Michele Cobb is Executive Director of PubWest and the Audio Publishers Association. She is a partner at Forte Business Consulting, which provides Business Development and Association Management services for the publishing industry. Welcome Michele and thanks for joining us today!
What do you do as an Audio and Digital Publishing consultant and how did your agency start?
I had been working at an audio publisher and then moved into manufacturing for a short time, but knew it wasn’t the industry for me. People from audio publishing kept calling me and asking me to help them out with other little projects, so eventually I bit the bullet and decided to set up my own consultancy. It has grown massively - I now have a business partner and we work with a lot of different companies and organizations.
We have expanded beyond audiobooks and now help people with everything from ebooks, to podcasts, to association management. A lot of these associations can’t afford a full time team so instead they bring in a small team like us. We try not to just come to the client with a list of things they should and shouldn’t do, but instead focus on the organization’s personal goals and meet those. We tailor our advice to the individual client and try to be as efficient as possible.
Who are your main clients and how do they find you?
I used to speak at a lot of conferences so clients often found me there or simply by word of mouth. Our main clients are PubWest and the Audio Publishers Association (APA). I also work with some smaller organizations such as L.A. Theatre Works which publishes audiobooks; AudioFile Magazine which reviews audiobooks; and The Podcast Academy which is a new endeavour for individuals in podcasting.
What drives you to help publishers connect and progress?
I’ve always loved networking so this was all quite natural for me and each organization we work with is different which I really like. APA , for example, was set up for organizations and has grown to include individuals; PubWest was set up for publishers but now has other types of organizations like vendors and individuals; and The Podcast Academy was set up purely for individuals.
I deal with different types of constituencies and try to find what works best for that constituency. A lot of it is about communication and setting up different types of networking events that are most beneficial to the organisation. We put on a lot of online events for PubWest but are planning for the 2022 PubWest Conference to be in person at the Curtis Hotel in Denver February 3-5 - fingers crossed!
How have you found the mixture of digital and in-person events - do you think there’s a space for digital events in the future?
I do think there's a space. We had started holding digital events prior to the pandemic for some of our organizations. Certains types of events are better digitally and can be an equalizer; it enables a wider and more varied audience from a mixture of places and at a smaller cost. So for these reasons, we’re probably going to have a higher level of digital events at all the organizations I work with.
As a consultant, what advice would you give in 2021 to new businesses starting out, or to existing companies for business development?
Always have a plan. Whatever you’re doing - whether that’s marketing a title or setting up a business, you really need a plan and a structure to start. This should include some background of the industry that you’re working in. We don’t always work in publishing so if someone is starting a business in say photography, we can still come in and take a look at your business plan and help you structure it. It doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in, the basics of starting a business are all pretty similar and require research and knowledge of your industry.
How did you get into publishing?
I have a masters degree in Theatre and Education. After graduate school I worked in theatre across the US and Canada and then at a military base theatre in Germany for a number of years. I then moved to Los Angeles, hoping to work in theatre there. Yet, while there is certainly a lot of quality theatre in LA, a lot of people were writing plays with the ultimate goal to get into film and television. I was more of a theatre purist so I really wanted to be doing plays that were really well crafted.
I happened to answer an ad for L.A. Theatre Works to sell tickets to some of their live performances. My husband and I shared a car and the company was close to his office so I used to go and sell tickets at night. They then asked me to pack cassettes for them so I would go in for a couple of hours a week and fulfil the audio orders which led to a full time gig there. They were recording live theatre and making it available as audio but they didn’t have anyone who was an expert in audiobooks. After all my travelling years I had listened to a lot of audiobooks because there is only so much you can take of someone else’s music taste when you’re touring with them! So I got really involved and interested in audiobooks at L.A. Theatre Works and then with the APA as a volunteer.
I was then hired by the BBC and went on to lead the audio sales and marketing teams for BBC Audiobooks America. I spent around 15 years in audio publishing getting to know the landscape and doing a lot of work as a volunteer for the APA before I became Executive Director.
What sort of audiobooks did you listen to with your touring partner?
When we were doing children’s theatre, my touring partner and I listened to an abridgement of Dangerous Minds which had been made into a movie with Michelle Pfieffer. These were really the days of abridgements so we listened to some abridged Stepen King and abridged Anne Rice and I couldn’t figure out at the time why it wasn’t the entire book! I then realised it was because we were dealing with retail versions which were shortened and I discovered that the library had the full audiobooks. We only really had access to audiobooks which other touring professionals had left behind in the office so we didn’t have much of a selection.
Do you read physical books a lot too or mainly listen to audio?
After I graduated from graduate school I used to read a book a day for a couple of years so I was a big reader but now with a child I don’t have as much time. My first job as a child was in a public library putting barcodes on books - that’s how old I am!
I like reading pretty much everything. AudioFile has a monthly podcast called Behind the Mic which I’m a guest on and I talk about five different audiobook titles. I love thrillers and if it was just me I’d probably just be listening to a lot of blood and guts! But the podcast is helping me listen to much more of a variety, particularly non-fiction and literary fiction.
Why do you think audiobooks have taken off so much in the last decade, and how has Covid come into this?
Well Covid certainly didn’t hurt us, that’s for sure! What we learnt over a decade ago, but were resistant to the idea of, is that a lot of people use audiobooks to relax. Many publishers thought that people predominantly used audiobooks for multitasking because we as publishers were always listening to audiobooks whilst commuting and doing other things. But a focus group kept telling us that people listen to relax. When we asked what else people did when listening to audiobooks, in our 2015 consumer surveys, the answer was often ‘“nothing”.
In the last five years, the number one place for listening was not in the car but rather in the home. Since In-Dash car players have improved, the gap has slightly closed and the car percentage started to increase again. So, when Covid hit, publishers were nervous that people would be commuting less and therefore the car percentage would reduce once more.
Usually, pre-Covid, the highest spikes of listening times were during the early morning commute and then in the evenings. But a few weeks into the pandemic, it became a flat curve across the day as people adapted to their new lives. Our 2021 consumer surveys showed that the home continued to be the main place for listening and one of the key reasons for this was to get away from screens. We’re on our computers and phones all day long so the last thing you want to do is read something else in tiny print on a digital device.
How significant are extra features of audiobooks, such as sound effects or having a celebrity reading the book, on sales?
I don’t think any of those things hurt and hearing about a celebrity reading an audiobook might be the first hook. There are also far more titles now and most people who try an audiobook are likely to continue with them. What’s more, in Covid people discovered public libraries and digital collections which has significantly increased the recognition of audiobooks.
What is the future looking like for audiobooks? What opportunities and threats are there on the horizon?
Still, slightly less than half of the US population say that they have listened to an audiobook when we do our consumer surveys so there is a long way to go. We can thank podcasts for encouraging listeners (particularly younger listeners) to get into the audio experience which often leads them into audiobooks. But, that’s where the threat comes in as well: Amazon Music and Spotify, for example, that have been housing music and podcasts are now starting to bring audiobooks into the fold. Will people choose audiobooks when all the audio options are in one place together?
We have the potential to reach people who haven’t been listening to audiobooks but now there are more choices for them and demands on their time. Podcasts are usually free whereas audiobooks are usually paid so there’s a lot of things to be worked out there. But we’ve had 9 years of double digit sales growth. We can’t continue that forever as an industry but it’s been going great!
Is that global success?
The US is the most established market. The 9 years of double digit growth is from US publishers for the most part but they are incorporating sales from across the world. We’re seeing more and more countries with audiobook retailers such as China, India and Spain. The first thing you need is the content available in the format and in the local language, and then you can start to see growth. I did a lot of travelling in the two years prior to Covid to countries which did very little in audio and wanted to know the basics of getting started.
Finally, do you see yourself staying in audiobooks in the future?
What’s been great for me as a consultant is that I like to have a lot of change in what I’m doing and to learn about new industries. Working with PubWest has been really fun as I’ve learnt much more about print than I might have otherwise. So in the next 20 years I want to continue gaining information and maintain a facility to learn new things because that’s what really keeps us active. I’m easily bored, so teach me something new!