Audible Captions vs. The Publishing Industry

Aug 20, 2019


BEST PRACTICES SERIES

I moved to Nashville, Tenn., in the summer of 1999 to go to college, in the height of the file-sharing "crisis." I put the word "crisis" in quotes because while the music industry was quick to judge on what was, and was not, ethical consumption of music, we learned a few things from the episode:

  1. Napster, Limewire, etc. opened my eyes to a vast multitude of new artists, many of which I may never have discovered. I then paid money, either through album sales, concert ticket sales, festival ticket sales, and/or artist merchandise, in support of those very same artists for decades to come. That revenue may not have ever come to exist without file-sharing services.
  2. During the process of songwriter groups and music publishers suing these file-sharing services out of business, Napster at one point tried to form a royalty agreement with music publishers by which Napster would contribute royalties per download back to the publisher. This arrangement looked similar to the arrangement music publishers have today with streaming services. Music publishers rejected this arrangement 20 years ago, causing a precipitous decline in publisher revenue while the file-sharing entities all went out of business. Everyone lost.
  3. Only after muddling through a lot of lean years did music publishers finally realize they needed amicable, mutually beneficial relationships with tech companies like music streaming services, and frankly couldn't afford to be standoffish and uncooperative with potential partners.
  4. The eventual result is that, here in 2019, the music industry is thriving – Spotify, Apple Music and the like are making music publishers more money than they've made in a very, very long time.

 

Is History Repeating Itself?

With that sequence in mind, we now look at what's happening in book publishing. Audible rankled book publishers by introducing, albeit in beta, a new feature called "Audible Captions," which allows users of audiobooks to read along with transcribed text, a few sentences at a time.

Publishers argue Audible doesn't have the rights to do that. That's an argument straight out of 1999. Did tech companies like Napster have the right to give music away to downloaders? Of course not. But did music publishers devastate their own revenue for years to come by not forging a path to partnership? Sure did.

In a better argument, publishers argue Audible will cost publishers ebook sales and possibly even print book sales by making Audible Captions available. This is obviously true, at least for some people, and I'd be one of them. A read-along version of a book accompanying the audiobook playing would be an ultimate version of a work, rendering owning other formats completely unnecessary. I'd go back to it over and over again and would feel no need to buy anywhere else.

The funny thing about this particular scenario is that accessibility lies at the heart of the debate. There is zero question that by providing read-along text accompanying the audiobook will help make these audiobooks more accessible to more people. This has some similarities to the fact that music file-sharing services in the late 1990s/early 2000s served the purpose of making music much more accessible to those who couldn't purchase $20 CDs at Sam Goody or Musicland.

What the music industry ultimately learned is that it is far better to partner with tech-oriented disruptors, and monetize the new situation as best as possible, than to fight it tooth and nail and risk losing.

The same holds true for Audible. Barging on ahead and providing Audible Captions without at least partial buy-in from some publishers is a path that will damage the company. They may not be able to get everyone on board, but if they offer a new revenue stream for publishers which authorize Audible Captions for some of their books, they'll get publishers and authors thinking differently and better about all this.

Hopefully, publishers and Audible can come together and find a path forward that puts some money back in the hands of publishers and achieves buy-in on Audible Captions, a feature that should help a lot of readers enjoy more books from more publishers. The existence of Audible Captions absolutely will cost publishers some amount of money each year. Why not save everyone the trouble, and maybe not do it with a full smile on your face, but strike a compromise that avoids a lengthy court battle and years of subsequent fallout?

If not, get ready for a cold winter in which publishers and Audible both find out it doesn't always matter who's right — there's plenty of potential for everyone to lose together.


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