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Ali Muirden Has an Ear for a Good Read.

July 30, 2013

Downloading a book has become a much more common activity, particularly as an e-book reader is capable of storing a large number of e-books. I am someone who tends to read more than one book at a time, so no longer do I have the agonising problem of how much space a book is going to take up in the luggage when going on holiday.

I am also a great fan of audiobooks sand remember juggling tapes, mini-discs and CDs in an out of my various players. Then came the progression to being able to rip an audiobook from a CD and load it onto your MP3 player or iPod. The advent of broadband has now made a quick download possible directly from an audiobook site, taking out all the tiresome juggling and renaming of tracks in an attempt to keep the tracks in order.

In the previous post I interviewed Lorelei King on the artistry involved in creating a quality read through both e-books and audiobooks. Now it’s the turn of Ali Muirden, the other half of Creative Content, the e-book and audiobook download company, to explain the nuts and bolts of the audiobook industry.

Creative Content deals entirely with downloads, because you produce audiobooks and e-books. This is a very interesting way to publish. I believe that your expertise in producing audiobooks is certainly a very large part of your publishing background.

I was involved in mainstream publishing for nearly 30 years. I started when I was 20 years old at Macmillan Education, an academic publishing arm of the Macmillan group in the UK. I worked there for about nine years, loved it and learnt a lot about how academic publishing works. But then an opportunity came up for me to work for Pan Macmillan, which is the trade publishing arm of the group, publishing novels and popular non-fiction.

I’ve always been a big reader, so it was a really good opportunity for me. I moved over in 1990 and I stayed until I left Macmillan in 2008. During that time I did a variety of jobs.

First of all I did sales admin, looking after the reps, making sure they got the right equipment and that their expenses were paid on time. I used to organise sale conferences and deal with all key account queries.

I was then promoted to Library Supply Sales Manager and went out on the road selling books to the library market, which was a lovely job.

After this, an opportunity came up to run Macmillan’s audio list. That came about largely because when I was on the road travelling, I found listening to the radio frustrating because I was constantly driving in and out of radio station frequencies.

That’s when I discovered how wonderful audiobooks are when you’re doing a long journey. Macmillan launched their audiobooks list in 1995 and I began to hound the poor girl who was in charge of audio production for audiobooks to listen to on my long journeys all round the country. I became an advocate of the audiobook. Having listened to all our titles, I knew all about them, so when we had meetings with the sales team I would enthuse about the books.

When the person running the audio books department left the company, I was asked to take it over. The job was in London, which I’d always try to avoid, because I live in Hampshire and didn’t really want to commute. After they made several offers I finally agreed to do it. I started the job in 1998 and ran the audio department until I left the company in 2008.

I immersed myself in the audio world, because I loved it. One of my colleagues once said to me, ‘This is a job you were always meant to do.’ It was true. I love the process of casting and working with the actors. It was a pleasure to do the audio productions, working with incredible readers, and I had a ball.

I really learnt how to run a business in that time, because I was pretty much left to my own devices. It was run very much like a small micro business, within the main group, so I learnt all about profit and loss and how to read a balance sheet, all those kinds of things. It stood me in really good stead when, in 2007, Lorelei and I set up Creative Content.

I have been a convert to audiobooks for many years and know, as Lorelei said in her interview, that the only way you could originally get hold of these books was as cassettes. They would be a horrific price if you tried to buy them. I’ve noticed that the price has come down over the years. Creative Content prices do appear to be quite reasonable. Is this because it’s download only and you don’t have to invest in a physical product?

I think the price is guided by the market. You have to price at the level appropriate to the market, otherwise your products don’t stand a chance. When I first started, the unabridged market was primarily for libraries and the abridged market was for personal consumption. The abridged versions were marginally cheaper to produce because they took fewer cassettes and less time to record. This meant you could price them at about £10 to £15, depending on how long they were. So if people were really into audio books, it was a price that they could afford. But, like Marmite, people either loved or hated abridged books – but unabridged books were just too expensive to produce for the commercial market, due to the extra time needed in studio and also the high cost of physical production. Then once you put into the mix the discount that you had to give the retailer and took into account the returns if they didn’t sell, it wasn’t easy to make money.

What became apparent to me, once the digital market got into its stride in about 2006, was that it was making a huge difference to the profitability of the whole process. At Macmillan I saw how a few of our own digital-only productions sold and realised how profitable they could be. This was because you cut out a proportion of your costs, which are the physical manufacture and distribution. Digital downloads are still not cheap to produce because you still have the studio, narrator, producer and editor fees, but they have actually made it possible to achieve a profit doing it. Before digital downloads publishers were having a tough job to make any profit margin on audio books.

The market has changed radically and so very quickly. It was interesting to see what was happening with download sales in 2006 to 2007 and I wanted to see if Lorelei and I could do it ourselves.

Macmillan was brilliant because they had a tradition of letting people do things as side projects. I think this maybe came from their academic origins. So the company had no problem at all when I asked them for permission to set up some projects of my own. I was told that, providing there was no conflict of interest and I did it in my own time, they wouldn’t have a problem with it, so they gave me the go ahead.

I had already set up Creative Content by the time I left them. We were very lucky we did it at the right time. Although it was very hard work doing a full time job and setting up the company at the same time… lots of early starts and late nights.

It is about timing in this market, because it moves very quickly.

This is very true. I remember going to a conference in 1998 in America. There was seminar about MP3 and people were being very critical about the new MP3 players and how bad the sound quality was. We all sat there shaking our heads at how bad the sound was and thinking that no one would want to buy an MP3 recording. Yet just a few years later the iPod came out and everything changed. The whole market did move very quickly.

When you look at the move from cassette to CD to downloads, the speed with which it’s happened has been astounding.

Because the market is changing so quickly how does Creative Content keep an eye on it and stay current.

I have a Google alert set up for anything to do with audio and I skim through to see what useful to me. This doesn’t take long to do and it does give me some very interesting stuff that’s been blogged about, or put in press releases. That helps to keep abreast of things. I also have a lot of contacts in the publishing world and in the audio business. So I get to hear about anything that might be interesting. Twitter is also a useful resource.

Largely it’s the Internet that keeps me informed these days on what’s going on in the audio world.

The first audiobooks you launched were non-fiction, and they appear to have sold very well. What format are these books available in?

We provide all our retailers with WAV files, which I feel are better quality than MP3 files. Whatever format they choose to convert the WAV file to, once they’ve got it, is up to them. When we started out we used to send CD masters, posting them to our retailers, because they were actually better quality, than uploading. But now faster broadband has been brought in, I upload the audio files overnight. As broadband becomes faster it will take less time to upload.

Lorelei was saying, when I interviewed her, that some people have home recording studios and that the quality is not the same as a recording done in a professional studio.

No it isn’t. There’s no way the stuff at home can have the same quality of sound as using a high-tech studio, which has soundproofing and all the editing equipment. I can see why people do it, because it’s a cost-effective way of recording. I know I would say that because I am a producer and I use a professional studio. But I do think it is difficult for the actor, as much for the sound issue, to have no one to help them while they’re recording. It puts a big strain on them when they haven’t got anybody helping them.

If you record on your own, it’s difficult to pick up small mistakes or problems with the way you’re working. If you’re an actor who’s completely engaged in the piece that you’re reading, then it’s very difficult to hear the small things that your producer might pick up. There are many times when I’ve pointed something out to an actor and they say, ‘Did I do that?’

Also I find that a lot of actors I work with are really appreciative of the help you give them, because they want to do a great job and they don’t want to listen to it later and think, ‘Oh no, why did I put the intonation there?’ It’s nice to have a couple of pairs of extra ears during the recording, to pick up all the little things that might get missed. So having a recording professionally produced does take a lot of pressure off the reader.

Improve Your Speech. British English

Do you do audio for all your e-books?

No. Some books do lend themselves to audio more than others. E-books are obviously easier to get into production in comparison to audio. You need a bit of momentum behind a book to validate an audio as well. So we choose our audio productions quite carefully.

A lot of our books are specifically written to be recorded. The Improve Your Speech books by David Gwillam and Deirdra Morris couldn’t have been published as print versions only. It just wouldn’t have worked. You have to hear what the person is saying in order to be able to understand it. In fact we’ve recently done synchronised versions. You can download both an e-book and the audiobook onto your smart phone. The e-book will then synchronise with your audiobook. So you can play the audiobook or read the e-book, or do both at the same time.

How do you know if a book is going to sell well?

It’s actually very difficult to gauge what are going to be our best sellers. We expected The Lowdown: Business Etiquette China by Florian Loloum to be our bestseller, because there were so many people visiting the country at the time it published. But in fact Improve Your Speech: British English is actually the book that has consistently sold really well. It’s been on the bestseller list on Audible ever since it was published.

You mentioned that books can now be synchronised, does this mean that if somebody puts a book down goes for a walk and listens to the audio version of the book they can then pick it back up again when they get home and start reading an e-book at the place the audiobook left off and vice versa?

I think this is how works, although I haven’t used it myself! It’s through a company called iScroll. So far we’ve only done the speech titles and a couple of business books using this system, just to see how they go.

It’s a bit like Amazon’s synching system, which may eventually cause a few problems in the audio market – something that I’ve highlighted to my colleagues.

Whispersync needs the audio to synchronise exactly with the e-book and that means it’s going to really highlight any errors, if it hasn’t been checked properly.

When we did the iScroll titles, we actually had our sound engineer listen to the audio and go through the scripts, marking up anything that wasn’t exactly the same. It was surprising how much of it wasn’t entirely the same. In normal speech people naturally contract words and there will be always be a few ums and ahs, particularly in fiction recordings, where the reader is in character and they’re acting, because it sounds more real. So it’s those little things, which don’t really make a difference to the meaning, but do mean that the audio doesn’t follow the scripts to the letter of the law. So we actually tweaked our own e-books to make sure they matched the audio exactly and would synchronise perfectly.

I think this whole issue of synchronisation is really going to put the cat amongst the pigeons in the industry. The problem is that when somebody’s reading in audio and they’re doing an amazing piece of acting, they might do something that is slightly improvised, because they’re acting. So it may not sound like it exactly follows what’s written on the page.

Intrinsically there’s nothing wrong with this, for example the script might say, ‘I cannot go there’ but the actor may say, ‘I can’t go there,’ because it just sounds natural. So it’s not going to match what written, but it’s not factually incorrect. Actors will often bring a book to life by their performance. You can get an amazing piece of audio that’s incredible to listen to, that makes you cry or laugh. It does make you think about what’s going to happen if you’re going have to tell the actor they can’t do that because it’s not precisely what’s in the script. So I do think it’s going to create problems in the future if things are going to be that pedantic.

The Lowdown: Business Etiquette China

Creative content is producing non-fiction books and some fiction books, quite a few of which are crime. What other areas are you looking to develop?

We actually haven’t got a set list of things that we going to do. We are very open to people approaching us with their writing. We’re looking for something that grabs us. It’s not easy to find.

How much do you work with the e-book side of the business?

Generally Lorelei will deal with the e-book site of business, but if something interesting comes in, then we will work on it together and then she will develop it further with the writers. Occasionally we outsource to other editors. Lorelei deals with all the typesetting and formatting for the e-book version. She’s amazing in that area; she’s my IT Guru. I’m a PC girl and a touch typist, so I find the touch screen systems, like those on an iPad, very frustrating to work with, whereas Lorelei knows what she’s doing with it.

Ironically, as a producer, I still need paper, because I have to make notes as I’m going along and I have to do it very quickly. I also have a system where if I’ve got something I want to go back to do, I put those pages crossways to the others. This system means I can write what I need to look at very quickly and also easily see which pages need dealing with. I might, for example, ring a word and make a note saying, ‘Check later.’ Obviously you can’t bookmark like that on iPad. Or at least not as quickly.

What does Creative Content do to make their products visible?

We don’t do much in the way of traditional advertising. Most publishers now would say advertising is difficult to pitch these days and it is very costly. We use social media a lot as it’s a great way of reaching potential readers. The best way to sell a book has always been by word-of-mouth and that’s still true.

So social networking is probably the modern equivalent of word-of-mouth?

Yes it really is. It’s also about engaging with your audience. It’s not so much about plugging your stuff, it’s more about talking with people and having a conversation. You might be talking about a series of books you’re working on, or books you’ve enjoyed reading.

Think about the Harry Potter books. Bloomsbury only initially published a small print run of the first book in hardback. The first book eventually sold in large numbers primarily because of word-of-mouth. Sometimes it takes a bit of time for a book to sell in any quantity.

It’s interesting to see how changes are taking place through the Internet – people promoting through special price sales on Amazon and so on. It is interesting and worrying to see the changes in the book market, caused because people are shopping online so much.

The download market is certainly an interesting proposition.

I have a Kindle and I love it. Take for example the other day, I was sitting in the garden and wasn’t getting on with the book I was reading. I just went to my computer and downloaded another book onto it and began reading within seconds. It meant I didn’t have to get in the car and drive to a bookshop – although I still love bookshops and wandering around looking at the books and I do still buy print books. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when the whole thing settles down a bit more, which it will do.

I like to use the example of what happened with movies when television came in, and then video, up to the present day when we can now download TV programmes and movies onto our TVs or computers. It still hasn’t stopped people going to the cinema just because they can get a film on DVD or download it.

You just enjoy things in different ways. Some people like to buy a physical book to give it as a gift. For example, at the moment my father-in-law loves the Jack Reacher books written by Lee Child. So when a new one comes out I buy it for him as a gift.

He’s not interested in using a Kindle! So I think there will always be a different market for different people.

Ali Muirden

Ali Muirden

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