Audible basically the witch from Hansel & Gretel now

Earlier this month, Audible announced that it would start paying authors whose audiobooks are listed on any of its sites what it called an ‘honorarium’ of $1 every time those authors’ titles are downloaded. Authors sign up for this initiative completely independently of their publishers, with the money going directly to their bank accounts quarterly, until whichever of two options comes first: Audible’s $20 million fund runs out or 2012 ends. ‘How charitable,’ absolutely nobody thought before they immediately began sniffing around for the Amazon-owned company’s ulterior motive.

It didn’t take them long to find it. Interviewed by The Guardian about the scheme last week, Audible chief executive Donald Katz admitted with seemingly little compunction ‘We are willing to do this because I think it will grow our sales and the authors’ sales.’ He then elaborated: ‘The fact is people buy a Neil Gaiman, not a HarperCollins or a Simon & Schuster, so it is for us to connect with the writers and hopefully wake them up to what they can do. If it works it can become a channel of membership and sales.’

Predictably, this approach hasn’t sat too well with, oh, let’s call it ‘the entire publishing industry’. At London Book Fair c.e.o. keynote session “The Great Transformation: Is Our Business Sustainable?” this week, Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury, confronted Katz directly about his company’s *ahem* altruism. Addressing the assemblage, Charkin said: ‘Donald is frustrated that he doesn’t have enough audiobooks from publishers. We do sell as many as we have rights to. But because Donald couldn’t achieve what he wanted in the normal way, he has chosen to go a new way which most of his suppliers would say was extremely damaging.’

To which Katz responded ‘getting the author a little bit more money is a bad thing?’, before adding that he didn’t understand what Charkin was afraid of ‘unless you are insecure about your relationship with your authors,’ which, to be blunt, is about as dickish a response as it’s possible to give to such concerns. Frankly, given Amazon’s past behaviour, it seems roughly equivalent to saying ‘what, so giving Hansel and Gretel a bite of my gingerbread house is a bad thing? You must be pretty insecure about your relationship with your children.’

Naturally, Audible’s offer is attractive to authors – The Guardian article linked to above even quotes an enthusiastic Margaret Atwood on the subject – and doesn’t necessarily preclude a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship with another publisher. Regardless of its hands held up protestations, however, this seems like a case of Audible beginning to poke about in the cracks of potentially fractious author-publisher partnerships and seeing how much pressure it takes for them to begin to break. More to come as this develops.