Listening, closely... | Alice Lutyens

05 January 2018 Listening,

Print publishers’ assumption that audio rights should be bundled with print is not directly beneficial to authors, argues Alice Lutyens, literary agent and audio manager at Curtis Brown.

I want to consider the essence of agenting. It is expertise, integrity, collaboration and being privileged enough to work with authors and publishers to bring wonderful books into the world. It is about protecting and managing authors’ rights to the very best of our ability.

I have been responsible for Curtis Brown’s audio rights for more than 10 years, so I have seen the format grow: from something we might borrow from a library, to something widely demanded and purchased by mainstream readers. Ten or so years ago, Curtis Brown struck perhaps 15 audio deals a year, maximum, and all with independent audio publishers. In 2014, we easily did 200 separate audio deals. Since then, we have noticed a significant drop in separate/independent audio deals.

This is not because the market is shrinking or offering fewer options. Far from it. It is because book publishers now believe that audio rights are "part of the package". I do not altogether agree. Audio rights and ebook rights are not the same. Reading an ebook follows the same principle as reading a print book. Listening to an audiobook does not. I would say it is closer to listening to music than it is to reading a book: the words are being brought to us via a different medium, plus they have different distribution channels. Audiobooks are an alternative creative way of accessing words. They utilise different skills and are created for an audience not limited to the reading public. So why are we in a position where we are pressured to lump together two distinct sets of rights into one package?

We are watching the audiobook market change and expand beyond recognition. We must all be on our toes to keep up with this shape-shifter, which is moving more rapidly than any other sector of the book industry. This is a crucial time for us to turn our attention to the rights of authors, and to ensure, as agents, that we are doing the very best by them.

We need an equal opportunities marketplace. Authors need to choose where their audio rights land. After all, they make a choice about the print publisher they go with. Why would the same not apply to their audiobook rights? It should not be a case of, "We won’t buy your print rights without your audio rights". This takes away authors’ autonomy over rights which belong to them. It is removing a sense of collaboration and agreement. If authors’ rights aren’t respected, they are unable to invest the time to create and, without creation, none of us have books to sell. It is also, crucially, taking away income that authors have previously depended on—that is, an advance and better, separate royalties.

Publishers have a theory that if audio rights are licensed elsewhere, the audio publisher is benefiting from the publisher’s money, hard work and dedication, and that they get nothing in return. In my experience, the audio publisher is keen to work with the print publisher to benefit both parties, as well as the author. This is all the more relevant these days with podcasts, sound clips, YouTube, and so on. Think about the symbiotic relationship between the oxpecker and the hippopotamus: it is not only the bird benefiting from the largesse of the hippo. This leads me to the important point of cross-promotion. I often feel there can be a chasm in communication between publishers’ print and audio departments. I have often attended marketing meetings that are wonderful in every way, except for an absence of clever ideas as to how the audio recording can be used to bring the book (audio or print) to public attention.

Some of the best cross-promotion has come when I put the audio and book publishers in touch. Authors Kate Hamer and Fiona Neill both made wonderful videos, working closely with both publishers: in the case of The Doll Funeral the trailer was an integral part of Faber’s campaign for the book. Often, authors have more involvement with the audiobook (in terms of the narration and production) when the audio rights are bought by an independent publisher.

I have a very good working relationship with both print and audio publishers. I have a huge amount of respect for everybody who works in the audio field; we are bound together by our passion for the medium. While I think indie audio publishers have a certain amount of specialist expertise (particularly when it comes to distribution and marketing) that book publishers do not yet have for audio, I think publishers can do a wonderful job with their own productions.

However, the fact remains that at present authors do not always see the same benefit from their audio rights going to the print publisher. In such cases they often receive no additional advance and no separate accounting. When an agent sells audio rights directly to a specialist audio publisher, authors accrue royalties faster. This is because the royalty rate itself is generally higher. It is also because the author receives a direct percentage of, for example, the library sales, rather than a percentage of the percentage that the print publisher receives from the library distributor. At best, authors receive from a book publisher half the royalty per library sale that they would receive from an audio publisher. In 2017, the number of listeners through the library channel increased by 111%, and it is not unusual for the library portion of royalty income from audio to be near 60% of the total. But there is still an uneasy feeling of publishers failing to exploit audio channels fully, and the library market continues to be severely underestimated.

It is not only physical audiobook and library royalties that are advantageous, the same can be true for digital. For example, authors receive royalties from net receipts directly from Audible, i.e. a percentage of what the audiobook is sold for. From book publishers, they receive a percentage of what the publisher receives from Audible. Again, we have a fraction of a fraction situation. If a publisher tells me it has wonderful plans for the audio, which will be simultaneously published; separately accounted (with market- rate advance and royalties); published in physical format, library format and download; and actively used to cross-promote the print book, then this probably is the best option for my author. I would advise them to take it. I would be thrilled to see such passion from the print publisher.

But authors have the right to assess all of their options. It is an agent’s duty to consider where and how their rights would fare best, and therefore it needs to be a competitive marketplace, one in which several publishers bid and pitch for the audio rights.

We cannot predict what will happen in this exploding market, and that is all the more reason to make sure we negotiate a limited term of licence and a separate contract (with its own advance and royalties) so authors have an element of control over what happens to their precious rights. It is also our duty to ensure that there is a solid reversion clause in the contract, one which takes place ideally before print publication in case audio plans are not in place in a timely manner. It is important to question the publisher about its library plans. Will it produce itself, or in partnership, or will it sublicense? We should not allow any element of audio rights to be out of our control: if a publisher plans to simply sublicense, why should it have the rights? One day, income from an audio edition may exceed that of a print edition of the same title, we simply don’t know. So we cannot rush into throwing these rights into the print bundle for the term of copyright.

Authors deserve a choice. They must not be pressured into relinquishing rights that are growing in value every year. Agents are the caretakers for our authors and their rights, and cannot give in on the position that authors need to be presented with options for where their audio rights should go. They need to be allowed to choose the publisher that offers them passion, thought, insight and a fair marketplace advance and royalties.

This article first published in The Bookseller.