Publishers Weekly reports that, out of 150 titles HarperCollins is releasing as audiobooks this spring, only two are getting CD audio releases—the rest are digital downloads only. The story notes that sales of CDs have been declining, but no other major publisher has yet moved away from CDs to such an extent.

Harper insists that it is not abandoning the CD format—it may choose to bring out a few more of those 150 titles as CDs later in the publishing process—but that in recent years its listeners have more and more moved over to digital audio. A Simon & Schuster rep pointed out that CDs still do not have to sell too many copies to turn a profit.

Perhaps most interesting from a TeleRead point of view, however, is a note that HarperCollins has lately changed its boilerplate contracts to bundle audiobook rights in with the rest of digital rights to any given book.

While any attempt by publishers to control more rights is often met with outrage by agents, the issue with audio is more complex. Although some agents said they dislike the idea of rolling up audio rights with digital—one said, bluntly, “It is something we will not accept”—others acknowledged that perhaps audio belongs with digital. With the market for digital books in varied formats expanding, agents said that audio will likely be something necessary for those ancillary digital forms, like enhanced e-books and formats that have not yet sprung up. Almost all those interviewed said the industry is looking ahead to a time when the audio download will be bundled with the e-book, and these enhanced editions will be something that can then compete, and be priced competitively, with a print hardcover upon a title’s initial release. If a publisher is only using the audio right to create a digital download, which generally brings in less revenue for authors since its price is significantly lower than the CD’s, agents will be forced to weigh the pros and cons of selling audio separately. Withholding the audio right may block a publisher from creating editions like enhanced e-books or apps, cutting off valuable revenue streams. But withholding the audio right offers the chance to land a separate audiobook deal with a smaller audio publisher.

However, Paul Aiken of the Authors Guild noted that this could prove to be a serious point of contention for many authors and agents, potentially making it harder to recover audio rights if a publisher is not doing anything with them.

The digital publishing world is changing, and this is only one more example. Perhaps audio and digital do belong together—after all, both formats are predominantly delivered over the Internet now. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out over the next year or so.

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