The streaming wars comes for the bookshelf
Audiobooks on demand
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I’ve been realizing that this newsletter is a bit scattershot when it comes to topic, and I like the ability to bundle together a random assortment of ideas. This week, I’ve got some thoughts about the technology side of reading: some recent news about audiobooks from two big companies: Audible and Spotify. Plus, a quick look at Christopher Brown’s latest novel Failed State and a belated addition to the August book list.
Let’s dig in.
A bit of an advance note on what’s coming up:
September’s SF/F book roundup, which seems like it’ll be sitting here for the foreseeable future. Look for that September 1st.
Next week: a look at Bookshop.org, now that it’s been up and running for a short while.
A trio of reviews for three horror books I’ve read (or am currently reading) — Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Only Good Indian by Seth Graham Jones, and Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay.
For paid subscribers, I’ve got a handful of posts coming up to look forward to:
The Technological Landscape, a piece that I’m styling after Chris Brown’s excellent newsletter Field Notes, about a hike through some of Barre’s recent past and how history and landscape are important for storytelling.
Cover Art: An overview of how and why I photograph books for the various features that I write, or simply for places like Facebook and Twitter.
Edge of the World. This hasn’t been written just yet, but it’ll be about two things: exploring the coast of Maine on a recent trip out to visit my sister, and some musings about the relationship between humanity and monsters.
Your support helps make these posts happen, and every little bit helps. As freelance work has dropped off around the web, your support helps me keep doing this type of writing. I have a couple of other posts in the pipeline as well about writing, military war games, fan communities and drama, and more. I also have an exciting fiction project in the works with some excellent names attached to it so far.
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The Streaming Wars comes for Audio
For years now, the entertainment industry has been grappling with some major changes in how people watch things. Box office revenue has paradoxically been going up and down — up, because the industry has been growing around the world, and down because more people are staying home to watch things that they’d previously go to a theater to watch. Companies like Netflix and Disney + have ignited the so-called “streaming wars” to lock in as many subscriber eyeballs and dollars as they can with their own original content.
For consumers, that’s largely been a good thing: the television that we’re getting is probably the best that it’s ever been, in terms of production value, story, and casting. That applies to film as well, as Netflix and its counterparts begin looking into releasing original films on their platforms, although I think there’s still largely some room for improvement.
Internet streaming provides viewers, listeners, and readers with as much #content as they can take in, and it doesn’t apply to just film and television: music streaming and podcasts are huge markets and are growing.
And now, it looks as though that’s going to be the case with audiobooks. Audiobooks have been a huge and growing segment of the publishing industry in the last couple of years: the Audio Publishers’ Association said in 2019 that more people are listening to more audiobooks.
Companies like Audible and Libro.fm are really helping to drive that upward trend: simplified subscription models allow people to regularly plunk down a monthly fee and get to pick a book or two — no small thing, considering that audiobooks tend to be more expensive than their print counterparts. And, digital audiobooks are far less clunky than the traditional CDs and cassette tapes.
Earlier this week, Audible rolled out an all-you-can-listen-to service called Audible Plus, which allows a subscriber to listen to a huge pool of audiobooks and originals, while existing members can not only buy an audiobook of their own, but also listen from that bigger pool.
And Audible doesn’t seem to be alone here: as I mentioned in my last newsletter, Spotify is looking for a head of audiobooks (although the actual listing has since been taken down), which hints that the music streaming service — which has made a huge foray into podcasts in recent months — is looking to get part of that other big listening market.
The two things are pretty interesting, when taken together: Audible has a huge catalog of original content already that’s available to subscribers, and now they’ll get to listen to a lot more of it. Books are a huge investment of time for readers, and I see this as a good thing: have a book that you want to check out, but don’t want to go through the hassle of buying a book, only to discover that you really don’t like the narrator? Audible has a good return policy (one that I’ve used quite a bit when this happens), but it’s still a bit of a pain. An unlimited (well, limited to a pool of 11,000 titles) plan means that you’ll be able to sample a lot more. Buying a title is a heavy choice: you’ll have the book for as long as Audible honors that particular promise that you’ll always have the book that you bought.
Spotify getting in on the game means that its customers could have more reason to jump over to its platform, or to remain with it: they’ll not only get audiobooks, but music and podcasts.
The Netflix-style à la carte model isn’t a tried-and-true thing, however. Reading platform Scribd has offered up an all-you-can-consume model, with an unlimited plan that includes audiobooks. But it took a bit for them to figure it out: they had to go back and forth on it, although they seem to have figured it out for now.
All of this reinforces the importance that audiobooks hold in the modern publishing industry: authors can make a substantial amount on the audio rights (should they retain them to sell on their own), and there’s a growing market for listeners to pick up said books that doesn’t necessarily match up with the print reading market. Audible has already been picking up books for authors to write, and I imagine that if Spotify goes through with it, they’ll also be an outlet for original audiobooks or some variation thereof.
Ultimately, I think this is a decent thing for readers. I haven’t been enormously blown away by a ton of original audio projects from the likes of Audible or Serial Box, but they’re generally pretty solid products, and the medium allows for writers to do some interesting things, form-wise. I think it’s early days, but that we’ll eventually get our Game of Thrones / Stranger Things / Handmaid’s Tale-type stories that will really blow up the market.
But, exclusivity has a price. You can’t easily watch Stranger Things if you aren’t willing to sign up for Netflix. The same is the case here: you can’t listen to John Scalzi’s The Dispatcher if you aren’t willing to buy from Audible. Case in point:
I don’t subscribe to Spotify or Apple Music, and if I want to listen to the latest season of Leon Neyfakh’s Fiasco podcast, I’ll need to pony up some money for a month of Luminary. That to me seems a bit antithetical to the larger book world. But, it’s the world we live in, so for now, I’ll be here, seeing what on my wish list Audible has made available to listen to without burning up one of my monthly credits.
August Books: Addendum
There’s a book that I meant to include on my August Book list that I realize I forgot to include: Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds, in which people can travel between parallel realities — but they can’t visit a world where an alternate version of themselves is living. The novel follows Cara, who’s discovered that her alternate selves aren’t great at staying alive, and is able to jump all over the place. The perfect candidate for multiverse travel, she finds herself in a powerful position, and chafes under her handlers, who seek to use her powers, all while there’s some greater conspiracy unfolding around her and her identity.
Kirkus Reviews notes that “Johnson employs Cara’s situation to forthrightly examine questions of privilege, trauma, assimilation, colonialism, and upbringing.”
I mentioned in the last newsletter that I’ve been struggling to read this last month. I finally broke that spell with Christopher Brown’s latest, Failed State, the quasi-sequel to his books Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture. Set a couple of years after those two reads, it picks up the story of Donny Kimoe, a lawyer who we first met in Rule of Capture.
He’s made a living defending people from a brutal regime in the midst of a new American Civil War, and now that that conflict is over, he finds himself on the outs with the revolutionaries after taking part in the defense of the country’s former president. While he tries to bring a case against a brutal company, he’s pulled into another case: working to extract an heiress from the revolutionaries who’ve set up shop to create a utopian experiment in the ruins of New Orleans, and has to try and figure out how to work their newfangled legal system.
I liked Rule of Capture quite a bit, and particularly like Brown’s take on the future. That book looked at the war as it was looming, and some of the excesses of a brutal regime. Here, we’re still dealing with some of the fallout and inequalities, but we’re also looking at how people are working to make it better. The revolutionaries are working to develop a better way to live, providing rights to trees and animals on par with humans, but like most extreme groups, there are problems that Donny has to deal with in order to support the people he’s representing.
What we get is a look at two systems clashing: the older version (what we’re now living through) of society, and a radical new one that’s just taking off. The book doesn’t always work for me: it feels like it gets a bit muddled and meanders a bit in the middle, but he eventually brings Donny’s two cases together to dovetail neatly at the end, wrapping everything up in a fairly neat bow. It’s a smart, interesting thriller, and I’ll be interested in seeing what he comes up with next.
Books up next? I’ve got an advance copy of Timothy Zahn’s new Star Wars novel, Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, and I’m really enjoying Jo Marchant’s The Human Cosmos: Civilization and The Stars.
Chinese SF. The Wall Street Journal has a nice profile of Liu Cixin, the author of The Three-Body Problem, and how his view of science fiction transcends nationalism, but belies defining the Chinese mindset.
Library Heist. Travis McDade has a really cool long read in Smithsonian Magazine about a 25-year heist from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare books room. It was an inside job, one discovered only years later during an audit.
Romance Reckoning. Mimi Swartz has an in-depth look in Texas Monthly at the life and career of romance author Vivian Stephens and the turmoil within the industry in the last year.
As always I appreciate the time that you’ve taken to read this. Let me know in the comments what you think, what you’re reading now, and what you’re looking forward to.
It's also worth mentioning that audiobooks are free at your local public library. Backbone of democracy, libraries. But the publishing corporations view them as competitors, demanding more from libraries financially and undercutting them politically at the civil & state levels. If this is a streaming war, we should note the attacks on civilians.