Listen Up! The Audiobook Revolution
With audiobook sales numbers on the rise over the past two years, retailers have been searching for new ways to appeal to wider audiences. So far, the most common trends have been straight-to-audio publications, library digital downloads, abridged audiobooks, and an increase in subscription services. However, speculation has begun to spread as to whether publishers should repackage audiobooks to be more similar to podcasts, given the format’s latest successes.
At the end of November, Audible published The Starling Project by thriller writer Jeffery Deaver. This publication differs from other audiobooks in one major way: it has never appeared in print. In The New York Times, Alexandra Alter wrote that the book will “test the appetite for an emerging art form that blends the immersive charm of old-time radio drama with digital technology” and points out that this initiative shows that audiobooks are “coming into their own as a creative medium” in the publishing industry.
Deaver, who has no plans to authorize publication in print or digitally, is the most recognizable name in Audible’s content creating program, which has produced 30 other audio-exclusive original works.
Audible is not alone. According to the same New York Times article, audiobook producer GraphicAudio is planning on releasing two of its own original series in 2015.
These new audio-first programs aren’t surprising given the surge of popularity for audiobooks in the last two years. According to The Digital Reader, the American Association of Publishers (AAP) released a new report in October that stated downloadable audiobooks are the fastest growing format with a +26.2% growth in 2013. In 2014, the AAP reported that sales were up 28%. Meanwhile, ebooks are the second fastest growing with +7.5% growth in 2013 and 6% in 2014.
Many publishers and independent companies produce and sell audiobooks. The Audio Publishers Association (APA) website, which was last updated in September 2014, lists almost 50 audiobook publishers, 7 retail members, and 18 supplier members, but this number is on the rise.
According to Recorded Books CEO Rich Freese, both fiction and nonfiction are popular among users, but the majority of audiobooks being produced are fiction. The average listener is 30+ years old, educated, and affluent. He also said, while people continue to primarily listen in cars, they “are now listening to audiobooks on their portable devices while exercising, doing housework, and pretty much anything that you can imagine where this sort of multi-tasking is possible.” Recorded Books, a leader in the audio publishing sector, acquired HighBridge Audio in May 2014 and recently announced the additional acquisition of Tantor Media.
In addition, abridged audiobooks of popular nonfiction books have found a place in the multi-tasking market. The reading app Blinkist announced its audio version of “Blinks” in December. The original “Blinks” were condensed ebook summaries that would take a reader approximately 15 minutes to read and focused on the main takeway of the book and some key facts. The audio formats are also 15 minutes long and duplicate the ebook content.
As more people begin listening to audiobooks, the search for the best deals for this pricier format has begun. Audiobook subscription services from major book retailers have become one of the major trends of 2014 as a way to save. Audible now offers users access to its 170,000 titles with monthly plans of one book for $14.95 a month or two for $22.95. Scribd began offering its collection of 30,000 titles to subscribers for no additional charge to their ebook subscription service (the subscription is $8.99 a month). Skybrite offers its 10,000 titles for $10 a month. Kindle Unlimited offers access to its 2,000 audiobooks for $9.99 a month.
Of subscription services, Freese said, “The key is offering fair value to everyone in the supply chain, from authors, to publishers, to resellers. All of these models will continue to grow and evolve over time as every stakeholder in the supply chain weighs in on perceived relative value of the models.”
It is becoming very common for digital book retailers like iTunes to sell audiobooks too. Nook relaunched its audiobook program in November with 50,000 titles, with no subscription commitment, and lower retail prices than Audible. Audio-only retailers also exist, like Audiobooks.com and Downpour.com. Major publishers have even gotten involved, like Penguin Random House Audio, which has its own audiobook app, Volumes. And finally, Kobo has begun offering audiobook downloads with the purchase of an ebook. The only major book retailer who seems to be missing the trend is Google, which has no known plans to add audiobooks to Google Play.
Libraries are also lending digital audiobooks through OneClickdigital, a division of Recorded Books that allows library patrons to download audiobooks to their devices to listen to for a period of time. This is an important addition to the library collections, which have been striving to include as many digital options to their patrons as possible.
There has been some talk that the success of the Serial podcast, a recent spinoff from NPR’s This American Life, is an indication of just how much more popular audiobooks could become if availability continues to increase and narration is done well. In The Bookseller, Porter Anderson writes, “Give readers an opportunity to take our stories with them even when they need their hands and eyes to get on with their busy lives but still remain immersed in our stories. Because surely that immersion is the real revolution and if there’s one thing Serial teaches us, it’s that there’s a huge, hungry market for it.”
He goes on to suggest two models contributing to Serial’s success that publishers could adopt to make their audio even more popular: luring listeners in with free serialized podcasts of some chapters to hook them on the story and then request payment, or combining text and audio in the ebook format so they’re more easily interchangeable. He notes that Kindle and Audible have been experimenting with the latter recently.
According to Freese, podcasts haven’t had a drastic effect on audiobook sales, but he has seen an increase in acceptance of the audio format, which indicates promising possibilities for the future. “We’ve toyed with the idea of serialized launches of books by chapter for bestselling authors, or as an introductory form for new voices for consumers to sample. We do think that there will be some application there,” Freese said.
Audiobooks are only going to become a more important division of publishing in the future if this trend continues. It’s time to for publishers to find the optimal publishing and distributing models for them. Whether that’s audio-first publication, subscription models, or serialized releases, it’s still too early to tell.