International Authors’ Groups Not Satisfied in #Audiblegate Dispute

In News by Porter Anderson

Under the pressure of transatlantic coordination among writers’ associations and unions, Audible offers a concession. And the authors say it’s not enough.

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By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Society of Authors: A ‘Wrongful Practice’
In a show of strength, the United States’ Authors Guild and writers’ organizations in at least four other countries have caused Audible to blink in the ongoing controversy called #Audiblegate by writers. And word from the authors’ side is that the change isn’t adequate.

Briefly the issue:

  • Audible has allowed a subscriber to return or exchange an audiobook within 365 days–and has deducted an author’s royalties from her or his account when that happened if the audiobook was distributed through “ACX,” the Amazon-owned company’s Audiobook Creation Exchange.
  • Not surprisingly, the writers have risen up to say that this is a policy hostile to the authors on which Audible and its ACX program depend for its products, and that the policy must go.
  • The authors also demand “that Audible show the total number of unit purchases and returns on author dashboards, not just the ‘net sales’ already adjusted for any returns.'” That practice of not itemizing these deductions of royalties has caused many authors not to know this was occurring until recently.
  • The authors claim that they have now been able to detect and document between 15 and 50 percent of their anticipated ACX revenue removed this way. They want a full accounting of returns handled in this way since the policy was implemented.
  • Audible has responded today (November 25) by reducing the 365-day period to seven days.
  • The authors aren’t having it.

The gravity and magnitude of this complaint from the writers’ corps was captured in the Authors’ Guild’s letter from executive director Mary Rasenberger, posted on Friday (November 20) and objecting to Audible’s practice of deducting earned royalties from authors’ accounts when subscribers returned or exchanged audiobooks.

The complaint was addressed to Audible CEO Bob Carrigan and Audible general counsel Stas Zakharenko and, functioning as a petition, is said to have collected thousands of signatures. The Guild alone represents more than 10,000 members.

As Rasenberger wrote on Friday:

Mary Rasenberger

“Audible is promoting this easy exchange policy as a benefit to increase its subscriber base, allowing listeners to purchase and listen to entire audiobooks and then return them for a refund or exchange them for a new book—all at the detriment of authors’ earnings.

“This is not an exchange policy, but an unauthorized audiobook rental arrangement supported by authors’ reversed royalties, and it must stop.

“We ask that Audible immediately end this bald attempt to expand its Premium Plus program and other variations of subscription membership at the expense of authors’ incomes. If Audible wishes to continue to permit the returns and exchanges of audiobooks after more than a reasonable time, say 48 hours, then Audible must do so at its own expense and pay authors the royalties due for the sales.”

Author Solidarity: International in Scope

The Guild’s objection has been joined by some of the most prominent authors associations and programs in the major English-language markets, a multinational full court press mounted by writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • The Dramatists’ Guild
  • Novelists Inc.
  • The UK-based international Alliance of Independent Authors
  • The Writers’ Union of Canada
  • The Irish Writers Union
  • The Australian Society of Authors
  • The Society of Authors in the United Kingdom
  • The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America;
  • The Romance Writers of America
  • Sisters in Crime
  • The Mystery Writers of America
  • Equity UK
Audible:  Seven Days Instead of 365

The Audible response from “the ACX Team” has come in the form of a statement emailed to authors and posted to forums.

It reads, in part, “Launched in 2011, the Audiobook Creation Exchange has paved the way for exponential growth in audiobook production and consumption, today supplying [more than] 200 audiobooks in store per day to Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. The ACX online rights marketplace and production engine is available to all authors, publishers, literary agents, narrators and studio pros in the US, UK, Canada, and Ireland.

“ connects and educates independent authors and rising actors—many of whom are among 20,000 professional actors who have worked with Audible in the past five years—in the art of audiobook performance and creation, and provides title-promotion tools and methods to drive sales and audiobook awareness, allowing our creative stakeholders to reach new audiences on Audible and beyond. Free programs, including ACX University and the Promo Code Tool, seek to level the playing field and further expand opportunity for authors, narrators, rights holders and producers alike.

“As you know, we’ve been working to address some ACX authors’ concerns about Audible’s overall exchange policy, and we appreciate your feedback. The intent of this program is to allow listeners to discover their favorite voice, author, or story in audio. In instances where we determine the benefit is being overused, Audible can and does limit the number of exchanges and refunds allowed by a member. But as designed, this customer benefit allows active Audible members in good standing to take a chance on new content, and suspicious activity is extremely rare.

“We hope this helps convey perspective to our valued writers and ACX partners as to the impact of our current returns policies. However, in recognition of these concerns, moving forward and effective as of January 1, 2021, Audible will pay royalties for any title returned more than seven days following purchase.

“This adjustment does not impact our customers’ current benefits of membership, and we look forward to continuing to welcome millions of first-time listeners, enabling our members to discover new content they enjoy and growing the audience for our valued creative partners.”

The Alliance of Independent Authors: ‘Not Good Enough’

In a message provided to Publishing Perspectives at this hour, Orna Ross, the founding director of the international Alliance of Independent Authors in London (ALLi), describes the writers’ reaction. At this point, 48 percent of ALLi’s membership is based in the States; 31.5 percent is in the United Kingdom.

Orna Ross

“ALLi and the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators were disappointed with the response and remain deeply concerned,” Ross says in her statement. “It’s shocking that Audible/ACX/Amazon feels it can so cavalierly admit to dipping into creators’ wallets and hiding transactional information.

“This sets a precedent which is alarming to every indie author who publishes through an Amazon platform. For ALLi, it’s the most important issue to have emerged since we founded in 2012. A game changer.”

“I just wanted to let you know that our request to Audible remains the same i.e. that the ACX agreement is amended to ensure they:

  • “Cease the practice of clawing back payments from authors’ accounts when a return is received. This should never come from the author’s (already very low) percentage.
  • “Make transparent the total number of purchases/returns on author payment dashboards (not net sales silently adjusted for returns).”

Two additional lines from Ross might be of particular concern to Amazon officials: “The income taken from authors, publishers, and narrators under this egregious practice must be refunded. We believe trade published authors are also affected by this and we are currently reaching out to publishers’ and agents’ associations to get their members to start asking the right questions too.”

Susan May: ‘No Idea of the Value of This Concession’

Ross reminds her ALLi constituency that the group called Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators was founded by Susan May, who “brought the issue to light and her group is carefully amassing the evidence needed to prove wrongdoing here. We support her efforts, which she’s undertaking at great personal and business expense.”

May, in a statement provided to us through ALLi, says, “Audible still hasn’t addressed our hundreds of emails requesting our returns data history, nor have they given us any assurance they will address this going forward.

Susan May

“In offering authors the burden of bearing the cost of a return up to seven days of purchase, and Audible then assuming that cost for the balance of the 365 days of the ‘Easy Exchange’ [membership] benefit, we still have no idea of the value of this concession. It’s our belief that most customers would return a book in the first seven days after listening, and then a smaller percentage will return thereafter. This is a reusable credit as we’ve seen, and so we may still be enduring substantial losses.

“Audible has no mechanism in place that we have found through multiple tests which prevents overuse of this ‘Easy Exchange’ program. They’ve also given no indication that they do in fact prevent someone from returning a book once a majority of it has been consumed, or limit the exchanges and refunds allowed by members.

“Therefore, this begs the question: Why won’t Audible/ACX supply authors and publishers with their returns data in a timely and open fashion?”

The Authors Guild: ‘Not Far Enough’

In its own statement, the Authors Guild–the legal department of which has developed a strong channel of advocacy communication with Amazon and its companies–today writes, “While we appreciate that Audible is acknowledging the concerns raised by authors and has shown a willingness to [make] changes to its policy of deducting royalties for returns up to 365 days, we don’t think that the proposal goes far enough.

“For high volume audiobook listeners, a seven-day period is more than enough to listen to a whole audiobook and exchange, and it is not fair to deduct the author’s royalty for books that have been or could have been listened to.

“This practice is unparalleled in digital media retail. We think that royalties should only be deducted in cases of accidental purchase and within a much shorter period of time, such as 48 hours, and only if the audiobook hasn’t been listened to substantially.

“We also think Audible should be completely transparent about the returns so authors are aware of the royalty deductions from their accounts. We have communicated this to Audible.”

Society of Authors: ‘Audible Should Compensate Authors’

Nicola Solomon

In a statement issued by the Society of Authors’ CEO in London, Nicola Solomon says, “First, seven days is long enough to listen to an audiobook, returns should only be allowed for accidental purchase, when books have not been listened to substantially and in a shorter time period; not to exceed 48 hours.

“Second, Audible should be transparent about returns so authors know total sales, the number of returns, and what period they cover.

“Third, Audible should compensate authors for the wrongful practice to date.

“We would ask Audible to release such figures not just to ACX authors but to all authors and publishers since the concerns relate to Audible’s overall exchange policy, and it is important to know the overall scale of this practice: since Audible has been wrongfully deducting ‘returns’ from overall sales figures it may be that there has been a very high level of under-accounting across the board for nearly 10 years.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on audiobooks is here, and more on issues involving authors is here. More from us on Audible is here, and more on copyright issues is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.


About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.