Today, we’re going to talk about Findaway Voices, an audiobook service that’s an alternative to Audible, which is causing headaches for indie authors after the Audiblegate controversy. We’ll also talk about something called social reading. And we’ll look back on the legacy of Jeff Bezos at Amazon.
These are among the topics discussed on Self-Publishing News with ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway and book editor Howard Lovy. Together, they will bring you the latest in indie publishing news.
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About the Hosts
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcripts: Findaway Voices and More
Howard Lovy: Hello, and welcome to Self-Publishing News. Today we’re going to talk about, Findaway Voices, an audiobook service that’s an alternative to Audible, which is causing headaches for indie authors.
We’ll also talk about something called social reading, and we’ll look back on the legacy of Jeff Bezos at Amazon. But first, let me introduce the guy who literally does all the heavy lifting on this show: powerlifter, poet, author, and ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway.
Dan Holloway: Hi Howard, good to see you again.
Howard Lovy: Before we get into the news, tell us what you’ve been up to this past month.
Dan Holloway: I’m back working on creativity again. So, I’m putting together various materials for courses on how to be creative, how to improve your memory, that sort of thing. Maybe I’ll even put in something about speed reading, just so people can read more of our books.
Howard Lovy: Wonderful. Well, the older I get, the more I could use help in the memory department.
Dan Holloway: So, what are you up to?
Howard Lovy: I don’t remember. No. Well, when I’m not hosting and producing ALLi podcasts, I’m a book editor and I specialize in memoir. So, I’ve been keeping busy editing a number of books on so many lives, and I’m enjoying it.
Everything from a powerful memoir, from a former heroin addict to the diary of an Iraq war veteran, to an immigrant from India who came to the US with nothing and built a business and political career. I’m editing spiritual journeys; all different people from all different kinds of walks of life and, in between trying to finish my own memoir.
So, between all that, it’s always a choice whether to work on somebody else’s work or my own, and so I take the easy way out and work on somebody else’s work, but I’ll get back to mine eventually.
Findaway Voices an Alternative to Audible
So, let’s turn back to the news. First up, we’ll talk about Findaway Voices and what they’re doing for indie authors in the wake of problems with Audible.
But first, can you give us a rundown on the Audiblegate controversy, and then tell us what Findaway Voices is doing?
Dan Holloway: Audible, or ACX, the platform through which most Indies upload their books to Audible has been causing problems because of its returns policy, and there are several issues around the returns policy.
The first is that it started off using unlimited returns as a way to capture readers. This was the ploy that was being used. If you upgraded from Audible to Audible Plus you would be allowed to return as many books as you want as far as you were through reading them, and this didn’t go down very well with authors, because if people return the books, you don’t get a royalty on that book.
This was combined with the fact that it was impossible through your dashboard to work out how many returns there had been. So, you couldn’t keep track of how much this was happening, and that was making it really hard for people to make decisions about what to do or to know how they were being affected.
And the upshot of that is that Susan May, who is an ALLi member started a campaign, which has really taken off. The Society of Authors has been involved, the Author’s Guild in America has been involved, and there has been some movement. That movement has been to allow a little more transparency on the dashboard, but nothing retrospective, and then the thing which leads us into Findaway Voices is that you now only have to make your books are exclusive for 90 days, I believe, on Audible.
So, people whose books have been available for that long, their rights were coming back, rather than having to make them exclusive for seven years, which was the old way of doing it.
Howard Lovy: So, tell us more about what Findaway Voices is and what they’re doing.
Dan Holloway: First of all, they’ve just become a partner of ALLi, so that’s very exciting. They’ve always been the big alternative to Audible as a place to upload your books to, to get them out to lots of different platforms. They’re the place that Indies use if you want to go wider than just Audible. What they have done, it’s rather opportunistic, a little bit cheeky, but anyone who used to be exclusive at Audible, if you sign up with Findaway Voices by March the first, then they’re offering a month of 10% royalty bonus.
So, they’re trying to get the disgruntled indies, whose rights have come back, to sign up with them by offering a little incentive to do so.
Howard Lovy: Now, Findaway Voices, do they have the same reach as Audible?
Dan Holloway: They have a wide reach and that’s the difference, they reach through lots of platforms.
So, it’s one of those choices to make as to whether you want to go. It’s the choice we make all the time with our eBooks, as to whether we want to go exclusive with Amazon or whether we want to pursue a wider, smaller individual platforms, but lots more of them.
What is Social Reading?
Howard Lovy: So, let’s change the subject a little bit to something else in the news that you mentioned to your column called social reading. Now, to me, reading is a solitary pleasure, but I know in the social media world, people like to share. So, tell us what social reading is and what the business models are out there to cater to it.
Dan Holloway: Well, social reading is basically just taking the book club online, is the long and the short of it.
Book clubs have been a big part of reading for a long time, people like to get together and they like to discuss. They all read the same book at the same time and discuss it. Obviously, book clubs, I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but in the UK, a lot of villages, for example, will have a book club that meets in the town hall every week, read a few chapters or even the whole book each week, and then you’ll get together and discuss it over coffee and drinks.
And that has become big business over the last couple of decades, through celebrity endorsed book clubs. So, things like Oprah, in the US, Richard and Judy in the UK, and those have become massive drivers of sales for people who could get their books onto the book club list.
And the book clubs that have been in the news of late, they take several forms. There’s most notably one called, Literati. They offer a subscription model, so that’s the business model. So, readers pay a subscription and then once a month you get a box full of books delivered to your door, you read those books along with everyone else who is a subscriber, and then you get access to a platform where you can discuss the book with them. So, it’s an online version of what people have been doing in their front rooms and in their town halls for a long time.
The companies providing them are now looking for a business model, rather than it just being celebrities doing it, or groups getting together and doing their own. There’s more of an opportunity for authors to get involved in the process.
Howard Lovy: Right. Now, you wrote in your column that it’s worth pointing out that the largest scale of social reading experience is the one you already know very well, the note facility on Kindle.
Dan Holloway: Yes. So, yes, you don’t have to do it through a formerly arranged book club. Obviously, you can make notes on the books you read on Kindle and share them publicly, and that’s, I’m not going to say it’s a really good way of doing social reading, but it’s the opportunity to give things a big reach.
It was interesting that research coming out of universities in the UK, a year or so ago, that, I think I’ve talked about that conference that it was presented at before, showed that this is the feature of Kindle that readers are most nervous about, which is quite interesting. They don’t want people knowing what they’re reading. They don’t want Amazon knowing what they’re reading. So again, it comes back to the worry about Amazon, if Amazon knows that you’re this percentage of a way through a book, or that you’re making this kind of comment on the book or highlighting it, that that seems to get people anxious.
Howard Lovy: Now, how is this different from what Goodreads has been doing for years?
Dan Holloway: It’s more curated. So, that’s the first thing. It’s books that are selected specifically, they’ve been chosen by someone to appeal to certain kind of reader, and obviously it’s fully monetized. You pay a subscription to be involved in it. So, it’s a proper business, but it’s also a business that is possible for us as writers to get involved in, by getting our books selected to be choices. So, the proliferation of social book clubs online means that there is more of an opportunity for us to sell lots of eBooks.
Howard Lovy: Right, I know indie authors are always looking for a way to promote their work.
Dan Holloway: Yes, we tend to be nervous about book clubs in general, there’s been quite a lot of bad press about physical book clubs and indie authors, because a lot of them that are limited to say 10 or 20 people, the ones who meet in the village halls, they tend to expect and also to provide free copies of the book.
Whereas these online book clubs, people will pay for them and this can be up to thousands of people at a time. So, if your book gets selected for an online book club then there is the potential to do really well in sales.
Howard Lovy: Okay. Well, that’s interesting. So, I have a feeling that those book clubs are more popular in the UK than they are in America, but I do see sometimes little bookstores and library clubs and things like that. But with lockdown right now, all that has to go online, none of our libraries are open, our coffee shops aren’t open, and this is the way people are discussing books now.
Dan Holloway: Yes, and obviously book tubing is something that we don’t really talk about much at ALLi but is something that’s massive. The social media influencers on YouTube, who, all they do is read and review books, it’s part of that same ecosystem, and they have reaches in the tens and hundreds of thousands. So, if your book is popular with a booktuber then that’s the opportunity to go really massive. So, there is clearly a market for people to read books together.
Obviously, it suits some genres better than others. With BookTubers, young adult tends to proliferate because of the demographic of the people who are YouTube native.
Howard Lovy: Right, like my 15-year-old and 16-year-old sons, I can’t get them to the living room to watch TV with us anymore. What’s becoming of the children? They’re just in their rooms watching YouTube and reading books.
Hopefully. Well, thank you, Dan, for your insight into this month’s news. Stay safe and we’ll talk again in March.
Dan Holloway: Talk soon. Thank you.
The Legacy of Jeff Bezos
I’d like to talk about something tech-related, and it would be impossible for me not to use that opportunity this month to say something about the biggest tech story of all in our area. The news that Jeff Bezos is stepping down as CEO of Amazon to become executive chair, serendipitously, something I have ordered for myself from Amazon just this week.
This comes just as Jeff Bezos has been dethroned as the world’s richest human by Elon Musk. Rather fittingly, he’ll be devoting more of his time to Blue Origin and space exploration, just like Musk. And I’m going to get through the whole of this item and this will be the only mention of Silicon Valley boys and their rocket measuring.
What I did want to do was give something of a retrospective of how Bezos and Amazon has changed my life because, let’s face it, as indie writers, he’s changed all our lives. I started self-publishing in 2008. By that stage, Amazon was already well into puberty and I’d already devoured everything that had been written about the first .com boom, more than a decade earlier, which had launched Amazon on its way.
At that point, what we really associated with Amazon was what Chris Anderson, founder of Ted, called in his book of the same name, The Long Tail. For the first half a decade of my self-publishing life, Chris Anderson was the dominant guru, towering over other, kind of forgotten in the mainstream, figures of the first and second web waves like Tim O’Reilly and Clay Shirkey. The Long Tail was something you couldn’t avoid if you were one of the early self-publishers, and as the first Kindle launched, it was the guiding light for many of us, we saw in it the promise that you didn’t have to sell a ton of books on launch day, because what Amazon gave you was a place on the shelf of the world’s biggest bookstore forever.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. We might have a shelf, but without giving readers a torch through marketing, we would remain unseen, there in our own special corner of the basement. In those early years, there were some neat ways we found to do that, through Kindle forums, which were eventually closed to us, and imaginative titling and metadata. Again, possibilities that became closed off soon enough.
But the biggest early way we found to reach and grow readers was the same as the one that all those companies in the first .com boom had used. And it was the title of Chris Anderson’s other best-selling book, Free. In the very early days, if you could persuade Amazon to make your book free, you even got royalties on that, even when the customer wasn’t paying anything.
What we didn’t realize was Amazon, in essence, was using our free books as a scaling tool. That didn’t last, but free downloads, and the many sites you could advertise them on for free were still very effective, and their effects carried over into our sales once our books were no longer free. Until they stopped doing that and downloads fell off the cliff once you have to pay for them, and to get people to see your free books, you had to start paying to advertise them.
What we were learning in those days was that we had misunderstood what the long tail was. It wasn’t a principle that benefited creators, particularly. It was a principle that benefited platforms, and that’s something that has become clearer and clearer.
Now, if you look at the dominant players, whether it’s Spotify or YouTube or Apple, or even Facebook and Google, you see the same thing. Tiny amounts of downloads for tiny amounts of money, give creators tiny returns, but put enough of them on the same platform and the owners of that platform get very rich. But we still have the freemium model to fall back on, that went out of fashion for a long time.
Chris Anderson has never really come back into fashion among writers. But if you think about it, freemium sort of has, the idea that to get people to pay, you first give them something for free, got tainted, I think, by its association in the creator’s mind as piracy, and indeed there was a time when anyone who made their books free on Kindle earned the ire of their indie peers for devaluing everyone’s work.
But think what has become almost accepted wisdom now. These are the first book in a series, or a great standalone, or a brilliant report to get someone to sign up to a mailing list from which they will buy your books. These days, we talk about segmentation and funnels, but it’s still freemium. It’s just, we found a way to get something in return for the thing that we have given in free monetary terms.
And that something is contact details, the start of a relationship and, interestingly, to bring us back into the present, it’s that evolution of freemium that forms the next step in our relationship with Amazon. A step that forms part of what, at ALLi, we call self-publishing 3.0.
A step in which we talk to and sell to our readers directly, sometimes from a platform of one. In a way, that brings us back to the very first creative guru of all on the web, Kevin Kelly, and his idea of a thousand true fans. There’s so much more I could say, but I’ll leave it there for me with a thanks for the ride to Jeff. And I’ll turn to his own words, by reading a couple of things from his goodbye letter. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be tech without a letter from the dominant CEO.
And Bezos’s goodbye is full of nineties Bezos and Steve Jobs at his Zenith. Invention, says Bezos, is the root of our success. We’ve done crazy things together and then made them normal. We pioneered customer reviews, one-click personalized recommendations, primes insanely fast shipping, just walk out shopping, the climate pledge, Kindle, Alexa, marketplace, infrastructure, cloud computing, career choice, and much more.
If you get it right, a few years after a surprising invention, the new thing has become normal. People yawn, and that yawn is the greatest compliment an inventor can receive.
The paragraph that really stands out for me is this one: “I find my work meaningful and fun. I get to work with the smartest, most talented, most ingenious teammates. When times have been good, you’ve been humble. When times have been tough, you’ve been strong and supportive, and we’ve made each other laugh. It’s a joy to work on this team.”
That’s a paragraph that feels like it sums up my relationship with ALLi. From the day we launched it onto the world at London Book Fair in 2012. But unlike Bezos, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be back with you again next month.