Frankfurt Rights Meeting 2: Developments in Audio

In News by Porter Anderson

Not all international audiobook markets are evolving at the same pace, say speakers in the second online Frankfurt Rights Meeting event.

The second of four digital Frankfurt Rights Meeting sessions, on September 12. Image: FBM, Frankfurt Rights Meeting

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

See also:
Frankfurt Rights Meeting 1: AI’s Impact on the Business
An AI Focus Opens Frankfurt’s Reformatted Rights Meeting

Publishing’s Audio and Its Rights Considerations
Moderated by Lance Fitzgerald—the Penguin Random House Audio US vice-president for content and business development—the second of four weekly digital installments of the 2023 Frankfurt Rights Meeting on Tuesday (September 12) was a less intense session than the first presentation, which focused on artificial intelligence.

While “AI” is a term generously inserted into a lot of conversation about audio these days—into a lot of conversation about everything, for that matter—much of that discussion lies in the area of automated narration, which has been with us and getting markedly better for some time. The most nearly “generative” aspects of AI in audio are somewhat less obvious as yet, not least because audio in the world of books is generally a derivative form. The written book usually precedes an audio rendition of it, its potential vulnerabilities therefore lying more in the sonic interpretation of that written work than in the essential creation of the writing itself.

Fitzgerald’s three panelists were:

  • Galina Lubimaya, rights director with ABP Publishing, based on Cyprus, in Nicosia
  • Ivo Samplonius of Utrecht’s Studio Ivo and PodWorkz
  • Videl Bar-Kar, audio vice-president of Frankfurt-based Bookwire

And what might have been the most interesting element of this hourlong event was its demonstration of how readily, or not, various world markets may be embracing audio and exploiting their audio rights’ potentials. Fitzgerald pointed out in his opening remarks that Penguin Random House publishes as many as 2,000 audiobooks per year and that in general analyses, audio is cited for double-digit growth over a bit more than a decade. (Articles on industry statistics are included in our audiobook news archives.)

Nevertheless, many of the session attendees’ questions in the program’s chat facility reminded us that there are many markets and territories in which audiobooks are not the robustly popular format they may be in some of the major English-, Spanish- and Nordic-language markets so far. In some cases, for example, subscription services find it challenging to gain traction in new markets because there may not be as much local-language audio content available as is needed. Audio, then, looks (or sounds) somewhat different according to the book market in which one stands.

Lubimaya at ABP, an Audio Producer

Galina Lubimaya of the Cyprus-based ABP Publishing audiobook producer speaks during the 2023 Frankfurt Rights program on audio. Image: FBM, Frankfurt Rights Meeting

Lubimaya’s work in rights acquisitions is informed by ABP’s four markets: Germany, France, Italy, and Turkey. One of the most important points she made came right at the top, as she explained that audio rights are licensed in different ways in various markets.

“In Germany,” she said, “the local publisher usually buys the whole package of rights. They either produce audio in-house or sub-license those rights to a third party. The average advance for an audio sub-license deal,” Lubimaya said, “is €4,000,” where five years ago it might have been only €1,000. ABP prefers to separate royalty rates for a la carte limited subscription sales (25 to 30 percent of net receipts) from streaming sales (35 or 40 percent of net).

By contrast in France, she said, publishers normally do not bundle audio into their contracts, and thus an acquisition by ABP means working with the author or other proprietor on audio, then doing a separate deal with the local publisher for the translation rights. An advance in France for a direct audio deal, she said, is around €2,000, again with royalties differentiated between a la carte sales and streaming sales.

ABP sees Italy as the fastest growing audiobook market of the four. However, audio rights in Italy are often bundled into their main contracts without the local publisher having the ability to sub-license them. This means, as she pointed out, that if the local publisher doesn’t then make an audiobook edition of a work, those rights may be stuck in limbo without exploitation. A company like hers is unable to make a deal for such rights. The rights holder needs an understanding,” she said, “from the publisher on whether an audiobook will be made.

“In Italy,” Lubimaya said, “streaming is the only profitable form of distribution,” an interesting point about how that market—now growing quickly—has developed.

To that point about the differences in where markets may be in audio adoption, development, and consumerism, “Turkey is on its first steps in development of its audiobook market,” she said. “Both publishers and agents are really hesitant to collaborate. It may take from one month to a year to sign a deal, and local publishers are now trying to buy audio rights together with the main licenses. In this case, it’s also quite tricky [because] the Turkish publishers have no means to make audio in-house. They have to sub-license audio rights to a third party.”

Because it can take months for ABP to attain such rights deals, she said, the rights holder in Turkey who wants to exploit her or his audio rights should consider selling those rights directly to an audio publisher, “rather than wait for the local publishers to make up their minds.” An advance there may be around €1,200 and streaming is the only viable distribution option.

In speaking of these four markets, Lubimaya had demonstrated that in audiobook consumption, distribution, and right licensing, it actually is not such “a small, small world after all, after all,” as Disney’s theme parks would have it in their rides’ audio.

Bar-Kar at Bookwire, a Distributor

Videl Bar-Kar of the Germany-based international digital distributor and services vendor Bookwire, speaking during the 2023 Frankfurt Rights program on audio. Image: FBM, Frankfurt Rights Meeting

Videl Bar-Kar is familiar to the Publishing Perspectives readership, which knows Bookwire for its decade or so of rapid expansion as a digital distributor. The company also is working in audio production, with impressive gains made in the Spanish-language markets. Bookwire currently has some 2,000 customers, as many as 150 employees in various countries, offering an aggregate 800,000 ebooks, and 200,000 audiobooks.

The international estimates Bar-Kar offered (see the graphic above) were, in a way, the antidote to some of the small-audio-market experiences Lubimaya had described, and his are the kinds of figures that keep proponents of the audio sector so animated in their near-evangelism for the format. Perhaps the most dependable of these figures is one that indicates that Europe this year is going past the US$1 billion mark in audio sales, a good milestone, indeed. Forecasts, however, may feel less reliable to those not engaged in the audio sector.

Bar-Kar is good at describing the still-fluid nature of the audiobook field, particularly in world markets’ stark differences in consumer adoption, production capability, and publishers’ willingness to invest in audio. Most observers agree, Bar-Kar said, “that there is a lot more potential in audio” at international scale, “and new players and business models are coming in.

“But there are markets that are just starting. This thing about compelling offerings, finding out what kind of offerings consumers want—whether they’re occasional listeners, heavy readers—all of those things need to be considered and there’s a lot of competition out there in the market.”

Videl Bar-Kar of the Germany-based international digital distributor and servides vendor Bookwire, speaking during the 2023 Frankfurt Rights program on audio. Image: FBM, Frankfurt Rights Meeting

He took good care to indicate that while the outlook for growth seems promising, it’s important to stay grounded in the fact that this is a case of supply and demand. Much of the optimism around audio lies in its double-digit growth, but it’s always worth noting that the American market, leading the way in audio development, still sees audiobooks’ share of formats hovering between roughly 8 and 13 percent (in June, 11.7 percent for the first half of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers’ StatShot).

Bar-Kar also noted the extensive tracking of the format from the Audio Publishers Association in the United States, though the organization is primarily focused on the States. And he very logically said that the model of the American market—which is reflected in many elements by the British market—suggests that publishers can expect to publish audio down their lists as consumers’ tastes in audio consumption broaden over time.

Bookwire’s own efforts to hear behind the sonic curtain confirm that the audiobook audience in a better-developed market like Germany will tend to skew younger than, say, ebooks, and that streaming seems to be preferred by those aged 16 to 24 in survey work. When a viewer asked what it is about the Nordic markets that seem to have made them so audio-ready, the program’s speakers didn’t seem to have a confident rationale at the ready.

Ivo Samplonius at PodWorkz, a Podcast Producer

Ivo Samplonius of the Utrecht-based PodWorkz, speaking during the 2023 Frankfurt Rights program on audio. Image: FBM, Frankfurt Rights Meeting

Engaging and energetic, Ivo Samplonius, the Dutch entrepreneur behind PodWorkz, made a very good point about audio rights, which is that the rights holder should, as he put it, “sell only the podcast rights to me.” In other words, if podcasting makes sense in the case of a given book’s rights portfolio, it’s best to carve those podcast rights out from the rest of the audio rights to maintain the ability to exploit the basic audiobook rights separately (by a publisher or author or otherwise).

Samplonius is a warm and upbeat representative of the podcasting world, which as yet seems to find its best relationship to book publishing in the area of related marketing that some still fear can cannibalize book sales. Podcast enthusiasts generally need to use anecdotal examples of their ideas for how podcasting can support bookselling. On the whole, podcasting overall hasn’t seemed to move far beyond some good marketing support for books, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Time, and perhaps some winnowing-out in the marketplace as other entertainment forms rise and fall, may help clarify podcasting’s potential around publishing.

But in a world in which the main competition is for the consumer’s time and attention, critics say it’s not yet clear how adding more listening hours outside the paid audiobook experience is necessarily going to help a publisher convince a consumer that an audiobook is an efficient use of her or his entertainment hours and dollars. More interesting evolution in the market and its analysis is surely ahead.

A programming note: The 2023 Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurter Buchmesse is being programmed to include an afternoon mini-conference on audio. Its sessions run from 2 to 4:45 p.m. on Frankfurt Thursday, October 19, with a networking reception sponsored by Bookwire. You can see a detailed explication of the programming on our Forum’s page, by hitting the tab for October 19. 

The Forum is in Room Spektrum of the Messe Frankfurt Congress Center, second level. More on the Publishing Perspectives Forum is here.

More from Publishing Perspectives on audiobooks is here, more on digital publishing is here, more on Frankfurter Buchmesse is heremore on international translation and publishing rights is here, and more on international book fairs 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.