Audiblegate 1: The incredible true story of missing sales
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Here's an ALLEGED tale of a giant in the tech and online retail industry you'll struggle to believe. If it wasn't happening to me and many, many authors, I'd think it can't be true, that it might be an exaggeration. Grab a coffee or tea or even an alcoholic beverage and let me take you into the Twilight Zone of the audiobook business, where the company who now controls a majority of the publishing industry, the same company who calls themselves the most customer-centric company in the world is fleecing authors blind, emphasis on blind (since they've been hiding it very well for years.) Your favorite authors, me included, have been used in a program by Amazon called Audible. You might have heard of them. They're just a little audiobook company that it seems may be losing market share, or something has worried them, so they've found a way around the one thing standing between them and mega-profits: paying their content providers. You know, the little guys who spend months, years even, creating a story, then producing an audiobook to keep their readers happy and hopefully bolster their mostly meagre income in order to feed their family or pay for enough coffee to write their next book.
Returns have been actively hidden from Rights Holders and we have been robbed in broad daylight (or blank spreadsheet).
Whether you are an author who has audiobooks currently or you are planning audiobooks, or you're a book lover or Audible customer, it's worth your while to read this saga. This is probably the single worst royalties grab by an Amazon company so far, and we need to stand together and stop this urgently. Big and small earning authors and those in-between, along with small publishers (and maybe Big Fives) are losing mega-dollars because of Audible's egregious behavior. Soon book lovers will also lose, because audiobooks will no longer be released from their beloved authors, me being one. It's just not financially worth it, plus who wants their stuff stolen when you've taken so much care to make it so nice.
Audible has their own publishing/distribution company where you can produce your book and then that book is distributed to Audible, Amazon and Apple. If you choose to "go exclusive" and distribute only to these three, you are granted the princely profit split of 40%. This is after spending sometimes upward of $6 to $8k on an audiobook. To give you an idea, my last audiobook Destination Dark Zone cost me $US6,200 to produce. If you're not exclusive to Audible and decide to distribute your book to other retail stores such as Kobo, Scrib'd and local libraries, then you only receive twenty-five percent of your sales or your share of the pot from memberships. Oh, that's right, I didn't mention that. There's three ways an author is paid. When an Audible member uses a monthly credit which they receive as part of their membership, a rights holder receives a share of the pot created by the number of memberships paid, minus Audible's profit. This pot varies each month. So we never know how much this per download share will be until the day we are paid, but it's something close to $US5, while members pay $14.95 for a membership with one credit per month to use on a book. When you pay, say, $7.49 on Amazon for an add-on audiobook when you've purchased the eBook, we are paid $2.99 on the forty percent split. Should you buy an audiobook as a member from Audible and not use a credit, according to my reports, members pay $9.15 for most of my books, and I receive $3.61. Some rights holders don't have an exclusive deal with Audible. Many don't because they believe in not putting all their eggs in Amazon's basket. Well, they get less. So, just go right ahead and nearly halve these payments because they only receive twenty-five percent. It's not much is it compared to what readers and members pay for each book or monthly subscription fee?
There's a lot involved in creating a book.
Here's a crash course. You don't just record it and release like it's magic. You have to search for the perfect narrator and that sure takes some time. Then brief them, swapping emails until you're positive they're a good fit for you and your work. There's plenty of back and forth between you as you nail the characters' voices and polish them to your liking before the narrator starts the narration.
This involves them sending you a fifteen minute file, you listen and send them feedback until you're both happy. There're studios hired sometimes, and the narrator's fee is dependent upon their experience and quality of work. Mine have all won awards and they don't come cheap but they're brilliant professionals so I don't begrudge their charges. After the recording, which can take a week or more, we have proofing and engineering to ensure the whole book's sound is consistent and intakes of breath and random clicks are banished. For every hour to which a reader listens it takes two to four to produce, and that's just the narrator's time. In my case, I listen through the finished audio files, and even with paying for proofing still a few mistakes slip through. So back it goes for the narrator to drop in the corrections (which takes a bit of time for the narrator, and if it's my mistake with a typo, I pay extra) until it's right. You won't believe how tough it is to listen to your own book and think, Gee, I could have written that sentence better, or hear an actual typo or the same word used too many times in one paragraph. Then finally, yay, your audiobook is done and you pay the narrator or in some cases where independent authors who can't afford to pay up front, you enter a royalty share deal and split the future income with the narrator for seven years. So, in this case, the narrator works for nothing, zip, nada, and hopes to eventually somewhere down the track recover their costs and actually get paid so they can buy mouth gargle and honey to keep their voices healthy and, well, eat. It's pretty tough for some if they pick the wrong book to narrate which doesn't go on to sell and never pays out. They've worked for nothing or very little. The excited author then hits publish and waits for their book to go through Quality Assurance at ACX. Keep in mind, they've already paid and probably aren't rich, so they need that book out there selling units to get their money back because, well, eating is kind of addictive, and life without hot water is pretty miserable. For the past twelve months though some authors and narrators have been waiting months to have their books approved. This is while business is booming at Audible apparently but they don't have enough staff to keep everything running smoothly. It's November 2020 now and I've seen comments that some audiobooks from March, and even January are still caught up in the quality assurance system. And these kind of delays started well before COVID hit.
I'd like to pause at this moment to ask where the Quality Assurance Department is for their Quality Assurance Department? "We seem to have a problem here, Captain Kirk." Where's Scotty from engineering when you need him?
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE...
Audible is actively now promoting returns as a "benefit."
So, this whole system seems a little unfair, right? Authors pay for everything, take all the risk for a smaller cut of the profits, while the richest man in the world's company keeps the lion's share and controls everything.
But, wait, this isn't the story I'm telling. This is the prologue, the background, so you're informed and will realize how dire what I'm about to share with you is for your favorite authors and why I've spent the past month not writing but trying to fight for an injustice to be rectified. Even more insidious than the low royalty rates paid us by Audible is something I call #AudibleGate, of which you may not be aware. Audible is promoting returns of any audible book for "any reason, no questions asked," even if the person has listened to the whole Audible book and enjoyed it. The return is permissible up to 365 days and in some countries it's been reported that it's infinity. What??? Hey now, no, Susan May, how would that work? Surely not. That would be objectively unfair to the author. Might even be illegal.
Why, yes, it is unfair and morally wrong and possibly even theft by stealth. You're so smart to realize that. Do tell Audible because they don't seem to get it.
Audible are actively promoting this "benefit" to their members as a way of incentivizing them to stay locked in each month because you can only return audiobooks if you're a member. Hmm, that's clever marketing. Audible even sends emails encouraging users to return a book, screens pop up after you finish reading suggesting a return, and there is even an obvious "return" button on the app which changes wording depending on whether you've finished the book or are part way through. Part-finished it's "RETURN TITLE". Finish the book and it changes to "EXCHANGE."
Who loses when I return a book? readers think.
Audible! Surely, Audible? Surely not authors? And who cares anyway? Audible's owned by the world's richest man, so, it's not big deal to return a book. It's my right. It's part of being an Audible member.
Well, you're favorite authors lose, my wonderful reader. Our accounts are debited for that returned book, sometimes a year later. We, the hard-working content creators and narrators eat this loss, not Amazon. Let me repeat this for impact. Authors pay for this "benefit" and many times we are not earning any money for the sale of an audiobook even if it is thoroughly enjoyed by the reader. Audible though, they don't miss out, they still get your monthly subscription payment. Authors weren't asked if we wanted to offer this "benefit" or if we agreed to it or were happy to pay for it. Audible just did it for their own commercial benefit. Think on this, too, if you're following all the antitrust cases against Amazon around the world where they're accused of using their market dominance to unfairly compete against rivals, how easy it is to hold out any competitors in the Audiobook market when you don't have to pay for content? Why would a reader use another service when they have unlimited Audible books every month for one low price. Nobody else currently can offer that model because it's too expensive to pay authors if a reader listens to more than a couple of books a month. So, they cap the number of books consumed per month and limit the titles included in other cases. Not Audible though because their titles are free to them.
How many readers, I hear you ask, are returning books? Surely everybody is honest and wouldn't do this unless the book is absolutely terrible and you've only listened to an hour or so?
Ah, ah, ah, nearing fifty percent returns for many authors. Some less, but not by much. My number is fifty per cent. Think on that now. They're halving my sales to prop up their business. My books can't be that bad. If they were that bad, they should kick me off the platform for poor customer experience.
We don't know how long they've been doing this but we feel it could be the past eighteen months or longer, maybe a lot longer, maybe even years but growing slowly as more people spread the word about how to easily return books.
You might like to view this entertaining video created by a popular YouTuber Fantasy writer where he verbalizes how outrageous this is. Read through some of the hundreds of comments below the video to see examples of what's been happening and how entitled some Audible members are with regards to their return "benefits." Oh, and their excuses as to why they've been returning whole series of books or using the system as a library rental facility: just because they could; a glitch that keeps on giving; didn't want to pay for the audiobooks; can't afford to listen to as many as they'd like. They're fun reads while you nibble on your dry biscuits and drink dirty water as you sit in the dark. Click here to watch. It's pretty entertaining the way he presents things, awful as the facts are for us, and he's spot on, too.
IT'S ALL SMOKE AND MIRRORS
How'd we authors miss this tomfoolery for so long? We're pretty smart. We keep a check on figures and sales and many of us spend tens, even hundreds of thousands on marketing, so we need to understand our return on investment. Well, that's due to the dubious and alarming practice which allowed this travesty to be perpetuated unknown for so long because ACX/Audible HIDES the returns beneath the sales. They don't use a simple common accounting form of a separate column to show returns.
You only know you have a return if you haven't sold enough books to cover the returns with a sale. So you'll see a -1 or -2, or whatever. Other times, you'll see a "0" which means you've had returned as many books as you've sold. Unfortunately, this is a common, every-second-or-third day experience and hugely deflating for an author. And, oh, so frustrating that it makes you want to give up writing. Ask my muse, they're waiting for me to come back and start being a writer again.
I stopped advertising my books for the last six months because if you sell more than a few books a day, you'll miss the returns. When you're only selling a few, you'll see them pop up. It's not an exact science because you really don't know what count of numbers have added up to your nett figure of sales. How many sales to begin with and how many minus returns? We just don't know. But our hackneyed system of half-guessing is all we've got because one of the acknowledged world's greatest data harvesters can't supply a simple column to show us, we the content providers, our returns.
So, until a recent glitch occurred (which they're "sorry for the confusion", or because they finally got found out) where ACX clawed back three weeks of returns in one day on the 20th October, many authors had no idea this was even happening.
Authors simply awakened to see they had lost ten, twenty, thirty, and in some cases hundreds of sales. That was for those who'd been keeping tally of their sales to date for the month (quite a few don't). Some had suspected something was amiss, like myself, but didn't know how many were being returned exactly. We only saw the minus figures and zeros on a regular enough basis to know there was an issue.
I felt my returns were sitting at around thirty percent for my books for the past twelve months, but with this glitch I realized that on my 4.5 star rated books it was actually fifty percent returns. My eBooks have below one percent return rate and are also highly reviewed above four stars and my narrators cost a lot of $$, a lot, and they've all won awards. I pay also for proof listening and engineering to ensure a high quality experience for my readers and listeners. So, it's doubtful that fifty percent of listeners would have been so disappointed as to return my books. Surely they would have left negative reviews, if they did. Haven't got many of those though. None of us have. I mean look at the image below. Sell two books, lose two books. No payment. And I don't even know if it was just minus two books. I could have sold four "Best Seller" books and had six returned, leaving me with minus two, or sold three "The Troubles Keeper" and had one returned. Who knows?
Only Audible and ACX know, but they're not telling. None of my business, right? It's just my money to live on, payment for my hard work and investment in an audiobook, is all. Dozens of authors have asked for their returns data by month, writing every few days since "Glitch Day" but ACX has used varying cookie-cutter emails to ignore this request. They just won't give it to us no matter how many times we ask. One author is up to ten emails. TEN!!! It's like they don't speak English there, and they're in the publishing industry, for Pete's sake.
The replies and run around would be comical if this wasn't so serious and most likely representing tens of millions of dollars lost to content creators. It could be in the hundreds of millions if this is also occurring for the Big Five publishers and the large audiobook publishers, and is probably the biggest scandal of royalties grab ever perpetuated by an Amazon company.
ACX is pretty much, through their actions, refusing to give us our returns data. We are wondering why now. We authors have given them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, it hadn't occurred to them we were interested to see our returns or that it was such a little thing and we were too busy writing away that we didn't need to bother our pretty little heads about it. But I would certainly query now why a corporation of this size who is a data tech company can't create a simple returns column or supply a breakdown of returns when requested. Ya really gotta wonder don'tcha, what is actually up with all this?
Selling your subscription company as a Netflix-style streaming company, not paying your content providers and then not giving them their data when asked politely, repeatedly and very clearly, seems, hmm, just a little funky, questionable, tad dishonest, don't it?
Many authors, myself being one, are not creating any more audiobooks until this is resolved. We don't get paid much per sale, the lion share is kept by Audible, even though we pay up to anything around $8k to create an audiobook, and then add marketing on top of that. Now they are also stealing up to half of our small percentage return to bump up their own profits.
WHY DON'T WE LEAVE AUDIBLE AND ACX?
Yes, we are all leaving Audible to go wide, if we haven't already, but they still represent a large chunk of the pie, and even if you place your books through another distributor to deliver to Audible, you're still losing via the returns on the Audible platform.
There is also the annoying detail of a lock-in contract of seven years which prevents authors from leaving even if they are unhappy and bonded into a feudal farming-style, unfair practice literally cheating them. Authors who own their books by paying per finished hour during production can opt-out after twelve months from exclusive but we still must distribute also through Audible. Our books are held hostage on the platform because we signed a contract where Audible can change how they use our book, and we have no say. When I signed that contract, I had no idea this would include giving my book away, piratey-piratey, easy-exchange, no-questions- asked deal. Those who have created their audiobooks through profit-share with the narrator, however, are stuck suffering for seven years through Audible exclusive, who are actively promoting returns while author and narrator both lose anything up to fifty percent of their sales. So, we are all stuck in an unfair contract where the rules changed after the fact. I repeat: We didn't sign on for an unpaid rental scheme.
We have a fight group happening on Facebook called https://www.facebook.com/groups/fairdealwithaudible which I created several weeks before the bulk 20th claw-back. But until that happened it was hard for any rights holders or narrators to understand how important this was because they couldn't see their returns. On that day, for a brief moment, the veil was lifted and authors became wise and then outraged, so the groups numbers have grown to over 670 in ten days, and it's filled with distressed, angry, and a little deflated creative people.
There is a truckload of proof and information about this there with screenshots of emails, posts by Audible members who've proudly returned books and even a PDF of a now taken-down blog post where the writer explains how to "rent books from Audible" by returning for your credit. He posts the chat with an Audible customer service person who says it's fine to return a book if you just want to use the system as a rental service. Nothing will happen to a member, he's assured, if they prefer to use the service as a rental library. No cancelling of account or blocking of the returns facility. Please, go right ahead, he's told.
We are facing a bleak audiobook future if authors can't get this outright theft and piracy policy of "easy exchange" removed and our returns made transparent through ACX. We've spoken to many peak bodies and they are investigating but the more we expose this the greater chance we have of things changing. If nothing else, if you join our FB group, you'll find the reading interesting. It's a master class in how to avoid customer queries and the masterful way a company owned by the world's richest man is defrauding content creators in plain sight.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If you've been returning audiobooks and misusing the system, whether you were completely unaware of the implications to an author or not, please STOP. JUST STOP. In the physical world, this is akin to eating at a restaurant, enjoying the food and then a month later asking for your money back because you fancy eating at the restaurant again and can't afford to pay, or don't want to pay, or want to eat at another place because you've already tried their food but you want them to pay by refunding your money. We will never know who you are, we authors, but we will be grateful if you stop doing this.
Please spread the word to your friends and family how the system works at Audible and why you shouldn't return books unless you absolutely cannot listen to one after the first hour or so. It's still not fair if you listen to the whole book and then decide you don't like the ending or you won't listen to it again. Twenty or thirty odd percent of a book is enough to know if you like the narrator and want to continue. This is the return policy we want implemented. Return before twenty percent is cool in my world. If it's no fun by twenty percent, you're probably not going to dig the journey. Give up. If you listen to the whole thing because it might have a good ending and it doesn't, well, that's on you. That's you're risk. We're not trying to hoodwink readers or take something vital away. We just want something that will work for both of us, readers and writers and narrators. We're in this together.
Everyone is welcome to join the FB group and our fight at Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators. Even if as an author or a narrator you don't have an audiobook yet but are planning one or might be in the future, this concerns you. If you're a reader or an audiobook lover, this is about you, too. Less books will be produced, and do you really think it's fair author are not paid for their work in such an unscrupulous way by a company owned by the world's richest man?
I believe, hidden somewhere in the pages and pages of terms on Amazon that even talking about this in public threatens my ability in the future to release books on Audible. We are not allowed to talk about behind the scenes with ACX. It's against the terms and conditions. But, hey, I've always enjoyed those whistle-blower films, and if an author can't write about an injustice then what's the point of using my words?
Please share this #Audiblegate post on social media. This is an important issue and we need to get the word out to as many people as possible.
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SUSAN MAY BIO
Susan May has been an author of dark thrillers for over a decade. In 2020, she paused her writing career to create a horror story for Audible which she titled Audiblegate. She promises that in the end the good guys will triumph.
You can learn more about Susan May at www.susanmaywriter.net
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