The tale of the fake DUNE audiobook scam

Writer/journalist Andrew Liptak has spent years covering the nerd culture beat, and in a recent edition of his Transfer Orbit nerd culture newsletter, he uncovers a fascinating if frustrating scam rooted in Amazon's Audible self-publishing platform, ACX. The way it's supposed to work is:

Authors or Audio Rights Holders post up their project and narrators on the platform provide samples for them to review. If they're selected, they negotiate a rate and delivery timeline, and put the project into production. 


Simply put, for a legitimate book, an author will own their work (what ACX calls a "rights holder"), and earn money on each sale (minus whatever royalties or other arrangement they make with their narrator or production company). In this instance, the rights holder for Dune would be the entity that controls Frank Herbert's estate: Herbert Properties LLC. The company has already licensed out those audio rights.

Liptak tells the story Nikola Muckajev, a voice-over actor and audio produced who was commissioned to create a new Dune audiobook by a publisher named Harald Cooper. They agreed to a "royalty share deal" — that Muckajev would get a cut of each copy of the audiobook that sold (as Liptak notes, this often includes free "promotional" copies of books as well). Muckajev was understandably excited to lend his voice to such an iconic story. But after spending more than two months recording and editing the 22.5-hour project, he was shocked to find that it was almost immediately pulled from Amazon — which meant there'd be no income headed his way.

As Liptak explains:

Audiobooks as a medium have exploded in recent years: According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook sales have been steadily rising in recent years: 2020 saw sales jump 12 percent and that the number of audiobooks published last year rose 39 percent (71,000 total) over 2019's numbers. 

That growth means that there's opportunities for aspiring narrators and publishers to jump into the industry, but also the potential for new scams as opportunistic individuals look for ways to game the platforms that host these products. As more books crowd onto these sales platforms, it gets harder for companies to spot issues, and easier for scam artists to prey on the unsuspecting. There are plenty of grifters out there: co-founder Mark Pearson told me in an email that they've noticed a rise in "low quality audiobooks being sent through distributors, including hundreds of book summaries, books in the public domain, and self-published books" being sent to them recently.

The full newsletter is worth a read, as it goes more in-depth into Muckajev's situation, and how the nature of the ACX platform said him up to fail in this case. It's a harrowing look at the audio self-publishing industry. For what it's worth, the existing Dune audiobook on Audiobook was recorded 15 years ago, in 2006; I suppose it's not that surprising that they just redesigned the art and copy to celebrate the upcoming movie, instead of re-recording all 21 hours (which is interestingly about 90 minutes shorter than Muckajev's version).

Inaudible [Andrew Liptak / Transfer Orbit]

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