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What’s the deal with New Audible?

The past few weeks have been suspiciously busy for Audible, as far as the audiobook giant and “podcasts” are concerned. The company issued several exclusive program announcements claiming use of the word — see: “NBA and Audible team up for ‘Beyond The Last Dance’ podcast” (CNN) and “Audible, Sesame Workshop Launch ‘Sesame Street’ Podcast” (Variety), among others — and more importantly, it unveiled a new skinny Audible Plus plan that’s only focused on its “exclusive podcasts and audio content.”

And then, of course, there is the fact that producers across the podcast community recently started receiving “confidential” emails from Amazon Music informing them that Audible and Amazon Music will soon be adding third-party podcast distribution to their respective services, and that they were invited to submit their feeds for inclusion.

That Audible is now using the word “podcast” to designate their original and exclusive programming is peculiar, though there’s some history here. After years of the service using “Audible Original” as the key term to identify (and differentiate) its non-audiobook-derived creations, the platform’s co-option of the “podcast” label seems to suggest an acknowledgment that “Audible Original” simply wasn’t sticking as a brand concept, and that podcasting as a category had sufficiently grown in public value to a point that it’s an immediately useful to concept to evoke for consumer guidance, even if it’s not technically accurate. Podcasting, after all, definitionally refers to the distribution of audio files over an open RSS-facilitated infrastructure, which is antithetical to Audible’s closed platform structure. (You’ll find similar arguments from certain podcasting corners against Spotify’s use of the term as well.)

That acknowledgment is also striking for the way it contrasts what I’ve heard about Audible’s perspective on podcasting in the past. Back when Audible first started getting involved with exclusive program creation a few years ago, a source familiar with the organization’s thinking told me that while Audible understood the use difference between audiobooks and podcasts, the company simply didn’t respect the latter, and that they were loathed to recognize the medium’s rising popularity.

I’ve written a lot about Audible’s adventures with original and exclusive content over the years, from the days of its in-house production team that focused on making original podcast-style programming to the subsequent pivot that leaned more on its book publishing relationships, in which the organization sought to directly forge “audiobook-first” deals with authors. This recent spate of headlines suggests a turn towards a dialectic: maintaining that core book publishing supply chain while adding original non-book publishing-originated audio productions back in, plus layering on a third-party podcast distribution channel as well for kicks.

Which raises the question: how has the theory of Audible’s original programming position changed since the last time they grazed podcasting’s orbit, and why are they steering back in that direction now?

The answer to the first question is straightforward: the theory hasn’t really changed very much. Audible’s fundamental logic is principally tied to two measures: paid subscriptions and the company’s ability to keep users engaged with the platform. Original programming adds to Audible’s base value proposition (“Subscribe to Audible, we have audiobooks and all this other shit!”) while the exclusivity of that programming cuts at the zero-sum nature of Audible’s platform competition (it’s the relatively rare consumer* that subscribes to multiple digital audiobook services). Meanwhile, the quality and effectiveness of that content generally serves towards increasing the time spent by subscribers on the platform — and the more they’re engaged with the platform, the less likely they’ll go anywhere else for comparable experiences.

* For what it’s worth, I’m one of those relatively rare consumers with paid subscriptions to both Audible and Shout-out to the latter.

The answer to the second question requires a little more drama. In my mind, there are two factors driving Audible back (and deeper) into this type of original programming territory. The first is the continued rise of podcasting as an audio category, which offers ever-present and ever-deepening competition for listener attention specifically around on-demand audio consumption behavior. The second is Spotify. Don’t forget: all that we’ve been seeing with Spotify and podcasting so far are merely stepping stones in the former’s broader quest to become an all-consuming audio platform that competes on the totality of all audio fronts, including audiobooks. Indeed, as the contemporary lore goes, it was an audiobook-related development in Germany that stood as among the first data points that prompted Spotify to start thinking about expanding beyond music streaming.

As Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO, told Freakonomics Radio last summer:

In Germany, record companies there had massive amounts of rights to audio books, which I wasn’t aware of. And they started uploading that to the service and very, very quickly, we went from like no listening to that and now we’re probably if not the biggest, the second-biggest audiobook service in Germany. And this is without our involvement. You know, this just happened by proxy of us being a platform. So we started seeing it resonating really well into people’s lives. And they thought of Spotify not just as a music service but as a service where they can find audio. And it played really well into our strategy of ubiquity — i.e., being on all of these different devices in your home, whether it’s the Alexas or TV screens or in your cars or whatever as just another source where you could play your audio.

So, if you’re Audible looking at the big picture in the middle of 2020, you’re not just seeing podcasting as an emerging category that potentially crowds into the audiobook-listening time of your consumer base — a category that’s theoretically infinite in its supply of competition — you’re also seeing the encroachment of a motivated corporate player trying to harness, focus, and leverage that category as a way to jump directly into your own backyard. If ever there was a genuine existential threat to Audible, it’s podcasting and Spotify put together. (Oh, and did I mention that Spotify had a job posting up last month for a Head of Audiobooks based in New York or Los Angeles? That opening, by the way, is now closed. 👀)

All this, I think, informs Audible’s emergent swing deeper into the podcast-esque original programming lane, which now comes with two distinctly new and notable elements. The first is what appears to be a growing set of working relationships with audio publishers that are typically associated with podcasting. Consider the aforementioned “Beyond the Last Dance” deal: that show is produced by Pushkin Industries, the shop behind Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History and a host of other podcasts that are accessible through the open ecosystem. It even sports a theme song from Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder, The West Wing Weekly, and Home Cooking fame. And that’s far from the only deal being made with this type of audio production studio, or so I hear — l wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being the case that Audible makes as many deals with podcast studios as with book publishers in the long run. Whatever gets them more original and exclusive content that can drive subscriptions and engagement on its platform, you know?

The second new and notable element is the third-party podcast distribution, which feels like money on the table move at first blush. (Quick aside: that email outreach campaign we talked about earlier includes reference to both Audible and Amazon Music. For efficiency’s sake, I’m only talking about Audible in this column, though a lot of the argumentation applies across both contexts). Again, the thinking seems straightforward here: layering third-party podcast distribution on top of Audible’s core audiobooks and original program offerings adds to the service’s general value proposition, and it would theoretically defend against listeners going off the platform if they wanted to switch out to podcasts. Why toggle back and forth between Audible and, say, Overcast when you can get all of the above on the former, right?

So that all makes sense from Audible’s perspective, but it does raise the question of whether Audible’s current machinations will actually be valuable for podcast makers — or if it will be more of a mixed bag over the long run.

There are a couple of ways to think about this. The first is to start with assessing your general feelings about Audible, Amazon, and what those two things have done to the book publishing industry. If, generally speaking, you have mixed-to-bad feelings about all that, then you probably shouldn’t be working with the audiobook giant, no matter how good the upfront money might be. After all, the act of making original and exclusive programming for Audible is the act of increasing value for Audible as an audiobook, audio show, and pseudo-podcasting platform, which runs competitively against the open podcast ecosystem, among every other audio front.

If you subscribe to a “we can’t all be ethical purists” worldview, then sure, it makes a good amount of sense for podcast creators to take up these deals to produce original and exclusive Audible content, because upfront money mitigates the risks of playing the advertising game. This is particularly true for certain types of podcasts that have been historically difficult to monetize through advertising, like fiction and limited-run series. There are still various trade-offs you’d need to grapple with: you’d still be feeding a platform beast that could compromise the health of the broader podcast ecosystem over the long run, and the risk of rolling with a closed platform like Audible is having your show be buried in its deep inventory of content, forgotten to time. (Though, I suppose that’s not all too different from publishing into the open podcast ecosystem without Apple or Spotify throwing you an on-platform promotion bone.) But being a podcast publisher is still a business, and you have to pay the bills, and the value of upfront money for series production is almost always better than the risk of competing in the increasingly crowded open ecosystem.

On the other hand, there’s much less sense when it comes to the prospect of distributing one’s podcast over Audible’s platform at this point in time. To begin with, the theoretical upside is potential “access” to the audiobook’s vast consumer base, but the problem with that is the platform context: consumers pull Audible to listen to audiobook and audiobook-like products, and not really anything else. And even if you do see it as “why not?” proposition, there’s the general risk of long-term encroachment: sure, Audible might not do anything to the ads on your RSS feed right now, but there’s always the possibility that might change in the future. Again, consider the big picture trade-off: does the theoretical short-term upside for you outweigh the long-term downside of feeding the beast for everyone else?

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I think Audible’s chances with this new-old-new original programming gambit is a split fifty-fifty. In my view, the fundamental problem with Audible is that it’s primarily a merchandising business, historically finding its value and margins in the facilitation of high-volume sales that largely sits on the back of the book publishing industry’s talent-finding capacities. Which is to say, Audible is an effective wholesaler, but the business of original content — identifying talent, producing experiences, marketing shows, cultivating stars, and so on — is a very different kind of business, and the fact that the platform hasn’t really figured out a strategy around original and exclusive just yet is a testament to this. Audible’s return to podcast-style programming doesn’t fundamentally change anything. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that a lot has changed.