It began innocuously enough: Nikola Muckajev watched in excitement as his latest project went live on Audible last week, and he had promotional codes to give away. "I just recently had the honor of producing and narrating a new audiobook for Frank Herbert’s Dune," he wrote* on a post on Reddit's r/Audiobooks community, "and I would love to share this moment with you all by giving away as many free copies as I can before my promo codes are exhausted!"
It wouldn't be terribly surprising to see a new edition of the book hitting stories this fall: with Denis Villeneuve's adaptation just a couple of months away from premiering, there's a lot of interest in the classic science fiction novel. Specialty publisher The Folio Society released a limited edition of its already special edition of the novel last year, Ace Books released its own Deluxe Edition a couple of years ago, Abrams Books released a graphic novel adaptation of the book, and there's a new graphic novel adaptation of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's novel, Dune: House Atreides. New audiobook editions are also not unheard of: Harper Collins recently reissued new editions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings featuring actor Andy Serkis as narrator.
But commenters in Muckajev's thread began pointing out some strange discrepancies on the listing for his audiobook: the description listed it as being in the public domain, the cover art was from an existing Ace Books edition, and the publisher was listed as "Harald Cooper." Muckajev's excitement quickly turned into dread.
Within hours, the new edition vanished from Audible, replaced with a message from the retailer: "Shucks. This product isn't available," and suggested that there was an issue with sound quality or that a publisher might have lost its rights to the book.
Or, this unknown publisher might never had have them in the first place. But why commission a narrator to produce a massive tome like Dune?
* Muckajev has since removed the post from Reddit.
Muckajev graduated from Westminster College in 2015 with a BA in Philosophy and a BFA in Theater, and since then, has worked as a freelance writer and actor in places like Salt Lake City, Edinburgh, and London for "educational, professional, and small scale fringe theatrical productions," as well as small roles in short films, according to his LinkedIn profile. In 2019, he set up an independent media production and distribution company called Noumena for his voiceover and production work.
Audiobooks were initially a side-gig for Muckajev — a couple of years ago, he created a profile on ACX and began narrating short romance books like Peter Styles Worth His Salt, Allison LaFleur and Beneva Clark's Seaglass Drive: A Steamy Small Town Romance, Jeff Sutherland's Still Life: a Memoir, and others. He handles all of the production of his books himself from his home in Utah. "It's just me from start to finish," he told me in an email. "I do all of the narration, editing, splicing, and final touches."
2020 pushed him further into the industry. "I began to lean more heavily into it when the COVID-19 pandemic began to escalate," he explained. His plans for the year at local theaters and film productions began to fall through as the country began to lock down, and he found that his background in theater was an advantage: he didn't need to leave the house for this job.
Muckajev explained that he has a mix of returning authors who bring him back for new installments of their books, as well as new gigs, which he finds by searching through projects up for audition on the platform. Authors or Audio Rights Holders post up their project and narrators on the platform provide samples for them to review. If they're selected, they negotiate a rate and delivery timeline, and put the project into production.
In this case, Muckajev came across Dune on the platform earlier this year, and says that he "immediately jumped on it. I've always been a massive fan of Herbert's writing and as an actor one thing you can't ask enough of is working with text that speaks to you. Dune very much spoke to me."
In this instance, the project was commissioned by someone calling themselves Harald Cooper, and Muckajev noted that while he didn't come up with any results searching for them, he brushed off his initial worries. "I had worked with other no-online presence clients before, and [those] projects were legitimate and were completed without issue."
The project was listed as a "royalty share deal," which meant that Muckajev would get a cut of each sale through Audible. "Harald" accepted his audition and send him a copy of of the book, and he set off to begin work.
That work, he says, took more than two months to produce the 22.5 hour finished product. "I typically don't receive much direction from any of the clients in my experience," he says. "Usually, if I nail the audition, they're happy to let me do my thing."
Earlier this summer, he turned in the project last week, it went up for sale on Audible. On his company's Facebook page, he signaled his excitement: "This has been in the works for some time now, and I'm super excited to finally get to share it with all of you! I hope you enjoy!"
As it turns out, that wouldn't happen. The book was quickly pulled from Audible, and Muckajev soon realized that he had been scammed. He reached out to "Harald", but the account had gone dark. "It's not a pleasant experience to realize that the dream opportunity you believe you've received was a lie."
Queries to Brian Herbert and Ace Books weren't returned. Audible refused to comment on the record. We'll update this should we get a response.
Why would someone go through this effort for a book that would likely get spotted and removed pretty quickly?
Part of the answer might lie in the size of Amazon's platform. Audiobooks as a medium have exploded in recent years: According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook sales have been steadily rising in recent years: 2020 saw sales jump 12 percent and that the number of audiobooks published last year rose 39 percent (71,000 total) over 2019's numbers.
That growth means that there's opportunities for aspiring narrators and publishers to jump into the industry, but also the potential for new scams as opportunistic individuals look for ways to game the platforms that host these products. As more books crowd onto these sales platforms, it gets harder for companies to spot issues, and easier for scam artists to prey on the unsuspecting. There are plenty of grifters out there: Libro.fm co-founder Mark Pearson told me in an email that they've noticed a rise in "low quality audiobooks being sent through distributors, including hundreds of book summaries, books in the public domain, and self-published books" being sent to them recently.
Earlier this year, writer Francis Blagburn wrote a feature article for Vice: "'It's a Crazy Issue' – The Bizarre World of Scam Audiobooks," describing how scammers found a way to exploit a loophole on Audible's ACX platform, where a scammer would commission an audiobook narrator to narrate a "junk book" — titles that are nonsensical and often scraped from around the internet.
The narrators would get and distribute hundreds of promotional codes, from which Audible would pay out a royalty each time one was redeemed, generating some income for the scammers, or income from selling those free codes. Blagburn writes that Amazon ended the practice in March 2020 and that as a result, the scam has become a bit more rare, "but the sheer number of new narrators who've joined since could have canceled out any impact of this by adding to the numbers of newcomers likely to fall for brand new scams."
Muckajev noted that the scenario that Blagburn laid out wasn't a situation that he had experienced, but it does highlight how scammers have manipulated the system in the past.
What Muckajev suspects happened something a bit more straightforward: "to get royalty share payouts on a well-known project and hopefully fly under the radar."
Simply put, for a legitimate book, an author will own their work (what ACX calls a "rights holder"), and earn money on each sale (minus whatever royalties or other arrangement they make with their narrator or production company). In this instance, the rights holder for Dune would be the entity that controls Frank Herbert's estate: Herbert Properties LLC. The company has already licensed out those audio rights.
From the looks of things, it looks like "Harald" was able to commission a copy of Dune by masquerading as the rights holder. Somehow, it made it up onto ACX's marketplace and to Muckajev, who thought it was a legitimate offer. Had is remained up for sale undetected, it would have diverted any income that came in from sales from Muckajev's edition from Herbert's estate.
One of the cornerstones of Amazon and Audible's success is the ease to which someone can buy something from the platform. At $30 a copy (or $20 / 1 credit for members), it wouldn't take a ton of copies sold to generate a decent profit. That isn't unheard of: Amazon has its share of counterfeit books uploaded and sold by unscrupulous sellers. While producing an audiobook takes considerably more effort, the growth of the audiobook industry and the growing anticipation of the upcoming film feels like enough motivation for someone to attempt such a scam.
Open platforms like Audible have measures in place to catch these sorts of frauds, but Muckajev says something that would be useful to him and other narrators would be get better insight into the people who hire them. While Dune is a high profile book that likely would never be put up for a wide audition ACX by Herbert's estate, he notes that as a narrator, he doesn't get a lot of insight into who's commissioning the auditions. "As far as I'm aware, we can't even click on their profile in ACX because it simply doesn't exist," he says. "I've talked with a lot of authors in the past that have expressed frustration at ACX due to the platform being so barebones and riddled with technical issues - ironic given that it's the gateway to what is arguably a monopoly on the Audiobook industry."
And, there's a level of trust that a narrator has when it comes to accepting assignments: an assumption that such a project would never make it through whatever systems Audible has in place to prevent such fraud. Audible told Vice earlier this year that "If we determine that the print/eBook edition of a work submitted through ACX has been removed from sale at Amazon or does not meet the content guidelines, we cease distribution of the audiobook.”
While the audiobook platform did end up taking it down, it only stepped in after Muckajev put in months of work on the project.
The incident has proved to be demoralizing for Muckajev, and he's now considering leaving the field altogether, telling his active projects that he's canceling them to focus on other work. "I'm putting this behind me and moving on," he says. "I'm looking at this as an opportunity to refocus my attention on my own work."
But there's still disappointment in how this turned out: nobody will get to listen to the edition that he put months of work into crafting — work on a book that he was already passionate about. "For all intents and purposes," he says, "I have a fully produced copy of my version of the audiobook for Dune, which I can now likely never put out."
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