Diva Interview: Brian Sweany, Director of Acquisitions for Recorded Books
The Divas have interviewed many professionals in the publishing industry but not in audio publishing. Today we welcome Brian Sweany, Director of Acquisitions for Recorded Books, to the blog.
Brian, please share with us how you got into audio publishing and associated with Recorded Books.
I started with Recorded Books in 1999 as the Indiana library sales rep after working as an editor for five years right out of college. In 2000, I accepted a promotion to Director of Acquisitions, a position I’ve held ever since. When books are sold, their agents or publishers parse out various rights—hardcover rights, paperback rights, foreign rights, movie rights, serial rights, audio rights—and that last one is where I come in. As Director of Acquisitions for the world’s largest independent audiobook publisher, I review probably 15-20 manuscripts a week, decide whether they’re audio-friendly, and then make an offer on the audio rights or decline accordingly. In essence, I get paid to read books and then to convince editors, agents, and authors that I’m the best choice to produce that book in audio.
Tell us a little bit about Recorded Books.
Recorded Books was founded in 1978 and is one of the industry pioneers. We record most of our books in our award-winning studios on the 10th floor of the iconic Strand bookstore building in New York. We are an AFTRA shop and the largest contributor to the AFTRA pension fund among all audio book publishers. As a result, we always get the best actors lining up to read for us.
Recorded Books sounds like a wonderful company. What trends or changes have you seen in audio publishing in the last five years?
Audiobooks are seeing the same transformation and growth we’re seeing with e-books. It’s all about the digital space, both in retail and libraries. Companies like Apple, Audible, Overdrive, and Recorded Books’ own digital platform OneClickdigital are making more titles more accessible to more people than at any point in the history of publishing. Throw in the fact you have less bookstores to sell hard goods, and the numbers are pretty self-explanatory. As of 2012, both the number of total audio titles published and the number of books downloaded were up nearly 30%, while CD sales fell off a cliff—at least in bookstores; it’s worth noting library CD sales are still a robust category.
How do these trends or changes impact marketing of audio books?
Marketing has always been a curious animal in audio publishing. If I’m being honest, minus Audible’s deep Amazon pockets or a company like Recorded Books’ direct sales pipeline into libraries, most audio publishers just don’t have the means or the internal corporate wherewithal to reach the mass consumer. Nearly every periodical that caters in some form to audiobooks—Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Audiofile, etc.—are industry magazines. Publishers read them; customers don’t. Audiobook publishers, just like print book publishers, spend advertising dollars in those magazines to show off to peer companies, not to sell books. And audio marketing from the Big Five publishers (Random Penguin, Harper, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan) never amounts to much more than a dime-sized logo in the bottom corner of an ad in the New York Times Book Review that says, “Also available in audio.” The dirty little secret of book publishing overall, not just audio publishing, is that most publishers depend upon someone else to bring them a customer—whether that be an Ingram to get print books into bookstores, an Audible or iTunes to get an audiobook on to your iPod, or a Recorded Books to get an audiobook into libraries. Publishers have no real brand recognition with consumers, and marketing-wise it seems like they have to spend ten dollars to make a dollar.
With independent publishing taking a large seat in the industry, do you feel that the market is too saturated, or is it a good thing for indies to have their books available in multiple formats such as audio?
I feel like you’re asking several questions here. Do I feel the market has been saturated by independent publishers? Depends on what you define as independent publishing. If you’re talking small to medium-sized independent presses staffed by earnest editors—Norton, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Algonquin, McSweeney’s, Melville House, Two-Dollar Radio, Dzanc Books, Akashic Books, just to name a few—the market can never have too many of these publishers. But if you’re talking vanity eBook publishing in which most if not all of the editing and marketing is left to the author and physical print books are print-on-demand books with glossy covers and see-through pages of single-spaced text, I think those publishers are doing their readers and the industry a disservice. On a semi-related note, someone who writes a manuscript, self-edits the manuscript, and then clicks the “Publish Now” button on Amazon Createspace isn’t a published author. While the self-publishing “revolution” is allowing for more books and a greater diversity of content, editors still matter, gatekeepers still matter. Having someone there just to tell you to ease up on the adverbs still matters.
I couldn’t agree with you more there. That being said, is it a good thing for indies to have their books available in multiple formats such as audio?
Of course it is. The more readers, the better. But understand that economies of scale work against most print books even being in audio. Booksellers and libraries want audio editions of frontlist bestsellers, not a self-published anthology of dinosaur erotica or an 800-page biography of a Rococo artist. When a publisher or agent submits me a manuscript, there’s a reason I usually ask what the first printing is before I consider even reading it. There’s also this misconception on the part of the consumer that the audiobook, like the e-book, is a supplementary item to the printed work, when in fact the audiobook is exponentially more expensive to produce. You have to pay the actor to narrate, you have to pay a staff to produce the audio, and you have to rent the studio space. Depending on the level of production and the size of the book, translating a print book into an audiobook, never mind the actual advance paid to the author, will cost a publisher anywhere from two weeks to two months and $300-$600 per finished recorded book to produce, with some of the biggest books running into the tens of thousands of dollars to record. You want to translate that same print book into an e-book? Okay, give me 90 minutes and a cup of coffee.
As Director of Acquisitions for Recorded Books, it’s a safe bet you’ve read many books. Tell us what you look for from prospective authors and their books.
I look for a fresh narrative voice with an emphasis on authors publishing into a currently popular category. I also look at their sales history and promotional plans. Barring that, the closet writer in me occasionally throws the marketing metric out the window and acquires a book based on the fact I just loved reading it. I will always be a sucker for literary fiction.
What suggestions or advice do you have for authors wanting to break into audio publishing?
Rule #1: Worry about print publishing before you ever worry about audio publishing. Make sure you have written the best book possible, and that it’s been professionally edited, before you ever even remotely consider audio publishing. Understand that I decline submissions on an almost daily basis from Big Five publishers because a book might have a 15,000 first printing instead of a 50,000 first printing or because an author’s hardcover sales dropped from 12,000 copies to 6,000 copies with his last book. Translation: If your book sales amount to the seven copies you’ve hand-sold out of your car’s trunk, do not come up to me at a book conference and ask, “How do I go about getting my book recorded?” Do your homework.
Now, let’s say you do have a good book that is worthy of audio consideration. That gets us to Rule #2: If you have written a novel, and an audio production is pending of said novel, immediately discount yourself as the narrator. I know professional actors who’ve narrated over 1,500 audiobooks. Trust me when I say it’s a skill set you probably don’t have. You don’t know the characters’ voices better than anyone else. Get over yourself.
What do you see happening in audio publishing in the next five years?
Circling back to the first question, I see audiobooks going down a similar path to print books as the lion’s share of the market transitions from physical to digital sales. And while I think it’s safe to say there will always be a place for physical print books in the retail marketplace, I do not think this is the case with physical audiobooks. Five years from now, I don’t believe brick and mortar bookstores like B&N will sell any physical editions of audiobooks. CD sales are on the decline, and single-disc MP3 CDs have and always will be niche products that never catch on with the mass consumer market. While libraries will continue to be the big outlier for physical goods for many years to come, library digital sales are gaining ground in that space too. The only obstacle preventing library digital sales from exploding is educating the market. Everything librarians and patrons are begging for with library e-books—affordability, title selection, intuitive user apps—is already in place for library e-audios.
You’re an author yourself; please tell us about your books and how you chose your narrator for them?
My book has been described as Fight Club meets Breakfast Club or Leave It to Beaver by way of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I welcome the comparisons. Its title is actually taken from a Hunter S. Thompson quote: “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” That quote is as tidy a summation of the novel as you’re going to get. Within the first two sentences, we are graphically introduced to the main character, Hank Fitzpatrick, a teenager growing up in Indiana circa the mid-1980s. Hank is fifteen years old, and the story takes readers from Hank’s teens into his late thirties as he tries to figure how to make the transition from boyhood to manhood. A lot of sex and substance abuse, tragedy tempered by humor, fly-on-the-wall descriptions of familiar teenage and middle age situations that’ll make you feel nostalgic and queasy all at the same time. Think The World According to Garp set to a hairband soundtrack. Basically a party on every page. And did I mention that’s it kinda sorta semi-autobiographical.
How did you go about casting for your audiobooks?
I didn’t choose my narrator. He chose me. I met Peter Berkrot a couple years ago at a narrator party during BookExpo America, the annual North American book conference. Peter is a longtime actor, and is probably most famous for his role as the dark-haired Italian teenager on the pointy-end of Bill Murray’s Dali Lama monologue in Caddsyhack. Peter and I hit it off immediately. I told him about my writing, and he said if I ever needed a narrator, he wanted the job. End of audition. It was really that easy. I was captivated by Peter’s sarcastic sensibility, comedic timing and way of transitioning seamlessly from children to adult voices. He had this aura of arrested development that made me feel like I was looking in a mirror.
Thank you, Brian, for sharing some industry insights. Check out Brian’s books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and of course, Recorded Books. For more information about Brian’s books and upcoming works, visit his website.