One of my favorite albums is Harry Nilsson’s The Point (click here to experience the beginning). Also made into a children’s movie at the same time, the novel alternates between songs Harry wrote for the movie and his own narration of the story, all while music continues throughout. Harry has a unique and beautiful voice and if he wasn’t such a great singer/songwriter, the man would have been an excellent audiobook narrator. The album The Point should serve as an example of how powerful and effective “audio story” publishing can be. While it is ridiculous and possibly distasteful to expect audiobook publishers to include a musical backtrack to their recordings, it is certainly an interesting presentation that could be effective in certain avenues. More on that later.
For now let’s talk about audiobooks’ role in the future of publishing. Already there are a few companies that have recognized the importance and prevalence of audiobooks in the industry. Hugh McGuire is the founder of Iambik, a producer of “professional-quality audiobooks” that are sold on the company’s site as well as through other distributors. In an interview taken in 2010, Hugh tells us, “…the top book apps in the iPhone app store are consistently audiobooks. I think that’s indicative of a change, where younger, more tech-savvy people are discovering audiobooks.”
One such app is Inkstone Mobile’s Audiobooks HQ, which, for a $1.99 app purchase price, consumers have free rein over its catalog of 5450 audiobooks, many of which are classics like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The quality of these recordings varies so the company warns, “They are narrated by volunteers, and quality varies, so we have made it easy to find the finest books in the catalog. Select a book from the carefully curated ‘Inkstone Recommends’ section or find a book using full text search and sophisticated filters, allowing you to easily locate books by most downloaded, top rated, genre, tag, language, duration, or solo reader.” This is a user friendly interface right on par with a staple of the digital age—giving people what they want when they want it.
Audiobooks HQ distributes from Globe Radio Reportery and LibriVox. Only two, but both’s libraries are massive enough to fill Audiobooks HQ’s catalog. Still, Hugh explains:
“I think a publisher’s job is to connect content producers with the people who will enjoy that content, and vice versa. And so by definition, I think that publishers need to connect directly with customers. If they don’t, I believe they will have a very hard time, going forward. This is the big shift of digital.
“At the same time, the existing online distribution channels do something really important: They aggregate audiences. So we will sell directly to our customers, but we’ll also spread our content through whatever distribution channels we can.”
Hugh’s Iambik does dealings with indie publishers and the big six, as well as distributes through themselves, OverDrive, and eMusic. That may work fine for Iambik, but that model does not completely achieve the connection between producers and the people that Hugh idolizes, and there is certainly room for someone to fill in the gap. But I’ll save the big ideas/“solutions” until the end.
Right now, let’s go back to talking about free. And what could be more appropriate for free than poetry? Robert McCrum, who was once literary editor of the Observer, says, “Recorded poetry is something else. And recorded poetry by an actual poet practised in the art of reading aloud to an audience is something else again, a shared intimacy of rare enchantment.” The Poetry Archive is a website that strives to give us just that.
It hosts a catalog of recordings of both classic and new poets accompanied by the text of the phone so you can read along as you listen. They don’t stop there. They post video interviews with poets to inspire buzz around these people. To make the site more user friendly for someone who doesn’t know what to look for but just knows they need some good poetry right now, they have “guides” give tours, which are themed collections where they provide links to the pages dedicated to the poems while also giving their own few words on why they picked them. The site becomes more than a library, it puts librarians in the library, who distribute the content in a unique way that is more attractive to the viewer. Hughs explains, “I think in the digital age, producers of content need to be everywhere the people are: That goes back to the importance of connecting people and content. You go to the people and bring them your content, and hope that the people start coming to you to find your content.” People are using the site because of its features appeal to them, as well as learning of new poets that they can then pursue through other distributors (ones that actually get the writer paid).
Okay, so what these companies are doing is great in terms of incorporating audio in their publishing. But what is the future of audiobooks? What can change to adapt them even tighter into the modern digital age? And what I want to talk about now, getting back to the points I said we’d save for the end, is self-publishing. Let’s talk about the person who has 200 boxes sitting in their garage stuffed with the book they wrote in their basement. Actually, let’s skip that and go to a scenario further steeped in the digital age—the person has just written their book and instead of sending it to a printer, they want to make it into an ebook. How do they increase their chances of making this a profitable pursuit?
There are many ways, but if you haven’t guessed already, I’m going to make the argument that creating an audiobook is a big one. But it would be bad for that person to sit at the kitchen table with a tape recorder and just read. They need to get creative. Think back to Harry Nilsson’s The Point, and how wonderful it was to have narration with a musical backdrop. That’s one idea. The person could also bring in friends to do voices for different characters, or insert sound effects to further the action. The possibilities are endless, but my point isn’t to make a list of them.
My point is what if that writer has no musical ability, or friends, or their voice just plain sucks and no one wants to listen to it. They need help. For the truly helpless who can’t figure out how to fix this problem themselves, there’s a market here. Iambik takes already published work and creates audiobooks for them. Audiobooks HQ sources volunteers to do the same. No one is creating an audiobook to coincide with the actual book; they are recreating the product in a different medium instead of giving it another dimension.
There is the opportunity here to create an audiobook with that little something extra in it that makes it a recreation of the book instead of a recitation. How do you do this for the poor lonely musically deaf writer? Glad you asked. There are recording studios in every city. They are populated by audio professionals who all day long work with musicians to make albums. But did Harry Nilsson’s The Point consist of only songs? Many bands use vocals, and many of these studios are equipped with the gear and the professionals who understand recording vocals. And since at the base level all you need is a small sound proof room, one mic, and one guy behind the booth, deals could be worked out to cheapen the rate of the recording sessions. What the writer gets in the end is a high quality and hopefully unique recording to release simultaneously with their book. They could even use the two products to boost business by making the ebook free but charge for the audiobook, or vice-versa.
The writer should also work in other media like videos, websites, blogs, etc. to build a system where each supports and propels the other. I only focus on audiobooks because they are familiar in this old industry we call book publishing, because there is room to improve them so that the maybe-not-the-best-written book in the world can have a great and desirable audiobook, and because they sell, and the avenues to distribute them already exist while at the same time those avenues don’t dominate the playing field canceling any chance of self publishing.