Brandon Sanderson dings Audible for “unconscionable” indie author pay rates

It’s been a pretty big year for Brandon Sanderson, the bestselling author of the Cosmere novel universe as well as a slew of other fantasy and science fiction books. Sanderson made headlines earlier in the year when he revealed that he’d written five extra books in secret during the pandemic, and launched what would go on to become the most successful Kickstarter campaign in the platform’s history to publish four of those so-called Secret Projects through his own company, Dragonsteel Books. He also published the final novel of mistborn It was Two, The Lost Metaland has been hard at work on the highly-anticipated fifth book of The Stormlight Archive.

In short, robots designed for optimum productivity have nightmares about this guy. He’s always churning out something.

Sanderson hit on a lot of this year’s highlights during his yearly State of the Sanderson blog post, focusing on the Kickstarter and the Secret Project book releases. While those who backed the Kickstarter will receive the books straight from Dragonsteel, Sanderson will publish them for the masses at a later date.

But one place you won’t see any of Sanderson’s Secret Projects for now is Audible, the audiobook giant run by Amazon due to their “unconscionable” pay rates, which he calls out as “shameful behavior” that is “squeezing indie authors to death .”

Brandon Sanderson calls out Audible: “It’s a good company doing bad things”

Just as Amazon cornered the ebook market with its Kindle devices long before any competitors caught on to the coming digital book revolution, they’ve staked a huge claim on audiobooks with Audible. Audiobooks are the fastest growing form of book consumption: in 2021 alone, fiction audiobooks accounted for around 65% of book sales. But that’s just general fiction; in some genres, it’s projected that audiobooks sold through Audible account for much more than that. Sanderson himself revealed that 75% of all preorders for his latest book by him, The Lost Metalwere in audiobook format, through Audible.

Yet he’s decided that his four Secret Project novels slated for release in 2023 will not be on the platform “for the foreseeable future.” Sanderson states this will likely cost him “a ton of sales” since “hundreds of thousands” of his readers use Audible, but as with the buzz generated by his Kickstarter, taking this stand is something the author hopes will give the industry a push in a more equitable direction.

“This is a dangerous move on my part. I don’t want to make an enemy of Amazon (who owns Audible). I like the people at Audible, and had several meetings with them this year, ”Sanderson wrote in his update from him. “But Audible has grown to a place where it’s very bad for authors. It’s a good company doing bad things.”

Sanderson was quick to add that this is not a personal vendetta against the company; he and his family use Audible, and he has a great relationship with many people there. “Audible did some great things for books, notably spearheading the audio revolution, which brought audiobooks down to a reasonable price. I like that part a lot.”

However, they treat authors very poorly. Particularly indie authors. The deal Audible demands of them is unconscionable, and I’m hoping that providing market forces (and talking about the issue with a megaphone) will encourage change in a positive direction.

Audible pays authors less than brick-and-mortar bookstores

Audible’s current terms for audiobook royalty payments are pretty dismal for authors, something that shocked Sanderson enough to take this route even knowing that he stands to lose business because of it.

“If you want details, the current industry standard for a digital product is to pay the creator 70% on a sale. It’s what Steam pays your average creator for a game sale, it’s what Amazon pays on ebooks, it’s what Apple pays for apps downloaded. (And they’re getting heat for taking as much as they are. Rightly so.)” Sanderson explained. “Audible pays 40%. Almost half. For a frame of reference, most brick-and-mortar stores take around 50% on a retail product. Audible pays indie authors less than a bookstore does, when a bookstore has storefronts, sales staff, and warehousing to deal with.”

I knew things were bad, which is why I wanted to explore other options with the Kickstarter. But I didn’t know HOW bad. Indeed, if indie authors don’t agree to be exclusive to Audible, they get dropped from 40% to a measly 25%. Buying an audiobook through Audible instead of from another site literally costs the author money.

“There are no true competitors to Audible,” Sanderson added. “Sure, there are other companies that can buy your book—but they all just list on Audible, and then take a percentage on top of what Audible is taking. Manzana? Their books come in large part from Audible. Recorded Books? They are an awesome company, who I love, but their biggest market is Audible. Macmillian, my publisher? They just turned around and put the books on Audible.”

I had a huge problem finding anyone who, if I sold the Secret Projects to them, wouldn’t just put them on Audible—and while I can’t tell you details, all of their deals are around the same low rates that Audible is paying indie authors. Audible runs this town, and they set the rates. For everyone. Everywhere. (I had one seller who really wanted to work with me, who will remain unnamed, who is consistently only able to pay authors 10% on a sale. For a digital product. It’s WILD.)

Where can you get Sanderson’s Secret Project books if you didn’t back the Kickstarter?

So if Sanderson’s Secret Project audiobooks won’t be available on Audible, where will they be? They will be on both Spotify and Speechify. According to Sanderson, these companies — both of which are expanding into audiobooks — were the only ones “willing to take on Audible.”

He goes on to say that he can’t discuss his deal with Spotify because of an NDA, but could talk a bit about Speechify. “Let me tell you, [Speechify] came to me and said—full of enthusiasm for the project—they’d give me [a 100% royalty rate]. I almost took it, but then I asked the owner (who is a great guy) if this was a deal he could give other authors, or if it was a deal only Brandon Sanderson could get. He considered that, then said he’d be willing to do industry standard—70%—for any author who lists their books directly on Speechify a la carte. So I told him I wanted that deal, if he agreed to let me make the terms of our deal public.”

I’ve made enough on this Kickstarter. I don’t need to squeeze people for every penny—but what I do want to do is find a way to provide options for authors. I think that by agreeing to these two deals, I’m doing that. We have the open offer from Speechify, and we have Spotify trying very hard to break Audible’s near-monopoly. I hope this will rejuvenate the industry. Because I do like Audible. I worry that they’ll stagnate, strangle their creators, and end up burning away because of it. Real competition is good for everyone, including the companies themselves. Lack of it leads to a slow corporate death.

For those who didn’t back Sanderon’s Kickstarter, the four Secret Projects will be available in audiobook and ebook formats on the “10th or 11th” of January, April, July, and October. Print copies will be released three months after the digital versions go live.

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