Audiobooks: How Short is too Short?

One of the most exciting parts of working with independent authors and small publishers is that we get the opportunity to interact with all different kinds of people, and listen to many different kinds of audiobooks.  One of the issues that we run into most often when working with independent authors and audiobook creators, however, is the problem of length.  When it comes to audiobooks, does length matter?

Audiobooks, in their infancy, were little more than a recorded reading of an actual, printed book.  It was very rare that you would get an audiobook that wasn’t also available in print.  There were the occasional dramatizations, but the audiobook industry grew up tied very closely to the print industry.  Understanding that digital audiobook sales have much more in common with the publishing industry than with the digital music or digital video industries is important when understanding how an audiobook’s length matters to the price and, more importantly, to how much money you might be able to make from the sale of your title. 
To illustrate, let’s use an example:  Let’s say you were to list your audiobook for sale on a service like Audible or iTunes.  For the most part, the price for which your audiobook will be sold is determined, not by you, but by the retailer.  That price is determined by a whole variety of factors, the largest one being the length of the title.  Below is a sample pricing structure pulled from the website of one major retailer.

  • Titles under 3 hours: Under $10
  • 3-5 Hours: $10-$20
  • 5-10 Hours: $15-25
  • 10-20 Hours: $20-$30
  • Over 20 Hours: $25-$35

The larger retailers are understandably secretive about the exact algorithms they use to price the titles in their catalogs, and they work hard to ensure that they can be competitive in the marketplace.  In many cases, those prices will fluctuate from day to day, or even hour to hour, based upon a wide variety of variables that can contribute to the pricing.  However, one thing that is pretty clear is that titles under 3 hours generally sell for less than 10 dollars.

This, in and of itself, is not a huge deal, until you consider that audiobook retailer fees can be very high:  between 40-80% of the sales of your title.  Let’s say that you have a 2-hour title that sells for $6.95.  If your title is selling through a retailer that takes 75% of each sale, every sold copy of your 2-hour title will net a grand total of only $1.73.

Short audiobooks also have to overcome a couple of perception issues.  If you can pay $25 for a 20-hour audiobook, then $6.95 for an audiobook seems like a little bit of a rip-off.  The 20-hour book costs you a little over $0.02 cents per minute.  The 2-hour audiobook sold at $6.95 has an effective price of nearly $0.06 per minute—three times more than the longer audiobook.  So, for the regular consumer of audiobooks, shorter titles just don’t seem to have as much value as longer titles. 

And then there are the various programs that retailers have for charging a monthly fee and providing a set number of downloads or user credits.  For example, you might pay $22.95 per month to a retailer, and in return, get one or two credits to download an audiobook.  If you’re a regular consumer, what are you going to spend your credit on?  The 41-hour epic novel or the 90-minute short story collection? 

In fact, the perceived lack of value for shorter titles is so high for some users that, at least in the Open Book Audio catalog, short titles account for nearly 80% of the titles that get returned by users.  (Did you know that listeners can return audiobooks that they don’t like for a refund?  It’s true…)  And even Audible, in one of its recently quarterly letters to publishers that accompanies their payments, mentioned that longer titles tend to sell much better than shorter ones. It is for this reason that Open Book Audio doesn’t often accept titles of less than 2-3 hours into the catalog.  Not only have sales proven to be lackluster, but the amount of money left over to pay both the distribution fees and the author is so paltry it rarely covers the cost of recording the audio, processing the title, or submitting it to the retailers.

So, if you have a short title, and you want to make it available as audio, what can you do?  If you list it as an audiobook, the retailers are going to take most of the sales.  Not only that, but the sales will probably be lackluster since audiobook fans don’t generally seek out short titles.  Well, fortunately, there are options. 
Once of the things that we often suggest to folks who approach us with very short titles is to list their titles, not as audiobooks, but as spoken word albums.  Spoken word albums are sold through the same channels your music might be sold instead of selling through audiobook channels.  They appear in iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Google Play.  They are available to download on most major devices, including iPads, iPods, iPhones, Android Phones, Windows Phones, etc.  The music retail channels allow you to set your own price for your title.  And perhaps best of all, the music retail channels generally only take 30-40% of the sales, rather than 40-80% of the sales, leaving a whole lot more money in your pocket.

This is a great way of releasing self-help or business seminars, recordings of live presentations, audio dramas, and children’s stories—especially if these are audio titles that aren’t part of the “traditional” definition of audiobooks (i.e., a recording of someone reading/performing the actual text of a book.)  The audiences for these kinds of titles are often more familiar with the ecosystems surrounding the purchase of music than they are with audiobooks, it doesn’t require them to sign up for a new service, and the barriers to entry are a little lower.

There are several services that would sell your title as a spoken word title.  CDBaby and Tunecore are two of the more well-known services that distribute through the music channels.  Open Book Audio also regularly works with a New York-based distributor known as HSM Entertainment (http://www.hsment.com).  Any of these services can distribute your title as a spoken word title in the same way that Open Book Audio can distribute it as an audiobook.

So, if you have a short title that you are considering trying to sell as an audiobook, think about releasing it as a spoken word album or audio drama instead.  You may find that it’s a better fit for your needs, and for your pocketbook.

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