Long tail audiobooks – a thought experiment

Because I have a long commute, I listen to a lot of audio: public radio, podcasts and audiobooks. Because I work in academe, I have a massive pile of books and papers I need to read: books by friends, books for research projects, classics in the field that I should have read at this point in my life. Unfortunately, there is near zero overlap between the listening I do and the reading I need to do.

For example, right now I’m reading Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“. I’m listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and while it’s very enjoyable, it’s not really what I need to be reading right now. What I need is a business, a collective or a method that makes and distributes high quality recordings of books that are too obscure to become audiobooks through normal channels, but popular enough that they have a non-zero audience.

I’ve been thinking about this because I spent part of this month recording the audiobook for Rewire. I am very fortunate that Audible purchased audio rights to the book from my publisher, and even more fortunate that Audible was willing to let me record the book, which has given me some insight into the process and the costs involved.

Rewire will end up being about 11 hours of audio, and it took me roughly 19 hours of studio time to record it. Readers get paid (very modestly, in my case, as I’m a novice reader.) The audio engineer who patiently followed along, prompting me to re-record sentences I screwed up needs to get paid, as do the engineers at Audible who edit out my breaths and other auditory detritus. I’m going to guess that a setup involving a reader, an engineer and a post-processing engineer costs at minimum $300 per hour of finished audio – with a professional reader and more editing, this figure could be much, much higher. (If you work in this space and have a better cost estimate, please share it in the comments.)

If my estimate is right, I could – in theory – hire a team to record Hirschman’s slim volume for $2000 or so, for my exclusive personal use. But that’s not very cost effective: at that price, it’s a better deal for me to hire a driver for one of my commutes between Pittsfield and Cambridge and spend the time reading the book. But there’s surely dozens of others out there interested in reading Hirschman since Malcolm Gladwell lavished praise on him in a recent New Yorker piece. If I can find 99 others, we could – in theory – hear Hirschman for $20 each.

There’s a rub, of course – I don’t have the rights to Hirschman’s work. That might or might not matter if I hired someone to read it to me, but it would certainly matter if I started selling a reading of Hirschman’s book to others. I wonder if this might be a surmountable problem for “long tail” books, which are unlikely to be made into audio books otherwise. If we added a royalty payment for copies sold of the Hirschman audiobook, paid to a publisher, is it possible we could build a model that’s both feasible and legal for organizing adhoc recordings of books?

Here’s how I think it could work. I’d post my request for Hirschman’s book to our site, and ask others to join with me. We’d each commit at least $20 to ensure we got a copy of the recording, and we could commit more if we really, really wanted the book read. If we reached critical mass, say 110 readers, we’d use the money to pay a reader and engineer and provide a royalty to the publisher. If we fell short of the goal within a certain timeline, we’d invoke the punk rock/DIY option – those who had committed to the project would be asked if they wanted to record a chapter of the book and we’d submit and compile our chapters into a lower quality, but serviceable audiobook.

I’m not actually in a position to launch this project – remember, I’m the guy who doesn’t have time to read a 130 page book and needs it read to him. But I’d be very interested to hear if someone’s already doing a business like this, or whether anyone would be interested in starting a business like this. I’m less interested in hearing that I can just use text to speech on my computer and that should be completely satisfactory – it’s not, I’ve tried – or that I should find a way to access books recorded for the blind (IP issues in that industry are very complicated and having sighted people access those works could screw things up for blind readers.) I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in the publishing industry about whether there are presses that would find this a satisfactory solution, or whether any rightminded publisher would stop a project like this in its tracks. Oh, and if you’ve a better name than Long Tail Audiobooks, post that as well…

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8 Responses to Long tail audiobooks – a thought experiment

  1. Rich Weatherill says:

    I have started using Voice Dream on my iPhone to cover this. With ios7 the text to speech voices are pretty good. Plus you can listen at faster speeds (up to 700 wpm)

    It can take non-DRM epub & PDF plus integrates with pocket for web based articles.

  2. David Sasaki says:

    I agree with Rich — voice to text has improved remarkably. I use it on android to read through essays while I’m driving or not the metro.

  3. Jonathan Levine says:

    Umano (http://umanoapp.com/) does something like this for articles, not books. I don’t think they crowdsource suggestions but they invite narrators to apply to read a curated set of articles.

  4. Jenny says:

    I think this same thing all the time. I’ve wanted a kickstarter for audiobooks for years! Who will do it?

  5. Meg says:

    I don’t know of an audio-specific option, but the model you propose sounds vaguely similar to what unglue.it is doing with ebooks: https://unglue.it/faq/

  6. I’ll have to try the software that Rich & David suggest. Meanwhile, YES! I’d love this. Like you I have time in vehicles where “Long Tail Audiobooks” would be great.

    And, Oh gosh! It sounds like my sluggishness in picking up a copy of Rewire has just been rewarded! Can’t wait to “hear” your book! :D

  7. Ethan says:

    I bought and tried Voice Dream – I used it for about three hours, driving home from MIT this weekend. It’s certainly better than I remembered text to speech, but it’s still pretty hard to listen to for hours at a time. Listening to webpages I’d saved to read offline with Instapaper was pretty cool, but actually persuaded me that I might want a service that could do readings of articles, not just books…

    I like the unglue.it idea – basically, crowdfunding open source ebooks by paying the rightsholders for a license. Very cool and worth learning from.

  8. Scott Jacobi says:

    Hi Ethan, I work for http://www.ACX.com, the Audiobook Creation Exchange, which Audible created to get the very books you describe into audio. Authors have a few different options for having their books produced, including a royalty share model where the author pays nothing up front. If there’s a book you’ve been dying to hear in audio, let the author know about ACX, and you might be listening to it someday soon!

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