Momentarily caught up on all the free Telltale
releases, maybe for the first time since we hit the five-year mark in February. Late last year SF author Charles Platt
interviewed me for a Boing Boing article, but his column ended before the piece ran. He has since agreed to let me run the Q+A portion here.
For what it's worth, I figured Charles would edit me down to something less longwinded...CP: Why does spoken-word audio seem to be the poor stepchild of book publishing? My editor friends are utterly uninterested in it, and are a bit condescending about it, as if "spoken word" really means "recordings for people who are too lazy to read." Is this kind of snobbishness the root of the problem? Why are audiobooks so absurdly expensive? Why do we have companies like Audible trying to trap the buyer into "membership" schemes which are even worse than you'd find on a porno site? Do book publishers make it difficult for anyone to buy audiobook rights?ALEX:
I've never worked for a major publisher, so I can't speak to motivation, but I see things getting better. They're experimenting, figuring things out, whether it's MP3-CDs (like Neil Gaiman's _Anansi_Boys_) or DRM-free downloads with or without watermarking (like digital downloads from The Teaching Company).
This is a large, slow-to-change industry, and the numbers they're looking at are likely just too new for them to predict the economies of scale. Looking at the cost and availability of audiobooks when I launched Telltale just five years ago... I bet they're adapting faster than they're comfortable with even if to you and I it looks like dragging feet.
And professional audiobooks are still expensive to produce. Sure, electronic delivery cuts costs, but, as with the big music labels, there's still a significant investment required--audio engineers, studio time, performers, etc--on top of what has already gone into producing a text in paper book form. So they kinda understandably want to see how at least the hardcovers perform before they make decisions on further investment.
Now, the last audiobook CD I purchased retailed for $30 while the hardcover retailed for $26. Not too bad, but not exactly a cheap piece of entertainment. Until that comes down even more, there will always be those who won't consider audiobooks (just as I try to avoid buying hardcover when possible). But I can't predict the speed or likelihood of that happening.
Going back to the music industry comparison, one of my visions five years ago with Telltale was to encourage an "indie recording scene" alternative to the big publishers, where people with home studios or even narrators with prosumer recording equipment in their closets could produce something of reasonably high quality. And indeed the earliest Telltale contributors included as many indie musicians with recording gear as stage actors interested in trying something new. Obviously I wasn't the only or first one to have this idea. Podcasting became huge within the next twelve months.
Don't know about audiobook listeners being called "lazy." Was it recently that you heard this? I guess I'd want to have a conversation with them about it. And while I'd respect any _author_ who specifically didn't want her work released as audio (beyond where required for vision-impaired readers), I think it's probably short-sighted for someone in an industry that's competing with video games and television to insult customers if they don't agree exactly on how to best enjoy a product. Can you imagine a director admonishing his audience ("What, they couldn't be bothered to see my film in the theatre? Fuck them and their stupid couches.") and refusing to release a DVD?
I haven't looked at it in depth, but I'm not sure I have a problem with Audible's subscription model. The DRM there's the dealbreaker for me as a potential customer. Without the DRM, you have something similar to eMusic's audiobook program, which I'd argue is a pretty good deal for listeners. And if the subscription _is_ a problem for a customer, then Audible offers a good portion of its catalog a la carte in the iTunes store via a different DRM scheme.
I don't know about book publishers making it difficult for others to buy audio rights to things. I don't think so. I think they either purchase the audio rights to a work or they don't. Certainly short fiction moves around more freely. I have no knowledge of the specific deals, but I believe Audible has worked directly with authors and/or agents for many of their exclusives, and eMusic has commissioned content from McSweeney's (and/or its contributors). And I've worked with authors directly for their short fiction reprints, as have podcasts like Escape Pod and PodCastle. CP: Do you know how many audiobooks are in circulation from all sources? Is it still a niche market, and could it be bigger? ALEX:
No idea about circulation, sorry. I think it's a shame audiobooks don't get more "foot traffic," in that you aren't likely to find them if you aren't specifically looking for them. The selection in brick and mortar stores is tiny. Searching for audiobooks on Amazon can take a few extra steps (probably to avoid confusion for those simply wanting a "traditional" book). I'd bet this makes the tiny "Audiobooks" button in the iTunes store a huge deal for spoken word visibility overall.
It'll be interesting to see whether the major sellers and publishers are going to be too late in adapting. Podcasts already fill a lot of that spoken word niche for the digitally connected, and there's only so much audio one can listen to in a day. If those hours or minutes are filled with free, equally interesting NPR interviews, then $10+ fiction has a tougher fight ahead of it. And woe to them if they think they're in the "audiobook business" rather than the "entertainment" business, and have nothing to worry about from those silly little people with their cute computer mics.
It's really a matter of what you want to listen to. Some of my favorite authors have never had work available in audio, many only abridged, a bunch of others only in out of print cassette formats, and a few with DRM that's on one side or other of the tolerable fence. So my own listening is often a study in second choices. If you can be flexible (I want to listen to x genre, and/or I can wait a week to get it), you'll find it, free or otherwise. If you're looking for something specific (Miranda July's story collection on eMusic as of 12/2008), you'll probably be disappointed, especially when the item doesn't yet exist in any audio format. CP: I tend to think that if audiobooks were cheap enough, they'd be very popular. Does your experience support this?ALEX:
I think podcasting proves it, though ease of use is also an important factor there. I never owned a portable CD player, but I keep more than 24 hours of spoken word content on my MP3 player at all times. CP: Why did you start Telltale Weekly? Has it been as successful as you hoped? Will it continue? Do you plan to expand it significantly?
I was interested in new business models, micropayments, Creative Commons licensing, literature, and acting (other things, too, but I couldn't fit them into Telltale). I also wanted to be a singer-songwriter and I sold off my recording equipment when it was clear I was only pretending. I think in the back of my mind I was always looking for an excuse to buy some of it back.
But specifically: I had a road trip ahead and I wanted to listen to certain public domain works on the drive. Though they were all freely available in text form at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere, audio versions were either hugely expensive, out of print, or completely non-existant. I think I ended up re-listening to a Sarah Vowell audiobook, which was fine. It's funny, but if podcasting had taken off a few months earlier, I probably never would have started the project.
The big goal was to continuously fund and build a spoken word library by producing and selling work and then releasing it free after five years. We're about to see that start to pay off, because--while I've released some work for free without ever selling it--I started with multiple, weekly releases in February 2004. The focus eventually changed to fewer, longer works (and making fun of the site name), but that's just a "listening to the audience" thing.
I had other goals and milestones which I changed and/or missed completely, and a lot of that has to do with podcasting becoming so big within Telltale's first two years. But I can't and won't complain too much about this, because podcasting was born from the same technology and ideas that made Telltale possible with little upfront investment in the first place.
The big thing is that, after failing to build and/or manage a significant network of insultingly-compensated audio contributors, I hit the point where Telltale's growth was limited by how much I could do, how much I could record and edit myself, and how many contributors I could work with as essentially a one person operation. This was about the time that projects like Librivox and Escape Pod were starting up and rapidly, successfully assembling networks of volunteers to provide similar services in entirely free, donation-based models.
Their good work was helpful in a few ways. It showed me that I might be many things, but I'm not much of a leader. I decided there was a ceiling on how big I could grow, and I became okay with that. And it encouraged me to focus more on recordings that interested me--the texts which inspired me to start Telltale, like Bulfinch's Mythology--and less on trying to broaden the selection so much. I believed then and believe now that there's a place between podcasting's free audio of variable quality and "professional" recordings of Twain or Poe stories for which we're somehow expected to pay a dollar per minute because they are our only option.
So it's not something I'll ever be able to do full time, but even this past year--when I've been recovering from a mild traumatic brain injury and was severely limited by what I could do for the project--there's never been any doubt that Telltale would still make good on its promise, and there are over a hundred audiobooks which will be Creative Commons licensed in the next five years, thanks to just a few wonderful contributors.
The future? There'll be a higher ratio of free stuff, by the nature of the project. I might sneak and read some of my own published fiction once in a while. I'm working on an original comedy project, but I haven't decided for
sure whether that's going to be under the Telltale umbrella.
It's been fun. I was more of a physical actor when I started Telltale, but I think I've learned a trick or two. Always happy to surprise my contributors with larger than expected royalty statements (which somehow only works after you set the bar low enough...). A narration I did for Escape Pod resulted in a film option for the author, for which I should totally take credit but unfortunately it was a good story. Hey, I get to discover and study great literature and introduce them to new audiences. What could be a better hobby?
[Though it's tempting to edit and clarify what I wrote back in December, I'll leave it be and just add: Thanks, Charles!]