Iambik: An Innovative, Indie Spin on Audiobooks
By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
Most of the established audiobook publishers tend to operate on a familiar basis: find books with a proven appeal or platform, usually above a minimum print sales threshold, and acquire on the advance + royalty model. Iambik wants to try something new.
McGuire, who has experimented before with alternative audio models with his non-profit audio platform LibriVox, built the launch list around novels from eleven different indie presses, paying revenue shares in lieu of an upfront advance, bringing the presses, narrators and Iambik together in a three-way partnership.
“Like all media businesses, things will change drastically with the web and mobile for audiobooks. Digital audiobooks might be more mature than ebooks, they already represent about 25% of the market, so it’s a healthy chunk of the business. Even so, only about 5% of published books get made into audio. There are many thousands of fabulous books that are *not* in audio, and we’d like to change that, and we do that by having a different cost structure because of our distributed model.”
–Hugh McGuire, Publisher, iambik
Iambik audiobooks are for sale in mp3 format to start with, with more formats to be added as the market demands — all DRM-free.
“Getting more good books into audio is our objective,” said McGuire. “The more ways people have access to great books, the better. Audio is a great way to discover books and authors.”
Publishing as Partnership
Soho Press publisher Bronwen Hruska has worked with the big names in audio publishing for titles from Soho’s formidable crime list, but she found Iambik’s model appealing for a different kind of book: THE EDGE OF EDEN, a literary novel by Helen Benedict set in the Seychelles Islands.
“I like that [Hugh] is taking chances on books that he thinks are really good,” said Hruska. “I like that it’s going to be at a lower price point so possibly more people will want to give them a chance. Also, the way the model is set up – there are no charges up front, it all comes in as it comes in. It’s unusual in the book business to have something be set up that way. It seems very simple and straightforward and fair.”
Iambik’s narrators also contribute their work for a share in the revenues. Asked where he discovered narrators willing to work in this kind of partnership, McGuire says: “The inspiration was LibriVox, where thousands of volunteers make free public domain audiobooks. Some of the narrators at LibriVox do wonderful, professional-quality stuff. And there are many such narrators in the world who are not doing anything with LibriVox.”
The work of these “passionate amateurs” was behind the idea for Iambik. “There are many publishers and authors who would like audio of their books; many narrators who would like to make audiobooks if there was an incentive to do it,” McGuire continues. “Iambik’s job is to try to connect the two, and provide an easy platform to make and sell those books…always with the mind that putting narrators together with books they really want to record makes a lot of sense for everyone.”
For Chris Fischbach, associate publisher at Coffee House Press – whose novel THE IMPOSSIBLY by Laird Hunt is part of the Iambik launch – this matchmaking mission between writer and narrator is a big part of the appeal. “Each format lends itself to a different kind of artistic expression,” says Fischbach. “We’re lending the book out for the audio artist to interpret, so then it exists in this totally separate arena that will have an artistic life of its own.”
Fischbach hopes the Iambik edition, read by Peter Yearsly, will bring a new audience to Hunt’s book, one of his long-time favorites. “Especially with the business model that Hugh has been proposing, that makes these things affordable for adventurous readers and listeners to experience literature that generally doesn’t have a huge audience. Every time you’re exposing people to different kinds of books, it’s positive.”
The hope, of course, is that greater exposure will also lead to more sales, not just of the audiobook but of print and ebook formats, a goal Iambik has made explicit in its plans to cross-promote all formats of the books it records. Hruska says this approach has worked in the past for Soho’s books.
“Any time a book is promoted it will raise awareness, and then more people see that title and hear about it,” Hruska explained. “I’ve seen that happen – ebook promotions that we’ve done have had actual impact on sales of physical books. So I do believe having the audiobook promoted through Iambik will have an impact on the sales and on visibility and on word of mouth.”
The Indie Community
Iambik’s launch list is a concentrated dose of indie fiction, from hipster trendsetters the likes of McSweeney’s and Tin House along with newbie upstarts OR Books and Cursor. Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, a veteran independent whose novel LIKE SON by Felicia Luna Lemus is part of the Iambik launch, appreciates McGuire’s decision to build his new venture on a foundation of indie authors.
“I like the adventurous business model that they’re using,” says Temple, “where if a project succeeds there’s actually a lot more money to be made – less money on the front end, but potentially a lot more money on the back end. It has a spirit of partnership and collaboration that I found alluring. Like other independent publishing companies, it’s not just a bottom-line business. They’re trying to do things in their own way and put their own imprint on what they’re doing, which I totally respect.”
There’s a business logic to Iambik’s choice to tap into the fiercely loyal following many of the indie publishers have earned, but for Temple working with Iambik holds the promise of building on that community as well, finding new ways of connecting with readers. “On a basic level, we’re hoping to make some money,” Temple acknowledges, “and that would be money for our authors as well, but it’s particularly exciting the possibility of two independent companies collaborating and helping to sustain one another, and in the process also fostering community, because we’re very much focused on literary community.”
McGuire believes the moment is ripe to match a young, tech-savvy audience with the kind of offbeat fiction published by Iambik’s indie partners. “I think we’ll appeal to people looking for a different flavour of audiobook – great books, but below the big commercial radar,” he says. “And I’m noticing many more people connecting with audiobooks these days – mobile devices are a real dark horse here, and I think we’re going to see an explosion of audiobook listening, among a younger audience, with mobile.”
This connection McGuire is looking for doesn’t stop with the sale, he’s looking for ways to get listeners to actively participate in building the Iambik list and maybe even “proof-listening” new titles before they’re released.
“Listeners are of critical importance and we’d really like to pull them into the community – helping them connect with narrators they like, with authors, with publishers, and of course with the books,” says McGuire. “We want to get their requests of audiobooks they’d like to hear and can’t find elsewhere. We really want to pull our listeners into a community where they are contributing and helping get these great books out to the world.”
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.