In this week's Self-Publishing News Special, ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway takes a look back at a year in which Spotify started its bid for audiobook domination and AI got really good at speaking and painting.
Do listen to November's Self-publishing News podcast here. Howard and I are talking about the question everyone's asking: should we leave Twitter and if we do, where do we go? For those of us who haven't left twitter, this week's #indieauthorchat is in its usual Wednesday slot, at 8pm UK time, 3pm Eastern Time. Tim will guide us through a festive discussion of eccentric marketing ideas.
Although 2020 and 2021 were dominated by impacts of Covid, we could never have imagined three years ago, this year feels as though it may go down in history as the year of truly momentous industry change. I want to look back at the evolution of two stories in particular that have the potential to shape our landscape for years to come. But let’s start with the unfolding story of how Amazon started to change, in line with, if possibly not in response to, the increasingly angry voices of creators. It provides an interesting slant on another of the more interesting stories of the year: the way the book industry fell in love with TikTok.
Amazon: All About Returns
Authors have had a lot of issues with Amazon over the years. But in recent times, one has dominated our concerns. Returns. Returns were at the heart of the Audiblegate campaign. Audible were using any time returns as a draw for their Audible Prime membership. And authors and voice artists were suffering from the refunds themselves AND the lack of transparency around how many refunds were being processed.
Amazon did respond by changing their returns policy. But the new limitation on returns only applied to audiobooks bought with a credit or debit card, not with an Audible credit. Which left rights holders unimpressed and on the surface does little to stop the use of returns as an incentive to sign up for subscription.
And it didn’t stop with audiobooks. TikTok users figured out that Amazon’s two week return policy on ebooks meant that voracious readers could download and finish an ebook and return it for a full refund. They shared the way to do this. And readers, especially in genres like romance and YA, where people read a lot and read it fast, took advantage. As with audiobooks, authors missed out. Full refunds meant royalties deducted from author accounts, with stories circulating that in some cases this meant authors having negative balances for some months.
Again, Amazon responded. Again, a little slower than they might have done in terms of implementing change. But change at all is good. The new returns policy means that ebooks can't be returned once someone has read more than 10% of the book. That's the kind of policy that brings digital products much more in line with the spirit of returns for physical products.
The Year Publishing Fell In Love With TikTok
The use of TikTok to spread tips on how to read and return ebooks so you don’t pay is really interesting. Because 2022 saw a love affair between the world of publishing and BookTok, the literary community within TikTok. Penguin Random House, when not making unsuccessful advances to Simon & Schuster, cosied up to TikTok, striking a deal that enabled top content creators to sell PRH titles in-app. And Frankfurt Book Fair gave over their main stage to BookTokkers. Meanwhile, author Alex Aster got a massive book deal for her passion project, Lightlark after a TikTok pitch, only to experience the less pleasant side of BookTok attention as readers tore into the final book.
It’s undoubtedly true that readers have adopted TikTok – a survey credited it and similar apps as being responsible for introducing 59% of new readers to books.
Spotify Made its Audiobook Play
Audiobooks have provided the headlines for several years. But until this year it’s felt as though we’ve been watching the calm before the storm,waiting for the big event to arrive. And this year it did.
Spotify finally showed us what they were going to do in the audiobook sphere. And of course, the main thing to bear in mind is that Daniel Ek’s ambition for audiobooks doesn’t stop at audiobooks. He wants to make Spotify the one-stop shop for audio. The first step on whatever journey they take was to roll out the 300,000 title catalogue Spotify acquired from Findaway to the US market, with other English-speaking markets following on behind.
But it’s not the kind of rollout we might have expected. Rather than offering the subscription they have made their thing, Spotify is selling audiobooks a la carte. For now, at least. And it’s not even like they have an audiobook menu from which you make your a la carte purchase. You don’t “find” audiobooks. Audiobooks find you. Recommendations come into your stream just as they would for songs. And at the moment it’s done in a rather haphazard way based on a few titles they are promoting. The intention is for this eventually to be driven by an algorithm that can figure out smartly what you will enjoy.
And if a title catches your eye? You don’t click to buy it “in-app.” You have to go out of the app to a marketplace where you buy the audiobook before returning to Spotify to listen to it. Apparently, this is Spotify’s way of handling Apple’s heavy handedness about in-app purchases, and they are working furiously to improve things. So far, though, a polite way of putting it would be that Spotify has had a less than auspicious start in its attempts at world domination. A less charitable take would be that the whole thing’s a bit of a hot mess.
Artificial Intelligence Got really Good
Technology stories tend either to arrive on a wave of hype and then disappear, or to build in slow and often painfully stumbling ways before erupting. Sometimes they do both, and the hype that accompanies the stumbling seems ridiculous, only for the technology to catch up and catch us on the hop.
It’s been a bad year for one of those highly hyped technologies, blockchain, with the collapse of the FTX exchange in a scandal whose size and ripples have the potential to make Enron look like a storm in a teacup.
But this has been the year that gave pause to people who said artificial intelligence (AI) was nothing to fret about because it could never pose a threat to human creativity. First came voice narration. This started getting really good last year. At the tail end of 2021, I reported from Futurebook about the companies promising opportunities for writers to bring their books to audio life for a fraction of the cost of using a voice actor. This year the technology continued to improve apace. Speechki’s AI narration did a great job, for example, of fooling me.
What I found interesting at the time was that although authors and voice actors stood together as rights holders in the Audiblegate campaign, there was no high-profile campaigning pointing out the danger to voice artists’ careers. That’s not the intention, the technologists said. And you really got the impression that people thought “it’s not really a threat” or, rather less in the sense of solidarity, “it might impact some professions, but not writing.”
And then came AI-generated art. That went, like art movements tend to, from “my five-year-old” to “oh, myyyyyyy!” in the space of a few months. And cover artists were not happy. For many reasons. Not only is AI now good enough to start threatening people’s jobs.
And to tie this in with the year’s other big news, another of Spotify’s moves this year was to acquire the AI voice generation platform Sonantic. Maybe in 2023 we will find out what they plan to do with it.
When Will AI Write Really Well?
Will writing be next? The signs are there. Open AI, the organization that gave us DALL-E 2, whose public release and availability for commercialisation marked the start of the controversy around cover art, have been working on AI-generated text. Their ChatGPT bot is the highest profile project. And it’s got really good at mimicking real human writing. So much so that Open AI have tried to watermark the words the bot has written so people don’t get hooked in and led down any nefarious garden paths. But, just as you would expect in any good dystopian narrative, they’ve discovered that this is harder to do than they thought.
I have always said that people who believed AI wouldn’t be able to fully mimic human creativity in the near future were in denial. I fully expect my end-of-year report (or the one I set my bot to writing while I sip mojitos by tropical sunset) before the second half of the decade to confirm that this now extends to all of the arts. The real question, as it has been throughout, is what we as writers are going to do about this inevitable future. And how we stand alongside our fellow creatives along the way.
Word of the Year
I don't usually report on the word of the year, but in 2022 it feels very apt. Because it sums up the year perfectly. It is something that will apply to almost all people at some time, and to some people almost all the time. And I feel that writers fall very much into the latter. At least, the ones I feel at home with! 2022's word (or, as is so often the case, phrase) of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, is “goblin mode,” a term they define as “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” And that, surely, is the perfect note to end on!Self-publishing News: Amazon, Audio, and AI – was 2022 a Triple A Year for Indies? Click To Tweet