Why Must Digital Audio Book Titles Expire?

Listening to audiobooks is a pastime enjoyed by many. It has never been more practical, given the range of wireless devices that an individual can now use. We are no longer tied to the CD drive in home stereos and cars. They re-open the universe of the written word to people of all ages, most of whom are too time constrained to invest in an actual book, but who can easily delve into a chapter or two while commuting or exercising.

One would think this renaissance, in which authors’ works are converted to wireless, professionally narrated pieces of immediately accessible art, would be embraced by book publishers as an opportunity to balance the effects that digital media has had on traditional bookstores.

Yet, for public access, draconian and seemingly archaic licensing laws continue to exist.

Case in point: I recently downloaded an audiobook from my local library, which subscribes to a national downloading service. The book arrived inside my phone’s app within seconds, and soon thereafter I was enjoying the title, listening to it through my car’s Bluetooth connection as I drove. Ah, the wonders of the wireless world.

Books become Pumpkins

Unfortunately, the publishers who made this title available to me through the library, allowed me only one week to listen to it before the licence expired. So exactly one week later, while I was still barely halfway through the book, the file had turned back into a literary pumpkin, on the outside of which was a sternly worded message reminding me to delete the now unplayable file from my phone’s memory.

My question is “why?” Why must there be such a short expiry period on a digital property? Why should there be an expiry date at all? I understand, if you borrow a book from a library, then no-one else can access that book until you return it. But this is the digital age, people! Digital files can be replicated infinitely with no adverse effect on the original.

On hold? For What?

Oh yes. And then there is the HOLD. There was another book that I was interested in downloading, but it was on hold. On hold? For what? There’s nothing unique to hold!

I understand that publishing companies are in the business of licencing books, ostensibly to guarantee revenue for their authors. I know this first hand, being a published author myself. I know also, that, as with all artists, we sit at the bottom of a very large inverted pyramid, and tend to get paid after all the middlemen have taken their share. Hmmm. Could that have something to do with it?

The point is, libraries, booksellers and book publishing companies are looking to protect their revenue streams amid an ocean of digitally accessible everything. But does withholding a title actually generate the type of scarcity that will guarantee a queue of patient, obedient title-borrowers? Especially when some enterprising individual might see fit to upload the entire audio track to YouTube so that everyone can listen to it without delay?

Or is their protectionism a holdover from a pre-digital age, in which supply and demand could actually be controlled by publishers?

Monetize the digital marketplace

My feeling, as both an author and as an avid listener of audiobooks, is that there is more to be gained from changing the model: make library titles infinitely available. Guarantee their quality. Make your free product better than the knock offs, and capitalize on spin-off activities, such as directing happy listeners to purchase related titles through sites like iTunes. Heck, I would be happy even to put up with a sponsorship, such as “This audiobook is being brought to you by ABC company.” Sponsorships could easily be rotated – such is the nature of digital media. It is much easier to modify than, say, typeset ink.

Ultimately I feel the publishing industry has much more to gain by adopting a more modern approach to monetizing the omni-channel marketplace than the current dusty old licencing program. Maybe they have started to do so, but it certainly does not seem to be working at the library. If there was ever a perfect “try-before-you-buy” environment, the national library system certainly would fit the bill, and would continue to bolster the existence of publishers and libraries alike.