Andrew recently drew my attention to the fact that an audio version of Saga was available via pirate hosts based in China and Russia. It is available from the kind of websites that make offer downloads of new films even before they've been officially released. This version of Saga is read by Kristin Allison and here is a clip from it: the preface.
Now I really approve of audio books and was thrilled when Oetinger made absolutely splendid versions of Epic and Saga for the German language. They used professional actors, composed music and created sound effects for the books.
My main reason for liking audiobooks isn't that they generate much by way of royalties, what I really like is the fact that people who have difficulty reading - perhaps because of visual difficulties - can enjoy the books. And that is what has happened in this case. After doing some research Andrew found that the recordings were made for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS)
So of course I'm pleased that Saga is available to listen to. But there is a problem with the fact that the audio recording has found its way onto the net. And it's the same problem that arises in the music and film industry. If creative works are given away for free to everyone (and not just those with certain special needs for whom the provision of such works is entirely reasonable), how will artists, actors, etc be supported? One of the aspects to this question that clouds the issue is that there is a lot of hypocrisy spoken on it by the big hitters. I don't have a lot of sympathy for the position of the multinationals; for years they kept prices artificially high for records and CDs in the west and their 'home taping is killing music' campaign was risible. But if the artist is to be able to give up their day job and produce more works of art, they should be getting some remuneration from downloads.
With increased use of hand held reading devices, writers are going to have to get to grips with the issue of how they get remunerated from downloads of their text. But lets stick to audio for the moment. If it were up to me, the model I'd choose would be that of relying on the goodwill of the listener to make a modest donation if they enjoyed the book. In other words I'd like the download to be freely available and there be a simple way of making a direct donation to the author. Most people probably won't bother donating, but those that do will understand the need to assist the writer and might actually make a noticeable difference. After all, a writer typically gets about ten percent royalty from a book sale (actually the mean royalty is probably a bit less), i.e. for a $10 book, the writer gets a dollar. If ten people download the audiobook and only one makes a donation of $10, that's generated as much as the conventional route (my friend Oisin McGann has this kind of model in mind over at his website where you can download his terrific ebook for free, with this difference, that he doesn't even bother to have a button you can press to make a donation! It would be an interesting experiment if he did).
In any case, it is not up to me in the sense that while I hold the copyright to my books, my publishers, in this case O'Brien Press, own the license to sell the book world wide (they sublicense to other publishers in territories it is hard for them to distribute to). O'Brien Press are great when it comes to giving permission for audiobooks to be made for free to schools and organisations for the visually impaired. For example, with their permission I've read and recorded Move for St Joseph's school for the visually impaired (and if any similar school or organisation wants a copy, I'm happy to talk to O'Brien about sending them one, just leave a comment or email Andrew).
So my model is impractical for books I've already sold to a publisher and unless I was capable of generating much more direct web interest than I could do at present, it's a pointless one for new books because hardly anyone will notice the new title.
What would I like the publishers to do about commercial audiobooks (as opposed to ones given to certain organisations for private use)? I think the second best model is to learn from the disastrous experience of the music industry and not try to fight the pirates by suppressing illegal distribution, that's a battle which will not be won. Instead I think that publishers should have some sort of collective internet clearing system where for a small fee (not much bigger than the fee the pirates ask for their 'gold' service or whatever they call it) they provide a better, more attractive, service than the pirates can. Fast downloads of high quality productions should be available for the fee payer. And the pool of income generated by these fees should then be distributed to each publisher in proportion to the number of downloads of their work. The writer and the publisher should have an agreement on how to split such a source of income and I've seen contracts with regard to text downloads that suggest a 50-50 split. That seems reasonable to me. Unlike a book, where the publisher deserves a greater slice of the income because they have to print, distribute, publicise etc., a download involves very little outlay by the publisher.
Returning to the audiobook of Saga that has been pirated, overall I feel it's a shame that a very worthy initiative turns out to be the source of the pirate copy. Someone has taken advantage of a legitimate reason to give a recording away for free to try to make money for themselves. And I'm sure the same source of audiobooks is providing pirates with much better sellers than Saga.