible, Google Play, Kobo, Overdrive, Bookmate, and Findaway form the core of their network, but they also include some noteworthy outliers, such as Gardners, and the Chinese distributor CNPe Reading.
Soundwise does not distribute to retailers, but instead, distributes content through its proprietary app and web interface. While the Soundwise audience is smaller than other distribution channels, its users are enthusiastic listeners who often favor content within the Soundwise system. An alternative to Findaway’s Authors Direct platform, they ofer a wider variety of “soundcasts”, including shorts and podcasts as well as full-length audiobooks. This distribution can tap into a user base that eschews other platforms.
In addition to the distribution options mentioned here, don't forget that once you are non-exclusive you are at liberty to distribute books on your own website. Services like Bookfunnel and Payhip make fulfilling your reader's purchases seamless and those who are using social media advertising may well find their own website delivers a higher return than other outlets, even allowing for the algorithm advantages on other platforms.
Commissions and Royalties
ACX/Audible pays 40% of sales for exclusive content, and a meager 25% for non-exclusive agreements.
Compensation ranges from approximately 30% to 50% of list price on venues outside of Amazon's control. The distributor's share (if any) is deducted from this net payment.
Beyond Amazon, a retailer's business model usually determines commissions. Some offer subscription models, where readers pay a monthly fee to have access to a catalog of audiobooks. Others offer a la carte sales, which generally pay a higher rate than subscription models. Most distributors take a cut of the net sales and pass the rest on to the author; Soundwise and PublishDrive are the standout exceptions to this norm, each paying 100% of net on a la carte sales.
When the bottom line is tallied, the benefits of wide distribution may exceed the short-term convenience of Amazon exclusivity, especially when one factors in Audible's undisclosed seizure of author royalties to pay for customer returns. Other audiobook retailers and distributors pay you for every sale.
Findaway Voices pays 80% of net from distribution channels (which can range up 25% to 50% of list price, depending on the retailer). The service supports an array of business models, including subscriptions, global pools, and single copy loans.
Kobo Writing Life
Kobo pays 32% of list price for subscription purchases, 45% of list price otherwise (except audiobooks priced below $2.99, which earn 35% of list price).
Lantern pays 80% of net from all its distribution partners.
Soundwise has recently updated its plans, and all of them now pay 100% of net sales (minus any processing fees via Stripe) in exchange for a subcription fee. Subscription fees start at a one-time $59 charge for the Essentials Plan, through a range of monthly and annual plans to fit your publishing volume and needs.
PublishDrive offers tiered subscription plans paying 100% of net. These plans range from the Starter Plan at 2 titles for $9.99 per month, up to the Pro Plan for 48 titles per month. PublishDrive stands out for its unique royalty split features, which allow publishers to automatically split and distribute payments to co-authors and other collaborators.
Author's Republic pays 70% of net from retailers.
Of the audiobook distributors listed in this article, Audible is the only one using exclusive agreements. ACX offers exclusive and non-exclusive plans, both granting a license to Audible for 7 years. If you sign up for an exclusive agreement, Pay-for-Production (P4P) agreements may be converted to non-exclusive agreements after one year, but Royalty-Share agreements may never be changed. Exclusivity may be changed 90 days after publication of a book by emailing the request to ACX.
Lantern, Kobo Writing Life, Findaway Voices, Soundwise, PublishDrive and Author's Republic are all non-exclusive distributors, and can be used in conjunction with one another to supplement or replace Audible.
Each of the audiobook distributors covered here allow the author to set their own list price, except for ACX/Audible, which determines prices based on audiobook length. Audible offers no control over list price to the author or publisher, and the prices set by other distributors and aggregators may be overridden by Audible.
In a controversy known as #Audiblegate, ACX and Audible have come under increasing fire for their deceptive reporting. ACX/Audible have been promoting no-questions-asked returns of audiobooks as a subscription perk. These returns come at the authors' expense, but even more appalling, the returns were concealed by reporting “net sales”, where returns are deducted from credited sales without the author's knowledge.
For this reason, ACX and Audible have now been assigned a Caution rating by ALLi's Watchdog Desk.
Audible has recently made updates to the dashboard, but confusion continues. ALLi is currently working with Audible to get some clarity and will report back on this as soon as possible.
Findaway Voices offers clear reporting with breakdowns by retailer in tabular format or charts. Data for some retailers are available in up-to-the-minute reports, and past data can be downloaded as standalone reports.
Kobo Writing Life
KWL features a detailed author dashboard and report system, but reports are not broken out by retailer. Reports are only issued monthly.
Lantern's reporting is uncomplicated and easy to read at a glance.
Soundwise reporting offers great analytics, but even better, it provides buyers' email addresses to build your mailing list. That's a feature few other services offer, one that puts a priceless marketing resource in your hands.
PublishDrive offers clear and concise royalty reports, optionally broken down by venue. Detailed descriptions of payment schedules are provided for each distribution channel, with illustrative examples. Daily sales analytics are available as earnings and volume charts, or mapped to countries worldwide. Comprehensive, detailed sales reports may be downloaded as Excel spreadsheets.
Author's Republic reports are available in a simple format that provides basic information on unit sales and revenue, and an Advanced tab with more detailed information. There is no graphical chart format to give an at-a-glance summary of performance, but reports can be downloaded and displayed as a chart in Excel without much difficulty.
ACX terms and conditions are strewn across eighteen separate documents, a nightmare typical for Amazon subsidiaries. They contain a number of legal landmines buried in the text, including:
- account holders may not terminate their agreement prior to delivery of an audiobook, and that termination does not affect any rights you have already granted ACX
- changes to the terms and conditions take effect immediately, without notice, and authors' only recourse is to terminate their account — although this does not release the author from any obligations of the agreement
- you are required to notify ACX if someone asserts that you have infringed their rights, regardless of the validity of that claim, and ACX may withhold payments on any of your books until the claim is resolved
- any royalty statements issued by ACX are uncontestable after three months (even though discrepancies may not be detected for over a year due to reporting cycles, the obfuscation of sales and returns, and technical errors)
The terms and conditions are clear and for the most part, succinct. Agreement terms may be modified without notice to the user. There is no information provided about terminating an account, or how that affects obligations and existing publications.
Kobo Writing Life
Kobo's agreement is fairly concise, although it can be difficult to parse in places and is peppered with jargon. The agreement spells out payment terms, obligations, and rights in detail.
Kobo reserves the right to change terms and conditions unilaterally, without notice to the author. These changes are not retroactive, but it can be difficult for an author to know of the changes or to verify them as prior versions of the terms are not readily available on the site.
The agreement prohibits the sharing of information about the Terms and Conditions, especially with the press. A preemptive attempt to muzzle participants is never a good sign, particularly in a company one trusts to handle your intellectual property and royalties.
Lantern's agreement is very user friendly. It's brief but thorough, spelling out terms with just the right amount of specificity while avoiding dense legal jargon. The agreement also provides protections to the author, a welcome change from documents that serve only to disempower authors and indemnify the service provider.
The Soundwise terms and conditions are moderately dense, but not unreasonably so. The agreement clearly states rights, obligations, and limitations. Changes to the terms are posted on the site, and authors are notified by email; the changes do not take effect until 30 days after their announcement.
The terms require binding arbitration, and strip the author of the ability to take a dispute to court. They also include sweeping disclaimers of legal liability, including a $50 cap on damages.
PublishDrive presents their terms and conditions in plain English, with excellent clarity, free of legalese and convoluted references. A model agreement.
Terms are subject to change, but with notification to the author and posted dates of change.
The agreement with Audible/ACX is for seven years, whether exclusive or non-exclusive. Any audiobooks subject to the ACX agreement must be produced and delivered, and you may not cancel those agreements before delivery. You cannot terminate your account if audiobooks are pending. Production agreements can only be terminated if all parties agree (e.g., author, narrator, and publisher), and ACX approves the termination. ACX has the right to refuse termination, even if all parties have consented to it.
The terms and conditions do not include information about closing your account, and the consequences are not apparent. The process must be conducted through Findaway Voices' support.
Kobo Writing Life
Kobo states that you may freely terminate your account and withdraw your books from sale at any time. As they phrase it elsewhere in the agreement: “The term of these Terms shall continue until terminated…”
Lantern's agreement allows either party to terminate it at will, with a 60-day time frame for that to take effect.
Users may terminate their Soundwise accounts and withdraw their audiobooks from the service at any time.
Subscribers may cancel at any time, with the titles to be withdrawn from publication the following month.
Members may freely terminate their account at any time.
The Bottom Line
With Audible's market dominance, indie authors have little choice but to use ACX for now. For authors seeking to expand their reach by replacing or supplementing ACX and Audible, there are several viable options to consider.
Keep in mind that it may take longer to establish a comparable audience through wide distribution but that investment of time is likely to pay off handsomely in the long run.
Have you shifted to wide distribution for audiobooks? How has it affected your sales and income? Let us know in the comments below!