Voices In The Ether: Problems With Audiobooks

audiobookHello again to my readers! I’m calling in once more for one of my semi-rare opinion piece articles. The reasoning however will require some explanation.

I’ve experienced personally on a good handful of occasions the sensation of utter confusion (and somewhat justified anger and frustration) that happens when you either go to buy an audiobook on whatever service you use, only to find the book has disappeared. Or at least is no longer available. If you are lucky you can still access and listen to the book if you’ve already bought it depending on the service – as was the case with the Harlan Ellison collections I wrote a review about a while ago.

Audiobooks as a whole can be quite awkward and antiquated for customers despite how comparatively new the release medium itself is. Sometimes a book can have multiple different audio releases such as abridgements. Usually abridged versions carry their own licenses.

Take for example the Terry Pratchett Discworld books. The early books in the series from The Colour Of Magic until book 17 in the series Interesting Times had an abridged audio version released as well as the unabridged narrated by Tony Robinson of all people! It feels very weird to have Baldrick or the voice of Time Team play Terry Pratchett’s version of Death.This practice is definitely rarer than it used to be, quite possibly due to the increased popularity of audiobook downloading and streaming as with music. If customers are unaware they are buying an abridged version due to unclear promotion or unclear it can be quite inconvenient.

Another issue with audiobooks can be the contract problem. My last review was of the original 1951 book in the Foundation series by Issac Asimov. In that review I made a couple of mentions of ‘this audio edition was narrated by William Hope’ or words to that effect. This is because I actually own another edition of Foundation and its immediate sequel Foundation and Empire that was available on Audible previously. This edition was produced by a company called Books On Tape in 2004 with Scott Brick as narrator.

I do prefer the current version overall to the BOT version but my question is:What happens if that version becomes unavailable for legal reasons as well?Will a third version be made by a bigger publishing house? Or will the series just not be available on audio or at least audio download? What happens if you want audio from a specific edition – for whatever reason? Will you have to break some kind of laws just to be able to have a copy of the version you want? I somehow doubt you will be able to take out a legal request properly just to avoid a potential lawsuit between the current license holder and the license holder of the specific version you want all over one audiobook!

It is quite easy at present to obtain an audio edition of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton also narrated by Scott Brick. At one point there was an audio version of the sequel The Lost World which existed but at the moment it is currently missing in action and has been for approximately 6 years when I first started looking. Unless you can understand German. There is a German language audiobook of The Lost World but the English language version with narration by Brick just doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

Not to mention there can be geographic problems. In 2011 fans of  the Star Wars series on audio received a special treat. There was going to be a 20th anniversary unabridged edition of the first book in the original Thrawn trilogy Heir to the Empire. For context the Thrawn trilogy – and the original Star Wars expanded universe as a whole – was an attempt to continue the story of the Original Trilogy before Disney did just that in 2015.

People ADORE Grand Admiral Thrawn and his books by Timothy Zahn to the point that when the reset happened in the books to make way for the new movies, Disney went out of their way to bring Thrawn back with a new Thrawn Trilogy. They also introduced him in one of the cartoons at a large convention…to rapturous applause and cheering.Only one problem: This edition was apparently only released in America on physical CD. No audio download version…and no version outside of the States. Unless you are willing to import the CDs second hand at the cost of at least £100 not counting import taxes! (Trust me I checked!…and why yes I am still very bitter about this. How could you tell?) How exactly is this meant to be convenient for the customer? If I could give the company that published that particular edition my money to obtain a digital download of the 20th Anniversary Heir To The Empire I would have done so already. So they actively lose out on sales by not offering it as an option.

One final issue that can occur is…simply the companies being greedy. Quite a while ago now I reviewed an audiobook edition of the Andy Weir science fiction masterpiece The Martian released by Podium Publishing. This audiobook was extremely highly regarded by many people and was how I even encountered The Martian in the first place. Unfortunately you can’t buy this version anymore. Early this year it disappeared to be replaced by a new version released by Audible themselves and narrated by Will Wheaton, a highly regarded narrator especially for science fiction…and Star Trek The Next Generation’s Wesley Crusher. Something even he apologises for.

Why did this have to happen? According to Weir himself on his official Facebook page when the changeover happened, Audible approached him to buy the rights to audio versions of The Martian and he accepted the deal. With the caveat that he wanted if possible to reach a deal with Podium Publishing to keep the original R.C Bray audiobook on Audible and other services. However…when Podium were approached they asked for an obscene amount of money during negotiations (Put it this way, I haven’t heard of any other audiobooks released by Podium personally before or since) and Weir and Audible had to walk away from negotiations and produce their own replacement edition. So sometimes the customer can be screwed over by companies just generally being complete idiots or active assholes.

In conclusion audiobooks can be a bizarre beast. The listener can sometimes be lucky enough to be given multiple editions at once depending on the book, sometimes the contracts just simply run out and new editions are made by different companies, sometimes the company isn’t thinking globally for some reason and sometimes companies shoot themselves in the foot. What is the customer supposed to do? Frankly who knows. But be aware…there are always voices in the ether and sometimes they can be called to…or commanded to fill a vessel.




Related article: BorrowBox for Orkney Library Members

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