Penguin Audio Afraid to Embrace the Present

The New York Times‘s Andrew Adam Newman reveals jittery spirits at Penguin Audio. Set to offer audio books through eMusic (disclosure: I have freelanced for them), Penguin Audio bailed out at the last minute, fearful of pirates taking the non-DRM MP3s and disseminating them across the Internet. But Random House Audio publisher Madeline McIntosh begs to differ, pointing out that there have been no pirated versions of eMusic-distributed audio books found on pirate sites (at least, not yet).

I’m wondering if Penguin Audio’s “piracy” claim has less to do with uncollected revenue and more to do with enforcing unduly crazy control mechanisms. Penguin Audio may be foolishly trying to enforce autocratic market options on a free market. After all, offer the files only as a DRM option and you control the precise circumstances in which a listener can enjoy an audio book. But the listener will desire to enjoy the audio book on the computer, the iPod, the home stereo, and nearly any appliance that she sees fit to listen. Restricting how a listener decides to enjoy an audio book runs contrary to the “customer is always right” basic business principle.

If this is indeed Penguin’s stance, this would also run counter with the portable nature of regular books, which can be borrowed, swapped, sold at the Strand, or enjoyed in multiple atmospheres. Penguin is also missing out on a few unanticipated promotional options. Even if a small portion of audio books are pirated, there’s also the possibility that a listener might want to buy the book she’s listening to. Indeed, if the audio books become omnipresent, this may translate into a small customer base wanting to purchase the book.

So while Random House Audio struts its stuff on the parquet, Penguin Audio appears content to be the diffident boy at the junior high school prom afraid to ask the girl to dance. Which is a great shame, as there are a lot of interesting titles in the backlist.

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