Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Some Fun Thoughts…

And A Warning…

As many of you know, or might have guessed, I spend a great deal of time reading news and information about the industry, both the traditional side and what can be found among all the promotion myths on the indie side. Some of it I pass along, some of it Kris and I talk about, some of it I just file away as information to see trends and so on.

I consider this part of my job. Not for you folks, but because this is how I make my living and if I am not aware of my industry, I will make mistakes.

Now some of you remember or have heard me talk about the value of audio books. I think they are great, but I warn writers about the time sink and the costs for the return. Audio gets great press these days among writers, but reality is that sales are still lagging, and I did a blog a while back about being cautious on trying a Kickstarter campaign for audio. A number of writers did not listen to me and tried it and did not fund. Just a tough road.

Why does audio get such good press? Because it is good press to say something has grown year-over-year at 25%. Wow, we should all jump in. Right? Nope.

Here is the problem. Simple math but you have to know some about the sales in the industry.

25% growth of $100 is about $25.00 extra.

5% growth of $100,000 is $5000 extra.

Sales of audio to paper/electronic books is about the same as $100 to $100,000. The market for audio overall is tiny, thus the ability to have large growth and still make next to nothing. Better off doing books, not audio books. But they can be a nice little cash stream if you can do them without the extreme costs of money and time.

Now, in Jane Freedman’s The Hot Sheet there was something interesting. (You can subscribe, but understand she is focused about 95% on traditional publishing, but still worth it for some tidbits and head shaking things…)

Here is what was said by Jane about Podcasts…

“Podcasts are typically monetized through advertising, sponsorships, and branded content. This can work great for news and magazine publishers, but book publishers haven’t been that successful in that regard—probably because ad sales is not in their DNA. But podcasts can also be monetized through merchandising, publishing book adaptations (of course), selling rights to TV and film studios, and offering live and virtual events or access to the creators.

In the future, book contracts may ask the author for podcast rights.”


Pretty nice summary of ways to make money with a podcast. (Notice a bunch of them were in the licensing area.)

Now note the last line. Traditional publishers have not yet got their greedy little IP fingers on podcast rights. Yet.

And I honestly, looking at the legal side of that, have no idea how that would work in a contract. But even if it wouldn’t work legally, the publishers will try and stupid writers will give it to them. A nightmare in the offing…

Yup, head-shaking…

So how I looked at that was what fun a podcast would be if done right for short fiction. A poor person’s audio book, basically. With a ton of licensing possibilities. And my mind went spinning off into all the fun.

And then I started really feeling sorry for the first writers to get stuck selling Podcast rights to their new novel, plus all rights for the life of the novel for $5,000. And getting nothing in return.



  • Thorn Coyle


    I’ve been doing short story readings on YouTube funded by my Patreon (since the pandemic started and people were having trouble concentrating). I figure folks can stand to listen to a short story while folding laundry or whatever.

    I also figure there might be further uses for the audio recordings in the future, plus, I include links to the collections the stories are from in the notes.

    — Thorn

  • Kate Pavelle

    LOL yes, but audio, for whatever reason, is so Sexy and Shiny!
    Not sure why I feel that way. Maybe because it’s a step toward movies, and movies are all glamour and flash and big sunglasses?
    Long story short, my $500 audio kickstarter funded – but barely. I have 24 other audios on ACX. Those that I paid for outright, I can now move to Findaway Voices. But the others are still under contract due to royalty share, so I’ll have to wait before I can control my pricing, run specials, and so on.

    The royalty share was free for only the first 3 books. Narrators soon figured out that unless they work with a well-selling book, they won’t get paid anytime soon. Like many other indies, I began offering incentives on the side. A book would run me a few hundred bucks that way instead of well over a thousand. During the tail end of the Kindle gold rush, this seemed like a good idea.
    It no longer is.
    Had I invested my extra $$ in a Roth IRA, or even in a high-interest online savings account, I would’ve been in a lot better shape than I am now. The ROI on audios is a long haul, and with Covid and the drop in commuting, I don’t see it bouncing back anytime soon.
    (But they’re still shiny, like a fun Halloween mask.)

    • dwsmith

      And always remember you don’t own the audio unless you bought it in contract. So you can’t just move to Findaway with something from ACX. Another major issue with audio, you share the IP unless a contract is involved from the start giving you all rights to the recording. Pain, just a pain…

  • Suzan Harden

    There’s also the problem of Amazon pushing Audible+, their new subscription service for audio books. KU isn’t great, but the production costs for an ebook is minimal compared to the production costs for an audio book. Talk about new and better ways for writers to lose money.

    • dwsmith

      Suzan, KU is horrid for writers who are thinking long-term careers. It does nothing to build anything. But everyone here knows how I feel about the stupidity of KU.

      • Britt Malka

        I didn’t, Dean. Would you do a blog post about KU, please? I have almost my books in KU, and I haven’t gone wide at all.

        Sooo…. I assume it’s a lot better to go wide? With nonfiction, which I didn’t have in KU, I saw several refunds, which I’m not used to, but they stopped when I offered KU. I guess people see refunds as a way to borrow the book. “Now I’ve read it, so I will return it.”

        • dwsmith

          Amazon stops people from doing that too much.

          KU is horrid for writers. But writers always have a “reason” to do it. I might do a blog about KU but honestly, it will happen when I have the band width for fantastic amounts of anger and stupidity. It’s like attacking a religion and a job at the same time. Long term thinking is a tough battle against short term destructive habits and beliefs.

  • James Palmer

    I read a post over a year ago from a best-selling indie sci-fi author who said that if your ebooks and print books aren’t selling well don’t even bother with audio. I think that more or less may be true. I think as time goes on bestselling authors will be leaving money on the table, and audio will become more and more expected. I write shorter books and short audio books aren’t very enticing to listeners under Audible’s current pricing model.

    • dwsmith

      I wouldn’t state a rule like that, James. I think each decision to do audio or any other form is a cost/benefit calculation for each business. Not some general rule of thumb. Plus, at any moment in time, sales mean nothing. A book that was selling only a few copies a month might be a bestseller two years later. (I had an entire series do that.) So calculating any long-term business decision on short term sales is just a bad plan.

      And I doubt audio will ever have the audience large enough to make it expected by the vast number of readers. A few vocal ones, like now, sure. But even with massive growth year over year, we still have decades before it even comes close to a bad-selling mass market (the worst form at the moment in sales).

  • Indiana Jim

    Escape Pod has been very successful and won a Hugo award as a podcast ‘zine for short fiction, and Scott Sigler has been one of the pioneers and has been podcasting his fiction since 2005.

  • C.E. Petit

    Audio books are the Lake Woebegone of publishing: In order to actually make money over production costs (which are not insubstantial — even if you’re doing your own reading) and other headaches, there aren’t any returns unless one is well above average. Of course, almost all authors think they’re well above average, just like all of the children in Lake Woebegone…

    It’s an investment, with a lot more capital up front than an e-book (even if one hires out copyediting/proofreading, cover design, and some other tasks). Undercapitalized investments have an unfortunate tendency to fail… so that capital needs to come from what are excess rents from other activities or from otherwise-idle capital that’s just sitting there, like a trust fund. The technology and skills aren’t there to do audiobooks truly “on the cheap” yet — and even once the tech is, the skills won’t be. Reading aloud engagingly is a LOT HARDER than it looks/sounds. Dean and Kris could tell you awful, AWFUL stories about convention “author readings”…

    • dwsmith

      Boy, spot on the money about author readings at conventions. I stopped doing them, not because I’m that bad a reader, but I just found them a waste of my time, just like sitting in a bookstore signing for two hours to sell three copies of a book I was getting 12 cents per copy on in traditional publishing. And I had to drive to get the bookstore. Just too stupid. Convention signings were the same way. That’s why so few copies of anything I have written have ever been signed.

      Where one of my best friends, Kevin Anderson, has signed the entire planet. Not saying one way or the other is right. I just figured I would rather sit in the bar drinking than sit for an hour waiting for three people to ask me to sign a program book. Drinking was a better use of my time. (grin)

  • Filip Wiltgren

    If the current trends in advanced text-to-speech continue, we’ll be looking at licensed voices with near or even perfect fidelity in text-to-speech. Meaning that writers will be able to create audiobooks at a fraction of the cost of a narrator. I’ve heard samples that are almost good enough to listen to today, and the tech is still developing exponentially.

    So I’d be very leery of surrendering audio or podcast rights to anyone. Might be that in four or five years, generating audio from your writing will be a mouse-click away, audiobooks will become standard to bundle with ebooks, and podcasts will be a natural outgrowth of blogs.

    Then again, what do I know…

    • dwsmith

      Filip, actually you are spot on the money. Text-to-speech is becoming amazing, and an author can record their own voice, some specific ones, and the new text-to-speech can read it in your voice. Not perfect, but gaining on it. And I think you might be right, in a number of years generating audio will be a program away. But then you will have writers who will think the program is too expensive like writers think Vellum or InDesign is too much. But it will be a fun day when that happens, so you are spot on the money.

  • Tao Wong

    While I generally agree, I’d point out that audio really depends on what genre you’re working in and how you’re selling. Within the genre I’m in, unit sales work out to be roughly 10%. But, because each book (if you’re exclusive with ACX) is around $4-$4.50 (depending on book length from around 100k+), the actual revenue level is higher.

    For those within my genre, audiobook income ends up being around 1/3 of these authors income, with KU making up another 1/3 to 1/2 and regular sales the rest. Of course, lots of cavaets, new genre, voracious readers, etc. But audiobooks are a huge moneymaker depending on the genre and sales.

    Another good rule of thumb is that if Podium / Tantor/etc end up coming to you to get audiobook done, it’s worth doing it yourself.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, the grind of KU. Didn’t say it wasn’t possible to make money on audio. Kris and I make some decent money on audio. But what I am saying is the return on investment is slow even if sales are good and you are better off writing with our time. But no argument, money can be made in audio. Just as you said, a fraction of what you make with books. That is exactly my point. Cost and time vs return.

  • Michael W Lucas

    A few months ago I put my best selling story into audio. Bought complete rights under contract. If sales continue as they have, break even happens in a little over seven years.

    It was fun. It was educational. Not doing it again.

    • dwsmith

      Wow, only seven years?? Most of ours have payoff times of twenty years. We built an entire sound room at WMG in the early excitement, hired a full-time person to do nothing but audio. We get checks every month from that time eight years ago and we are decades from breaking even on that stupidity. Live and learn.