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Subrights Part 4: Audiobooks

Welcome to Part 4 of my subsidiary rights series, affectionately referred to as “Money for Nothing.” (Like the old Dire Straits song, but no chicks for free.)

To recap, in February, we discussed foreign editions (British Commonwealth rights and translation rights). In March, we turned our attention to book clubs, serial rights, and large print. And in May, we went Hollywood, focusing on film and TV rights.

Today, in the final installment of the series, we’re talking about audio rights. In the interest of full disclosure, this post is somewhat self-serving, since my own audiobook went live on Tuesday. (Yay!)

So what is a subsidiary right? You’ve already made your sale and done the work in writing, revising, and editing the book, so subsidiary rights are a way to leverage your manuscript to earn essentially free money.

Often referred to as a subright, it’s the right to use content that is subsidiary to the primary right. For example, large print rights or foreign translation rights to a book are subsidiary to the main right of print publishing. This is related to a derivative work right, which is the right to alter content, take extracts from it, combine it with another work, translate it into another language, or otherwise create a new work from an existing piece of content. A derivative work takes copyrighted material and transforms it into something else (such as a film, an audiobook, etc) based on the underlying work.  The relationship between these different types of rights is like one of those Venn diagrams we used to draw in elementary school. All derivative works rights are subsidiary rights, but not all subsidiary rights are derivative works rights.

So today we’re talking about audio. Decades ago, audio rights weren’t considered valuable. Often they were an afterthought ancillary right in the boilerplate (included but not leveraged), and sometimes left out of the contract entirely, unless it was deemed profitable to make a rare radio adaptation. After all, in an era of vinyl, who wanted to flip a record every 30 minutes for a 10-hour novel? Not to mention, you had to stay in the same spot and couldn’t take it anywhere, unlike a book. (And could you imagine how bulky the product would have been with that many records?)

Fast forward to the 80s, and the era of car radios with cassette players and the Sony Walkman. This new medium was convenient and lent itself well to long listening sessions, so publishers started putting out books-on-tape and earning extra money, often without having paid authors an additional advance for the audio rights. (Authors earned royalties, however.) By the time CDs became the norm (the technology increased the quality and cost efficiency), authors and agents were negotiating better terms and payments for the audio rights. In many cases, agents started to reserve audio rights so they could be sold to an emerging audiobook publisher industry.

The MP3 revolution has only made distribution easier and more affordable than ever (not to mention super portable!), making audio rights potentially very lucrative.

The most common ways to handle audio rights are to grant them to your publisher (who then either sells them to an audiobook publisher or who has an in-house production arrangement) or to reserve the rights to exploit on your own (either by selling them to an audiobook publisher or by producing your own audiobook).

The first option is granting your audio rights to your publisher. The publisher then can do nothing, or can exploit the rights by selling them to an audiobook publisher or producing the audiobook in-house. Rubies who have granted audio rights to their publishers have had audiobooks produced both ways.

Darynda Jones’ books are published by St. Martin’s Press, which is part of the Macmillan publishing group. In 2001, Macmillan’s parent company (Holtzbrinck) acquired Audio Renaissance, renaming it Macmillan Audio. Macmillan Audio publishes audio editions of fiction and non-fiction books for adults and children, from among the Macmillan trade publishers including Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Feiwel and Friends, Henry Holt and Company, Picador, Roaring Brook Press, Square Fish, St. Martin’s Press, and Tor Books, as well as titles acquired from outside publishers. Narrators of its titles include Timothy Dalton, Cynthia Nixon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meryl Streep, and Stanley Tucci.

Because her publisher would be in a better position to exploit them, Darynda chose not to have her agent reserve the audio rights. Because the production is done by a subsidiary company, there is no middleman involved to take a cut of the royalties.

Carina Press, the publisher for several of our Rubies, including Jennifer Bray-Weber and Cynthia Justlin, asks for audio rights as part of the standard contract.  However, unlike St. Martin’s, they don’t have an in-house audiobook publisher, and instead licenses those rights to Audible. The Audible reps have the right to browse the Carina catalog and produce the audiobook of any titles they like. Standard Audible royalty terms apply, and the author receives the royalties as part of their semiannual royalty payments. An Audible rep told Rita Henuber during RWA National that they “will entertain the possibility of you reading your own book — you have to interview and they will not pay your travel to their studios.”

Anne Marie Becker was surprised to learn she had an audiobook of her Carina book — the day her book released. She didn’t discover it until she checked her Amazon listing, only to find it there. 🙂 Vivi Andrews says “although I have a copy, I’ve never listed to it because the idea of hearing someone read my book aloud kind of wigs me out.”

The other option when negotiating a contract is to reserve your audio rights. You can then sell them to an audiobook publisher, or produce the audiobook yourself.

My Dani Spevak Mystery Series is self-published, so I “reserved” my audio rights by default when publishing the books. I then sold the audio rights to AudioLark, a small romance audiobook publisher based in Canada. (And I couldn’t be more pleased by the experience.) Cate Rowan is also working with them, with an anticipated release date later this fall for the audio version of The Source of Magic.

Other audiobook publishers include Audible, Brilliance Audio, Dark Desires Audio, among others. Your subrights agent will be familiar with the various publishers, or you can find a list at the Audiobook Publishers Association website.

A benefit to this type of relationship is generally higher royalties, since your book publisher doesn’t take a piece first as a middleman. A drawback is that you likely won’t have the right to use your book cover for the audio edition (unless you specifically negotiate that right in the book contract, or unless you self-published). Another drawback is that your book publisher is unlikely to work in concert with the audiobook publisher, so you might have to wait until final edits of the text are done, thus making it impossible for the book and audiobook to be released at the same time.

An audiobook contract is similar to a publishing contract, with many similar terms and clauses. You’ll receive royalties for each audiobook sold (the rate will vary by publisher, and will be determined in the contract). You may or may not receive an advance payment. If you do, like with book publishing, the advance will be taken against the royalties, in which case you will not receive further payments until you earn out.

The other option available if you reserve your rights is to produce the audio version yourself. The most popular way to do this is through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), an Amazon/Audible company. From ACX’s website:

ACX is a marketplace where professional authors, agents, publishers, and other Rights Holders can post fallow audiobook rights. At ACX, those unused audio rights will be matched with narrators, engineers, recording studios, and other Producers capable of producing a finished audiobook, as well as with audiobook publishers.”

If you have a book available for sale on Amazon, then you can log in and search for your title. If the audio rights have not been exhausted for your book, then you can choose to get an audiobook made. You post your title for audition, and interested narrators can send you a demo clip. If you find a narrator you’re interested in, you make an offer. You can choose to pay upfront (either hourly — and some narrators do read slower than others, or a flat fee) or do a royalty split.

How should you structure the compensation for your narrator? For some authors, a percentage royalty arrangement makes the most sense, so they’re not paying thousands of dollars upfront to produce something which tehy don’t yet know will be profitable. Of course, unless your narrator expects it will be a hot seller, they’re going to prefer to be paid upfront so they’re not putting in potentially hundreds of hours to study, read, record, and edit your audiobook and never recoup that time investment. So it’s a Catch 22 — if you have a hot seller, it’s best to pay upfront so you’re not paying a percentage for the life of the audiobook. But if your potential narrator feels it will be a hot seller, they might not accept an upfront fee and will insist on a royalty split. And on the flipside, if your potential narrator isn’t certain about what kind of sales to expect, they might insist on upfront payment.

If you hold your audio rights and truly want a DIY experience (whether you’re traditionally-published or indie-published), ACX has an option for authors to narrate their own books. The logic is that since it’s your book, your voice is best to tell it. A benefit is that you get to keep all of your audiobook’s revenue rather than paying a narrator upfront or through a roaylty split. A drawback is that most authors are not trained actors. Voiceover is an art.

Since the Codename: Dancer audiobook launched the other day, I’m going to take a moment here for some blatant self-promotion and gush about my narrator’s performance. R.E. Chambliss IS Dani Spevak, that’s for sure. You can hear a clip of her voice doing the narration for my three awesome new book trailers:

Codename: Dancer book trailer

Pointe of No Return book trailer

Pas De Death book trailer

I loved Renee’s voice so much when my publisher sent me the demo clip that I knew I had to get her to record the voiceover for the book trailers, too. I loved how they turned out!

The performance of the narrator is very important with audiobooks. The right narrator can make or break a book. Many listeners will actually buy audiobooks that they otherwise never would have been interested in simply because of a particular narrator. It’s more than just reading the story. The narrator must be a skilled actor, able to make your words come alive.

However the audiobook is produced, whether you’ve reserved rights or granted them to your book publisher, your audiobook will likely be available on Audible, among other retailers. If so, then you need to sign up with Audible Author Services. In an effort to encourage authors to promote their audiobooks as well as their published books, Audible is paying authors a special honorarium of $1 per sale. This honorarium is IN ADDITION to your existing royalties, and it’s paid directly to you as the author (does not go to your agent or publisher, regardless of where your royalties are sent) so this is the ultimate in “free money.” So go sign up now…I’ll wait.

And if you’re an ACX author, they even have an additional incentive program to encourage you to promote your books and Audible.com membership. For a limited time through a special Twenty Five Dollar Bounty program, ACX will pay you an additional $25 each time that someone signs up and downloads your book as one of their first three downloads. That’s IN ADDITION to both your $1 Audible Author Services bonus payment AND your regular royalties. That can add up really quickly.

This concludes our subsidiary rights series. I hope it was useful and that it inspires you to think in terms of leveraging your rights for more than just the book. You’ve already done the work, now go forth and get yourself some free money!

19 responses to “Subrights Part 4: Audiobooks”

  1. Misha Crews says:

    Great information! Thank for spelling everything out so simply. 🙂 I’m bookmarking this so I come back to it when I’m ready to explore audiobooks myself!

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  2. Thanks for all the info, Amanda – great book trailers. 🙂

    I’m with Vivi, though…even though I have a copy of my books on audio, I don’t want to listen to them. Weird, huh? Something about a stranger reading my words back to me is odd, but I certainly hope other people are enjoying my words.

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  3. Gwyn says:

    Lots of great stuff here, Amanda. I think I’m going to print out all four parts of your series and put them in a binder for future reference. Yeah, I know they’ll be available here, but I can’t mark them up—and I do love my highlighters. *G*

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  4. Great info, Amanda, and thanks for the shout-out! I have my audiobook on my Kindle, and I’ve listened to about the first minute. After that, I was kind of like Vivi, too wigged out to continue. LOL.

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      I’ve actually listened to my entire audiobook during the proof process. It’s a good thing, too, because there were a bunch of mispronunciations that needed to be corrected.

      I haven’t listened to the final product yet, but I’m sure I will at some point. It doesn’t weird me out — I think it’s pretty cool when I realize, “Hey, I wrote that!”

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  5. Elizabeth Langston says:

    My husband majored in Radio&TV. He has a great “on-air voice.” Someone suggested that I get him to read my book for audio. That would be really cool. I’ll have to see if my publishing house will go for that (and they do have audio rights.)

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  6. Great blog, and even better book trailers, Amanda. You’ve definitely hit the gold mine with your narrator. She’s wonderful.

    I’ve had a couple of people ask me about whether I would turn my novels into audiobooks. I’d love to do, but don’t trust some company to give me a great narrator like you got. Do you know if any audio companies give the author approval rights on the narrator?

    Also, did you contact AudioLark, or didn’t they come to you after you published?

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      Jennifer Feddersen, AudioLark’s owner, put out a call for submissions last year, and I responded to that. They do a semiannual reading period where they decide on which books to acquire for the next half year. I’m happy to say I’ll be working with them on the next book as well, and hopefully future books in the series.

      AudioLark allows authors consultation rights on the narrator, but final approval rests with the company. However, Jennifer always sends demo clips to the author for input before she makes a final decision. I know some other companies generally don’t give the author input into the decision-making process, but if you’ve retained your audio rights and submit directly, this could be something worth negotiating.

      Another option, of course, would be to go through the ACX audition process. My friend Deanna Chase says she felt like a Hollywood director when listening to demos — it was a lot of fun.

      (In my case, Jennifer only sent me one clip because as soon as I heard Renee’s voice I knew I’d found Dani. but she would have sent me more clips from potential actresses had I asked.)

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  7. I have one audiobook out with Audible now and am working on two more with ACX. I have three different narrators and have had varying results. I didn’t realize some of the problems I would encounter with the narrators until we were well into production. I think it’s because it’s not really easy to tell how competent a narrator really is just from a brief audition piece. Also, a narrator’s vocal talent is no indication of their level of responsibility. Of my three narrators, there is only one that I would probably choose to work with again.

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      That’s disappointing, Patricia. I’m sorry it hasn’t been a good experience. I suppose that’s another thing that selling audio rights to an audiobook publisher has in its favor — a certain level of professionalism that you can rely upon. Although obviously you need to do your research.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and sharing your experience with ACX!

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  8. Great information, Amanda, tks. And the comments were helpful too. Love your trailers.

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  9. What a fantastic post, Amanda! So sorry I’m late. Having internet connection issues. I am a huge fan of audiobooks and often do catch up with my reading by listening to them on road trips. It makes the time fly like nobody’s business. Sometimes I hate to arrive at my destination. It’s that whole, “Just one more chapter” conundrum. LOL. I just LOVE that there are so many more options for audio production now.

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  10. I’ve been a writer for much longer than I’ve been an audio book narrator and I can completely understand how it would be difficult to hear your words coming from someone else’s lips. When I’m recording, I can’t think about people listening to me (it makes me too self-conscious) but I do think a lot about the writers and try to do my best to do their stories justice. I know how much love and effort goes into these things! Now I feel my own ownership to Dani and the rest of Amanda’s characters in Codename: Dancer. It’s great to be able to connect to other writers’ stories and characters. I love my job!

    As for ACX, I’ve just accepted my first project through them and I’m very excited to do it. I can see how it could be a tough for an author to find the right narrator, but the royalty share projects are a big risk for a narrator/producer. It takes an incredible amount of time to put an audiobook together. I haven’t experienced ACX from the author/rights holder’s side, but as a narrator/producer I put a lot of thought into whether or not I want to accept a project because the compensation can be so uncertain.

    Thanks, Amanda, for writing such great stories that I get to read! I’ll be starting on Pointe of No Return soon!

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Renee! I’m so glad you get to voice Dani. As soon as I heard your demo clip I knew you would be my narrator. I was spellbound by how well you’d captured her. I obviously know you’re not 14, but in your performance you definitely transformed into a teenager. It was great!

      I can’t wait to hear the audiobook of Gwen Hayes’ SO OVER YOU, as read by you. 🙂

      Good luck with ACX. It’s great how many options there are these days. I really think audio is a medium more authors need to explore!

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