Introducing Audiobrary

Novelist, Screenwriter, Actor and Award-Winning Audiobook Narrator Julia Whelan Discusses Her Latest Venture

Screenshot from "Audiobrary" (Image courtesy of Audiobrary / Julia Whelan)
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If you’re an avid reader like me, I think that you will be excited for the launch of Audiobrary, an innovative new audiobook platform from one of my favorite authors — novelist, screenwriter, actor, and award-winning audiobook narrator Julia Whelan. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Julia about her new venture, and learn a bit more about the story behind Audiobrary. Read on to see what she had to say…

Audiobrary Founder Julia Whelan (Photo: Kelly Puleio)

Andrew DeCanniere: I’m always curious to know the story behind the story, whether we’re talking about books or we’re talking about a person or a company. So, what is the story behind the story when it comes to Audiobrary? I guess my question is sort of a two-part question, as I know that it also has a different business model than other similar services, and I’m definitely curious to know more about how you decided on that as well.

Julia Whelan: Right. So, the part of the audiobook industry I could never get my head around was that narrators don’t receive royalties. I think that’s a holdover from the days when there was a physical product to produce. Audiobooks were very expensive to produce. Then, there was the creation of the physical product, and the distribution of that product, and the market really only consisted of libraries at that time. There just wasn’t a ton of money to be made. Obviously, we’re in a different era now, and narrators’ profiles and fanbases sell books.

It never made sense to me that an industry that kind of lives at the intersection of publishing, which is an industry that is very comfortable with the concept of royalties, and performance — a lot of us are union members (SAG and AFTRA). We get residuals on projects we’ve done in the past. I still get residual checks for things I did when I was 12. Yet, somehow, we did not benefit from either one of those systems.

So, I said “What’s the solution here?” I knew that asking big corporate entities — like the big five publishers — to reconsider a business model that they have zero incentive to reconsider was probably not going to work. It really felt as though if I really believe this strongly that this is wrong, then I should try to create a system with the changes I want to see and test whether it will work. Simultaneously, I was working on my third book — which is the book within a book. It’s the book that the characters in Thank You For Listening are recording. I couldn’t get this idea that started out as a joke out of my head. I thought it was way more interesting than it had any right to be. In writing it, I knew I wanted to do it predominantly as an audio series — the way it was written in Thank You For Listening. I was kind of running up against the problem of where I was going to distribute this. I could have sold it to one of the major players in this space, but then they probably wouldn’t have let me produce it. Also, how was it going to be presented to an audience in an episodic structure, more like a podcast?

In putting those two thoughts together, I realized I might have to build the proper distribution platform for this project. Then I thought “Well, I can’t be the only one who is writing in this space, where there is not a viable distribution option. How many great projects are there that nobody is doing anything with, because they don’t know how to get it out to people?”

Honestly, everything kind of happened at once. These two projects were coming to fruition together, because they were informing each other. My thinking was I didn’t want to just create another audio publishing company, which would then be beholden to the same distribution channels. If I was going to do something to actually change things, I needed to create a direct-to-consumer platform that would allow for the total reimagining of how a compensation structure would work.

“Casanova LLC” by Julia Whelan (Image courtesy of Audiobrary / Julia Whelan)

DeCanniere: Yeah. It does seem to me that over the past decade plus, we’ve heard quite a lot about these new companies — predominantly out of Silicon Valley — coming along and “disrupting” the status quo. However, I feel as though some of that wasn’t all that necessary and, more to the point, wasn’t all that positive long-term. This, however, seems to be very different. It isn’t disruption for disruption’s sake at all. To me, it sounds like quite an innovative new platform addressing some very real issues — which, I have to say, makes for a refreshing change. This is something that clearly needs to happen, and something that probably should have happened some time ago.

Whelan: I think that’s a fair point. I think a lot of tech is based on disruption for disruption’s sake. We are certainly seeing this with Artificial Intelligence. There this rush to [embrace it]. “Look at how fast and how cheap we can create massive amounts of audio content.” To me, that’s a very different product. I’m in a completely different lane. I’m more concerned about the current state of the industry, and with what we’re going to build for the future — something that is sustainable and which benefits the people who are actually the people making this stuff. I think that, for me — from the perspective of being both an author and a narrator — I really see where the system breaks down from both sides. This is my attempt to try and do something about that.

Beyond that, the creative possibilities are super exciting to me. Like I said, there are a ton of projects that, for whatever reasons, didn’t sell. A publisher is engaging in a completely different calculus. They have to think about the book as a proper book, and how much money they are going to put into that book. For me, I can really just be concerned with whether it will make interesting audio storytelling. That’s a very different question, and there is some stuff that lives in that liminal space. Is it a book? Is it a series? Is it a podcast? Is it narrative? What is this? I’ve built a platform where you can experiment with that.

DeCanniere: Right. And I think that it does seem like a much more sustainable business model. A much more sustainable idea, overall — for all of the reasons you just mentioned. Not just considering the audiobook space, but more broadly speaking, with the advent of smartphones and apps and all of this stuff that is largely coming from Silicon Valley. I think that the necessity of some of it may have been a bit questionable, whereas I think your service definitely stands out — particularly to someone who, like me, is a lifelong avid reader. I think that there is something where you can clearly see the need for it. There certainly are people — or titles — that might have struggled to find a home or a space elsewhere and, as you say, I think that this really sounds like it will help to address that.

Whelan: I really tried to set about tackling as many challenges as I could. I don’t think you can solve the problem by solving just one piece of it. If I am just going to the same audio distribution channels that already exist, I can’t move the needle enough to make a difference. If I’m just going to distribute, then I’m just another distributor. It was a long process of figuring out what this was going to look like and how we’re going to accomplish it. I have been very pessimistic about the future of audio, and this had kind of given me back my optimism.

DeCanniere: Switching gears a little bit, as you say, the way that people consume this type of content has changed a lot, and I think that many people will get on-board with it. What I liken it to is the whole thing of what happened with bookstores. I feel as though, if you go back in time, there were quite a few independent booksellers. Then, along came these large chains and pushed a lot of the competition out. Some years later, you had some upheaval among the large chains. I think many readers will remember Borders, which has since ceased to exist. Obviously, you still have your large chains — like Barnes & Noble — but I think that the vast majority of people also have come to have a renewed appreciation for the independent bookseller. They see the value in independent bookstores. I think that, similarly, they will see the value in Audiobrary. For one thing, I think there is this shared set of values between those who frequent independent bookstores and independent booksellers, and I think that the same thing will happen here. Let’s just say that I think that people who are drawn to innovative, intelligent and original storytelling will not be disappointed.

Whelan: Thank you. That’s how I feel about it, and I hope that ends up being true. That is exactly the reason why I wanted to do this. I was hoping by using my next book to draw some attention to it — not only did that allow me to do the book exactly the way I wanted to do it, but it is also hopefully driving people to Audiobrary and the larger mission there.

Screenshot of Audiobrary app (Image courtesy of Audiobrary / Julia Whelan)

DeCanniere: I did notice that in the “About” section of Audiobrary, you also touch upon AI and the way it impacts the industry, which I found interesting.

Whelan: To go back to that word, I think the industry was ripe for disruption. It has been massively successful. It has been making a ton of money, and there is only one mode of production. To a tech company, you see that and go “Oooh. I could bring in a second mode of production, and make a ton of money.” They’re not wrong, but for me, I think that there still will be people who want stories written by people, read by real people. That’s part of the human experience — human storytelling. This is true for authors, too. We’re reaching a tipping point where I don’t know how people are going to feel about reading something they know wasn’t written by an actual person. You can see it in articles now. I can get on a website and be like “I don’t think this was written by a human.”

DeCanniere: Right. This is definitely something that bleeds over into journalism as well. We’re definitely starting to hear more talk about AI and the ways in which it can or will be used. Personally, I agree with you. I think that readers — whether we’re talking about a book, newspaper, magazine or website — will continue to value that which is written by humans that much more. In a world where AI-generated content likely will be increasingly common, I think that they will desire content made by humans for humans that much more — and I think that they will seek that content out, valuing those services that provide that content to them.

Whelan: That’s my gamble. Once the novelty of [AI] has passed, I just don’t think it’s that interesting. I think that humans are still interesting. My gamble is there will still be an audience for that. When electricity came about, candles didn’t go away. Now, candles are gifts we give people. They are specialized. There’s a connection to them.

DeCanniere: Right. Again, it goes back to people seeing the value in them. Switching gears a bit, I know your audiobook will be coming out soon, but I also notice that it seems as though there will be a wide range of genres ultimately available. That seems pretty exciting.

Whelan: Yeah. That’s its namesake. It’s a library. I want that feeling that there is something for everyone. It would probably be easy to start off very specific — for Audiobrary to become the home for romance audio or something like that — but there are other people who are doing that, and that’s not the way my brain works. I am very eclectic. I love romance, but I also love journalism, but I also love history, and I love podcasts. I just want good stories that are well told.

DeCanniere: Absolutely. I know that I certainly listen and read pretty broadly. If you could see what’s in the room with me, you could deduce that much about me pretty quickly. Then again, if you could see what’s in the room, you’d also think I need more storage — and you’d be correct, but I digress. I think that there are a whole lot of people who will appreciate the diverse array of offerings that Audiobrary will bring.

Whelan: Early on, when I was talking to a couple of consultants about this, they were like “Just start producing content. Get it out there. Do as much as you can. Give a lot of it away for free.” They were just like “Go, go, go.” And I was like “Wait. This is part of the mindset I’m trying to avoid.” I don’t think people need more content. I think they need more curated content. Things that actually connect to other things. That’s what I want to see more of. I don’t want to just start flooding it with stuff, and there’s a new release every day. If we’re doing it, it’s being done intentionally, and i’s hopefully going to be relating to something else that we can also have in the app. So, when your curiosity is piqued, you will know where to go next. That’s the feeling I want to try to create.

DeCanniere: Well, you are certainly speaking my language. I will take quality over quantity every single time.

Whelan: Yeah. The abundance of content thing is kind of a myth to me. Like, I’ll go on a streaming service and I’m paralyzed by the options. How do we have all of these options, and I still don’t know what I want to watch?

DeCanniere: Same here. That sounds extremely familiar. 30 minutes later I’ll be like “How did half-an-hour just go by and I still haven’t settled on something to watch?”

Whelan: Right. I could’ve watched an episode in the time it has taken me to figure out what I want to watch. To go back to the original point of why narrators deserve royalties, we become a point of discoverability for these books. So, people go to Audible and they’re like “I don’t know what I want to listen to. I don’t even know what mood I’m in. I don’t know if I want a thriller or a rom-com,” but they know they have a narrator they like, and they put that narrator’s name into the search bar, and then they see what new book that narrator has — working narrators are recording 40, 50, 60 books a year. They are replenishing the catalogue constantly. So, the narrator is building visibility for the books and the authors that they narrate for. Yet, we are completely not compensated for that. In a way, we are doing the curation we’re talking about.

DeCanniere: I’m surprised this isn’t talked about more, really.

Whelan: Well, I don’t think that people know. I think everyone assumes we get royalties, because that’s the way publishing works.

DeCanniere: Sure. It would be logical, after all.

Whelan: But, as I said, this is the way it has always been, and to get them to change that — even when they know it’s the right thing to do — you are up against so many corporate hurdles. The thing I can do, when I realized asking nicely wasn’t going to get me anywhere, is I just wanted to say “You tell me you can’t do this, but I did.” That’s the only thing I can do.

DeCanniere: Right. I think you and I think similarly in this regard as well. The way I was brought up, if you see something that isn’t right, and you are able to do something about it, then you try and do precisely that. You try and do something about it. You want something done about it? Don’t assume someone else will do something. Look in the mirror. That’s who can do something. If you can be a part of the solution, then be a part of the solution. Don’t rely on the fact that someone else will take care of it. Don’t wait around for somebody else to care and for somebody else to do something.

That, at least in part, is how I ended up doing the volunteer work that I do. I care about the environment. I want everyone around the world to have a safe, healthy and sustainable future. So, when I saw what’s going on, and I realized that I can volunteer locally and try to be a part of the solution, I wanted to do so.

Whelan: Absolutely. I think we might’ve talked about this before, but I come from a political family. I come from a family of union agitators and activists. Labor is a very important issue to me. I think that what I’ve set up is that by giving narrators a royalty structure, I can also pay those royalties though our union. So, they will count toward narrators qualifying for their health insurance and retirement credits. So, down the road, if I can get enough volume — again, not an overwhelming amount — but if people are making money in royalties, then they might be making enough in royalties to cross that threshold where they get health insurance. That would be a huge victory to me, because that’s a thing that actors on-camera can sometimes rely on, whereas we cannot. When I went to college and wasn’t working but the show that I was on was airing on Lifetime in reruns, I was qualifying for my health insurance just through what I was making on residuals.That is not a thing that can happen for audiobook narrators right now.

DeCanniere: I think that is a huge issue, as you say. It’s definitely problematic, and gets to the whole thing of independent contractors.

Whelan: Right. The whole gig economy thing.

Screenshot of Audiobrary app (Image courtesy of Audiobrary / Julia Whelan)

DeCanniere: Yeah. It’s kind of as though that whole thing that has been ushered in over the last decade or more — I feel as though it’s only becoming even more problematic. On a completely different note, I have to say that I am also interested in learning more about your forthcoming book, Casanova LLC, which is due out in February.

Whelan: So, Casanova LLC, started out as a ridiculous premise that I devised for the sole purpose of having a book-within-a-book construct for Thank You For Listening. It was a challenge I set myself, which was to say “What’s the most ridiculous romance novel premise you can come up with?” I somehow landed on — and I don’t even remember how this happened — a second-chance romance with a gigolo descended from Casanova. I thought that’s great. That’s just ridiculous enough for comedy fodder for Thank You For Listening, but as I started developing the story and the characters, I realized there was actually something really compelling about this story.

After I finished Thank You For Listening, I was all set to start work on another book, but this one just wouldn’t let me go. So, then I thought I’ll just fast draft it. I’ll just see what happens. I’ll get it out of my system. It just wanted to be better than that. It just kept asking to be more, and it became a sort of treatise on the concept of want — which I think I was sort of grappling with at the time. As we’ve been talking about, I had a dissatisfaction with my work life in a way that I felt was unsustainable. Yet, I had been sort of programmed to just keep doing what I’m doing and to be grateful for it. It was like “Look at the success you’ve had. Look at how well it’s going. You’re happy. You love your job.” But I was dissatisfied with the professional development around my job. I was dealing with this “What else could you possibly want?”

I think that was a feeling that came through very clearly in the writing of this book, where this book is what I allowed myself to write when I said “If you could write the book you want, what would it be?” and the answer was this book. When I asked myself “If you could do it the way you wanted, how would you do it?” The answer is to create my own production and publishing company. It’s just grown out of that.

Another one of the projects I’m going to be doing for Audiobrary is an audio-only anthology, The Poetry of My Oxford Year. So many people loved the inclusion of poems at the beginning of each chapter, and have asked me where they can find all of the poems. I was like “You know what? I’ll do an audio anthology of them.” There will be an intro about the selection process, how I found them, and why I chose them.

DeCanniere: Last but not least, as you know, I always find it interesting to know what someone is reading or what they’ve read that they would recommend — particularly as you had some great recommendations in the past. So, is there anything you are reading, or that you’ve recently read, that you’d recommend?

Whelan: The new Kristin Hannah book, The Women is very good. It’s intense. Rebecca Serle’s new book, Expiration Dates, is very good. She does this magical realism thing, and it’s very spare and beautifully done, and very thought provoking. I really liked that one. There’s Emily Henry’s new book, Funny Story. So, that’s what comes to mind right now.

To learn more about Audiobrary, be sure to visit their website, or find them on Instagram. To find out more about Julia, including her novels My Oxford Year and Thank You For Listening, visit her site here. You can also find Julia on Instagram here.

To pre-order her latest work, Casanova LLC, visit the Audiobrary website.

To download the Audiobrary app, simply open your device’s web browser, go to the Audiobrary website, and then click on the link at the top of the main page to be taken to the Audiobrary app in your device’s app store. Alternatively, you can simply search for the Audiobrary app in either the App Store or Google Play.


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