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The good thing about having run a music service for 15 years, grappling with tensions around creators and rightsholders along the way, is that you can put the lessons learned to ensure a smoother journey if you expand into other areas like audiobooks. Can’t you? Er…

Yes, Spotify’s latest audiobooks expansion is drawing increasingly loud criticism. However, it’s fair to say that a lot of that criticism is aimed at the book publishers it has signed deals with, rather than Spotify directly.

We reported on some of the mixed feelings of authors’ agents about Spotify’s deals earlier this week. They liked the fact that it had entered the audiobooks market to challenge Audible’s dominance, but they had questions about the transparency of its deals with publishers, and what they would mean for writers.

Those questions are now being magnified by the UK’s Society of Authors, the union that represents those writers. In a statement yesterday, it set out its concerns in blunt language.

“As far as we are aware, no authors or agents have been approached for permission for such licences, and authors have not been consulted on licence or payment terms,” claimed the Society.

“Publishing contracts differ but in our view most licences given to publishers for licensing of audio do not include streaming. In fact, it is likely that streaming was not a use that had been invented when many such contracts were entered into.”

(An argument that the music industry is very familiar with, of course.)

“The fact that all major publishers have entered such arrangements at the same time seems to raise questions that perhaps should be reported to the competition authorities,” added the Society of Authors in its statement.

It’s calling for publishers to give authors and their agents “full transparency” about the deals, and also to respect “their right not to give permission and to remove their books from the Spotify catalogue”.

The Society also wants publishers to “negotiate an appropriate share of the receipts on a clear and equitable payment model, which should equate to no less than the amount that would be received from a sale of the same audiobook”.

Some of these concerns mirror the debates we’ve seen over the last decade and a half in the music industry, and some reflect the differences between audiobooks and music. As the Society notes: “books are typically only read once, while music is often streamed many times”.

The anger here is targeted at publishers rather than Spotify itself, so the company may be justified if it feels like staying out of the fray: it can’t control how transparent publishers are (or are not) with their authors over licensing deals, nor can it tell them whether their contracts do (or do not) cover streaming.

However, even a trickle of authors demanding publicly that audiobooks based on their work be removed from Spotify would be worrying for the streaming service, especially if that then threatens to turn into a flood. 

Which brings us back to the 15 years of lessons from music, including building tools, promotional opportunities and other support for creators – artists and songwriters – even as the wider debates about deals, transparency and remuneration played out. A similar charm offensive seems likely to be required for authors.

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Music Ally's Head of Insight