The Problem with Exclusives
I love audiobooks. I listen to two or three a week! I love the variety of books that are produced, and the variety of performances available.
But here's something I don't love: the concept of Audible Exclusives.
For those who aren't familiar with the debate around Exclusives, here's a quick rundown. Audible, the division of Amazon that produces and distributes downloadable audiobooks, offers Audible Exclusives, which are audiobooks that can only be accessed by Audible subscribers. On the face of it, that doesn't seem like such a big problem. After all, you wouldn't expect the latest Hulu show to be available on Netflix, would you?
But here's where it gets tricky. If the owner of a book's rights sells them to Audible as an Exclusive, that means that legally no other digital audiobook version can be produced, and the Exclusive edition cannot be distributed by anyone other than Audible, and, at their sole discretion, Amazon more generally, and iTunes. Sometimes, that exclusivity is only valid for a limited period of time, and after that the audiobook can be sold elsewhere, or at the very least, re-recorded and a new edition released. But sometimes, those rights belong to Audible indefinitely. That means that until policies change, the rights change hands, or the book falls out of copyright, no bookstore will ever be able to offer that audiobook, and, what's worse (in my opinion), no library will ever be able to lend it.
This is my biggest objection to the Audible Exclusives model: the lack of access for libraries. These days, libraries have lots of great platforms at their disposal for securely lending digital audiobooks and making sure the publisher and author are appropriately compensated, but they still cannot lend Audible Exclusives. The only exception is if a CD version is released, at which point some libraries may be able to add it to their collection and make it available for lending. It's certainly better than nothing, but only a tiny fraction of Exclusives are issued as CDs. Physical audiobooks (CDs) account for less than half a percent of all books distributed (including print titles). By contrast, downloadable audio represents about six percent of that market. While it's still not a huge slice of the book pie, downloadable audio has a clear lead over its disc-borne counterpart, and the gap between them has been steadily widening. There simply isn't the general demand for audiobooks on CD, so companies, including Audible, aren't producing very many of them.
That means Audible Exclusives remain out of reach for anyone who depends on their library for access. There are lots of reasons why someone might need or prefer an audio edition, and lots of reasons why their library might be the best, or only, way for them to access those books. While paying a premium for early access, or for a special edition, or even convenience makes perfect sense to me, I find the idea of paying a premium to be able to have any access whatsoever troubling.
This is also one significant way in which Audible Exclusives differ from streaming services or other exclusive content channels. Most of that content, especially if it's popular, is made available as a physical DVD which libraries can lend, and which can be purchased online or even rented in physical form, where that option is available. The company that originally created the content is, of course, compensated for those sales, rentals, and lending (yes, libraries have to pay, too!), but there are ways other than subscribing to the service to access the content.
Now, I get that this might sound like sour grapes because Brilliant Books, as an indie bookstore, can't offer some audiobooks through our partners at Libro.fm. I do get that there's a completely logical reasoning behind the arrangement Audible has created. Essentially, what they have done is cut out the middle man. By creating and distributing their own product, they don't have to split their profit as many ways. On the surface, it's a savvy business model. More profit means they're able to offer higher royalties to publishers and authors, which entices more and bigger titles to be sold as Audible Exclusives. It's something many businesses would aspire to.
But the difference here is that Audible is so massive that the "middle man" they're cutting out is the rest of the book industry. Audible Exclusives easily monopolize high profile titles. For example, this year's Audie Awards, which are among the top honors for audiobook production and narration, featured dozens of Audible Exclusives among both finalists and winners, including the Audiobook of the Year. This behavior is one of the reasons the American Booksellers Association released a white paper detailing Amazon's violations of anti-trust laws.
While royalty percentages might be less for non-exclusive contracts, that also means more places can (and will!) sell the books, and when Audible is the production company, they will always get a slice of the sale. We want to pay them for the right to sell these books to our customers, too. Libraries want to pay for the right to lend them to their patrons. If Audible wants to create extravagant productions that are exclusive to their subscribers, and release a bare-bones version that is made available to everyone else, that's fine with me. We'd still be happy to pay. But the model as it is means that no one has a choice, and that, I think, is unacceptable.
So for everyone looking for your next great audiobook that's not an Audible Exclusive, here are some of my favorites. All of them are available from our partners at Libro.fm. Have a listen!