Amazon vs Hachette is nothing: just WAIT for the audiobook wars!

In my latest Locus column, Audible, Comixology, Amazon, and Doctorow’s First Law, I unpick the technological forces at work in the fight between Amazon and Hachette, one of the "big five" publishers, whose books have not been normally available through Amazon for months now, as the publisher and the bookseller go to war over the terms on which Amazon will sell books in the future.

The publishing world is, by and large, rooting for Hachette, but hasn't paid much attention to the ways in which Hachette made itself especially vulnerable to Amazon in this fight: by insisting that all its books be sold with Amazon's DRM, it has permanently locked all its customers into Amazon's ecosystem, and if Hachette tries to convince them to start buying ebooks elsewhere, it would mean asking their readers to abandon their libraries in the bargain (or maintain two separate, incompatible libraries with different apps, URLs, and even devices to read them).

Worse still: people in publishing who are alarmed about Hachette are still allowing their audiobooks to be sold by Audible, the Amazon division that controls 90% of the audiobook market and will only sell audiobooks in a format that can't be legally played with anything except Amazon-approved technology. Audible has already started putting the screws to its audiobook suppliers -- the publishers and studios that make most of the audiobooks it sells -- even as it has gone into business competing with them.

It's profoundly, heartbreakingly naive to expect that Amazon will be any less ruthless in exploiting the advantage it is being handed over audiobooks than it has been in its exploitation of ebooks.

Take Amazon’s subsidiary Audible, a great favorite among science fiction writers and fans. The company has absolute dominance over the audiobook market, accounting for as much as 90 percent of sales for major audio publishers. Audible has a no-exceptions requirement for DRM, even where publishers and authors object (my own audiobooks are not available through Audible as a result). Audible is also the sole audiobook supplier for iTunes, meaning that authors and publishers who sell audiobooks through iTunes are likewise bound to lock these to Amazon’s platform and put them in Amazon’s perpetual control.

As John Scalzi wrote recently:

These businesses and corporations are not your friends. They will seek to extract the maximum benefit from you that they can, and from others with whom they engage in business, consistent with their current set of business goals. This does not make them evil – it makes them business entities (they might also be evil, or might not be, but that’s a different thing). If you’re treating these businesses as friends, you’re likely to get screwed.

Anyone who believes that Audible would hesitate to use its market power to extract additional profit at the expense of its suppliers – that is, writers and publishers – is delusional. Not because Audible is evil, but because it is a for-profit corporation that is seeking to maximize its gain. The lesson of Hachette is that Amazon plays hardball when it can, and the more leverage Amazon has over its suppliers, the more it will use that leverage to its suppliers’ detriment.

Audible, Comixology, Amazon, and Doctorow’s First Law [Locus/Cory Doctorow]

(Image: DRM PNG 900 2, Listentomyvoice, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. As an audiobook narrator & producer, I do wish that Amazon/Audible didn't have quite as much of a stranglehold on the industry — I do appreciate how easy they make it for someone like me to audition for, and create new audiobook titles (including the opportunity to work with name authors like Clive Barker & Hugh Howey), but having other options and avenues would be very welcome, too.

    However, I should like to clarify (or perhaps "add to" is a more accurate phrase) a few points you made in your article.

    When a rights holder/author begins the process of creating an audiobook, through Audible's Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), they have the option to choose a non-exclusive distribution deal. This gets their audiobook distributed by Amazon & iTunes, but also allows the rights holder to distribute it themselves via any other media they wish, including hard copies sold at brick-and-mortar stores. So, while the DRM is still there for Amazon's distribution, the version distributed by the rights holder need not have any restrictions placed on it whatsoever. Yes, Amazon does still maintain a lot of control over the titles, but it's not worldwide domination, if you will.

    Further, while audiobooks purchased through Amazon/Audible must indeed be played on proprietary devices or applications, both the Windows and Mac programs do also offer the option to burn the audiobook to CD once purchased. This effectively gives an "opt-out" of sorts to the restrictions, if you're willing to make that extra effort of transferring the audiobook to compact disc.

    As I said, I'm very glad to have the opportunities that Audible/ACX provides to me as a narrator. I think most authors who use the service would agree, despite the realization that the model is far from perfect. Whether any other entity would have the clout to go head-to-head with them and offer a competing service is another question, but I do hope such a scenario comes to pass, eventually. I can only think that such competition would benefit not only the end users & consumers, but in the long run, the companies themselves.

  2. I have long been a fan of CD and of John Scalzi, both of whom struck me as authors well ahead of the general curve on digital publishing issues. But I was reading and listening to ebooks and books very early on and a few years back, IIRC, both Scalzi and Doctorow had very serious reservations about those emerging markets and their embrace seemed reluctant, at least to me. I am an end-user, a consumer of books. As such, I never saw the emergence of digital publishing as a publishers vs. authors struggle. I saw it as digital publishers opening up new markets for authors and making books more accessible than ever to "readers". I still sense that many authors under-appreciate just how often they capture new readers through the use of new technologies. I don't know that I would have read either CD or JS but for, dare I say it, Amazon. Or some other "business entity" providing the same service to readers,and to authors. (And it should also be noted that Hachette is also a "business entity"). The work is still CD's and JS's, even if Amazon is instrumental to their being able to realize maximum market reach.

    At least in so far as the face Amazon turns to its public, Amazon certainly appreciates and promotes the authors it is in business with. There is real and effective effort to distinguish books for sale according to their critical and popular merit. There is no aspect of Amazon/Audible holding "their" authors in contempt, as if they were a necessary evil. At times it seems as if it is the strident authors who elevate "maximum gain" over the merit of their own work, rather than Amazon. At the end of the day, Amazon has succeeded commercially because it has been willing to incur more costs in getting more product to its customers more quickly than its competitors. I would hope at the end of the day Amazon will be similarly willing to incur more costs through greater payment terms to its authors, as a means of keeping them under the Amazon brand.

  3. It burns as a standard CD. I'm not sure if this is still possible, but Audible's program would burn using Nero. Nero had a built-in way of "burning" a CD as a disc image instead of onto an actual physical CDR.

    So if your end goal was to get MP3 files, you could burn the audio book to CD images, mount those images using something like daemon tools, then use whatever CD ripping software you wanted to turn them into MP3s. No wasted CDRs and way quicker.

  4. It's true that you can burn Audible audiobooks to CD and re-rip them, but it's a pretty terrible out for people with even medium-sized Audible libraries.

    First of all, you can't burn an MP3 CD, which would likely hold all the audio on one disc. You have to burn standard audio CDs, and when I tried this with my Audible collection, a single audiobook could run to 30 (!) discs, which would have to be manually swapped in and out of the drive, then re-ripped. What's more, the discs cut into the audio mid-sentence, and there were often gaps in the resulting audio.

    Multiply this inconvenience by a modest, 10-title collection, and you might have to burn 300 CDs, then rip them. If you've bought a hundred audiobooks -- and the 20% of Audible customers who account for 80% of their sales surely have bigger collections than that -- and you're into the thousands of discs.

    The switching cost here, assuming you price your own time at half of minimum wage, rapidly approaches the cost of buying all those titles again at Downpour, without DRM.

    Not to mention sacrificing a computer to serve as round-the-clock rip/burn station.

    When I switched from Mac to GNU/Linux in 2006, I used Audiohijack to rip my extensive Audible audiobook collection. It took a month of round-the-clock playback on three old Powerbooks, but I got all of it. But I had three extra Powerbooks around the house AND I knew how to script my OS.

  5. Sure, if you burn actual CDs instead of CD images. I had 60-something books to do. It was a pointless pain in the ass caused by Audible's stupid policies, but it was done at the speed of my hard drive rather than the speed of optical discs or real-time playback. It even preserved the Track #, Title, Artist, and Album data.

    I'm assuming the way Audible burned CDs on a Mac would've been different. Especially in 2006.

Continue the discussion

5 more replies