A few months back, I was approached by a group called Podium Publishing about the audiobook rights to my post-apocalyptic Breakers series. Recently, I’ve been getting several emails about the decision, so I thought I’d run down my experience with Podium in specific and my thinking in general.
I tend to get windy, so a quick summary: I’m very happy with both Podium and my decision to sign. Although it’s still very early in our contract and they’re a pretty new outfit, they seem legit. My initial sales seem pretty good, too.
But some of my reasons may not apply to everyone. There are some advantages to producing your own audiobooks, and other advantages in letting someone else handle them. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut right and wrong.
So. Time for lots and lots of words on the subject.
As for how things went down, I was initially emailed about the rights by Podium’s executive producer, James. A quick google turned up little about the company. Although they’d signed a handful of indie authors I recognized, including Andy Weir of The Martian fame, they looked small. Legit, inasmuch as they had indeed produced audiobooks present on retail sites, but I was unsure they’d be able to do much if anything for me that I couldn’t do for myself.
But I didn’t know that for sure. And audiobooks had been on my mind for a while—as one of those many things I needed to get done someday, but didn’t have time for just then.
So we set up a call. And James had quite a pitch. Not only did he mention “algorithms” before I did—a man after my own heart!—but it turned out he and his engineer had experience producing traditionally published audiobooks for the big houses. This, to me, was a big point in their favor. If I were to sign the audio rights away, I would want to do so with someone who could probably put out a better quality product than I’d be able to manage on my own. Otherwise, what’s the point?
We talked a good deal about indie publishing, the history of the digital audiobook industry, what Podium was, etc. Over the course of all this, I got the feeling James knew what he was talking about. So by this point, I wasn’t worried about them being a small startup, because it felt like they were capable of good work (and I’d already heard a few samples)—and that they might know how to sell it, too.
Which made things very interesting. Because I had two basic concerns I wanted met before I’d sign with an audiobook publisher:
a) Can they do better work than I can?
and obviously,
b) The specific terms of the agreement
If those were met, however, I was ready to sign. Which I think runs counter to the conventional indie wisdom that, barring an overwhelming offer, you should produce your audiobooks yourself. And ideally, pay a flat fee to a narrator. Then all those sweet royalties are yours forevermore.
This thinking makes sense for many of the authors presenting it. People who are, in other words, a big enough deal that we want to hear their advice on this stuff.
But I see two key differences between self-publishing your ebooks and self-publishing your audiobooks. First, the cost of audiobook production is generally much higher than the cost of ebook production. At the rates many professional narrators charge, an audiobook can easily cost $2000-3000 to produce. That’s significantly more than most ebooks, which I would generally peg in the $100-1000 range. And second, the audiobook market, while growing, is much smaller than the ebook market. Meaning it’s going to take you longer to recoup that investment.
Meanwhile, there’s an opportunity cost to waiting until you can pay for those production costs. There’s a point at which it’s better to start earning, say, 50% today than it is to wait until some undetermined point in the future to begin earning 100%. (Not to mention the audience growth you lose out on by waiting, too.)
That point differs for everyone and every book, and is ultimately unknowable. And should include the possibility that you might never get around to it by yourself.
Okay, enough blathering about the monetary cost. Because it also costs time to produce your own audiobooks. Ideally not much, certainly not as long as writing a book, but you’ve got to locate a narrator, set terms, deal with any problems that pop up along the way, proof the finished product, publish it, blah blah blah. I’ve watched several friends go through this process. For some, it seemed streamlined, and probably only required a few days total. For others, it sounded pretty hellacious. Sometimes the projects were aborted midway through.
With this in mind, I’d done some research and thinkin’ before speaking to James. I was looking at a backlist of three books in the series, a fourth going live in the near future, and writing two or three more within the following year. Each book could cost me a couple thousand bucks and an unknown amount of time to produce. At that point in my career, I had neither to spare. And when it came to time, I’d rather spend it writing a new book.
So by signing with a publisher and giving up a cut of the royalties, I would be free of nearly all logistical details—and of the risk of never earning back the production costs.
In other words, as a very savvy friend pointed out while I was mulling this over, I was using the exact same reasoning that writers use to convince themselves to sign with traditional publishing houses. But as I’ve laid out in what is surely tedious detail, I feel like the economics of ebooks and audiobooks are much, much different. To where it’s apples and oranges.
Anyway, back to the phone call. After a long, fun talk, James offered terms. I negotiated just a bit and was happy with the outcome. Generally, I love being as transparent as possible, but I don’t think I can get into hard details with this; Podium is my partner now, and it would be improper to compromise their ability to bargain with other authors. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what they offered someone else—I think what matters is whether you’re happy with what they’re offering you.
According to my email records, this all went down about three months ago, in late June. I exchanged a few emails with them in the meantime, but nothing heavy duty. With very little involvement on my part, the first Breakers book went live on September 5 on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.
Two weeks later, here is where it’s been hanging out on the iTunes Sci Fi & Fantasy charts:

#9 in SF&F! Whee! #133 in the whole store! Champagne party time!

…so, what does that mean in terms of sales? I have absolutely no idea. Nor what its ranking means on Audible. I do know that, if iTunes’ bestseller lists are straightforward, it’s currently outselling all but one of GRRM’s audiobooks, all the Ender novels, hot new stuff like The Bone Season, etc. Additionally, though it’s not ranked as highly on Audible, its reviews are favorable–4.3 on both story and the narrator’s performance. (And the fact there’s already 15 of them is a positive sign for its early sales totals, too.)

What’s unknowable, of course, is.. well, everything. Would Breakers have done this well if I’d produced it myself? I can’t know. Would its ratings, preliminary as they are, have been on par? Again, absolutely no idea. It does seem that most audiobooks get a lot of visibility purely as new releases, regardless of who published them, and I’ll be surprised if it holds its ranks for too much longer. And while Podium did some marketing for it, it didn’t look like anything overwhelming.

Still, it sure looks like a good start.

Are there tradeoffs? Absolutely. Obviously, I make less per sale. I don’t have direct control of anything. I won’t even know how many it’s selling for some time. Heck, for all I know, Podium is a hyper-elaborate ruse and I’ll never see a dime. That would make this whole post look pretty ridiculous!

All I know is that, right now, it’s doing well, I’m happy with the contract, and that this audiobook wouldn’t exist at all if I hadn’t made this decision.

Yet I know it’s not a decision that would make sense for every single author. That’s why I tried to break down my thinking. I hope it’s useful. Any comments or questions, fire away.

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