Dan Holloway reports from the Futurebook conference, and the future belongs to audio. Also, Spotify buys Findaway in a potential audiobook game-changer.
These are among the topics discussed on Self-Publishing News with Alli News Editor Dan Holloway and book editor Howard Lovy. Together, they will bring you the latest in indie publishing news.
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Listen to Self-Publishing News: Futurebook Conference
Subscribe to our Ask ALLi podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Player.FM, Overcast, Pocket Casts, or Spotify.On the Self-Publishing News #podcast with @howard_lovy, @agnieszkasshoes reports from the Futurebook conference, and the future belongs to audio. Also, @Spotify buys @wearefindaway. Click To Tweet
About the Hosts
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript: Futurebook Conference
Howard Lovy: Hello and welcome to the November 2021 edition of Self-Publishing News from the Alliance of Independent Authors. I'm Howard Lovy, and joining me from Oxford University is ALLi news editor Dan Holloway. Hello, Dan, how are you?
Dan Holloway: Hi, Howard. I'm good. How are you?
Howard Lovy: Good, good. I'm very excited. I just bought my tickets to London in April. So, I'll be joining you and the rest of the ALLi team to celebrate our 10th birthday.
Dan Holloway: Excellent, eating lots of Amazon-provided food, I hope.
Howard Lovy: Oh, right, right. Yes, you've told me about that, I will make sure I go on an empty stomach.
Dan Holloway: Yes, and the best drinks are always at the Bonnier standard, is the other thing to remember. We don't have an official invitation, but if you hang around, in particular if you hang around with Rohan Quine, he has a very good way of infiltrating himself to the after parties.
Howard Lovy: Okay, well, I can't get too wild, I'm taking my family and my wife and kids also, but it sounds interesting and fun. I'd like to meet Rohan too; he sounds like a very interesting author.
Dan Holloway: Absolutely.
Howard Lovy: And I featured him on one of my Inspirational Indie Authors podcasts, which is a good segue into what we're going to talk about, because you might be interested in my author interview podcast this week. It's Denise Baden who sponsors a green writing competition, and she's always in search of climate fiction books that present optimistic visions of the future. She's also studied the psychology of thinking green, and found that people respond better to positive than negative reinforcement. She thinks there are too many dystopias out there, and she can't find enough positive visions of a green future.
This segues right into the first topic that we want to talk about, which is the Futurebook conference, where they talked about sustainable issues in the wake of the climate summit in Scotland.
Dan Holloway: Yes. I was going to say, I was going to use that as a chance to plug my own thing, because this is something that I do with my research hat on, I look at environmental utopias and disability in particular. And I will be in Heidelberg next April, not during London Book Fair, but shortly thereafter, talking about exactly that, the end of the world; it's a conference on the end of the world in the environment and fiction.
Howard Lovy: Well, hopefully there's some hope in there as well.
Dan Holloway: Oh, no, no, no, no. I don't respond well to positive views, but then I never do the normal.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, I guess the question is, are you giving people hope or is it all just dystopia and we're all doomed?
Now, dystopias certainly sell books though.
Dan Holloway: Yes, absolutely. Dystopia sells a lot of books, far more than utopia sells, but that's a whole other question.
So yes, talking of dystopia, we'll go back to Futurebook. So, I'll start by saying thank you to Futurebook for giving me press tickets to the conference last week. So, I joined them online, it was a very interesting day and, yes, it came right on the back of COP26. So, the focus was on the publishing industry, books in general, and the environment.
Howard Lovy: And I'm assuming that we're a very wasteful industry, aren't we?
Dan Holloway: We are about as bad as industries can get. That wasn't necessarily, maybe they were taking Denise's line on this, because it felt like there was a lot of self-congratulation going on, and the main message that they wanted us to take away was that the biggest impacts that publishing has on the world isn't in what it does but in what it publishes.
So, I thought that was a unique way of trying to make it look as we're actually doing something positive rather than just destroying everything. That our stories and the science we publish can have a massive positive impact on the world, even if the way we publish it helps destroy it.
Howard Lovy: Right. Even as we kill a lot of trees to do it, maybe we can change minds while we do it.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, but there were some really interesting figures.
The first one they gave was that 98% of all the emissions associated with publishing come from the supply chain. So, that was interesting, and one of the things that it sort of felt like the whole day was missing out on was it was all about paperbacks or paper books; very little of it was on the impact of digital reading. So, I think maybe that's because they haven't woken up to it yet.
The other thing that made indies-
Howard Lovy: That's old news by now.
Dan Holloway: It is old news, yes.
Then the other thing that made indies look good was that, far and away, the least impactful form of publishing paper books is print on demand, which I think won't surprise anyone, and that's mainly because of the lack of returns. So, returns account for 42% of all emissions involved in the supply chain, and that really is the big elephant in the room with publishing, it's what can be done about returns.
Howard Lovy: Right. So, you're saying print on demand is relatively good for the environment?
Dan Holloway: It's relatively good, and in terms of printing methods, it's the most friendly. I think largely because it doesn't have returns and also because printing tends to be more local, so you don't get bulk shipments shipped in from the other side of the world, but the printing tends to take place in local factories.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, let's talk a little bit about, I guess maybe what they didn't talk about, which was electronic publishing, and you would think that would be less wasteful, but not necessarily when you think about batteries, and the metals, and everything that goes into manufacturing these devices.
Dan Holloway: Yes. I mean, the raw materials are incredibly damaging, or can be. So, lithium, obviously, is sort of the commodity of the 21st century, it feels like. And we know the biggest global resource for lithium is the at-present unspoiled salt flats in Bolivia, which aren't going to fare very well if we make everything electric.
Also, just the rare and precious metals that you need to make electronic devices, and the way that devices become obsolescent so quickly. So, if you look at e-readers and if you follow things like Nate Hoffelder's digital reader blog, where he reviews new e-readers, there are literally new models coming out all the time, because they are constantly being made obsolescent. And so that's causing all these minerals to be stripped from the ground, and then going into landfill where they create toxic-. So, it's damaging, and the other thing is, of course, the potential harm that comes from blockchain, and the less environmentally friendly blockchains that are increasingly being used.
Howard Lovy: Right. Huge, huge amounts of energy being produced there.
So, we should all feel bad about reading physical books, we should feel bad about reading electronic books. What should we feel good about in the industry? Audiobooks?
Dan Holloway: Well, we should feel something about audiobooks, so that's probably a segue into, Denise will offer hope, so I don't need to.
Although I think, to be fair, it's good news for indies; we are less damaging than other sectors of the industry. We also have the small scale that we can innovate, and we can produce these fabulous niche products that are locally sourced and have very few production miles on them.
Howard Lovy: Yeah, let's talk about audio. It sounds like, I mean, that's consistently the most profitable part of the business year after year, and we're getting into the age of AI now, where another resource might be thrown by the wayside, which is audiobook narrators. We've talked about this a little bit before, but did they discuss this at Futurebook?
Dan Holloway: They did, the positioning of it I found interesting, but unconvincing. So, they had someone from Google there who pointed out a very interesting statistic that 95% of eBooks don't have a matching audio book, and so they saw this very much as a gap in the market. So, you know on Amazon that, where there is an audiobook, after you've bought the book, you get the screen pop up saying, do you want to add an audiobook for an extra couple of dollars?
So, the fact that 95% of eBooks don't have that is massive, it's extra revenue that people are missing out on, is how they put it. So, they were positioning AI narration as a way of bridging that gap, as a way of ensuring that if you had an eBook, you could very affordably get the narration for an audiobook together so that you could profit more from the intellectual property you have.
Howard Lovy: So, they're not necessarily putting anyone out of a job, a narrator out of a job, because they wouldn't have recorded the audiobook in the first place without it?
Dan Holloway: That's the argument. It felt to me a lot like the argument that piracy isn't taking away from earnings because the pirates wouldn't have bought the book in the first place, so therefore no one's losing out, and the argument that we get about libraries that libraries aren't cannibalizing sales because those people wouldn't have bought the book anyway. It felt like one of those generic statements that's made that actually no one's done any research on.
Howard Lovy: Ah, okay. Right.
Well, I was reading that you took a look, or took a listen, to some of the AI-produced audiobooks. What's your verdict? Did they pass the Turing test? Can you tell it's a machine?
Dan Holloway: So, there's a link to this in my latest column. It was a company called Speechki who were giving a talk, and their claim was that their generated voices are so good you can't tell the difference, and they had a test, and indeed, I think I got 70%. So, yes, it was pretty good, much better, I think we looked at DeepZen a few weeks ago on the column, their examples of AI narration were really quite clunky and sounded like some of those automatically generated things you get on YouTube, but this was much more sophisticated.
So, yes, I don't know whether I was having an off day, but clearly, I couldn't tell the difference. So, yeah, impressive.
Howard Lovy: Impressed enough so that you're willing to push a button to have your own books read by an AI?
Dan Holloway: Well, at $800, no.
Howard Lovy: Okay, it's not just a button to push.
Dan Holloway: They, and this is where it sort of gives the lie a little bit to the “we're only using it to fill in a gap that's never going to be filled otherwise”, their main marketing slogan when you look on their home page is that it's 10 times cheaper than a voice artist, which suggests they do see themselves as being in direct competition. But it's still several hundred dollars, so I would always feel happy doing my own. I love the sound of my own voice too much not to.
Howard Lovy: Exactly. Well, we all do, Dan.
What else did you learn at Futurebook?
Dan Holloway: We learned that the industry is tearing itself apart over subscription, which I think we knew already, audiobook subscription in particular. The keynote was given by Markus Dohle, who is the head of Penguin Random House, and he was really not happy about audio, or about subscription audio, and in the way that publishers tend to do when they want to win people over, he said that it was going to be really bad for authors. When clearly what he meant is it's going to be really bad for publishers.
So, the quotation, I'm just finding it here is, “I'm convinced it is not good for author income for retail, it’s not good for creating the future of longform reading for future generations.” So, he was really unimpressed by subscription audio, and I think this is in particular after Spotify bought Findaway, which is the main news story of this month.
Howard Lovy: Right, we'll talk about that in a minute, but I guess the comparison is the music industry and it's right, you know, artists make less, you don't see record stores anymore, and the entire model is subscription now.
Dan Holloway: It is, and that's the really interesting thing that came out, and this is something where everyone who spoke seemed to agree that there is a sweet spot, where people do subscribe, they seem to consume two novels a month, so that was really interesting and didn't suggest that we were approaching some sort of Armageddon. Because the thing with Spotify and streaming music is that people stream thousands and thousands of songs a month. So, the subscription revenue gets diluted so much that you make fractions of cents for like hundreds of streams. But if people are only consuming two audiobooks a month and then there's very little dilution going on.
Howard Lovy: Oh, I see.
Dan Holloway: So that was actually quite a hopeful thing.
Lots of people were impressed by the CEO of a company called Juggernaut, which I think I reported on ages ago, which is an Indian subscription app, and if I get what she says here, yes, “For subscriptions, the consumer doesn’t have to think about it. Just click and consume. Frictionless consumption.”
And the head of Kobo is making a similar point. He said, “Will consumers start to compare the cost of streaming to the relative cost of a single book? If they do, things could get spicy.”
And I think that's the side that was put quite convincingly is just how much consumers want things to be done by subscription these days, because it's so much easier.
Howard Lovy: That's interesting, you know, about Juggernaut, we're thinking about English only, but there's a huge market out there for other languages.
Dan Holloway: There is, and she was very good at piercing the bubble of these people who are talking about the Anglophone market as though it was the only thing out there, and you could tell she was thinking, well, I have access to 1.3 billion people on my app, and maybe you shouldn't think that you're the centre of the universe quite so much.
Howard Lovy: Exactly. Right, right. Yeah, I hear that India has quite a few people in it.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, and it's very well connected, in terms of digital infrastructure.
Howard Lovy: All right. Well, let's talk a little bit about the Spotify/Findaway Voices deal. Tell us what that's about and what it means.
Dan Holloway: So yes, Spotify bought Findaway is the long and the short of it. We don't know how much for, they've kept that a secret, but essentially Findaway is-. So, to clear it up, Findaway is to Findaway Voices as Amazon is to ACX, is my understanding. So, Findaway Voices is what pairs up authors and narrators. Findaway is the distribution platform, and it's that that has been sold.
And what that will do is, in effect, it will give, I think Spotify has 178 million, or when I wrote about them a couple of weeks ago it was 178 million subscribers, so it will give them all access to subscription for eBooks. So, it's huge.
Howard Lovy: Is this a potential rival to Audible?
Dan Holloway: I think it's more than a rival, I think it will make Audible seem tiny.
Howard Lovy: Really?
Dan Holloway: And that might be interesting for people who are currently, obviously Audiblegate rumbles on, and people are very, very unhappy with Audible, so it might be that the lure of 178 million people is too great to resist for people who are now looking, where am I going to put my books out?
Howard Lovy: Right? Well, is it an either/or situation, can they do Audible and Findaway?
Dan Holloway: You can do Audible and Findaway. What you can't do is the royalty-share deals on ACX, this is where the exclusive to Audible comes in.
Howard Lovy: Oh, I see. Right, right.
Dan Holloway: You're then tied in for a certain while, and the whole point of doing the royalty share is that your narrator, in theory knows that they've got income coming.
Howard Lovy: Well, what do you think is going to happen? Is this going to happen anytime soon, the merger, are we going to see more audiobooks being offered on Spotify?
Dan Holloway: My understanding is that it's coming in January, and I would imagine by the end of next year it will be throughout Spotify. So, it's going to happen. It's going to be very quick.
I think that the future is bright, because it was actually a really quite positive conference. So, I have to say that it also felt like every time you look, and you think that the publishing industry is a long way behind, it kind of gives you hope as an indie that actually, one of the reasons it feels like that is because you've already got to some of the places that they've yet to come.
Its failings are our opportunities, I guess, is how I would put it.
Howard Lovy: Exactly, yeah. The indie mindset is that we're more quicker on our feet than the legacy publishers who have a hard time changing course.
Dan Holloway: Yes, I think the metaphor of being slow ships to steer came up more than once.
Howard Lovy: Okay. Well, that's all we have time for today. Let's all think positively in terms of what all this means for indie authors.
So, we're going to take the month of December off, so have a happy holiday season and a happy New Year, and I'll talk to you in January.
Dan Holloway: I will talk to you in January and see you in April.
Howard Lovy: Wonderful. Thank you. Talk to you later. Bye.