Today on Self-Publishing News: Spotify rewrites the rules on audiobook sales by ditching the subscription model and going à la carte. Also, Spotify buys an AI narration tool, but is artificial intelligence really ready to take over from human narrators?
These are among the topics discussed on Self-Publishing News with ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway and News and Podcast Producer Howard Lovy.
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Listen to Self-Publishing News: Spotify Rewrites Audiobook Sales RulesOn the Self-Publishing News Podcast with @agnieszkasshoes and @howard_lovy Spotify rewrites the rules on audiobook sales by ditching the subscription model. Also, can AI narration sound like the real thing? Click To Tweet
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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 Transcripts: Spotify Rewrites Audiobook Sales Rules
Howard Lovy: Hello and welcome to the June 2022 edition of Self-Publishing News from the Alliance of Independent Authors. I'm Howard Lovy and Traverse City, Michigan. Joining me from Oxford University is ALLi news editor Dan Holloway. Hello Dan, how are you?
Dan Holloway: Hi Howard, happy summer.
Howard Lovy: Yes, the temperature is hot. Maybe you can hear the air conditioner going on in the background. I'm actually going on a little mini-vacation tomorrow, I'm getting ready to go on a mini-writer's retreat at an undisclosed location. That'll be a road trip with my 16-year-old son. He's going to visit some friends, and I'm going to take a few days to focus on nothing but my own manuscript.
I spend most of my time editing other people's books, while my own manuscript is neglected. I learn a great deal as an editor, so I'm going to take my own advice as a writer and see how that works out.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, you need to cut off your computer. Otherwise, you'll just get emails from clients, and you can't help yourself but look.
Howard Lovy: I'm learning the joys of a pad of paper and pen. There's no Twitter on there. There are no distractions. Just me and my words. We'll see how that works out anyway.
So, I've been following you on social media, as you get healthier and healthier. I understand you have a big run going on Tuesday. Tell us what's going on.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, I'm doing a 24-hour challenge. So, on Tuesday, I'm starting at five o'clock in the morning, I'm doing a memory challenge, I'm doing some speed cubing, and I'm doing a creativity challenge, and I'm doing the three competitive powerlifts, a two-kilometre rowing, and then rounding the day off with a hundred-kilometre run. So, that's 62 miles.
Howard Lovy: Wow. You know, for my 50th birthday, I had a birthday cake, and my family took me out to dinner, but it sounds like you-
Dan Holloway: It will be good fun, and I will share a map of where I'm going to be, when I'm going to be. So, if people want to come to Oxford and feed me pizza and Jelly Babies on the way around.
Howard Lovy: Jelly Babies. Wonderful.
Dan Holloway: They'd be very welcome. Do you have Jelly Babies in the US? I always think of gummy bears, that's probably the closest to them.
Howard Lovy: I think we do have them, yeah. We know what they are. We know that the doctor in Doctor Who likes them.
So, if you're there, cheer him on. Although, I think this podcast will actually run after the event.
Dan Holloway: Oh well, you could have come and fed me Jelly babies.
Howard Lovy: One thing I do when I exercise is I listen to audiobooks, and it's a habit I've had for almost 20 years now. I've been an Audible subscriber since before it was bought by Amazon, and just before this call I did some math, which takes a while for me. I checked my Audible account and I have 421 books in my library. That's two a month for about 210 months, I guess. That's 17 years, and I've spent $4,620 on audiobooks in 17 years.
Dan Holloway: Wow.
Howard Lovy: So, would I have bought those books without a subscription for something like $22 a month, I'm not sure. I guess the point is, the subscription system works for me. It forces me to buy books, which is a segue to our first news topic, which is Spotify is trying to buck the trend in a non-subscription model for audiobooks. So, tell us what's new at Spotify.
Dan Holloway: Well, there's lots new at Spotify. So, the main thing that's filtered up through the book press is, yes, they are introducing an a la Carte store for audiobooks. It's not a hundred percent clear whether this will be the only way of getting audiobooks or not, or whether there'll be a basic subscription, and whether there'll be different content that you can subscribe to, and different content that you can buy on a one-by-one basis, but there will be an option to buy audiobooks one at a time.
It sort of feels like everyone else is moving in the other direction and going towards subscription. Audible introduced an all-you-can-eat subscription in, I think, six or seven marketplaces now. And all the Nordic companies, like Storytel and Book Storey, and Next Story, they all have eat-as-much-as-you-like subscription models.
But Spotify is going with a buy one at a time model.
Howard Lovy: Which isn't Spotify's ordinary model when it comes to music, right? They're subscription.
Dan Holloway: No. They are usually subscription. So, clearly, they have seen something that has a potential to do something different or to make additional revenue. So, I'm guessing how it will work is, you have in a music subscription, and if you have a music subscription with them, you can buy audiobooks one at a time to add to your account on a slightly cheaper basis than if you were buying them one at a time elsewhere.
But it's big news because they have so many more subscribers than anyone else does. I think it's 180 million, which is a lot more than Audible.
Howard Lovy: Oh, really?
Dan Holloway: So, it's the sort of thing that, if it works, then everyone will take notice. But I think that, as I put it in the column, a lot of the time companies come into new areas and they think they know what they're doing, but they can crash quite spectacularly if there is something about the quirks of the individual business that they haven't quite picked up on.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, and like you say, Spotify is such a huge player.
Dan Holloway: It's really interesting. Audible haven't really done much recently, they haven't really grown a lot, or opened new markets, or felt as though they're being that ambitious.
Howard Lovy: Now, from an author's point of view, does it matter whether it's a subscription or a la Carte?
Dan Holloway: It's a really interesting question, because one of the things that Spotify comes into trouble with, with musicians is that their subscription model for music means that music creators get paid fractions of cents per listen, because it's just not a feasible model. Whereas, if you buy things on a download-by-download basis, then at least you get a sensible royalty for each download.
Audiobooks are slightly different because they're just so much longer. So, even with an eat-as-much-as-you-like system, you just can't consume that many audiobooks. I think that the average is about two a month, that people who are really voracious audio listeners get through, and that's not really enough to create that big a differential between downloads and subscriptions.
So, it's not going to make it much better for authors to have a download model than a subscription model. If they make the downloads really, really cheap on the other hand, then it remains to be seen whether that would make it slightly worse or not.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, right now, what can authors do if they've created an audiobook? Can they upload it directly to Spotify now, or how do they obtain their books?
Dan Holloway: Spotify work with Findaway Voices. So, they're, sort of, the-
Howard Lovy: They're the alternative.
Dan Holloway: They are, I guess. If you go wide, you go through Findaway rather than going through Audible, and they will put you through Spotify.
Howard Lovy: Oh, I see. Okay. So, authors who have audiobooks, I think you can tick whether you want exclusive or non-exclusive for Audible, and there's a difference in terms of how much money you make per sale. So, they would have to do non-exclusive, and also in Findaway?
Dan Holloway: Yeah. So, that leads us onto the next thing that Spotify has done.
Howard Lovy: Right, and they're threatening one aspect of my business, which is audiobook production. I do it the old-fashioned way, with the author reading the book, putting their heart, soul, and emotions into every word. Artificial intelligence might make all that obsolete, and Spotify is thinking about its own AI-generated audiobook narration.
Dan Holloway: Yeah. So, Spotify has just bought a company called Sonantic, which is another of these ridiculously named tech companies that seem to have to be named after a word that makes no sense at all, just like Spotify.
Sonantic is an AI narration tool, used for text to speech in general, and it looks as though they might be using that to create audiobook AI narration.
So, at the moment, companies like SpeechKi and DeepZen do this independently for authors, but if Spotify have bought a company that does something similar and were to use it for that, then it would mean that they could essentially bring the whole process in house. And it might be that we, as authors, can go directly to them, or it might be that they work with a select few, either publishers or authors, on in-house content.
But it's certainly something that, the main thing is, as SpeechKi, we say it takes a zero off the price, and that's quite a significant move. So, the cost of production goes from thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars. And as you say, companies like SpeechKi, say that this isn't a threat to voice narrators. I'm not sure if it gets in the hands of Spotify, we could safely say that anymore. I think it is a danger.
Howard Lovy: Now, you say it's a danger, but our colleague Joanna Penn would call it an opportunity. I know she's talked about AI narration, and she's all in favour of it.
Dan Holloway: Well, it's an opportunity for some, and a danger to others. I think, if you're a voice narrator, it is unequivocally a danger. But for authors, this is a way of creating audiobooks that you otherwise just couldn't afford to create.
Howard Lovy: And it sounds like Spotify is at least ahead of Audible, which, right now they don't allow authors to use AI narration.
Dan Holloway: They don't, and this just feels like something that, they're in danger of almost falling out of the market if they're not careful, because they seem quite a long way behind. They've had Audiblegate, obviously, to cope with, which they're still not really on top of, and as I say, Spotify already outsize them. So, if Spotify get their act together really quickly and introduce AI narration, and Audible find themselves playing catch up, they might find themselves running after a target that's up and gone.
Howard Lovy: Well, have you listened to the latest AI-generated audiobook narration? Can you tell it's not a human?
Dan Holloway: I have. It's really interesting, I've done several tests with SpeechKi, they're very proud of their AI narration. I don't know if you've done their tests? I would recommend anyone to go on their site, it's SpeechKi. It's very interesting. You get a score out of 10, I think I got, I got six or seven out of 10 right, so by no means perfect.
Howard Lovy: What does that mean? They give you examples of narration?
Dan Holloway: Yeah. They give you a sample and you have to work out whether it's AI generated or human.
Howard Lovy: Ah, okay. It's the old Turing Test.
Dan Holloway: Exactly, and it's very effective. The problems they face at the moment are the fact that these are small fragments. So, the issues they have, if you listen to a longer piece of text, aren't with individual words, or even individual phrases, but the pauses between phrases. I think that's the thing that AI finds hardest, because there's a natural rhythm to human speech. We talk, sort of, almost the pause equivalent of umming and ahing, and even an audiobook voice narrator will do that. It's not umming and ahing, but it's reading with a certain rhythm and a certain accent that means that a full stop isn't always worth X.X seconds, it's worth different things in different places.
And you breathe in different places, and speech has a rhythm based around, I guess, the human need to breathe, and machines find it really hard to copy that. So, each sentence sounds great, but when you put the sentences together, it becomes much easier to tell that it's artificial. But I guess they will move their attention there, and the gap's coming down so quickly it will only be a matter of time before it's completely undifferentiated.
Howard Lovy: One book that I'm helping to produce is the audio version of a very emotional book from a woman who was sexually assaulted when she was younger. And the way she describes it, you know, with her voice cracking a little bit and pauses, like you say, the very human part of the narration, I just, I cannot see how an AI can even imitate that, but maybe I'm just old and out of touch.
Dan Holloway: It's certainly the kind of thing that, if an AI gets it wrong, it would be really upsetting for an author. It would be disastrous for the impact it's meant to make on readers.
Their AI's work in the same way, I mean, PublishDrive and Wattpad have these, sort of, emotional heat map artificial intelligences, that gauge where the emotional journey of the words is taking you, as well as where the story is taking you, and I guess it marries all those factors together. But still, it does feel like there's an awful lot of potential, until it's really, really advanced, to get that sort of thing catastrophically wrong.
Howard Lovy: No, I find it all fascinating, and like we've said before, I'm generally a technology optimist. I'm sceptical right now, but we'll see. I can be convinced.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, I think that's where I would fall. I'm as fascinated as Joanna is. I'm as optimistic by some things as she is, but I'm certainly, I think we have slightly different nuances on things. All this stuff about audiobooks comes at a time when, in the US, we've just seen the 10th consecutive year of double-digit audiobook growth. So, while we might've been having this conversation five or six years ago, and it would have been about a tiny market, that's really no longer the case. It keeps growing a pace, I think it was 25% growth in revenue this last year, up to $1.6 billion. So, it really is catching up with other forms of publishing.
Howard Lovy: Right, and that's in addition to our print sales staying the same, or are they falling?
Dan Holloway: Print sales, having had a very successful time for a couple of years, are falling again now. So, they fell by 9.3% at the end of May. So, they aren't holding their own, but it's not as simple as saying that print's out of fashion, because there are all these problems with the global supply chain for paper and so on. So, it's not quite clear how much of that is to do with that and how much of it is to do with publishers trying to align themselves with sustainability interests?
So, there is this international publishing alliance for sustainability that was launched at the end of last year, and they realized that some aspects of big print runs aren't sustainable in the long-term, in particular, returns.
Howard Lovy: Well, there's a lot to keep track of, between the rise in AI, the rise in audiobooks, the global supply chain problems, the aftermath of COVID. And the place to look for news involving all of that is your column every week on selfpublishingadvice.org, and our monthly podcast.
Wonderful. Thank you again, Dan, and good luck on Tuesday.
Dan Holloway: Have a wonderful retreat.
Howard Lovy: Oh, thank you, and you'll have to tell me all about your birthday adventures next month. I'll talk to you later.
Dan Holloway: Take care, bye.