On audio books and their future: Ali Muirden interview

ali muirden audio books
Ali Muirden divides her time between running her own digital publishing company, Creative Content and working on a freelance and consultancy basis for her publishing clients, specialising in audio producing/directing, publishing and also casting audio book projects on their behalf. She is a multi Audie Award winning and Grammy nominated audio book producer and director. Here BookMachine’s Laura Summers interviews her.

1. Audio books have been around a lot longer than ebooks. Why do you think ebooks became popular first?

Audio books have been popular with a core market since the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the problem of distribution was solved by the advent of the iPod and easily accessible digital downloads that things really started to take off. Up until then, costs to produce and distribute audio products were incredibly high. It is still expensive to produce the actual recording – if you do it properly! – but what really caused the high price point of audio books was the production costs of CDs or cassettes and then marketing and distributing them to the retail trade and libraries.

So once that part of the process was eliminated by easy accessible downloading it really helped the market take off in a big way. I think ebooks are perceived to have been more popular first because print books have always got more focus by publishers and the media and this had a knock on effect with the ebook momentum. Also, ebooks are actually much easier (and cheaper!) to produce than audio books and are therefore more prolific.

In the past, Audio was always considered a bit of a ‘poor relation’ in publishing but that is really changing now, which is very exciting.

2. After 27 years at Macmillan Audio, you left in 2008 to set up your own publishing company, selling download-only titles. Was this a particularly good time for audio books, or was this led by your aspirations?

I had the idea for setting up a digital only publishing company with my business partner Lorelei King in 2007.  Lorelei is a hugely successful and award-winning audio narrator and actor. It seemed a perfect match of experience for us to partner up. I was inspired by seeing how well some of the books we were publishing at Macmillan were selling in digital download and also because I really felt then that this new technology was going to transform publishing in the future.

I asked and was given permission by Macmillan to set up Creative Content in my own time while I was still working there, on the proviso I only did CC work in my own time and that there was no conflict of interest in our publishing plans.  They are an amazing and foresighted company and I loved working there.  In fact, I still do the odd producing job for them as a freelance producer!

Of course, with the crash of 2008 it was a hugely difficult time to set up a new company, but we have been very successful and profitable even in the early days.  We set out to publish short form content in the genres of Language Improvement and Business Self Help, but have since expanded into full length Crime Fiction, Historical Non Fiction and some YA and Children’s titles as well.   We expanded into ebooks in 2009 as we saw an opportunity to sell some of our audio titles in this format too, and that has also proved very successful.

3. Why do some readers not take to audio books?

I think some readers find listening to an audio book distracting or they think they can’t concentrate on them well enough while doing something else.  I think that audio books are perfect for doing something when your hands are engaged but your mind is free to roam.  Boring jobs like doing DIY, ironing or driving somewhere familiar are all enlivened by having someone in the car telling you a great story.

I personally got into them when I was a Sales Manager for Macmillan.  I travelled all over the country and got very fed up and bored on long and familiar journeys. I started borrowing audio books from the library first. Then when Macmillan started publishing them I used to hound the Audio division for early copies of things. In fact, that is how I was offered the role of Audio Publisher later on. I became kind of ‘evangelical’ about them and used to rave about whatever new book I was listening to to all my sales colleagues in meetings. When a job came up running the Audio division I was asked if I wanted the role and I jumped at it.

4. Which genres sell particularly well as audio books?

Without a doubt the bestselling genre is Crime Fiction. They sell really well, and if you have a series that’s even better as it draws people back to buy new books by that author in the series.

I think they work brilliantly in audio especially if you get a great reader who can bring to life all the characters and keep you guessing about the end. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are also very popular as well as self help in the ‘mindfulness’ type categories. Celebrity autobiographies are also popular, especially if the celebrity reads the book themselves.

5. Where do you see the audio book market heading in the next 5-10 years?

It’s been interesting to see how things have developed in the last 5 years. I think we’re going to see more and more of the ‘home recorded’ audio books published in the future as a way of broadening the range, but without the high production costs usually associated with audio production.

My only worry here is that the quality of the recordings are maintained. I think it’s hard on the narrators to work alone and without any producer to help. Actors need someone to perform for and it puts a lot of pressure on them to ensure they get the right intonations, syllable stress and correct pronunciations as they record. It may sound pedantic and unnecessary, but the wrong syllable stress can totally change the meaning of a sentence or word.

A good producer helps with guidance on all these things and helps to make sure that the end product is something to be proud of and that the author is delighted with. After all, it’s going to be available forever online… why not ensure it’s as good as you can possibly make it?

I also think we’re going to see a rise in the ‘high production’ special audio publications area. I am doing more and more ‘high quality, high production’ audio recordings for my clients now. Multi or dual voice recordings, with high profile famous actors. A really well-matched celebrity reader to a project can give it a lift into another sphere. If you can match up the actor from a film to the book that the film is based on, it can really tie into the promotion and marketing the film company may be doing and boost sales accordingly.

You can have great fun playing the ‘celebrity dream casting’ game! Just imagine, Daniel Craig reading James Bond, Benedict Cumberbatch reading Sherlock Holmes, Aidan Turner reading Poldark, Rosamund Pike reading Gone Girl… the list goes on and on!

Also, there is a real gap in the market for getting a solution for how to sell great audio in Children’s publishing. Part of the problem with this is that the mechanism for buying audio is aimed at adults. Often there is a minimum age for buying online and obviously children can’t access the products that are aimed at them. So they are not aware what’s out there for them and, hence, no pester power! The plus for busy parents is that you can leave them happily listening to an audio in bed for their ‘bedtime story’ and get on with something else. They are also great on long car journeys with kids. A good story can keep the whole family entertained for hours and the miles whizz by without you noticing.

Once someone cracks this purchasing access problem, there is a huge market waiting for audio content. Also, if you get them into audio books young, they will grow up loving them and become customers in the future.

I love working on Children’s audio books… you get great stories, rich characters and sometimes you can play around with sound FX and music to really make them come alive. It’s like being in a sweet shop with free range and limitless pocket money!

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  1. I have been listening to audio books since 1999. I am a quilter and it was hard to find time to both read and quilt, well now I do both at the same time. I also got my daughter hooked and I think she listens to a least 10 books a month

  2. I’d really like to have read your article. It was linked to by a site I read regularly. But you’ve made the text so light I’m not able to see it with my old eyes. If this is your method of filtering to get only young readers it’s certainly working.


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